Sunday, November 15, 2020

Pisgah 400: Daniel Ridge Loop & Farlow Gap Trail to Shuck Ridge Creek Falls


Pisgah 400: Daniel Ridge Loop Trail/Farlow Gap Trail to Shuck Ridge Creek Falls
12/14/19 – 10.6 Miles

Have you ever done something on a hike that you look back and say, “Well, you left your good sense at the trailhead on that one, didn’t you?” Jim and I had one of those moments on this chilly backcountry waterfall hike (actually, two moments – we had to repeat it on the return). To our credit, though, we also exercised good judgment at a critical point.

Hiking all the trails in the Pisgah Ranger District presents quite a puzzle and I have realized that it cannot be done efficiently with just one vehicle, meaning there’s a lot of out-and-back trekking. The majority of trails are accessed by unpaved forest roads that are subject to seasonal and weather closures, and any access via the Blue Ridge Parkway is limited or nonexistent in winter. Planning, planning, planning!

Two goals: hike some new miles of the Pisgah 400 challenge and tag the Shuck Ridge Creek waterfall for the Waterfalls 100 challenge. I sold the idea to Jim, even though it didn’t involve a bike ride for him.

From Charlotte we had a foggy start but, as often happens, the sun broke through for a clear blue sky with happy puffy white Bob Ross clouds. We passed by the Pisgah Ranger Station/Visitor Center, scratched our heads wondering why its winter hours are just Monday-Friday (aren’t there a lot of visitors on Saturday and Sunday?) We turned left onto Forest Road 475, a pretty important road that winds deep into the southwest quadrant of the Pisgah Ranger District. Keep track of which segment you want: FR 475, 475B, 475C and 475D. If you get it wrong, you’ll learn a lot.

Our parking area was nearly a mile past the Cove Creek Group Camp – no other cars yet. Our planned route included the right half of Daniel Ridge Loop Trail (going counterclockwise), Farlow Gap Trail to the Art Loeb Trail intersection and return to pick up the left half of Daniel Ridge Loop to our car.

 We began on a gravel roadbed and crossed the Davidson River on a large bridge to the sign marking Daniel Ridge Loop. Turned right here, then walked a hundred yards further to peek at Toms Spring Falls (aka Jackson Falls, aka Daniel Ridge Falls). This is a lot of waterfall for very little effort.

Backtracking a little bit to rejoin Daniel Ridge Loop, we turned right and climbed quickly up the mountainside. The trail crosses a small footbridge over the innocuous little creek that becomes Toms Springs Falls as it pours over the massive rock face.

For the next two miles, Daniel Ridge Loop is mostly a clay-packed trail exhibiting mountain bike tracks, crossing open areas and skirting near now-closed FR 5046. Mountain biking is extremely popular in Pisgah NF, and hikers should stay attuned even on trails that are signed as closed to bikers. More than once I’ve been surprised by mountain bikers having the thrill of their lives – and shaving a few years off of my own.

We met hikers with their four-legged family members near the intersection with Farlow Gap Trail. Jim and I congratulated ourselves on our strong legs and fast pace. Thirty yards along on Farlow Gap, we stopped short at the banks of the Right Fork of Daniel Ridge Creek thundering down the mountain, with no bridge in sight. There was a big fat log perfectly positioned across the creek, suggesting that of course we could scoot across.

I straddled the log and began inching my way forward. Two feet into it, I realized three things: 

    My wet noodle arms are not very strong
    I was committed, impossible to go backwards
    This was a very dangerous thing I was doing

Eight feet above the thunderously pounding water, it took an eternity of leaning forward on my arms, lifting up my butt and putting it down, inch by inch. Fortunately, the trunk was solidly anchored with very little bounce. I’m not afraid of heights, but the idea of falling off and bashing my head on the boulders below had me repeating a mantra of “look forward, not down” until my feet were on solid ground. As I watched Jim scuttle across in half the time, I made a mental note that we would be doing it all again on the way back.

