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 prerequisite.  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 après-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

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