THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM
“You’d taken a fall and missed the ground, and just kept on going…
It’s not how you swim, it’s how you hold your breath
It’s not about playing fair in this life,
It’s more about cheating death.
If you don’t like getting old,
You’ll hate the other choice, I’m told
Cause it’s a little too late to die young”
From “Little Too Late”, by Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers
My new theme song!
My latest obsession has been exploring Little Fall Creek, near Jones Gap State Park in Greenville County, South Carolina. The park features an extremely popular trail that leads to Fall Creek Falls in a little over a mile. Along the way, hikers have to rock hop a tributary – Little Fall Creek. During the winter months (when the leaves are off the trees), observant hikers may spot the bottom of “Boone’s Falls” just a short distance upstream.
Darrin accompanied me (and the dogs, Boone and Kona) on our first attempt at exploring Little Fall Creek. On that occasion, we had bushwhacked down to Little Fall Creek just upstream from what would become known as Boone’s Falls. That adventure had nearly ended in tragedy. Boone slipped near the brink of the falls and went over the edge. Darrin and I made a dangerous descent of the falls chasing him. We eventually found him – alive and uninjured near the bottom of the falls. He was in a precarious spot above the final drop, but I was able to rescue him.
It turns out that Little Fall Creek drops nearly 200’ at Boone’s Falls. However, it’s not vertical drop – rather, it’s a long, sliding cascade.
Despite the near-disaster, I still wanted to explore the creek further upstream. Based on the topo map, I was pretty certain there were more undocumented waterfalls to be discovered. A few weeks later, Jack and I made an attempt. We started at Boone’s Falls and climbed upstream along the east side of the creek. However, the rugged terrain and danger presented by the falls forced us away from the stream. We ultimately ended up on a ridge of house-sized boulders high above creek. At one point I spotted a waterfall below, but we couldn’t find a safe route down to it.
Last weekend we made a third attempt. Somehow I was able to talk Jack into it despite our previous failure. Brenda also joined us, as she is typically game for almost anything. I was a little nervous before this hike. The rugged cliffs and waterfalls in the area are certainly hazardous. I also realized that another failure would likely be the last one. I was down to my last strike with Little Fall Creek.
I met Jack in Spartanburg, and we met Brenda at the Fall Creek Falls Trailhead in Jones Gap State Park. We started our hike an hour later than normal to compensate for the beginning of Daylight Savings Time. It was a partly sunny day that was just warm enough to make hiking uphill in long pants extremely uncomfortable.
There was one other car at the trailhead when we arrived. Brenda reported that four young women had started up the trail a few minutes ahead of us. Thanks to this information, Jack and I debated the merits of making a quick visit to Fall Creek Falls before beginning our adventure. That temptation increased when we found a jacket hanging from a tree beside the trail. Apparently these girls were taking their clothes off on their way there.
Despite this, we decided to skip it. I guess that’s indicative of just how old we are! Or deranged. Given a choice between chasing girls to a waterfall or crawling through mud, rhododendrons, and briars, we picked the bushwhacking.
We rock hopped Little Fall Creek and climbed one of the steep, eroded sections of the Fall Creek Falls Trail. We were pretty much warmed up by the time we reached the crest of the ridge separating Fall Creek and Little Fall Creek. At that point we regrouped to begin the real adventure.
From there, we left the trail and descended along a narrow, open ridge. My goal was follow the same route Darrin and I had used a couple of months earlier. However, I didn’t want to go anywhere near the top of “Boone’s Falls”. I wanted to hit Little Fall Creek as far upstream as possible. Fortunately, after a short descent I spotted a steep but passable route down to a small tributary. Getting to the bottom required some butt sliding, but we were all expecting to get wet and muddy anyway.
The tributary features a couple of rusty barrels from an old moonshine operation. From there we climbed onto the slope immediately to the north. Along here we actually found some old flagging – it was so old, the ribbons had faded from red or orange to a pale yellow. Old or not, the ribbons led us upstream, below rugged cliffs but above the creek. Before long we arrived at the base of the second waterfall on Little Fall Creek (with “Boone’s Falls being the first, if counting from downstream). Jack took some photos of this one (http://www.flickr.com/photos/8146392@N05/sets/72157632976399144/), but I decided to save my energy for the other waterfalls I expected to find upstream.
Getting upstream was a challenge. Sheer cliffs meant that following the creek wasn’t an option. Instead, we backtracked until we found a route around the cliffs above. We worked up way up through breaks in those cliffs, scrambling and crawling under rhododendron branches and briars. During one stretch the jungle was so thick it was easier to belly crawl than it was to walk. In another area, Jack actually walked on top of the rhododendrons.
Avoiding the cliffs meant that we had climbed well above where the waterfalls were. We worked our way back down slowly, butt-sliding under rhododendron tangles most of the way. Somehow we came out exactly where we wanted to. We were at the top of the falls we’d left nearly an hour earlier. During that hour, we traveled perhaps 50’.
It may have been worth it. Jack got some nice photos of this waterfall (#3), while I scouted ahead. Getting upstream from here was our next challenge. Ultimately we all took different routes. I used rhododendron branches to pull myself up onto a sloping rock adjacent to the falls. Jack scrambled and chimneyed up a small tributary stream next to the main creek. Brenda followed the west bank, and we all regrouped at the base of waterfall #4.
This one is quite tall, and nearly vertical. Unfortunately there was a lot of deadfall and other debris at the base, and the sun had just crested the ridge to the east, which mucked up our photos. Still, it was a really cool spot that has probably been enjoyed by very few people, if any. We didn’t see any sign that anybody had preceded us here.