We continued on Farlow Ridge Trail as the old road bed wound around Fork River Ridge, kicking up leaves and breathing cool air, putting that scary log business behind us for now. Soon we heard rushing water ahead – Daniel Ridge Creek – and arrived at the edge to find no bridge. We scoped out the possibilities of a rock hop, then managed it without getting wet, as Jim grabbed my hand and pulled me across.

The deceptively easy trail now wrapped around Daniel Ridge and – of course – we heard the powerful crashing of Shuck Ridge Creek before we saw it. We weren’t expecting a bridge this time, but we were expecting to find a way across. Jim stood at the edge.

What the photo doesn’t show is that he was at the top of Shuck Ridge Creek Waterfall, where the water was squeezed into a three-foot-wide channel that plummeted out of sight. He paused to look upstream, then jumped across the channel. When he turned around, I was emphatically shaking my head: No, I was NOT doing that.

Jim acquiesced and then realized that jumping back was not so simple. The near side was smoother, wetter, more slippery. I covered my eyes – and there he was, back by my side. He began to make the case for trying again – “I did it once, I can do it again, and so can you!” It’s hard to admit defeat and not finish a hike, a bike ride, a challenge of any kind. But safety first: if one of us got injured, the other would have to go for help and leave the injured person alone in the cold for hours into the night, not to mention the risk to rescue volunteers. Never worth it.

Let’s enjoy the pretty blue sky for a moment as we turn ourselves around.

 We met the same obstacles on the return hike, first Daniel Creek and then the log at Right Fork Creek. Again we scouted upstream a bit, still no discernible alternatives, impossible to judge the depth or the rocks underneath the white water. This time Jim went first.

I chucked my hiking poles across the creek and climbed aboard. The log sloped up more from this direction, and a bump near the middle was harder to get over. I can’t say that I felt any braver or improved my time. When we were both safely across, though, I caught my breath at the realization of just what a dumb risk we had taken.

We turned right onto Daniel Ridge Loop Trail for the remaining 2 miles to our car. Along the way, Right Fork converges with Daniel Ridge Creek and Shuck Ridge Creek to form the mighty Davidson River that dominates this part of Pisgah National Forest, with small tumbling unnamed waterfalls all its own.

I’ve read a few descriptions of Farlow Gap Trail before and since this hike and they briefly mention easy crossings during normal flows (one of them mentioned a bridge over Right Fork but we saw no evidence of one). But one day of heavy rain can noticeably swell a creek. Jim and I took a stubborn and unnecessary risk crossing the log – we could have just waded across and gotten wet. (Heck, we could have waded through on the return.) We debated crossing at the top of the waterfall long enough to realize we didn't want to do it. Others may have jumped without a second thought. Moral: Consider your abilities and that you may be risking your life and the lives of people who will come to rescue you.

“Be still like a mountain
and flow like a great river." 

~Lao Tse Tung



Monday, October 5, 2020

Douglas Falls


Douglas Falls – 9/14/19 – 7.4 Miles

Doesn’t everyone have a file folder of hike plans for a short-notice-good-weather-forecast-gotta-get-outside occasion? Surely not just me…

I pulled up that file folder when Jim told me that he was going on an all-Saturday bike ride (becoming much more frequent). I’m chipping away at Carolina Mountain Club’s Waterfall Challenge and there are some outliers that call to me in these kinds of circumstances.  A three-hour one-way drive (aren’t they all?) but I had all day to do what I want… go hiking.

Two general ways to get to the falls from the NC Piedmont: drive around your elbow to get to your thumb, past Barnardsville to FR 74, for a one-mile roundtrip hike. Or enjoy a drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and access the Mountains-To-Sea Trail from several points in the vicinity of Craggy Gardens. The Douglas Falls Trail intersects the MST.  I parked at the Visitor Center and hopped on the MST for a 7.4-mile roundtrip. Since I’m driving all that way, I want to walk more than a mile…

When I saw that first MST white circle I felt the thrill of reunion: Hello, old friend! I hadn’t been here since Danny Bernstein and I hiked the MST together back in ’09. I remember this part of the trail well, eyes glued to my feet on the slippery rocks. The rocks hadn't changed, still challenging. I followed the MST northbound for 1.2 miles to the intersection with the Douglas Falls Trail. From there it’s another 2.5 miles down, down, down to the falls.

