For five years now, I've had a passion for Windy Falls on the Horsepasture River. Some might say it's an obsession. On my first trip there, I hiked down the river past some of the most beautiful waterfalls in the state. The real highlight though was the top of Windy Falls, where the river begins its 700' free fall towards Lake Jocassee. This spot has always seemed to embody the spirit of wilderness to me. On my second trip there, we spotted a black bear at the base of the first major drop. Since then, I've tried approaching Windy Falls from every conceivable angle. I've hiked upstream from the Auger Hole Road, reaching the lowest falls, Roostertail, and even climbing beyond that cascade. I've even bushwhacked out Narrow Rock Ridge, which features distant but spectacular views of the falls. Last weekend I was hoping for closure, as I intended to descend to the base of the upper drop.
"I'll bring a rope." My hiking buddies know that when I make that statement it can mean only one thing - an exploratory Jocassee hike. That's exactly what I had in mind when I reached the relatively new parking lot off 281 last Saturday morning. The place was nearly deserted despite the perfect weather. Joel and Bob arrived shortly thereafter, followed by Myron, Dorcas, and of course, Izaak. That's 5 people in 3 cars, in case you're counting. We didn't have much choice though, as everyone was coming from different directions. Even more impressive though, was that we managed to bring 4 tents for 5 people. So much for efficiency.
Before the trip, we had debated our camping options. We had considered camping on the Horsepasture River. Our other option was the new state park walk-in campground at Ray Fisher Place. When we reached the parking lot we discovered that the decision had been made for us. Signs indicated that overnight parking for the Horsepasture River area was prohibited. Possible penalties included fines, towing, and selling off your car to reduce the state budget deficit. As there is no other legal parking in the area, we had no choice. According to the ranger, the national forest service plans to build a parking area closer to the river, but it will probably be too small to handle the typical summer crowds.
We filled out our permit and paid $8 for the campsite. We headed down the trail at 11AM, and crossed Grassy Ridge Road after a few minutes. We followed a combination of old roads and new footpaths towards Bearwallow Creek. We did make one detour up to an overlook that was created by a convenient power line cut. It featured a nice view of Lakes Jocassee and Keowee, as well as mountain ridges to the south.
We left the overlook and took another side trip to an overlook of Upper Bearwallow Falls. The state park has built a platform and cleared some trees here. The view is ok, but a little disappointing. I'd seen photos from more impressive vantage points. I secretly vowed to get a better look.
The overlook did provide a nice lunch spot, with plenty of benches for lounging. We saw a few groups of dayhikers while we ate. Afterwards, we followed an old road towards the camping area. Along the way we passed an old homesite. The clearing was full of daffodils in bloom. Beyond, we passed a small graveyard with unmarked stones. We continued on to Ray Fisher Place, which is a surprisingly pleasant camping area. There are six sites, and I had pictured them being crowded together like a car campground. In reality they are nicely secluded from each other. However, most are very small. We took the largest one, in an open forest full of running cedar downstream from a small pond. It was the only one that could accommodate 4 tents. A couple of others could handle 2 or 3, and at least one didn't appear to have a place for a tent at all. If you plan to go, keep your group size small, or pony up an extra $8 and spread out among two sites.
We set up camp, and it wasn't even 2PM. I decided to explore an old road towards Bearwallow Creek, and to my surprise everyone decided to join me. We followed the road around a series of ridges and then plunged towards the creek. We reached a ford, which was impossible to cross dry because the water was up. We all waded in tevas or barefooted, and the water was just warm enough that screaming wasn't necessary. We climbed out of the gorge and followed a ridge. Finally we reached a gate and a junction with another road.
Our original plan was to follow this road and a series of old trails to the base of Paw Paw Falls. I examined the map though, and realized that we were tantalizingly close to the base of Upper Bearwallow Falls. The view we had earlier was disappointing, and I thought it might be worth a brief diversion to get a better look. Bob decided to join me as we started the first bushwhacking of the weekend.
