Having broached the ten mile mark in Utah just a month before we did it again here in the Virginia High Country (this would become our son’s new longest hike at 11 miles). We were camping nearby at Grindstone and entered along the AT which quickly put us in the Lewis Fork Wilderness
See? There’s even a sign. The AT eventually runs along the edge of some large open meadow spaces where you may well find wild ponies. The wild ponies definitely make this area unique as far as hiking.
Here’s a wild mare and her foal. Don’t mess with the foals, the mares are small as horses go but still pretty solid and willing to knock people around to protect their young. Also, even when they’re being friendly (like licking the salt off of you) they have a tendency to nip.
From here the AT goes very close to the summit of Mt Rogers, although you’d still need to take a side trail to reach it. The views are spectacular at the branch for this side trail. We were told the views from Mt Rogers itself were non-existent (at least in May) so we skipped it. Thomas Knob shelter is also up here and it’s completely infested with horses.
This could well go from cute to annoying if you were actually spending the night here. We weren’t so we looped around at Rhododendron Gap and headed back towards the road on the Virginia Horse Trail. This looks reasonable on a map. It’s not that bad but the horse trail is quite a bit rougher than the A.T. even though it doesn’t have quite as much altitude change. Good news though you traverse several more meadows filled with wild ponies. We even saw a cow in this section and have no idea where it came from.
So first of all, there’s a sign at the trailhead that says “Secret Falls”. Kind of ruins the Secret part of it. We happen to know the Forest Service official who put up this particular sign and he just shrugged when we pointed that out. Oh well.
Anyway, Secret Falls is in the Nantahala National Forest in the general vicinity of Highlands. It’s about a mile hike each way to a very pretty falls.
Along the way there are a couple of stream crossings, they are small and can be leapt or rock-hopped across. The trail continues beyond the falls and appears to follow the river canyon, possibly into Georgia (which isn’t far away). We didn’t follow it any further than these falls though so we don’t know what’s down there (yet).
This trail is found on the north shore of Lake Watauga in northeastern Tennessee. The trailhead doubles as a boat ramp and some maps mark this as trail 603. It is theoretically blazed but a wildfire has wreaked havoc on that and this is a challenging trail to follow. The lake-side of the loop follows a high ridge that at times is not much wider than the trail. Once it descends it meets a forest road which makes up the other half of the loop and that is trivial to follow. We saw bears on the forest road and bear evidence everywhere. The views of the lake are wonderful.
If you’re hiking this, we’d recommend a map and compass even though you have the lake as a handrail on one side.
These are two short hikes we did the same day, starting with the Whiteside Mountain loop trail just outside of Cashiers, NC. This is a popular day hike, it’s only about a 2 mile loop in total. Might be more exciting if you’re nervous around heights or maybe don’t expect a few steel cables will keep you from falling over the 700 foot cliff alongside the trail. The views are awesome though.
Next up was a totally different kind of hike. We went to Sol’s Creek just east of the town of Argula, NC. Calling it a town is way beyond a stretch but it shows up as such on USGS maps as well as (shockingly) Google maps. No trailhead for this one, just a guard rail to jump over. Best way to find this one is to find Sol’s Creek and then find where it crosses 281. You want to go a half mile upstream which can be accomplished by a combination of deer paths on both sides of the river and walking up the river itself. We found this extremely small salamander on one of our river crossings.
Please note, the west side of the creek is private property where it meets 281. A half mile or so from the road you’re notice the river is getting a bit wilder and steeper and then you’ll come around a bend and see this lovely view:
At these water levels it’s easy to get up to that middle level below the higher falls. It’s kind of a fun slide too. We didn’t try to go higher than that and wouldn’t recommend it. If you’re experienced at orienteering and bushwhacking you can manage this hike just by following the river upstream. A map and compass isn’t a bad idea though.
We did a short hike in Florence Preserve, mostly just to check it out since we hadn’t been there before. Florence preserve is located just outside of the small town of Gerton, North Carolina.
There are several trails in the preserve, they are colored and blazed but not named. The ‘yellow’ trail leads up onto Little Bearwallow Mountain where the remainder of the trails are. On the way up we saw these toadshade trilliums.
