Sunday, November 16, 2014

Wilson Creek Wildness: High Water

Wilson Creek – 9/13/14 – 9 Miles

Wilson Creek is a designated Wild and Scenic River in North Carolina east of Linville Gorge Wilderness, well known to its weekend locals but not so much to the rest of us.  I was first introduced to the area while hiking the Mountains-To-Sea Trail.  In local parlance, the phrase “Wilson Creek” encompasses more than just the creek.  The area lies mostly within Pisgah National Forest, beginning with the creek’s headwaters at Grandfather Mountain and moving southward to include the Lost Cove and Harper Creek Wilderness study areas and Brown Mountain to Johns River.  I think of Wilson Creek as a state of mind:  a little mysterious with few trail signs, the occasional trail that isn’t on the map, lots of water, numerous gravel forest roads, and a backcountry feeling because of the freedom to camp almost anywhere (except within 500 feet of Wilson Creek itself because of the Wild & Scenic designation).  To me what makes Wilson Creek so special is (you guessed it) water:  swimming holes, waterfalls and lots of creek crossings without bridges.  Rock hopping is rare as most crossings range from ankle to hip deep. 

Cathy posted this hike opportunity on the Carolina Berg Wanderers website but the rain forecast caused several people to bail out.  How many times have we said don’t base your outdoor life on the weatherman?  Five of us met the challenge:  Chris, Cathy, me, Mike and Becky.  Driving to the trailhead via Highway 181, it was impossible to ignore the thick fog, but we broke through onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and saw promising patches of blue sky.  We enjoyed a beautiful, fun-filled day. 

Okay, we never actually saw the real Wilson Creek.  Our plan was to hike the Lost Cove Trail loop counterclockwise, criss-crossing Lost Cove Creek and Gragg Prong.  We began at the Roseborough Road trailhead after a few miles of teeth-jarring bumpery on the gravel road.  Plenty of cars already there so I expected to see some weekend campers. 

We started off with Mike’s GPS track, immediately got off-kilter because of a couple of extra approach shortcuts and had to consult my paper map (I’m the only one who brought one).  Are we on Lost Cove Trail or Timber Ridge Trail?  Let’s say Lost Cove. 

Do you prefer your big climbs at the beginning of a hike rather than at the end?  I know I do.  We faced a steep calf- stretching climb right away, no switchbacks, up, up, up.  A trail coming in from the left was apparently Timber Ridge Trail.  A little more climbing to the gap at Bee Mountain, then an abrupt left turn onto Lost Cove Trail and we lost all we had gained on a big downhill. 

At the confluence of Little Lost Cove Creek and Lost Cove Creek.  The rushing water was l-o-u-d.  Recent rains had increased the water level significantly.  What were we going to find ahead?

Another clue:  the trail was pretty sloshy in places

Our first of several crossings of Lost Cove Creek.  Who to follow – Becky or Cathy?

Looks like Becky got it figured out.

Chris didn’t have much experience with deep water crossings but she was quickly educated.  She was nervous, which is an important pre- requisite.  Right now she’s thinking this isn’t bad so far…

At the second run, I noticed that Becky, Cathy and Mike kept going while Chris and I were still crossing, so I requested that after that everyone wait until all were safely out of the water.  If the last person slips and falls, someone needs to be there to help.  No one would hear yelling over the noise of the creek.

Lichen-covered log

Another mild crossing, easy to see the bottom

Following the creek gently downhill made for laid back hiking but the crossings became increasingly challenging.  Near the top of Hunt Fish Falls, there was no obvious good place to cross.  Everyone spread out to scout it, and the next thing I knew, Mike was attempting to cross in thigh-high swift current.  I watched him - not much I could do but at least see if he is okay.  He slipped and got a good dunking but quickly regained his footing.  The look in his eyes said he learned a lesson about fast moving water.  He made it across, but the rest of us crossed at another point.  I never really felt like we found the intended entry point because the water was so high.

Soon after that we reached Hunt Fish Falls and our first encounter with other hikers.  At the base of the first falls is an enormous rock pool perfect for swimming or wading.  Another short waterfall leads to another large pool – room for everyone!  Plenty of rock surface for sunbathing too.  At this point the Mountains-To-Sea Trail intersects and then runs eastward concurrently with Lost Cove Trail.

Relaxing at Hunt Fish Falls, Cathy and Chris and I each had our photos taken sitting beside the falls, a photo op worthy of the family calendar. 