We had lunch before we attempted to continue upstream. Massive boulders towered high above us, but one route under a cliff looked marginally plausible. I tried to scramble and belly crawl up a wet rock adjacent to the falls, below the cliff. I made it a short distance before slipping back down. I tried again, and thought that I could probably make it. But what would happen if the route was a dead-end, or if Brenda couldn’t follow? Coming back down this would be unpleasant, if not downright dangerous. We decided to look for another option.
We really didn’t want to return the way we’d come. Crawling back uphill under all those rhododendrons and briar patches wasn’t appealing. Plus, the topo map shows an old road crossing Little Fall Creek just a short distance upstream. According to the map, the road runs west to Fall Creek and a junction with the Hospital Rock Trail. Brenda had verified the existence of this road at its western end on an earlier hike. We were hopeful that the road would give us an easy way out.
We explored the base of the cliffs, looking for a way up. Brenda attempted one slope, only to slide back down. We continued farther away from the creek, and Jack found a possible escape route. The resulting scramble was exhausting, but successful. We stumbled onto the old road, tired but relieved. Now, if everything went according to plan, we just had to follow the road to the Hospital Rock Trail, which would take us down to Fall Creek Falls and on to the parking area.
Despite my fatigue, I wanted to follow the road back down to Little Fall Creek. Jack and Brenda agreed, and the diversion only took a couple of minutes. We reached the creek at a small cascade that Jack and Brenda are calling waterfall #5. Normally this wouldn’t qualify as a true waterfall, but it is pretty, and it was certainly hard to get to. Just above waterfall #5 is a small overhanging cave. It looks a bit like a miniature version of Hospital Rock. So, I dubbed it Urgent Care Rock.
Jack and Brenda were ready to call it a day, but it was still early. Plus, the topo map suggested more waterfalls a short distance upstream. Somehow I was able to talk Jack and Brenda into pushing on a little further.
We crossed the creek and followed a primitive trail, which is thoroughly marked with pink ribbons. The trail follows the creek, dodging through rhododendron thickets. A few minutes later we spotted waterfall #6 ahead. A side path took us to the base of this one, which is a nice sliding 30’ cascade. This one is quite pretty, but photography is awkward due to a fallen tree right at the bottom of the falls. I ended up crawling under the tree to get to a vantage point for photos.
Once again I managed to convince Jack and Brenda to hike a little farther. We backtracked to the trail, and followed it up and beyond waterfall #6. Once past the falls we descended back down to the creek. Easier hiking followed, and a few minutes later I heard Brenda gasp. She had spotted waterfall #7 ahead through the trees. It’s an impressive, multi-level cascade. My guess is that it drops more than 100’ over 5 or 6 tiers. At one of the upper levels the creek splits into two channels that fall separately over the same rock face.
We hurried forward for a better look. We reached the base of the falls, where we had a good view of the lower portion. However, from that vantage it was difficult to see the upper tiers.
From here the ribbon trail splits. One route climbs east, away from the creek. The other crosses the stream and climbs the far hillside. I’m not sure where either of those trails lead. There could be additional waterfalls upstream, though I think we found the majority of what Little Fall Creek has to offer. There are some residential areas farther up the mountain, so it could be that one or both of the trails originates in that area.
It was 3pm when we started back. Needless to say, we were really hoping that the old road would take us out to the Hospital Rock Trail. We followed the ribbon trail back to the road, crossed Little Fall Creek one final time, and began a stout climb to the northwest. The ribbons continued along here, all the way to an unexpected junction. The road split about 10 minutes after we left Little Fall Creek. The map shows the right fork, which continues climbing steely to the northwest. It doesn’t show the left branch, which heads west and descends gradually. The ribbons follow the left fork.
After a brief debate, we decided to go left. It was heading in the correct direction, and the ribbons were probably leading somewhere. Before long we crested a ridge and found ourselves staring at Fall Creek Falls. Although there were trees in the way, the view was dramatic. From our elevated perspective, the falls looked much more dramatic than they do from the base. It was at this point that I fully realized just how big Fall Creek Falls is. From the trail crossing at the base the waterfall looks much smaller than it actually is. This is a great vantage point, at least in the winter. When the leaves are on the trees you probably can’t see much from there.
The ribbons ended there. We descended a steep, unmarked, but obvious trail. A few minutes later we reached a junction with the Fall Creek Falls Trail. Somehow I completely failed to notice this junction on my many previous visits. The junction is at the top of the steep climb if you’re coming up from the base of the falls. It is also quite close to where we left the trail to explore Little Fall Creek earlier than morning.
From there we headed back quickly, passing a regular parade of hikers heading in both directions. All those people were a little disorienting after a day of almost complete solitude.
I’ll probably return to Little Fall Creek to make sure we didn’t miss anything farther upstream. Next time though, I’m taking that fast, easy trail that starts near Fall Creek Falls! Accessing the upper portion of Little Fall Creek is actually pretty is via that route. Sane hikers can visit the majority of Little Fall Creek’s best features. The base of “Boone’s Falls” is an easy off-trail walk from the Fall Creek Falls Trail. The waterfalls on the upper part of the creek (above 1,800’) are accessed by a combination of old roads and trails. The section in between requires hard core bushwhacking, so most normal people will choose to skip that.
Thanks to Jack and Brenda for joining me. The only damage from this adventure was one missing water bottle, lots of scratches, and some sore muscles. Maybe now I can put my obsession with Little Fall Creek to rest. What’s next?
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