Saturday, March 27, 2021

More Waterfalls in Oconee County, SC: Spoonauger, King Creek, Rileymoore & Issaqueena Falls

Spoonauger Falls, King Creek Falls, Rileymoore Falls, Issaqueena Falls
Mountain Rest, SC – 6/5/20

Cruising back roads in the left elbow of South Carolina today, we conquered three waterfalls and glimpsed a fourth over the shoulders of too many people (and called it good enough). For all y’all following along, I’m working my way through the Carolina Mountain Club’s Waterfall 100 Challenge (WC 100). Most of the entries are in NC and information is easily obtainable via Kevin Adams’ book North Carolina Waterfalls and website. The SC entries take a little more work but are worth the effort.

I rely on official sources but I also like to read blogs about places I’m interested in. The most current blog posts can verify and/or update the official sources. Three or more sources give me a picture of what to expect (or not) when I get on the trail. Some other favorites:

Oconee SC Waterfalls

Upstate South Carolina waterfall map 

NC Waterfalls - a terrific site for waterfalls in SC as well as NC

Brenda Wiley - Crazy good HIKING section with detailed trip reports, photos and elevation profiles and GPS tracks for download

Waterfalls Hiker – the easiest way to find writeups here is to Google “waterfalls hiker” and the name of the waterfall you're interested in

[We treated each waterfall as a stand-alone hike to make the best use of our time. If you’re not so obsessive about it, you can combine Spoonauger and King Creek Falls into one nice hike via the Chattooga River Trail.]

So...where did we go today?

Spoonauger Falls

Past the big parking area for Burrells Ford Campground, we parked where the Chattooga River Trail crosses Burrells Ford Road (FS 708), consulted the trail kiosk on the right side of the road, and walked a flat half mile alongside the robust river. A small bridge crosses over Spoonauger Creek where it flows into the Chattooga, and just past it we took a right turn onto Spoonauger Trail. 

From there it’s a quick tenth of a mile to the falls. There’s a nice cascade on the way up, and I wonder how many people think that’s the falls. 

Keep going! The real deal waterfall is said to be named for the Spoonauger family that lived near the top of the falls. Think about that as you gaze up from the base and feel the spray on your face. 

King Creek Falls

Back at the campground parking lot, I got my bearings from my Foothills Trail thru-hike here where it crosses Burrells Ford Road.  At the far end of the lot, a wide trail leads down to the Chattooga River and signage eventually gets you to the Foothills Trail and King Creek Falls side trail. 

Rock hopping to the middle of the creek to get the full effect of the powerful flow. 

On the return hike, we turned right at the junction onto the Foothills Trail, making a loop back to the Burrells Ford parking lot. The distance was about the same and a little more straightforward, I think. I like it when I can connect dots.

Rileymoore Falls 

Driving directions that I had took us to a back road closed to through traffic (bridge construction?) so we worked our way around on forest roads to another access. The last turn to the falls was obviously not accessible for us. Someone in a similar vehicle was stuck there between two enormous humps, spinning her wheels as her friend coached her out.  

So we parked and walked that mile along a muddy 4X4 road, then on a sweet blue-blazed trail 
steadily downhill to the Chauga River.

Sensitive briar

Random trailside guitar

I can picture the big rocky beach filled with people, but today we were in company with just a few, including a young couple with two little kids that had hauled in all their stuff, chairs, coolers, and swim toys. The swimming hole is massive, dominated by the “wall of waterfall” that is only 12 feet high but 100 feet wide. It’s a Class VI whitewater rapid – can you imagine going over that in a raft or a kayak?

Issaqueena Falls

Descriptions warned how crowded this place is and they were right. Part of Stumphouse Park, the waterfall is a 5-minute hike from parking, not too much to ask for even the most unmotivated person. There is lots of infrastructure, wooden walkways to wooden platforms. I declined to go onto the overlook platform because the multitude of visitors were unmasked and no one seemed concerned about social distancing.  Likewise the rougher dirt trail to the bottom, too many peeps for us. We were all making choices for our comfort levels.

