Sunday, August 16, 2015

Everything I Know About Trail Signs I Learned In Girl Scouts - Finding Waterfalls



North Harper Creek Falls & South Harper Creek Falls – 7/3/15 – 6 Miles


The magic of waterfalls!  I often hike solo and enjoy the opportunity for contemplation, but the delight of a waterfall is multiplied when the experience is shared.  Plus if you get hurt on one, your hiking buddy can fetch help. 

No, I didn’t get hurt on a waterfall today, but the ones I wanted to find were in the Harper Creek/Wilson Creek neighborhood of Pisgah National Forest, notorious for its unmarked trails.  Not only did I want to avoid a slip-and-fall, I wanted to avoid being lost and alone if I fell.  Getting confused/lost in this neck of the woods is easy with all the similar trail names. 

The weather forecast was intimidating, strong thunderstorms everywhere all day.  Jim and I were mentally prepared to bail out at any time.  But as often is the case, rain never materialized, didn’t even get windy.  We zipped north on Highway 181 to the Blue Ridge Parkway, then less than a mile further we dove into the warren of gravel forest roads that wind around the mountains.  Both our trailheads started from F.R. 58.  [Note:  NatGeo Map #779 is helpful in following the roads but not in finding the trailheads.  Trail #266 (North Harper Creek Trail) to access North Harper Creek Falls is shown but not numbered (there is a sign at the trailhead).  The extent of Trail #260 (Harper Creek Trail) to access South Harper Creek Falls is not clearly designated.  AND we found that the tracings for these trails were not accurate with what we found “on the ground” which caused more than a little confusion.  The U.S. Forest Service map for Wilson Creek was much more accurate.  We used both maps and Kevin Adams’ NorthCarolina Waterfalls book.]

Trail #266 was rugged and at one point we encountered a steeply sloped rock face, about 30 feet wide, that I chose to traverse via my rear end.  We crossed the creek four times, didn’t get our feet wet, but it wouldn’t take much more rain to require wading.  One big surprise:  a house being overtaken by the forest, no discernible road to it.  No indication of it on the map or in the trail writeup. 

A lone fire pink

Top of North Harper Creek Falls

There are several campsites along the way to North Harper Creek Falls, including one near the top of the falls.  Following Kevin Adams’ instructions, we left the trail and crossed the creek where the “flow is split by a rock” and picked up a gently switchbacked trail to the base of the falls.  This trail doesn’t appear on any maps that I had.

Base of North Harper Creek Falls

There are small campsites on either side of the creek near the waterfall base.  I often think how great it would be to camp at spots like these, but am leery of them because you never know what types of fellow campers may show up to join you.  I don’t mind quiet company, but I do mind party people, and campsites this close to car accessibility invite the latter.

With no trail on paper but not wanting to backtrack, Jim and I reasoned that we could pick up Trail #266 by crossing back to the north side of the creek.  We spent 20 minutes scrambling up the steep, rhododendron-covered bank before giving up and crossing back to the side where we descended.  Still with a nagging feeling that there was a trail there somewhere, we followed the creek south a few dozen yards and crossed again to the north bank.  There we found an access trail that we followed back to a larger trail – turn left?  we hope so – and we ascended back to the top of the falls.  From there we retraced our steps, recrossed the creek four times, and hopped in the car to find our next trailhead.

All this to underscore the need for good compass skills or GPS tracks or at least a good head for route finding. A partner in crime is good, too.

Four miles further down F.R. 58 we parked at Trail #260.  The first mile was an easy walk along the ridge, soft pine needle carpeting and rhododendron arbor. 

A glimpse down into the community of Kawana, tucked deep in a mountain fold

Beginning at about 1.4 miles, the trail splits several times at T inter- sections.  The guide book says to keep left, keep left, then… we lost track of how many “keep lefts.”  We turned right at one of them and reached the mid-point of South Harper Creek Falls.  The towering rock wall across the gorge was intimidating enough to keep us from getting close to the edge.  We realized that it was a l-o-n-g way down.

A great place for lunch, yes?  Jim found a snake skin in one of the pools.

Now back to those T intersections.  We knew that we could access the top of that rock wall across the gorge for a high view of South Harper Creek Falls, if only we could find a way to cross above the falls.  After a couple of false leads, we picked up a trail on the far side (no trail sign) and began to climb the ridge.  From this point our written resources were of no use.  There were tricky turns and trail blazes that did not match up with our maps.  Where was Raider Camp Trail?  After two unidentifiable intersections, we began to make trail arrows with rocks and sticks…

… and tied my yellow bandana on a tree so that we could retrace our steps.  

Good news!  We found the overlook – WOW!  The two-part falls totals 120 feet.




As we followed our trail signs backwards, we realized that we had walked three-quarters of a circle when we could have taken a very direct side trail.  Perhaps trail maintainers are trying to discourage the short cut.  I still can’t write clear instructions on how we reached the overlook.  So… my conclusions from seeking the first waterfall today still stand.  A compass, a GPS, a head for route finding and a friend.  AND a yellow bandanna.

Driving home through the sweet little town of Morganton, it wasn’t hard at all to find Brown Mountain Bottle- works. 


“Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream.”  ~Oscar Hammerstein II


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