The humidity was noticeable, even with the high 70's temperature. Even though stinging nettles crowded the path, I was too stubborn to zip on my pants legs.

The beauty of the forest surrounded me on all sides, above my head and at my feet.

Majestic old growth oak and birch trees
Moss carpeted logs
Splashes of red mountain ash berries
Twisted trees
Stump shelters
Fruits of fading summer flowers giving way to autumn asters
Tinges of fall

White wood aster




Hearts a-burstin’


Cucumber root

Fruit (blue bead) of the Clinton lily

Decaying fruit of false Solomon seal

The trail comes upon a house-sized boulder with a campfire on its downward side. A steep side trail leads to the left, probably to the waterfall, but the main trail goes right and switchbacks down to the waterfall base.

As often happens at a waterfall that takes some effort, I was alone. Douglas Falls is the big brother of Moore Cove Falls in Pisgah National Forest, a 70-foot free fall over a bluff, carving out a rock wall with a flow like a rain shower. You can walk all the way around the flow. While the volume of water is usually underwhelming, stand close to it and imagine a few days of hard rain spilling over the ledge.

Leaning back against the rocks, I ate lunch while watching the water splash. When I closed my eyes, the sound intensified, echoing back from the rock wall.  Around noon, as I stood and stretched, I heard voices coming up from the lower parking area:  a family, including two unleashed dogs and a toddler in a backpack. Good timing again as I hefted my daypack and set off.

The steep hike back up was hot and sweaty. I stopped once for an energy bar break, pacing myself, and I felt like I still had a bit of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path conditioning in my tank. Coastal cliffs or deep woods, outside is always good for the soles and the soul.

"To sit in solitude, to think in solitude,
with only the music of the stream 
and the cedar to break the flow of silence, 
there lies the value of wilderness."
~John Muir







Sunday, September 13, 2020

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – 8/31/19 
Pinnacle Overlook/Tri-State Peak/Wilderness Road – 3.2 Miles – 
White Rocks Overlook – 6.6 Miles

Laid out over the interlocking puzzle pieces of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park tells the story of Native Americans and then westward migration of settlers through this low spot of the Appalachian Mountains.

The park is spread out and deserves advance planning (i.e. reservations for some sites/tours) and more than one day to appreciate its offerings – alas, that’s all we had. The biggest surprise of all: the town of Cumberland Gap, sequestered in its little valley surrounded by federal land.

First thing Saturday morning, Jim and I entered the Visitor Center seeking wisdom on where to start. The ranger said, “You should get in your car right now and drive straight up to Pinnacle Overlook because the clouds are pouring through the Gap and y’all want to see that. Then you can come back and figure out the rest.” We ran out the door, map in hand.

Town of Cumberland Gap, VA-TN-KY, clear skies

View from Pinnacle Overlook:  
Town of Cumberland Gap on the (left) eastern side
Cumberland Mountain stretching out through the center
A glimpse of clouds over Middlesboro, KY on the (far right) western side

Middlesboro, KY, in a bowl covered by a thick layer of cotton

Clouds thinning and moving out

Next we drove to the Thomas Walker parking area (who named the Cumberland River and subsequently Cumberland Gap) for a short loop hike beginning with Object Lesson Road. Odd name for a trail? Let that be a lesson to you.

Our goal was Tri-State Peak where the KY/TN/VA borders meet. Just a few hikers on the trail, including one young guy who passed us, then Jim passed him, and I passed him as he stopped to rest, and he said, "Look at you!"  Yeah (I thought to myself) I may be old but I know how to pace myself. [Before the end of the day kharma would punish me for this snobbery.]

At the tri-point there is a gazebo structure, a survey marker, and monuments for each state with its state bird, state flower, state song, capital city, and other important stuff.