As close as we got

Speaking of close, it was easy to stand at the top of the falls and watch water from the little creek
 fall over the edge into nowhere

Bonus: Stumphouse Park’s main attraction is Stumphouse Tunnel, a hand-dug, never-completed railroad tunnel intended to cut through Stumphouse Mountain. Jim and I ventured into the inky blackness that my headlamp couldn’t penetrate. Dank and creepy – take me back to the light!

More waterfalls coming!

“The closer you get, the further I fall
I’ll be over the edge now in no time at all
I’m falling faster and faster and faster
With no time to stall
The closer you get, the further I fall.”
~ song recorded by Alabama,
written by J.P. Pennington and Mark Gray

Monday, March 8, 2021

Yellow Branch Falls, Oconee County, SC

 Yellow Branch Falls – Oconee County, SC - 6/4/20 – 3.3 Miles

Like many people around the globe, by June 2020 Jim and I had canceled several trips. Forget flying, forget hotels, forget eating in a restaurant. But Airbnb seemed to be responding to COVID-19 concerns, with deep cleaning protocols and days in between guests.  We decided to venture into the new world of ‘Rona traveling. Where shall we go? What shall we do when we get there?

I am always driven by the second question, and the answer is always “something outdoors.” Spring had been lovely but summer heat was upon us, which meant waterfalls. The mountain area of upstate South Carolina has a lot of ‘em, and I found a very sweet cottage on Airbnb. We packed up groceries and adult beverages and set off for Mountain Rest, SC.

Our long drive from Charlotte took us near Sassafrass Mountain, the 3,553-foot high point of South Carolina. I had passed that way once before during a thru-hike of the Foothills Trail, when the summit was dreary and desolate at the end of a wet spring day. Now there is a paved road and a viewing tower for sweeping 360-degree vistas. Bonus points: You can straddle the NC/SC state line.

Today’s hike was close to our cottage: Yellow Branch Falls in Sumter National Forest. The trailhead starts from the Yellow Branch Picnic Area, which was packed with cars when we arrived mid-afternoon. This high traffic area had the most folks we had seen on a trail since the start of the pandemic. Advised protocol to wear masks was not high on the list. Other than one group of four who wore bandannas to cover their noses and mouths when they passed us, no one else seemed concerned. Jim and I didn’t wear masks continually, just slipped them on and stepped off the trail when people approached.

We moved at a brisk pace because of pent-up energy from the long car trip and the delight of being on a trail. BUT we didn’t miss this handsome fellow going about his business.


Maidenhair fern

Within a hundred yards of the falls, the trail makes a turn and begins a steep descent. We came upon an elderly couple sitting on a big log. The man seemed in distress with labored breathing. His wife said they had been to the falls and the steep uphill return was hard, but he was just catching his breath. It was quite hot and we offered to walk with them, but they waved us away with a smile and we continued to the falls.

Two people were leaving as we arrived and it was just Jim and me. I am always amazed when we find ourselves alone at the destination after encountering so many other hikers along the way.  A recent fallen tree lay across the bottom of the falls, making “perfect” photos more difficult, but that’s Nature – take it as it is. We scrambled a little ways up a side trail to get closer, but as often happens on side trails, the footing became precarious and we returned to the base.

On the return hike we caught up with the elderly couple; they had started walking again. I had soaked my bandanna in the water at the falls and now offered it to the man, but he said no, his wife was carrying a towel for him. We struck up a conversation and so walked with them for a while to assess (both were very slow, the wife as much as the husband).  They are originally from Germany, now living in South Carolina near their daughter and grandchildren. After a while, they waved us on again, and we left them behind. They seemed confident in their ability to finish the hike.

It was late afternoon, and at the parking lot we realized we were the last people on the trail. We were sure that our new acquaintances would continue stopping to rest. Would it get dark before they reached their car? We were concerned, but it felt inappropriate to treat them as though they were incapable of looking after themselves.  What to do?

We waited in the parking lot for 30 minutes, then another couple arrived to hike to the falls. We explained the situation, our concern, and asked them to be on the lookout, and Jim and I went on to the cottage. 