A left turn on the blue trail will quickly bring you to Wildcat Falls, a small waterfall that runs across an exposed rock face before funnelling into a rock chute.
Other trails continue higher up the mountain, we’ll have to come back and try them another time.
Steel’s Creek flows off the east side of the Blue Ridge in the vicinity of Table Rock. The MST parallels the creek for several miles. The southern access point is from FS 228 off of NC 181 north of Glen Alpine. Follow this road until it ends which includes a wet crossing of a smaller stream (may be dangerous in high water) and a whole slew of campsites along Steel’s Creek.
From the end of the road it’s a short walk along a trail to a swimming hole and small waterfall in the river. From here you have to figure out the best way across which is likely to be above the falls rock hopping. Across the river, you can pick up the MST and head north (MST-east) towards a whole bunch of waterfalls.
Steel’s Creek Falls was very obvious to us in October foliage. It’s a huge cumulative drop through several steep gorge sections. It’s also rather dangerous to get near. This is the view from the MST. There are other view points but they generally involve some risk.
Elsewhere along the hike there are some excellent swimming holes in the river and a lot of huge boulders to climb on in safer places than where the falls are. This is a pretty classic canyoneering river for the adventurous as well.
Chasteen Creek is an easy hike in the Smoky Mountains National Park. The easiest approach is from the Smokemont campground. Drive all the way through the campground to the very back where there is parking for about 10-12 cars in front of a gated road. This is the Bradley Fork Trail which follows Bradley Fork upstream. Chasteen Creek Trail is the first right, about 1.2 miles (2 km) in. Just after the turn is backcountry campsite 50 which has good creek access. A half mile or so (~ 1km) up this trail are the cascades.
It’s a relatively small set of falls but there is a nice viewing area which would make a good picnic spot on a longer hike (like the Smokemont Loop).
Campsite 50 is also one of the easiest backcountry sites to reach in the park. Just over a mile each way and relatively flat. There are three fire pits set up there.
These falls are both located along a four mile section of the Mountains to Sea Trail in the Grandfather Mountain District of Pisgah Forest. That puts them somewhere north of Marion and southeast of Linville, and realistically you’re going to want a map. We left from the Hunt Fish Falls trail head from where it’s 0.7 miles (1.1 km) all downhill to the top of Hunt-Fish Falls.
There is a lovely swimming hole below the first two drops of the falls and above a final chute. This is quite kid friendly as it’s effectively a zero-entry beach into the pool.
If you continue along the MST, it follows the main stream to a wide campground area, crosses it and then goes up along a tributary called the Gragg Prong. There are three sets of falls between here and the next road crossing (Roseborough Rd.) This is not an easy trail in mid-summer. It is somewhat overgrown, there are stream crossings and rooty washed-out hill climbs. It’s between 2 and 2.5 miles from the Hunt Fish trailhead to Lower Gragg Prong Falls which looks like this.
This is a beautiful remote canyon section with great rocks for sunning. It is not as kid-friendly as Hunt Fish and it’s a scramble down the falls to the rocks which would probably be quite treacherous in higher water.
Further upstream there is another good section of rocks and cascades which we will call Middle Gragg Prong Falls for lack of a better name. There is an Upper falls but we were doing an out and back and had spent so long playing in the river that we didn’t have time for that on this particular hike.
Long Branch Falls is an easily accessible waterfall in Pisgah Forest. At some point in the past few years it seems to have appeared on CMC’s Waterfall Challenge list. I was about 3 years late in noticing this but better late than never. Since we had already done a short hike to Saddle Gap and a visit to the Fish Hatchery, we thought we’d stop by to see this one.
Hark! The first trillium of the year (for us). Long Branch Falls is located on Long Branch (surprise!) just before it empties into the Davidson river. It can be reached by parking at Forest Road 5095 and following the road about 1 mile to the obvious crossing of Long Branch. 5095 is several miles west of the fish hatchery but before you reach Gloucester Gap. When you reach the crossing, you should be able to hear the falls in the forest to your right. We could actually catch a glimpse of it since there was not full foliage yet.
It’s a short but very steep scramble up the near side of the creek to reach an obvious level area between the upper and lower falls. The upper bit seems to be the highlight and that’s what we have pictured here.
