Waterfalls of Highlands, NC – 9/19/16
I participated in a weekend retreat at Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia, an institute dedicated to contemplation, established by Trappist monks from Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived. This was my first experience at a monastery. My time at Holy Spirit was peaceful, reverent, enlightening and much too short. I look forward to visiting again soon.
On my return home from Holy Spirit I planned to camp overnight near Franklin, NC and arranged a shuttle set-up for a long dayhike on the AT around Standing Indian. When I left the monastery at noon on Sunday, though, the weather was uncooperative, heavy rain settling in for the next 24 hours. I called the shuttle driver and canceled – I didn’t envision a soggy ending to my enlightened retreat – but I wasn’t ready to go back to my real world, either. My waterfall guidebook and the Carolina Mountain Club Waterfalls 100 Challenge list were in the back seat, so maybe I could work out a Plan B. Waterfalls are best after (or during) a big rain, right?
Looky here – while I was driving and deciding what to do, I found Brasstown Falls tucked in a corner of upstate South Carolina (which is not out of the way if you’re not sure where you’re going). It’s a series of waterfalls very close together on Brasstown Creek. The trail became very rugged after the first two so I counted it as a good day.
Still raining, getting hungry, where to spend the night? A cozy hotel in Highlands, NC sounds about right. Tomorrow morning (a Monday for the working folks) will be my day to conquer the waterfalls – I’m going for six of ‘em! I let the hubby know that I was changing the plan. I wasn’t specific about exactly which waterfalls I wanted to explore…but I was working off of the Highlands chapter in Kevin Adams’ North Carolina Waterfalls book…
Dry Falls: Foggy and ethereal in the early morning, an empty parking lot, a short walk along a stone path and down the stairs, I felt like I was approaching one of the viewpoints to Yellowstone Falls. Dry Falls was thundering after yesterday’s rains. The name refers to the ability to walk behind the falls while staying dry, but not today – the mist was blowing everywhere. The cavelike grotto behind the falls and the deafening roar of water gave me shivers. There was a tint of fall color, orange/yellow leaves. The serenity of my monastery experience followed me to this place.
Glen Falls: Adams claims that if you have time for only one waterfall in the area, Glen Falls is a “good choice.” I suppose that is vague enough, but today I was underwhelmed. The trail is easy to find and short enough for the masses to do a simple round trip. There are several vantage points – main upper falls, second main falls – and the shortcuts looked as well-established as the switchbacks, so everything leads to some sort of view. I took my time at each vantage point and was glad that I persevered. Still, I had hoped to see a lot more water.
Picklesimer Rock House Falls: Again, an underwhelming water flow, but the creepy factor rang in at a 10. Finding the trailheads for many of these waterfalls requires driving along gravel forest roads, keeping your eyes on your odometer while scanning for the ubiquitous “narrow pullout,” which as often as not is on the opposite side of the road from the trailhead itself. On a Monday morning, I didn’t have to worry about sharing the road or the trails. For Picklesimer Rock House Falls, I walked up a logging road lined with white pines and then through a small field that author Adams calls a wildlife clearing. At the far end of the clearing was a campfire ring of very large rocks that could seat more than a few cowboys. I’m not sure why, but this was the first point where I felt little hairs standing up on the back of my neck. From there the trail wound through the woods to a creek which I followed upstream for no more than a tenth of a mile to the base of the falls.
What does the name mean? Well, “rock house” was a term used back in the day to describe a deeply undercut bluff, an overhang broad enough to serve as shelter for hunters and possibly as temporary homes. The “falls” refers to the water flowing from the top of the ledge – on the day I was there, just a trickle. Which “Picklesimer” relative is anybody’s guess, as the name is common in that part of western NC. [There is a Picklesimer Fields near Butter Gap Trail in Pisgah National Forest.] A big name for a teeny waterfall.
Walking inside the rock house got the shivers going again, similar to my reaction to Dry Falls earlier in the morning. This time, though, I wasn’t a hundred yards from a big paved parking lot beside the main road. I was almost a mile off of a gravel road that was miles from a paved road. What’s that sound??? Time to go!