Our home away from home

Dinner on the screened front porch

“But I love to be outdoors. I prefer being outdoors to, you know, being inside.” ~Keith Carradine

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Kitsuma Peak, Pandemic Style

Kitsuma Peak – 5/9/20 – 10.1 Miles

The pandemic scare has gotten worse, so many unknowns. Working from home (and grateful for it). The most daring thing we’ve done is sit on our front lawns on Saturday nights, eating pizza, drinking beer, and shouting at our neighbors beside us and across the street. It has been a beautiful spring. The itch to get out on a trail grows stronger each day.

I asked my friend Danny Bernstein for advice. Most of Pisgah National Forest Ranger district is closed. Most of the Blue Ridge Parkway and access to trailheads is closed (other than a section near Asheville, and lots of hikers there). She suggested Kitsuma Peak in Old Fort, where she had hiked the previous weekend and saw no other hikers – but mountain bikers aplenty.

Kitsuma Peak it is. I’ve been once before, more than ten years ago. Jim joined me for this hike. We arrived at 9:30 on a Saturday morning to a totally empty parking lot at the Old Fort picnic area. I guess the mountain bikers were still enjoying their coffee.

Chilly, upper 40’s, unusual for a May morning. I read later that there was snow at Carver’s Gap and Roan Mountain. It’s all uphill from the get-go on Youngs Ridge Trail, and a brisk breeze joined us as we got closer to the top. The feeling was amazing, freeing, uplifting, nostalgic – oh, how we have missed this! 

A few large pink rosebay rhododendrons were in bloom, but smaller white Piedmont rhododendrons were bursting in profusion, lining both sides of the trail. They were everywhere, appearing again and again around every bend, arching overhead like arbors in a garden.

Worth the trip: a pink ladyslipper right beside the trail

At about 3.5 miles, just before we reached the summit, the first of many mountain bikers came barreling downhill. Jim stayed ahead and kept a good eye out, and the bikers were all reasonably alert, very friendly and laid back.  One pair whizzed by with a small dog chasing behind, inches from the back wheel, having the time of its life.

We paused for lunch on the flat grassy summit. Mountain bikers came and went, but none lingered.  Hard to believe we still had six miles to go, but it’s downhill now on Kitsuma Peak Trail. 

On the steep switchbacked descent we met a swarm of casual afternoon walkers. The trail leveled out at Interstate 40 and paralleled it for a short distance to a parking lot where more mountain bikers were pumping up tires (and where all those casual walkers started from). 

Charming I-40

We walked through the parking lot, turned right onto Royal Gorge Road, and had some head-scratching  at this point.  I had forgotten how far we had to go on this curvy paved road (turned out to be nearly a mile).  Traffic was very light, however, because the road is then barricaded to vehicles and given over to the enjoyment of foot and bicycle traffic.  

The old road winds around the mountain curves, one lane of the original concrete now paved over with asphalt. Mountain bikers were valiantly pedaling up this long stretch to get to the thrill of 4 miles down on the other side. We saw the warriors that we had encountered up on the trail – they go around the route several times.  Jim eyed each one with increasing envy and now has the spark to try mountain biking. [We’re going to need a bigger garage.]

Southern Railroad tracks run down to the narrow valley created by Swannanoa Creek (heard but not seen).  No trains today, but it excited my imagination to see the tracks coming out of tunnels carved through the mountains.  The number of folks out enjoying the day increased, but it was easy to maintain a six-foot distance on the wide roadway, with room to spare. All were smiling and enjoying the freedom!

About one mile down is Point Lookout, a grand scenic overlook of Royal Gorge. Jim and I stopped there to sit on the grass and enjoy a snack with a view before continuing on to complete our loop back at the picnic area.

What is this?

My GAIA worked well today and I think I’ve got the hang of it.  Beautiful day, just the tonic I needed, yet only a taste of what I wish I was doing more of. And a reminder that I have lost some fitness! 

Danny Bernstein’s excellent hiking guidebook Hiking North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Heritage gives a great description of this hike and background on the Southern Railroad and more.

Home again, dreaming up our next pandemic adventure!
"When I saw the mountains, the weight lifted
and my restless spirit calmed.
I knew this is where I belong."
~John Muir