THE ROAD NEVER TRAVELED
Over the last few years, the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) has been working on protecting a large tract of land in the headwaters of the East Fork of the French Broad River. The property is adjacent to the South Carolina state line, bordering parts of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness and the Greenville Watershed. It contains a number of significant streams and waterfalls.
Although it hasn’t been publicized, a portion of the property has now been acquired. Previously it was leased to a private hunting club, but now it is owned by the State of North Carolina.
A few weeks ago I was studying a topo map of the area when I noticed a significant drop on the East Fork of the French Broad River. The map suggested that there would be a waterfall there, but the falls weren’t labeled. After I bit of research on the Transylvania County GIS, I determined that the potential waterfall was included in the tract of land recently protected by the CMLC. However, the easiest access, from downstream, was through private property. Since that wasn’t a legal option, I studied the map for another approach.
An old dirt road follows the state line south, along the ridge separating the East Fork and Matthews Creek. It ends at Gum Gap, where it meets a spur of the Foothills Trail that connects Sassafrass Knob and Jones Gap State Park. From Gum Gap, a network of old roads descends down into the East Fork headwaters. The map shows one road descending from the main road about a ˝ mile north of Gum Gap. It drops down to Hickory Flat Creek, before angling northwest towards the river. It looked like an easy hike, save for the final .1 mile. There, the map showed the old road descending an incredibly steep hill to cross the river just downstream from the falls. I made a note of this potential adventure for a possible future hike.
Last week, Christy suggested doing a hike together. She hasn’t been able to hike since having knee surgery last fall. She wanted to do something long but easy, without bad footing or steep descents. I thought the hike to the mystery waterfall on the East Fork might fit the bill. The whole hike would be on old roads, so it should be well-graded. I was a little concerned about the final descent to the river, but it was only 200’. I thought she could handle it if we took it slow.
Jack, Brenda, Jonathan, and Jess all decided to join us. Most of us met at the Sherwood Forest Golf Course on highway 276 Saturday morning. From there, Jonathan and Jess rode with Jack, while Christy and I planned to pick up Brenda on the way. Brenda can actually walk to Gum Gap from her house in an hour or less. She planned to meet us on the road so she could get some extra walking in.
The drive was pretty easy. The last mile of Happy Acres Road to Gum Gap had some rough spots that required high clearance. Fortunately I had driven Christy’s Honda Element, which was adequate. If I had driven the Prius we would’ve ended up parking and walking an extra mile or two.
We drove all the way to Gum Gap, where the road is gated. There is a fair amount of room to park here. Unfortunately, we hadn’t passed Brenda. Jack drove back down the road to look for her while the rest of us got organized. They returned a few minutes later. The west side of the road is still posted with private property signs, but they are no longer relevant. The state owns all of the land along here, but apparently nobody has gotten around to removing the signs.
From Gum Gap we walked back north along the road about a ˝ mile. We left it at a red gate, which was blocking another old road heading down to the west. We followed it down to a junction and bared right. At the next junction we turned sharply left. From there, an easy descent brought us down along a hillside just above Hickory Flat Creek. Jack and I explored another spur road here, which led down to an old hunter’s camp. It featured the remains of a cabin, with a sign that said “Days Inn”. There wasn’t much left of the old cabin, though there was half of a toilet in the front yard.
From there we headed north, above and roughly parallel to Hickory Flat Creek. We passed a junction with a well-traveled road heading towards Bursted Rock Creek and began to climb. Soon we were on a ridge high above the creek, with the cliffs of Turkey Mountain visible on the far side of the gorge. A bit later we reached a wide, grassy spot. A fainter road continued beyond, still on the crest of the ridge. Then it dropped down onto the north side of the ridge. The East Fork of the French Broad roared far below. Everything was going exactly according to plan until the road suddenly ended.
Now what? I had promised Christy an easy hike without bushwhacking. She was giving me the stink eye. Obviously I should’ve picked a hike that I was familiar with.
Jack, Jonathan, and Jess had waterfall fever. They started heading down the extremely steep slope towards the river. I wasn’t so sure about that approach. There were some nice looking cascades below, but no sign of a waterfall. It had to be farther downstream, which meant that they would probably come out at the top of it. The tops of waterfalls are usually disappointing and frequently dangerous. I wanted to get to the base. Regardless, Christy and her tricky knee weren’t heading straight down to the river.
I scouted ahead, following the same contour in hopes of rediscovering the road. That didn’t happen, but I eventually regained the crest of the ridge. There seemed to be a hint of a road or trail here, but that may have been my imagination. At any rate, it didn’t go anywhere. I found a nice flat spot on the ridge, but just beyond it dropped off dramatically. I returned to Brenda and Christy, and we all hiked together to the ridge crest. That offered a great spot to regroup, eat lunch, and consider our options. By this point, Jack, Jonathan, and Jess were long gone. We could only hope that they would stay safe and that we would find them later.