These two falls are located a short distance apart just upstream of the confluence with the Chattooga. To reach them, take Village Creek Rd. off of SC-107, then Nicholson Ford road until it ends at the Foothills Trail parking area. It’s about a half mile west(north) along the Foothills Trail to reach the Chattooga Trail.
Pigpen Falls (on Pigpen Creek) is located right where the two trails meet. This is a nice little falls with a good safe swimming hole at the base. It was also rather full of very small trout when we visited.
Apart from the trout we also saw this crayfish in the very clear waters of the creek. Pretty impressive amount of mica as well. Licklog falls is located just downstream from Pigpen falls (south on the Chattooga Trail). It is more impressive than Pigpen but more difficult to get a view of. There is a goat path trail down to the confluence with the Chattooga, it is past Licklog falls right at the point where the trail makes a hard left turn.
If you continue just a little further down the Chattooga Trail, there is river access via a series of five or six campsite with good views and good access to the water.
Brasstown Falls is located on Brasstown Creek south of US 76. Oconee County has good signage to the waterfalls from the Long Creek vicinity. From the parking area it barely qualifies as a hike at all. There are yellow blazes on the official trail and about 100 unofficial trails leading to all sorts of campsites and unofficial vantage points.
If you stay on the actual trail, it will bring you to the middle of the three falls that makes up this cascade. It’s a pretty series of drops with a lot of access points.
Near the bottom of the middle falls, we saw a lot of people out on the ledges, there were also swimmers at the pool at the base of the middle falls. Since the roughly 40 foot drop of the lower falls is almost immediately downstream, it made us a bit nervous about swimming there (especially with a small child).
We went back upstream, waded across the side creeks and went to the pool at the upper falls, which is the nicest swimming hole (in our opinion) anyway. There are about a dozen campsites in the area as well, they do seem to be sanctioned by the forest service and they were in use when we visited.
Riley Moore Falls is located west of Westminster, SC. There are signs off of US 76 as well as some other roads but once you get back onto the forest (dirt) roads, there are no further signs. If you do not have a high clearance vehicle, don’t try to get all the way to the trail head, the road isn’t that rough but it has some substantial humps. From the trail head it’s about 1 kilometer (0.6 mi) to the river. You can roughly double that if you’re parking at the beginning of the road to the falls.
The trail is easy and it deposits you at an amazing swimming hole with a sandy beach! Not only that, it’s shaded (the beach portion) in the afternoon. The pool was a few inches deep on our visit around the edges but there are some much deeper sections.
The base of the waterfall is slippery as you’d expect but a fun place to play around within reason. We saw quite a few people climbing on the falls as well which we don’t recommend because we never recommend climbing on waterfalls (unless maybe there’s a top rope). We do recommend playing in the pool at this one though.
Table Rock State Park is one of the many South Carolina State Parks crammed into the northwest corner of the state along SC Route 11. Table Rock itself is a huge exposed cliff visible from outside the park and a couple of overlooks near the top of the road loop inside the park. The Carrick Creek Nature Loop is a roughly 2 mile loop that leaves from the trail head across from the beach parking. The loop follows a creek in either direction with a short, steep saddle crossing in the middle to jump between the two drainages.
There are literally dozens of waterfalls here along with otter slide type features and deeper pools. You’re almost never out of sight of one of the creeks on this hike. There are several trails in Table Rock and they tend to run together closer to the road so pay attention to the blaze colors at the trail head.
This pretty falls is perhaps 0.1 miles from the road, it’s the first landmark you come to regardless of which trails you are heading out on and there’s a nice little viewing area.
We did this hike as an out and back from Beauty Spot to Deep Gap and back. That’s roughly 2 miles each way. First and foremost this hike was about flowers. Tons of them. It was like a living guide to Appalachian wildflowers. There is only one other place we have ever seen as many trillium as we did here and that was not all that far away, just north of the Smokies along the A.T.
Heading northbound from Beauty Spot quickly brings you down to Beauty Spot Gap, which is basically a fence and a near-road junction. There is no real parking here, the parking area is up at Beauty Spot. The hike follows the state line more or less and eventually reaches another open meadow area and another near road junction. That would be this meadow here with a nice view of Unaka Mountain in the distance.
