I managed to convince Christy to go car camping with me recently.  She hasn’t camped since her shoulder surgery in December, but she was finally ready to give it a try. 


We considered several options, but ultimately settled on my favorite car camping destination – a “secret” campground near Highlands.  I say secret with my tongue in cheek.  After all, how can an official forest service campground a few miles from Highlands be a secret?  Still, I’ve camped there numerous times, and I’ve rarely seen another person.


I had one hesitation though.  Most of my previous trips were in the winter, when camping is less popular among most people.  What would it be like on a beautiful Spring weekend?  The campground only has four sites, so it wouldn’t take much of a crowd to fill it up.  We decided to try for that campground, but kept a couple of backup plans in mind. 


We got a late start Saturday morning thanks to being up late Friday night.  We had also neglected to pack on Friday, so that got pushed into Saturday morning also.  By the time we left the grocery store it was 9am.  Fortunately my hiking plans for Saturday weren’t terribly ambitious.


Part of the motive for our trip was to try out Christy’s new (actually used) 2009 Honda Element.  We’d been frustrated by an accumulation of minor problems with her Subaru, and had spontaneously decided to trade it in.  I’m pleased to say that we’re happy with the Element so far.  It’s definitely the ideal vehicle for camping, tailgating, and hauling the dog around.  We have some things to learn about packing it though.  We took the back seats out for this trip (a very handy feature) and put the cooler behind the passenger seat.  The rest of the area immediately behind us was set aside for the dog.  Apparently Boone didn’t appreciate it much though, as he climbed up on top of the cooler as soon as we got on the highway.  We had a good laugh over that before making him get down.  That spot may have given Boone a great view, but it would be a disaster in an accident.


One problem with getting a late start is that we ran into a lot of slow-moving traffic on SC highway 11.  The chief culprit was a line of convertibles out for a Sunday afternoon drive a day and a half early.  They were moving at a fraction of the speed limit, and it took me awhile to pass them all.  Once they were in the rearview mirror we had smooth sailing on past Lake Jocassee.  From there we headed up towards Whitewater Falls, and then over to the Chattooga River.  We saw several groups camping at informal sites along Bullpen Road, which had me concerned.  It turns out I had no reason to worry.  The Ammons Branch Campground was deserted, as usual.  There was one car there, but no sign of people or camping gear.  Later on we met the folks that had parked there.  They were young guys that had driven up from Atlanta for a weekend of backpacking.  Somehow they had selected the trail starting from the campground, which connects the campground with the Ellicott Rock Trailhead.  I’d always wondered where that trail went, so it was nice of those guys to fill me in.


I really like this campground even though its amenities are limited to a picnic table, a fire ring with a grate, and an outhouse.  There is no water except for a small stream.  On the other hand, it’s in a great location, and it’s free.  We set up camp and had lunch.  I was delighted to find some Catesby’s Trillium blooming right there in the campground.  Wildflowers were a major focal point for this trip, and we were already off to a good start.


After lunch we drove to Cashiers to pick up firewood and a few groceries that we’d forgotten that morning.  Then it was on to our first destination of the day – Whitesides Mountain.  Whitesides is one of the most scenic places in the area, but inexplicably, we hadn’t been there in many years.  It was only a short drive from the campground, and we found a fairly crowded parking area when we arrived.  This mountain is well-known and busier than I generally prefer, but in this case the scenery was worth it.  We paid the $2 parking fee and headed up the trail.


The trail is a loop, and we took it clockwise.  We followed an old road up to the first overlook, which gave us great views to the north and east.  From here we could see a vast array of peaks including Chimneytops Mountain and Rock Mountain near Cashiers.  We also had a great view of Laurel Knob, which features the highest uninterrupted cliff face in the eastern U.S.  Hidden behind those cliffs was one of our favorite places, Panthertown Valley.


We continued the loop along the edge of the cliffs, passing countless viewpoints.  The vistas along here stretched from the east to the south, and we rarely walked more than a minute or two before arriving at another view.  We also saw lots of flowers, including Catesby’s Trillium, Dwarf Iris, and Pinkshell Azalea.  We also saw lots of other hikers, but we expected that.  Unfortunately we had to keep Boone on a leash for this hike.  There were just too many people and other dogs on the trail to let him run free.


We returned to the car after a couple of hours and drove into Highlands.  From there we headed down route 28 and took the back way to Secret Falls.  We found the trailhead using the directions in Kevin Adams’ guide without any trouble.  There is now an official forest service trail to the falls, and it is an easy walk.  Along the way we passed lots more wildflowers, including more Catesby’s Trillium and our first Pink Ladyslipper Orchids of the year.


Secret Falls is impressive, and true to its name, there wasn’t anyone around when we arrived.  Unfortunately the sun was shining directly on it, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We hung around for awhile, as I was hoping that it was late enough in the afternoon that the sun would drop behind the nearest ridge.  It wasn’t.  The sun really drops slowly in May, and after 30 minutes or so it was apparent that we’d be waiting a good bit longer.  Unfortunately there aren’t any great places to relax below the falls, and ironically we were actually in the shade.  I didn’t want to push Christy’s patience, so we headed back to the car.  I’ll have to return another time under better conditions for better photos.