We followed the road a short distance north before heading down towards the creek. We picked a spot that was slightly less overgrown than the surrounding area. It was still a challenge to avoid the rhododendron and brambles. I got caught on a particularly nasty thorn and drew first blood. Just when I thought we couldn't get there, we found a deer path. This led to the creek, where we found a faint trail occasionally marked with ribbons. The base of the falls was overgrown, so we followed the path upstream in search of a view. This part of the hike was exhilarating as the water foamed and crashed just below us. The route was a little treacherous at times, but manageable. At one point, Bob tapped me on the shoulder. I looked back to see the platform we had lunched on earlier in the day. We climbed a little farther, and turned a corner. We found a spot where we could walk out into the creek on a smooth rock. At this point we had an excellent vantage point of the upper most 100' of the falls.
From here it seemed easier to continue climbing and find a route back to the road. We didn't really want to backtrack through the jungle. A little more climbing brought us to the top of the falls and private property. Here was a great view looking south from the top of the falls. We ignored the no trespassing signs and followed a dirt road to the east. This led to the road we hiked in on. Here we found a fence capped with razor wire. Luckily someone left the gate open. It might have been the same person that was riding a motorcycle in the state park. We had followed the tracks all afternoon, and they seemed to originate on the other side of the gate. I didn't feel too bad about trespassing, since the landowners didn't seem to have any qualms about illegally riding a motorcycle through the state park.
We followed the old road back to rejoin Myron, Dorcas, and Joel. They were just beginning to think about calling search and rescue. You'd think they'd know what to expect from my little side trips by now. Well I guess they do - that's why they choose not to join us.
We hiked back to camp, fording the creek again in the process. We were out of time and energy for Paw Paw Falls, so we'll have to save that one for next time. We returned to camp and met the ranger. We chatted briefly about the day's adventure, and then relaxed around the campfire. I enjoyed a dinner of black bean soup and overly spicy quesadillas. I shared chips and homemade salsa, but Myron and Dorcas outdid me by baking brownies for everyone. We spent a pleasant evening around the fire, enjoying our favorite adult beverages and soaking in the spectacular night sky. I slept that night without the fly, to better enjoy those stars. Shortly before dawn I covered the tent up though, as temperatures were nearing freezing.
DOPE ON A ROPE
Sunday's oatmeal breakfast was spiced up nicely by a fresh cinnamon bun courtesy of Myron and Dorcas. We actually broke camp early and were well on our way before 10AM. We left the camping area, and followed an old road over to Grassy Ridge Road. Here we saw an ancient pickup truck, abandoned long ago. We hiked down the road and reached the obvious path to Windy Falls. We followed it over numerous fallen trees and entered the game lands. The rocky trail then plunged steeply towards the river. We reached the upper cascades and a small campsite at 11AM. Here we regrouped and debated our next move.
We hiked downstream a short distance to a ledge at the top of a cascade. Joel, Myron, and Dorcas elected to stop here. Bob and I continued, and I brought the rope. I mentioned to Joel that we might be a couple of hours, but he completely failed to pass this info along to Myron and Dorcas. Bob and I hiked upslope and crossed midway up a rocky cliff. Across the gorge, sheer cliffs dropped from Narrow Rock Ridge to the river. Beyond the cliff, we descended a slippery, steep path, mostly on our butts. This stretch is hazardous, but relatively safe if approached cautiously (i.e., sliding on your butt). This led to a huge rock, which we walked onto. From here there's a good view upstream of several cascades. Below, the river squeezes between rock walls only a couple of feet apart and plunges 100' over the first of many falls. Beyond the river, the cliffs of Narrow Rock Ridge presented a spectacular backdrop. We were cautious going out on the rock. It's fairly safe, but slippery. I had nearly lost someone while leading a Sierra Club hike here. He slipped, and I caught his foot and gave him a shove, which prevented him from sliding into the abyss. In the process I started to slide, and threw myself onto the rock. The extra friction stopped my motion, and I was able to scramble away from danger. A couple of years later, a hiker fell here, and his body was never found. This weighed on my mind heavily as I looked for a route down.
All caution aside, I wanted to get to the base of the upper falls, which I'm going to take the liberty of calling Black Bear Falls, since I'd seen a bear here. Initially we thought we could descend the south side of the rock outcrop. We worked our way down ledges, and then tied off a rope to use as a safety line when it got steep. Then, our route was blocked by a tangle of thorns. Beyond, it looked as if there was a sheer drop off. I was discouraged, but Bob and I agreed that we should call it a day. We headed back up to the top of the rock, and started back to rejoin our friends.