After I took Chris’s photo, she began scooting to the edge and her phone slipped out of her pocket and fell into the water - a sick feeling for anyone.  Cathy and Becky tried to find it in butt-deep water but no luck. 

After eating lunch we resumed our hike, passing a number of campsites along the creek edge.  After crossing Lost Cove Creek a couple more times (getting deeper) and passing the left turn onto Timber Ridge Trail, we reached the confluence of Lost Cove Creek and Gragg Prong.  Here the MST curved leftward and began following Gragg Prong uphill – yes, that means climbing again, which I had forgotten about from my MST hiking days, but this was not as serious as our initial uphill.    

Gragg Prong is a lovely mountain creek and the MST is rugged as it follows along its edge.  In several places the trail was very narrow and the drop to the creek was dramatic.  Gragg Prong Falls is a series of cascades that can be accessed from several scramble points.  Cathy had also hiked this trail previously and we both were looking for pools that we remembered…but the water volume was so high that the pools were indistinguishable in the fast-flowing stream.  

Gragg Prong Falls

The last serious negotiation of Gragg Prong, then the crossings became gentler.  The water was not cold and felt refreshing when we weren’t worried about getting hurt. 

We passed numerous creekside campsites in the last mile, very tempting, but I know the area is heavily used by weekend car campers with coolers and camp chairs and I prefer more solitude.  Here are Becky and Cathy at the last crossing with the MST white circle blaze.  The MST crosses the parking area and continues on upward to the Blue Ridge Parkway and around the lower regions of Grandfather Mountain as part of the Tanawah Trail.  Another day, perhaps.

As we enjoyed the traditional apr├Ęs-hike Mexican dinner that evening we all agreed that if we had known the high water conditions we probably would not have done the hike and we were glad that the people who canceled had not come along.  It was very good training for Chris, but more people means more potential for injury.  I guess Wilson Creek is one place where you really should pay attention to the weatherman…

“Water is the driving force of all nature.” ~Leonardo da Vinci

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vacation: Well, If Those Are Not YOUR Footprints In the Sand...

Goldmine Loop/Tunnel Bypass/Noland Creek Trails – 9/5/14 - 6 Miles

We knocked off our “to-go” wish list in way, way western NC in two days instead of three, so on Thursday Jim enjoyed a morning bike ride in the Upper Alarka valley while I read, sipped coffee and meditated at our cabin.  We spent the afternoon in the Deep Creek area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, hiked to Juney Whank Falls and then sat in our camp chairs by the creek with our feet in the water.  Dinner at Jimmy Mac’s on Main Street in Bryson City.  Aaahhh…I know, right?

By Friday we were ready to stretch our legs on trails nearby.  We headed into the Smokies again on the Road to Nowhere to hike the Tunnel Bypass and Goldmine Loop Trails. 

The Tunnel Bypass Trail begins at the parking area at the end of Lakeview Drive within sight of the tunnel for which the road is nick- named.  Lakeview Drive was intended to extend through the park to connect with Fontana after Fontana dam was built and the resulting Fontana Lake covered the original Highway 288 and land claimed for the lake. But construction was never completed and in 2010 the U.S. Department of Interior agreed to pay a settlement to local residents and descendants.  Read a brief summary here. 

Tunnel Bypass is a connector trail to the Lakeshore Trail and the Forney Creek area of the park.  Not much to make note of on our hike other than late summer tall bellflower and blue lobelia and one recent blowdown. 

After .4 miles we turned left onto Goldmine Loop Trail.  Please don’t confuse this with the Goldmine Trail, also part of the GSMNP but located on the far western edge of the park on the Tennessee side.  If you are meeting your friend and you get these two mixed up, you will not see each other that day. 

Goldmine Loop Trail is two miles long and descends from either end down to a fingertip of Fontana Lake.  It was a hot, muggy, spiderwebby day. 

All the boar traps I have seen in the Smokies look like they are unused, but I guess I don’t know what a “used” one looks like. 

Fontana Lake, looking much better than the last time I was here when the water level was greatly receded

We passed a field filled with wildflowers of white and purple aster, goldenrod and golden-glow.  An open area like that implies an old homestead.  This beautiful stacked stone chimney is still standing tall.