Beauty Spot incidentally is just a bald mountain with stellar views of the surrounding ranges, including Unaka, Roan, the Blacks in North Carolina, the Balds along the border and the valleys down to Erwin, Tennessee. Here Alaric is facing into a stiff headwind. It seems like it may always be this windy up here. Beauty Spot is reachable by a moderately graded gravel road.
The Horsepasture River is (at the time of this post) the shortest river in the Wild and Scenic Rivers category of the National Park Service at 4.2 miles long. It is also chock full of major waterfalls lying as it does directly across the Blue Ridge Escarpment. We visited these falls long ago when you had to park along a busy road and work your way in. It’s a longer hike now but it’s worth it. The access to the upper Horsepasture is from Gorges State Park which has a beautiful new visitor center. The trail head is for Rainbow Falls despite the fact that Rainbow Falls is not in the park. It’s around 1.5 miles to the falls, and halfway there you’ll leave the state park and enter Pisgah National Forest.
There are a hundred photogenic spots along the Horsepasture river on this hike. Even at high water levels there will be several dry slabs of granite stuck out into the river where you can get a better view. This is Rainbow Falls at a pretty high water level. It’s a very moist experience as the main viewing area is also the main spray zone. If the water is this high, you’ve already had to ford two creeks to get here though.
A quarter mile past Rainbow is Turtleback Falls which is swimmable at some water levels. We’ve seen people in the water every time we’ve been here, even when it’s dreadfully cold. Please keep in mind this a quarter mile of fast moving river above Rainbow Falls. We say this on all our waterfall pages but waterfalls are still dangerous. People have died here. There are wiser places to swim in this river.
Speaking of dangerous, the trail is a bit exciting as well at Turtleback. After the full frontal view of the falls, the trail snakes around a cove and comes directly at it from the side before climbing further up the hill.
The furthest waterfall upstream is Drift Falls. People swim this as well. There are private property signs all around warning you not to do this. However, there are good views of the falls from within the forest boundary. Total distance to Drift Falls from the trail head in Gorges State Park is in the 2 to 2.5 mile range.
Raven Cliff Falls tumbles over the Blue Ridge escarpment just on the South Carolina side of the NC/SC border. It’s located in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area and there are dozens of trails interconnected through this area including the long distance Palmetto and Foothills trails.
There is a suspension bridge over the falls (too far away to see here) but that is a strenuous 7 mile loop hike with a lot of altitude change. On this hike we came in from the parking area on US 276 which is about a mile south of the NC border. There are several trails out of that parking area. The one across the road (west) is the Raven Cliff Falls trail. There are a couple major junctions along the way but they are well signed. It’s 2.2 miles (3.7km) each way.
That leads to a nice wooden overlook which includes a covered pavilion with benches. We did this hike in December so visibility was great, I’m not sure how much can be seen in mid-Summer.
Elk River Falls is just inside the North Carolina state line west of Blowing Rock, near the town of (shockingly enough) Elk River. There are some moderately elaborate signs in the town which will send you out along the Elk River. The road ends at a parking lot and from there the top of the falls are just about visible downstream. It’s a steep hike down to the bottom but it’s worth it as it’s the only real view and it’s a good one. This appears to be a fantastic swimming hole (or several swimming holes) in warmer weather. In October it was rather chilly.
If you’re up for a second waterfall it’s about a two mile hike each way to Jones Falls. There are numerous blogs that list the instructions but I’ll repeat them here anyway. Follow the forest road around the gate. It meanders up and down a few hills and in 3/4 of a mile you’ll reach a ford at the Elk River. Do not cross. Instead follow the river downstream across a meadow and along a very small goat path. It will look about like this once the path opens up again. From here the Elk River makes a hard right turn. Continue to follow the left bank which means crossing a tributary (this is Jones Creek) and following a steep connector trail to the A.T. Once you reach the A.T. (should be obvious, white blazes, etc..) turn left (north bound) and hike about 0.6 miles to the side trail to Jones Falls.
There was good signage to Jones Falls when we visited, but it is also the first blue blazed side trail (to the left) that you come to. The trail ends at Jones Falls which is a high tiered drop. It’s difficult to see the entire falls from any one location and the bottom portions of it disappear into rhododendron thickets. This would probably be very impressive at high water levels.