That's when Bob asked the fateful question. "Where does this go?" He was referring to a faint path that skirted a cliff to reach a ravine. Beyond the ravine, the path encounters a steep cliff. The ravine was wet and overgrown, but didn't look too steep. I decided to scout it out, but Bob was done for the day. He elected to wait for me at the top.
I brought the rope, and made surprisingly easy progress. Finally I reached a pouroff, but worked my way around it on the north side. It was steep and slippery here, so I tied off the rope. I called up to Bob, and told him I thought the route would go. He was by my side in about 2 minutes. We used the rope and slid down through water and mud. At one point, the stream flowed into my boot. We crossed the creek under the pouroff, and got a nice shower for our efforts. Beyond here, the hiking was easy. We wondered among huge boulders, avoiding the devils walking stick which grows in profusion here. Finally we scrambled over a series of boulders and arrived on a rock face above the plunge pool.
The view was stunning. The river was near flood stage, and the water was projecting out 30' or so from the face of the cliff. At times there was an extra pulse, which kicked the water out even further. Further progress would've required descending or jumping from our perch, and swimming through a very turbulent pool at the top of the next series of cascades. I was satisfied. At the next bend, we could see the beginning of the next major drop. I wondered how far that was from the highest point we'd reached coming from downstream. I'll probably never know. The gorge is completely sheer here, so reaching the middle of the falls is probably impossible without rappelling.
We didn't stay long. It had taken us 90 minutes to go a couple of hundred yards. Conversation was impossible due to the roar of the falls. We each posed for a few photos before heading back. The climb out was fairly easy. At one point we had to rely on the rope because the ravine was steep and slippery. Without the rope, we might still be there. Finally we reached the top of the ravine, and rejoined Myron and Dorcas at 1PM. Joel had already left. Myron and Dorcas were concerned, since Joel hadn't mentioned that we might be two hours. They started out, while Bob and I wolfed down a quick lunch.
The hike out was grueling. It was a warm, sunny day, and the path was steep. We rejoined everyone at Grassy Ridge Road and followed it north. After a short distance, we found a well-graded road and followed it back down to the river. We reached the river upstream of Stairstep Falls, and elected to take a short side trip. The path was difficult, as it was narrow and littered with fallen trees. We passed a couple of nice campsites, but eventually had to leave our packs behind to get through. Finally we reached the base of Stairstep Falls. Stairstep is one of the prettier falls in the area. It drops over 7 consecutive 10' ledges and creates quite a sight. We had a long break here, before resuming our hike up the Horsepasture.
We backtracked to Adam Cove, and continued upstream on a better trail. We passed some more campsites, and lots of cascades, swimming holes, and one unnamed waterfall. Finally we crossed a ridge and we could hear Rainbow Falls in the distance. We came out of the woods and were blasted by a barrage of spray. The spray is usually impressive, but at high water it is almost unbearable. We arrived too late to see the namesake rainbow, but the falls were still spectacular. Windy Falls might be the wildest waterfall in the state, but Rainbow is arguably the prettiest. We stayed for a few minutes, before the spray became overwhelming and we raced for the safety of the trees.
The trail took us to the top of Rainbow, which provided an interesting view down the gorge. From that spot, there's a nice view upstream to Turtleback Falls. We hiked past Turtleback, which has a nice swimming hole in calmer water. Today it was a turbulent eddy full of logs. Watching them crash into each other brought back memories of the Washington coastline. Beyond Turtleback we reached our trail out. We elected to continue upstream a short distance to Bust Your Butt Falls. Here we found a fence and signs marking private property. Fortunately the falls were still visible from the property line. We were able to get a good view from some rocks out in the river. This ended our long run of waterfalls for the day.
We backtracked to an ugly eroded roadbed. We followed up away from the river and into the state park. This path seemed much longer than I remembered. It eventually took us past a helicopter landing area and finally reached highway 281 at a gate. From here it's 50 yards along the highway to the park entrance road. A short walk up the road finally returned us to our cars. It was 5PM, and our marathon 7 1/2 hour day was over. For Bob and I it would leave us sore, scratched, and tired. For once though, it was nice to leave satisfied that I had visited a spot seen by only a privileged few. I guess I'll have to find a new obsession.
Back to The Jocassee Gorges
Back to North Carolina
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!