I was very excited to find pinesap popping up in profusion alongside the trail at the low point of our hike.  This is a parasitic plant related to Indian-pipe, the difference between the two that Indian-pipe stems hold a single flower and pinesap holds multiple flowers.  As often happens, as soon as I saw one they seemed to be everywhere.  Then the trail climbed 100 feet and they disappeared. 

The far end of Goldmine Loop Trail connects to the Lakeshore Trail, where a right turn took us almost immediately to the far end of Tunnel Bypass Trail, which we followed to complete our loop back at the parking area.  A nice little hike, but we weren’t quite ready to call it quits.  What else could we explore nearby?

Well, there’s the “tail end” of the Noland Creek Trail.  This trail begins high up in the heart of the Smokies at Upper Sassafras Gap and descends nine miles to intersect Lakeshore Drive, then continues for another mile to Fontana Lake.  I’ve hiked the upper portion several times and there are numerous home sites and cemeteries to explore along that section.  It is an old railroad grade, wide and gentle, an easy out-and-back hike.  But the lower mile to Fontana Lake is nice, too, crossing loud and noisy Noland Creek on wide wooden bridges.  We decided to walk down this trail to the lake.

Blue lobelia

For the last few hundred yards along the lakeshore we picked our way across quite a lot of debris, looking for Campsite 66, which we found at the woods’ edge.  To be honest, there was not much inviting me to spend a night here.  Perhaps it just felt too muggy. 

Jim raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, there’s no one else here and that water looks good.”  Sans boots and shirt he floated away. 

After a bit of internal debate (did I want to walk back to the car soaking wet?) I did the same.  Just a few steps from the water’s edge, the bottom dropped away into a deep channel.  I lost my nerve (don’t like water I can’t see through) and swam back to shore. 

I carried my boots to a big rock to sit and dry my feet with my bandana as Jim got out of the water.  As he walked toward me, he asked, “Did you walk here?  Are these your footprints?”  Well, no, I didn’t walk close to the water line because the sand was too soft.  But something did.

We followed the prints backwards to where the bear came down from the woods, but there were no prints leaving the shore.  Mr. Bear must have swum across to the far side of the little channel. 

You never know what you'll find on a walk in the woods.

“As soon as I saw you, I knew an adventure was going to happen.”  ~Winnie the Pooh

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Vacation: Snowbird Creek Confusion and Panther Top Lookout Surprise

Snowbird Creek Waterfalls and Panther Top Lookout Tower – 9/3/14 - 12 miles

Jim and I spent another day in the far, far western parts of North Carolina hiking in a place with a pretty name:  Snowbird Creek in the Snowbird Mountains of Nantahala National Forest. 

Resources for this hike:  Hiking North Carolina’s National Forests, a new book this year by Johnny Molloy and North Carolina Waterfalls, a well-used guidebook by Kevin Adams.  [I highly recommend both.Each book has a different perspective and varying routes for our hike and I carried photocopies of both.  Adams refers to the Forest Service’s Snowbird Area Trail Map but I couldn’t locate one, so I carried my NatGeo map.  We needed all the help we could get.  Being prepared can mean the difference between a safe return and a search party. 

The trailhead is remote, turn right, turn left, etc. on backroads beyond Robbinsville, NC and then 4 miles of gravel on FR 75 following Snowbird Creek upstream to a dead end.  Along the way there are sites for a nice car camp base.  I made a mental note of them in the event of a return trip.

Snowbird Creek was roaring loudly at every turn, “dirty” whitewater from last night’s big rain, and I pondered the multiple crossings described in Molloy’s narrative. 

Fixing to get ready to go.  One car was already there.  And right at the parking area I pulled out the hiking guides to solve my first dilemma:  left trail or right trail?  Neither was marked.  Answer:  stay left. 

Following fresh boot prints on what we now knew was Big Snowbird Trail, we knew someone was ahead of us, and after a mile we caught up to two backpacking fishermen, retired.  They were familiar with the area and gave a little background on what was ahead up to the big bridge and camping area.   
The first miles were on a gentle grade logging road, plenty wet, and followed the creek on up the mountain. 

An obvious waypoint stands at 2.5 miles, a rusted old vehicle nicknamed the getaway car displaying multiple bullet holes.  As Snowbird Creek flows strong on the right, Sassafrass Creek comes in from the left to join it – not a small tributary, a tricky wide rock hop. 

After another mile we began to look for a side path on the right to Big Falls.  The side path was a very steep scramble down (Jim looked at me like I had lost my mind) but we did it.  More brown tinted water from the volume of water scouring away the creek banks.