Of course, you have to do a full plank to touch all three states at one

We backtracked to the intersection of the Tri-State Trail (aka Cumberland Trail) and the Wilderness Road Trail, marked by Indian Rock, and we stopped to eat lunch. We turned left to walk on the Wilderness Road Trail back to our car. Part of this section is the original wilderness road that settlers took through the gap to a better life, preceded by Daniel Boone who scouted it in 1769, preceded by Native American hunters, preceded by buffalo and other game. Cumberland Mountain is a long stretched out mountain ridge, like many along the Appalachians, and this low point or gap was the only way across on the arduous journey.

 Back at the Visitor Center we watched videos about the area (a good idea if you’re not running up to the Pinnacle first thing) and debated how to spend the rest of our day. Again, ranger input helped us choose a hike to White Rocks, an extensive cliff face on the Cumberland Ridge known for its whitish color due to quartzite running through the rock. It was a significant landmark for early settlers traveling the Wilderness Road toward the Cumberland Gap. The trailhead is about a half-hour drive east of the VC at the town of Ewing, VA.

Looking at the cliffs as we drove to it, I should have realized that the trail would be straight up. 
A poor photo, but you get the idea – I wish I had.

The hike started from a full parking lot at Ewing Trail. We started at 1:45 pm, later than I might have if I had known what was ahead. I mentally kicked myself for not getting more specifics. Signage for mileage was iffy, not complete, but all those cars in the parking lot couldn’t be wrong – right? So 3.3 miles, over 2,000 feet elevation gain, a ridiculously hot day, and I whined like a champ because I was with Jim and not other hiking friends. I was a strong hiker and we made very good time, but I did get way too overheated on the steep, steady grind. The trail wasn’t scenic or interesting (perhaps my memory is not objective). At 2.5 miles, we turned right onto the Ridge Trail, and even that mile “on the ridge” required effort with some minor rock scrambling. There are zero photos to document this part of the experience.

When we arrived at the first overlook, Jim went out to enjoy the views while I stayed in the trees to try to cool down. When I finally stepped out into the sun to join him, it was pretty awesome.

There was just one young couple there also, otherwise the cliffs were empty, despite the full parking area. However, the Ewing Trail splits at the Ridge Trail intersection, going left on a loop to Sand Cave, also a highly recommended destination but even further distancewise for us. Maybe that’s where everyone else was.

We had a brief conversation with the young couple and they left ahead of us. A few minutes later we started back, too, and we saw them stopped on the ridge trail. A young male elk was grazing on the trail! Two hikers stood on the trail beyond him, said they had been cautiously following it since the intersection. He had red tags (number 276) on both ears and didn’t seem at all perturbed as we watched and took photos – and he didn’t seem inclined to yield. Finally we began advancing, talking loudly, and Mr. Elk turned nonchalantly and walked on back to the intersection.

The hike down was cooler but grinding on my knees, so I generally had something to complain about the whole way. Which is worse, out of breath or grinding knees? Whichever one you are experiencing. But the reward for the effort was the town of Cumberland Gap, nestled in the palm of God at the foot of the mountain (too verbose?) We walked up and down all three streets, lamented that we weren’t staying at the sweet B&B (no vacancy), and checked out the local businesses, including a café, two antique stores, a blacksmith shop, and the Little Congress Bicycle Museum (!)

We landed on barstools at Angelo’s in the Gap. Chatting with the very young bartender, we learned that the bar is in a former bank building and they use the bank vault to store beer kegs. They had 28 beers and 3 ciders on tap! The guy next to me introduced himself (as fellow barstool sitters do). He's retired from the military, worked for a few years with GSMNP and CUHA. He told us about more trails in the park and gave us maps for next time.

Connected to the bar was a dining room with Italian fare. Jim and I carried our adult beverages to a table and wolfed down a giant pizza while listening to the former high school principal playing his guitar and singing “Fire on the Mountain.” Ah, a good day after all.

Let a joy keep you. Reach out your hands
and take it when it runs by.” 
~Carl Sandburg