Secret Falls: Big score for the day! THIS is the waterfall that is worth seeking out. Adams’ trail description did not match up with what I encountered; I believe I started from a different point closer to the falls. My clue was a big “Secret Falls” sign at a parking area on the same forest road. No other cars there, but I trusted the sign, and there were blue blazes marking the way that kept me from wandering onto private property. On my return hike I sort of figured out where Adams’ trail intersected with this new one.
SO… Secret Falls is one of several features along Big Creek. As I neared the creek, the path split and I followed the left leg to this lovely wide cascade.
The split to the right led steeply down some rather slippery, cockeyed, mud-covered steps to the impressive Secret Falls and pool. This beauty begged me to stay awhile. If I had been with people I would have removed my boots and waded in the pools, but it didn’t feel safe alone. It’s soooo easy to slip and fall, and then where would I be with a broken ankle? There may be nobody else there all day. It is a secret, after all.
This was the main event, but I noticed a sketchy trail following the creek further down. What happened to that notion of safety being alone? I dunno. But I followed the extremely rugged path, ducking under trees and stretching over boulders, to these spectacular cascades. The faint trail continued even further, but I stopped at this vantage point and counted myself rewarded for my effort.
On the way back to my car I passed a group of four hikers who had started from a point much further away than I had… so at least I would have been rescued if a mishap had occurred! Foreshadowing: within an hour I would be learning that lesson in a big way.
Scotsman Creek Waterfall: Feeling strong, my next goal was an off-trail waterfall. I obeyed the usual scavenger hunt type directions, including following a gravel forest road around “several left-hand curves… be on the lookout for a small gated road on the left less than 0.1 mile beyond the correct curve.” I crossed my fingers that the pull-off I chose was the right one. I left my daypack and hiking poles in the car for this quick trip.
I crossed the road and started bushwhacking down the steep bank – no trail, but the distance is supposedly very short - working toward the sound of water. Near the bottom I slipped in mud and fell on my back, mentally berating myself for leaving my poles behind. I was in the right place, though, as there on Scotsman Creek I found a waterfall that no doubt sees more robust days than today.
According to Adams, there is a lot to explore going down the creek bed, but this is as far as I got. I felt a pinch on my left arm and looked down to see if I had gotten a scratch during my clumsy descent. Much worse: a yellow jacket was giving me the business for disturbing the peace. As I slapped at it, my thoughts began cranking that yellow jackets are never alone – and I felt another sting, and another, and another. (It hurts just writing about it months later!) I was not allergic so far in my life, but I knew well that allergies can develop, especially for these nasty creatures.
Swatting everywhere and trying to (hopefully) get away from their nest, I scrambled back up the steep (did I mention muddy?) bank, slipping and falling multiple times, all the while talking loudly to myself, “Sharon, get up, get going, don’t stop, you can do this, grab that limb, keep moving!” I made it to the car and the yellow jackets didn’t follow me. I tore through my daypack looking for Benadryl tablets that I always carry, but in my panic I couldn’t find them anywhere. (I found them the next day.) There I was in a remote area, nobody knew I was there, and I had been stung multiple times. How bad was my reaction going to be?
The short story: I drove about 10 miles to the town of Cashiers, rushed into a pharmacy looking very disheveled, smeared with mud, by this time thinking that I probably woudn’t die. Just in case, though, I got an antihistamine for swelling. (Seven stings in all, big burning welts.) I sat in my car, pondering whether I should just go home. BUT… there’s still one waterfall in my plan for today…
Silver Run Falls: The trailhead access is easy-peasy, right off of Highway 64, and the walk to the falls is short, so no more remote solo exploring for me today. Still, I was alone at this natural sanctuary so I stayed for a while in silence. A peaceful (albeit itchy) book-ending for my retreat.
“With meditation I found a ledge above the waterfall of my thoughts.” ~Mary Pipher