The rest of us ate soup and sandwiches and discussed our options. After lunch, Christy and Brenda decided to wait there. I decided to head down to the falls and look for Jack, Jonathan, and Jess. The dogs and I followed the ridge down, and while it was steep, the walking was fairly easy. I ended up drifting too far south, so once the grade eased I began traversing north back towards the river. I reached a steep hillside above the water without difficulty. However, I was still a short distance downstream from the falls. Heading upstream was much more grueling. The far side of the river looked more hospitable, but getting down to the water looked tricky, and crossing it in 30 degree temperatures wasn’t appealing.
I fought my way along the bank above the river. The undergrowth was thick, and the briars profuse. Finally I reached a spot where a descent looked possible. It required sitting and sliding though, and there was nothing to hold on to. I tried to lower myself gradually, but suddenly began to pick up speed on the frozen ground. There was no stopping now! I hurtled downward, but managed to stop myself by catching a rhododendron limb. From there, the rest of the descent was easy.
Once at the river, I continued fighting my way upstream through a jungle of vegetation. About 5 minutes and 50 yards later, I arrived at the base of a lovely cascade. As luck would have it, Jack was on the far side of the river, taking a photo. He had a nice shot from his perspective, but my angle wasn’t very good. I thought about trying to cross the river, but didn’t see a good place to rock hop. There were some rocks, but they were all ice covered. He suggested going back downstream and crossing, but I was more inclined to head up to the main drop.
I scrambled up under a huge overhanging boulder. From there, upstream progress would’ve been easy, except that the entire right side of the river was a sheet of ice. I scrambled up above the icy area, bushwhacked along a steep slope, and then scrambled back down to the base of the falls.
I really didn’t know anything about this waterfall, but I had high expectations. I was not disappointed. After a run of cascades, the East Fork splits into two channels and tumbles over a 50’ sheer drop. More steep cascades are immediately below. Best of all, the cliff on the far side of the falls was an amphitheater of icicles. Jack was at the base of the ice formations, taking more photos. Jonathan and Jess were also scrambling around on the far side of the river.
Once again I found myself on the wrong side. Luckily, I was able to rock hop here by jumping across the main channel onto a large, ice-free rock. From there I had a much better vantage for both views and photos.
Jack, Jonathan, Jess, and I all regrouped there. They had experienced a hairy descent, featuring a lot of scrambling and several scary slides. I was glad I hadn’t followed them, and even more glad that Christy hadn’t followed me. What we had done was exactly the sort of thing she should avoid. The funny thing is that I had arrived at the base of the falls only a couple of minutes after everyone else. They hadn’t stopped for lunch, while I’d enjoyed a relaxing meal up on the ridge with Christy and Brenda. So, if approaching the falls from downstream isn’t an option, it’s best to follow the ridge down to the river, cross, and then work your way back up to the base of the falls. In other words, follow the road that is shown on the map – even though it doesn’t actually exist.
We didn’t linger long. Snow was beginning to fall, plus Christy and Brenda were waiting for us, and they would be getting cold. Jack also needed to get home a bit earlier than normal. After a few photos, we headed out. Getting back across the river was the first challenge. I couldn’t make the jump I’d done earlier in the opposite direction. Luckily Jonathan has really long legs, and he was able to hop across effortlessly. He helped the rest of us cross. A steep scramble up the bank followed. From there we just headed up by the path of least resistance. I was recovering from a cold, and I was reminded of that as I struggled to get my breath on the climb. We eventually reached our lunch spot, but Christy and Brenda had already left. We continued up the ridge, and found them waiting where the road dropped off the north side of the ridge.
The hike out was quick and uneventful. Jack, Jonathan, and Jess took off, while the rest of us kept a more leisurely pace. Once at Happy Acres Road, Brenda turned for home. Christy, the dogs, and I returned to the car at Gum Gap.
Christy and I visited one more waterfall on our way home. Once back at East Fork Road, we drove down into the valley. About 4 ˝ miles from Happy Acres Road we found a small pulloff on the left next to a blue trash can and a bright red pole. There is a short trail here to the base of East Fork Falls. This area may still be on private property, by CMLC members have permission to hike to the falls.
The “hike” took about two minutes. A short but fairly steep descent brought us to a deep pool just downstream from the falls. This waterfall is only 15’ or 20’ high, but it is an abrupt drop on a powerful river. It’s a pretty spot, too, and it would be a great place to swim in warmer weather. I was glad Christy was able to see it, since she’d missed out on the main waterfall earlier.
I later learned that the big waterfall on the East Fork is known locally as Reece Place Falls. I’d like to go back in warmer weather, when it is easier to explore around the base without all of the ice.
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