Well, Thanksgiving is over, and the winter and holiday season is looming just ahead. As always, there was much to be thankful for this year, including a great season of backpacking here in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Hiking through the Virginia Highlands, for instance, was like winning the Super Bowl, and standing on the ‘Monkey Head Rocks’—the Sill Branch Overlook—was like walking on the moon. And how could I forget the awesome Hairnt-fest in Damascus, two incredible bear encounters, and the amazing waterfall hikes in the Sampson Wilderness? Now, there were more such hikes to write about.
Inspired by ‘Rat Patrol’ to hike up to the upper Devil’s Fork Falls, as we used to do with the hiking club quite often back in the late 80’s and early 90’s during the ‘waterfall tour’ hikes (which began in Sill Branch and ended at the foot of Longarm Ridge, some 9 miles later, after viewing at least 8 waterfalls and countless cascades) I met up with him and his son, Tyler, around noontime on a Saturday in mid-November. In the ‘old days’, we used to take various people up there to the gorge-like upper falls just to blow their mind, which happened every time without fail. After looking through the photos of trips past, it is amazing to think that we actually took his dog, Schwartz, down those rough, steep and narrow trails in the Devil’s Forks.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Rat had not been back to those falls since that time, after the hiking club dismantled and both he and I discovered the smoother trails on the Appalachian corridor and trail maintenance, nearly 20 years ago. It had been a few years since I had been up there, also, so I decided to go with them. Tyler, of course, had not even been born when those ‘Rat Patrol’ ‘waterfall tour’ adventures took place, and so it was perhaps Rat’s way of showing him the true wilderness that still exists not so far away.
Anyway, the plan was fairly simple; we would hike up the old Longarm Trail, which is regularly traveled by horses now, and well-beaten, and then take the old road (about 2 ½ miles up Rich Mountain before you get to Bear Wallow Gap) that traverses the meandering hollows of the upper Big Pine Ridge all the way to the to the last fork (another 1 ½ miles, approximately), the left branch of the Devil’s Fork. From there we would follow the creek down to the upper falls, known as ‘Lilybeth Falls’ I am told (I never called them that, though I like the name). Then we would climb down the cliff there, and then another cliff, where the ‘Devil’s Slide’ plunges through the ‘gorge’. Then we would have to negotiate several more drop-offs, waterfalls and cliffs to climb down. Perhaps you are sensing a theme? Yes, there would be a whole lot of ‘climbing down’ cliffs and falls!
The adventure began well enough, the weather was very nice for hiking, and though we didn’t break any land-speed records, we made it up the mountain, beyond the upper ‘Longarm Falls’, (upper part of these falls seen here) and to the ‘Big Pine Ridge Road’ without any problems. From there, however, we encountered a trail buried in ‘blow-downs’ where we found ourselves having to climb over, around and sometimes–crawling on our hands and knees–through giant clusters of fallen trees. It was not just trees, either, but also stacked masses of fallen laurel hells blocking the trail, intermingled with briars, all of which combined to make our traveling slow and sometimes even painful. I categorized the trail as ‘difficult to impassable’. We persevered through the fallen jungle of debris, never-the-less, until we finally reached the last (north) fork of the Devil’s Fork Creek, and began our descent to the upper falls (‘Lilybeth Falls’).
Despite the years, we traversed our way down the rain-swollen creek beyond a couple of impressive cascades and found the way to the cliff above the falls without any problems. There was a mutual feeling of accomplishment, standing above the raging waterfall, made that way from the remnants of tropical storm Ida passing through the area and dumping between 4-6 inches of rain a couple of days earlier. We took a few moments to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the sheer 80-foot drop-off and the strength and power of the impressive waterfall. However, what with the rough, nearly impossible trail and the early late-autumn sunsets, darkness was already approaching as we made our way down the ‘secret’ trail above the falls, climbing along a ledge in the cliff-face, and found our way to the bottom. Maneuvering down the upper falls was rather intense, having to hold on to overhanging rocks for balance while skirting beside the vigorous flow of water shooting over the falls, and trying to negotiate the slippery, wet rocks, some of which were covered in leaves.
In those deep mountain hollows, it stays fairly dark on the brightest of days, and by the time we found a way around and down the impressive ‘Devil’s Slide’, which was not easy, but easier than climbing down the actual ‘slide’ (something I done before, but do not recommend because it is very dangerous), the light was very dim, indeed. At one place, just below the slide, we had to lower ourselves down the nearly vertical cliff-wall using live laurel branches, so we felt a little like monkeys swinging from branch to branch to get to the next level down.
From there, we had another steep drop-off to contend with, the small falls above the place where the raging right fork joins with the left fork just above the 50-foot ‘Middle’ Devil’s Fork Falls (I am told these have been named ‘Josiah Falls’ for some reason) having to jump from one level down to where the two creeks become one. Finding a way down these falls—the middle (‘Josiah’) set–was quite difficult, not just because of the darkness, but because of a large oak tree that had fallen on the side of the falls that blocked our descent. We ended up sliding down the cold, wet rock facing in the dark to the base of the middle falls.
From there, the trail was much easier, at least until we reached the ‘Pine Ridge Falls’, but we still had 2 miles of walking to reach the trail-head. Climbing down the Pine Ridge Falls is difficult to do in the daylight, much less the darkness, but we did have flashlights, and fortunately, there weren’t any accidents. From there, rest of the trail to our cars wasn’t bad.
The 7-mile hike over Rich Mountain with ‘Rat Patrol’ and Tyler, and climbing down the incredible ‘Devil’s Fork’ series of waterfalls was rather intense and amazing, especially since no one was injured (seriously) despite the difficult conditions of the adventure.
I also undertook a rather strenuous hike on Unaka Mountain in late November, where I was scouting a way to the cliff near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line above the Nolichucky River. I had inexplicably been given some inaccurate directions and limped out in the darkness with a re-tweaked hamstring but a better understanding of that end of the mountainside.
Some other stuff to report: There is a strong rumor that Hoppy and Birdie are engaged to be married; congratulations to them. Also, it is www.Trailstealth.com’s 2nd birthday–as always, many thanks to the ‘Web-Wizard’ for all his hard work designing and code-slinging, website management, and also for donating not only his time, but much of his fascinating photo collection.
More adventures later…