We drove back towards camp, which was only a few miles from the falls.  Shortly before camp I had Christy drop me and Boone off at the Slickrock Trailhead.  I had never heard of this trail, but it’s actually on my Chattooga River map.  It appeared to be a very short trail, and I was curious.  Boone and I headed up the steep trail, while Christy headed back to camp to relax.


It took us all of 5 minutes to reach the end of the trail on a rock outcrop.  From here I had a nice view south, while back to the west I could just make out Rabun Bald peaking over the trees. I poked around up there for a couple of minutes before descending back down to the road.  The walk back to the campground took another 10 minutes or so, and the highlight was passing the first blooming Flame Azalea of the season.  We arrived at camp before Christy even started on a nap, which may have actually disappointed her.


We grilled burgers (beef for me, veggie for her) for dinner, along with mac-n-cheese.  We accompanied our meal with wine, since that goes so well with burgers and mac-n-cheese.  Later we enjoyed a campfire and made smores before heading to bed.  It was a quiet night, as the campground was still deserted, and it was cool enough to be almost chilly.


We got a leisurely start the next morning.  I made eggs, hashbrowns, bacon (for me), and coffee before we broke camp.  We drove out through Whitesides Cove, where we had nice views of Whitesides Mountain from the base, and on through Cashiers.  We drove through Sapphire, with the intention of driving up highway 215 to do a hike in the Middle Prong Wilderness.  However, it was surprisingly cloudy that morning.  I managed to pull up a weather forecast on my phone, and it looked marginal at best.  It sounded like glimpses of sunshine would be few and far between, and there was a chance of storms that afternoon.  That sounded discouraging for a high-elevation hike.  Spontaneously I suggested a change in destinations.  We headed up Cold Mountain Road toward Panthertown Valley, even though all of my Panthertown maps were back in my garage at home.  I was pretty confident we could find our way around in Panthertown without them, having been there many times over the years.


We found our way to the east side trailhead parking area without the benefit of directions.  There were a few cars there, but it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I’d expected.  We parked and started our hike a little after 11am on the Greenland Creek Trail.  We headed down towards Greenland Creek along hillsides carpeted in Catesby’s Trillium.  Along the way we passed a couple looking for the trail downstream along Greenland Creek, and I think I steered them in the right direction.


Once at the creek I suggested taking the short side trip up to Greenland Creek Falls.  I’ve never taken a decent photo of this waterfall, and I thought the cloudy conditions might rectify that.  Unfortunately the sun made a surprise appearance just before we arrived, and hung around while we relaxed on the boulders at the base of the falls.  I was a bit annoyed, but Christy didn’t seem to mind.  I eventually settled for another mediocre photo to add to my collection and we headed back downstream.  By the time we reached the main trail and the ford, the sky had clouded back up.  Grrrr!


We were able to rockhop Greenland Creek just upstream from the official ford.  We followed the Mac’s Gap Trail from there, passing through a lovely forest.  Eventually we headed down towards Boggy Creek, passing two of my favorite trails, the one over Little Green and the one that runs through a White Pine forest below it.  We ignored those today, and continued ahead to Boggy Creek.  Just beyond we arrived at a beautiful campsite under White Pines.  We’ve camped there several times, and we’ve never seen anyone else camped around there, even on holiday weekends.  I suppose it almost qualifies as a secret campsite, even though it is right on a main trail.


We had lunch there and enjoyed the breeze blowing through the pines.  I actually regretted not bringing the hammock with me.  The entire forest was covered in blooming Painted Trillium, which were at their absolute peak.  I’ve never seen that many Painted Trillium in one place before.  After lunch we explored off trail along the edge of the Panthertown bog.  We found lots of Pink Ladyslipper Orchids, but most of them were only getting ready to bloom.  We did find a few blooms, and I noticed that most of them were very pale, ranging from very light pink to almost white.  I found an albino Pink Ladyslipper in this area once, but I think these were just pale because they had recently bloomed.  I’m guessing they will get darker with age.


We hiked on to the bridge over Panthertown Creek, passing many more Painted Trillium on the way.  At the bridge I suggested extending the hike a bit.  I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Ladyslippers we’d seen, and I knew of another stash that wasn’t far away.  Christy wasn’t really interested in adding mileage to the hike, so we planned to meet back up at the junction of the Mac’s Gap Trail and the Panthertown Valley Trail. 


I hiked upstream along Panthertown Creek, where, sadly, I didn’t see any topless women fly fishing:


I passed a family enjoying Granny Burrell Falls, and continued up to The Wall Trail.  There I attempted to rock hop Panthertown Creek, but the water was too high.  I got wet boots for my efforts, before hiking up through a lovely forest thick with galax.  A few minutes later I picked up another trail, which took me past another dark, White Pine forest.  Near here I found my secret stash of Ladyslippers, which were in full bloom.  This area is more in the sun, and they bloom a little earlier than the ones in the shady forest near the bog.


I rejoined Christy a few minutes later and we hiked out on the Panthertown Valley Trail.  Along the way we resisted the urge to lounge at the Sandbar Pool, but we did make the short side trip up to Schoolhouse Falls.  Surprisingly, there was nobody at the falls when we arrived.  It’s rare to have that popular waterfall to yourself!  We did pass a few other hikers on the way out, but overall it was a surprisingly quiet day in one of our favorite places.

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