These waterfalls are in the vicinity of the Sugarlands Visitor Center of the Smoky Mountains NP on the Tennessee side. We almost never go there. Partly because we already live on the NC side, partly because going anywhere in the Gatlinburg-Cades Cove corridor is just asking to spend the afternoon sitting in traffic. Yet, here we are on a Sunday afternoon in the summer.
I don’t know how many Laurel Falls we have been to. This one is just a little south of the Sugarlands visitor center. You’ll know you are there by the 200 cars parked all over both sides of the road near the trailhead. Obviously with that many cars at the trailhead, there are going to be that many people at the falls. There is not a spacious viewing / playing area here.
The hike is an easy 1.3 miles (~ 2km) each way, about 350 ft (100 m) of elevation gain, primarily in the first half of the hike. Ironically, one way to know you are on an easy trail in the Smokies is the parade of people you overhear complaining about how hard the hike is. The trail is paved although not well, it is not handicapped accessible and don’t even consider a stroller.
From the Sugarlands center if you walk past the restrooms there are several flat easy trails. Cataract Falls is about a half mile away. It’s a very easy, nicely forested walk with one set of stairs. The falls is not particularly impressive but this is a surprisingly quiet area. If you continue past Cataract Falls you could make the long connection up Cove Mountain to Laurel Falls. Since the Gatlinburg Trolley stops at both the Laurel Falls trailhead and the Sugarlands visitor center you could even do it one way with a trolley shuttle. We did not do this, perhaps some future trip though which will not be in mid-summer.
Hurricane is a fairly remote campground on the north side of Mt. Rogers NRA in southern Virginia. There are a couple different ways in, including a paved road off of VA 16 between Sugar Grove (gas station / general store) and Troutdale (absolutely nothing). We arrived via the rougher gravel road from Adwolfe (one diner). There is another gravel road heading west but we never went that route. It’s unlikely there were more supplies immediately available that way though so come prepared.
We personally thought this campground was awesome. 24 sites, many of them right alongside Comers Creek (that’s it behind the tentpad here). There are a couple of sites on the left side of the road before the second bathroom we would not take but all of the rest were great. This is site #4, slightly exciting because there was a large warning on it that the tent pad holds water in heavy rain. Luckily, it never rained on us here. Hurricane has a hot shower, drinkable water pumps and no hookups (yay!) so it’s perfect for tent camping. It was extremely quiet during our stay which included a weekend in May.
Without having to drive anywhere at all there is a river trail that goes downstream along Comers Creek, a 1 mile loop hike up to a knob behind the campground (this follows Hurricane Creek as well) and a half mile connector trail to the Appalachian Trail. If you go to the AT and head north bound you’ll reach this water fall in about a mile and a half total. We think this is Comers Creek Falls, it’s a bit confusing. If it isn’t, it looks a lot like this and is slightly further upstream. Another mile northbound on the AT brings you to Dickey Gap. It appeared you could make a larger loop by continuing up the AT and following a horse trail back to the campground. We just walked back on the forest road from Dickey Gap.
This is a fun little triangle hike if you’re at Clingman’s Dome and don’t want to spend the entire time on the wide paved path with however many other people are currently visiting Clingman’s Dome. At the base of the paved path across from the gift store, stairs go down to the Dome Bypass Trail. Take these, turn right in 0.1 miles at the trail junction and head towards the A.T.
It’s about a half mile on a relatively gentle incline. The trail is rocky and has difficult footing but there are some good views down on the NC side of the park.
Once you reach the Appalachian Trail, you can head to the right (northbound) towards Clingman’s Dome. We took a short detour the other direction here to reach the summit of Mount Buckley. Mount Buckley isn’t much to write home about (or a blog entry) but it is a peak, there’s a small grove of stunted spruce trees at the summit and depending on the season, there may be good views into Tennessee. On our visit, the entire AT was in the clouds, mist and intermittent rain so it mostly looked like this.
We ended our hike with a trip up the architecturally bizarre lookout tower. If it isn’t strange enough normally, in the clouds it really looks like some alien space craft. There was absolutely nothing to see up here except the tower itself. Total distance for the triangle is right about 2.0 miles.