We scrambled back to the main trail and a minute later found a second faint side trail to the right.  Turned out to be another vantage point of Big Falls, a many-tiered cascade. 

At 3.9 miles we crossed Snowbird Creek on a big sturdy bridge and entered a large campsite area.  [Pay attention, this will help you if you ever decide to check out these waterfalls].  This is where the two hike narratives differed.  Molloy’s route sticks with Big Snowbird Trail up to Middle Falls, including eight fords of the creek.  From what we’d seen of the water flow, Jim and I were interested in alternatives.  Adams acknowledges that although Big Snowbird Trail is the most direct route, finding the trail on the far bank at each creek crossing is challenging.  He suggests Middle Falls Trail, which stays on the right side of the creek, bypasses all the crossings, and ties back into Big Snowbird Trail near Middle Falls.  That’s what we elected to do.  But which one of the trails is Middle Falls?  No signage and multiple false starts to camping areas kept us guessing for about 20 minutes.  We ultimately knew we were on the right trail because, as Adams describes, it starts with “an absurdly steep climb for about .2 miles before moderating.” 

Indian cucumber root berry

Delicate rippling lichen

Middle Falls Trail was a mile long and surprisingly well maintained…until it wasn’t.  A vague cutoff to connect to Big Snowbird was difficult to follow but thankfully very short.  After a quick left turn and a little backtracking, we found Middle Falls. 

What a treat!  Middle Falls, very full and noisy, all ours

And that water was c-o-l-d!

Two waterfalls so far, one more to find:  Sassafras Falls.  From this point we relied on Molloy’s trail description to complete a loop.  His cautions and warnings that “if navigation and faint trail tracking aren’t your thing, consider returning to the trailhead from Middle Falls” turned out to be (do I hear Alanis Morrisette?) good advice that we just didn’t take. 

We could not avoid fording Snowbird Creek.  Jim dashed across in bare feet, which was my turn to freak out because the water was very swift and deep and I couldn’t see the bottom.  I painstakingly removed my boots and socks and put on Crocs, then looked up and down and up again for a good place to cross.  At the edge I stuck my hiking poles in to test the depth and the water grabbed one of them from my hand and pulled it downstream.  No time to react, but I certainly wasn’t going to run after it anyway.  Then here comes Jim, prancing back across the water as though he was going to swim for it.  He is uber cautious about scrambling down a hill but will risk breaking a leg in a creek.  Jeez.

After crossing (Jim for the third time) we tried to pick up faint Burntrock Ridge Trail.  We followed something for about a quarter mile, crossed what we thought must be Littleflat Branch Creek, but after that the land didn’t seem to match up with either the trail map or Molloy’s description.  We saw flagging tape on a few trees, but the last one was on a limb on the ground at a big ditch with no discernible path through a rhododendron hell that was impenetrable.  We worked for a half hour before admitting defeat. 

The completer in me was offended and disappointed, but time was ticking and the safest course was to turn back.  We had spent four hours and were facing a five-miler back to the car.   The hike back was a march, me going very fast to get it over with.  Hiking with just one pole felt lopsided. 

On the return we saw the two backpacking fishermen at their campsite at the bridge and told them about our failed attempt.  They had no experience that far up the trail and no advice to offer.  I noticed half a dozen Mountain House meals and lots of Ramen noodle packets spread out on a log near their campfire.  How long are you guys staying out here?  Just overnight.

What – you think this day is over?  Nah. 

We reached the car much later than I had originally planned and thought we should call it quits, but Jim encouraged me to go for the Panther Top lookout tower, another on the challenge list based on Peter Barr's book Hiking North Carolina's Lookout Towers.  We drove an hour further west, beyond the town of Murphy, reaching the tower parking at 6:00 p.m.  Facing a .75-mile steep walk up yet another boring gravel road, I was hot and tired and not amused, but tried to appreciate that Jim was willing to do it.  

The unexpected reward:  the tower is the only structure, no communi- cations clutter

With the late afternoon sun, the view was spectacular, blue rows of moun- tains... 

...and a storm on the horizon.  Wow.  

Worth the timing even though we got back to the cabin at last light, after 8:00 p.m.  Safe and sound.  I’m calling it a great day. 

“Just because it’s a bad idea doesn’t mean it won’t be a good time.”  ~Anonymous