J Bob and I had originally planned to backpack last weekend.  Initially he was cleared to take Saturday off, but on Friday his employer rejected his request.  Since he had to work on Saturday we decided to dayhike on Sunday.


J Bob has been itching to summit Big Butt in the Black Mountains for years.  Since that part of the Parkway is closed in the winter, our initial plan was to hike there from the back side.  We’d approach it from highway 197 (a dirt road) at Cane River Gap, east of Barnardsville. 


I met J Bob in Belmont and rode with him from there.  Early on the weather looked promising, but as we approached Asheville the clouds thickened.  By the time we got to Barnardsville, a high-elevation hike didn’t look promising.  The mountains had received some snow and freezing rain the previous evening, and the clouds hadn’t budged.  We could’ve done the hike anyway, but the views from the Big Butt Trail are primarily of Mount Mitchell and the Black Mountain Crest.  If there was one place in the southeast that was certain to be lost in the clouds, it would be Mount Mitchell.  We decided to save that hike for another day.


At the last minute we changed plans and headed into the Big Ivy area.  Big Ivy is a remote corner of the Pisgah National Forest west of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Craggy Gardens, and Big Butt.  It’s best-known for Douglas Falls, an impressive 60’ free-falling waterfall.  However, outside of that waterfall, neither of us had explored the area.  We were both curious about it though, as there is a network of trails there, along with another documented waterfall on Walker Creek.  Since we were in the area, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out.


I used the GPS on my phone to get us there.  We drove through a pastoral valley and the tiny community of Dillingham before entering the National Forest.  We picked up FR 74, but found the road gated just before the Corner Rock Picnic Area.  Now what?


We backtracked a short distance and turned down Old Ranger Road.  After a short distance we reached a small parking area across from some cabins at the Walker Creek Trailhead.  We started our hike on the Walker Creek Trail about 10:30 under cloudy skies.  It was a chilly morning, but we warmed up quickly as we hiked uphill.


Before long we crossed a primitive “bridge” over Walker Creek.  A few minutes later we reached a junction with the Staire creek Trail.  Our plan was to make a loop combining the Walker Creek, Perkins, Laurel Gap, Bear Pen, and Staire Creek Trails.  The loop would be 8-9 miles, with a total elevation gain of about 1,800’.  I wasn’t sure what we’d find along the loop, but to be honest, I didn’t really care.  I was just thrilled to be out in the woods, in a place I’d never been before.  I’m pretty sure the dogs, Boone and Kona, agreed with me.


We started with the Walker Creek Trail.  Initially we climbed an old rocky road on a hillside far from the creek.  After climbing briefly we ran into a solo hiker on his way down.  Later, near the end of the hike, we encountered a trail runner along Staire Creek.  In between, we had the forest to ourselves.


Before long the trail drew closer to the creek.  Ahead we could see a substantial run of cascades.  In fact, it looked like there might even be a legitimate waterfall down there.  J Bob also spotted some large trees.  All of these attractions required further investigation.  As luck would have it, an old road departed the main trail at this point, heading closer to the creek.  We headed that way.


After a couple of minutes on the old road it was pretty obvious that there was a waterfall of some significance just below.  We decided to bushwhack down for a closer look.


The funny thing about this is that when I planned this hike I had been determined to avoid all bushwhacking.  On New Year’s Eve I fell down some steps (don’t ask).  After going briefly airborne, I landed emphatically on my right hip.  That left me with an ugly bruise the size of a basketball.  I felt it a lot more on New Years Day than I did later that night.  By Sunday it was getting a little better, but it was still swollen and sore.  The last thing I wanted to do was to bang into something or fall on it again.


Of course the draw of a previously undocumented waterfall over-rode my common sense.  We headed down a steep ravine, reaching the base of an impressive Tuliptree about 50’ above the creek.  The main part of the falls was just around the corner, but we didn’t see any plausible route down.  Descending farther downstream might’ve been possible, but that would’ve required creek walking back up to the falls. 


I noticed that the bank on the opposite side of the creek looked less hostile.  Also, there were faint remnants of an old logging road visible on that bank.  If we could get over there, the descent would be much easier and safer.


We climbed back up to the old road and followed it upstream.  It eventually petered out in a swampy area.  We worked our way back down to the creek, now upstream from the falls.  At this point there was a small but lovely sliding cascade just upstream, immediately below a truck-sized boulder.  We took a few photos there before contemplating our next move.


The creek is narrow there, but deep and swift.  I was contemplating various options when J Bob leaped across.  I wasn’t sure I could pull it off, but I managed with his help.  From there we climbed up to the old logging road we spotted and headed downstream.  Before long we reached a great vantage point of the falls.  The creek cascades for perhaps 30’, splitting into two streams near the brink.  The channels merge just before the main drop, a nearly vertical cascade of perhaps another 25’.  We took photos from the upper viewpoint before working our way to the base. 


The view from the very bottom isn’t as good as I expected for a couple of reasons.  First, the upper part of the falls isn’t visible from there.  Also, there was quite a bit of deadfall, which mucked up the photos a bit.  Still, it was a great spot to discover.  Nothing beats stumbling upon a previously undocumented waterfall.


Our next challenge was to get back to the trail.  There was no way we’d be able to jump back across the creek at our initial crossing.  I didn’t see any other places where we could cross without getting wet.  I knew that FR 74 crossed Walker Creek about ½ mile upstream.  I reasoned that the old logging road we were on would probably lead to it.  We headed that way, hopeful that we would reach the forest road, which would take us back to the trail.


The old logging road faded away a few minutes later.  Now what?  Initially we continued upstream, bushwhacking through surprisingly open forest.  However, the terrain became steep before long.  After a lunch break to renew our energy, I proposed angling east northeast, away from the creek but more directly towards FR 74.  This resulted in a rather steep climb, but the bushwhacking wasn’t bad except for the profuse briars.  We eventually staggered out onto the forest road, relieved to have the bushwhacking behind us.


We followed FR 74 south.  After a short distance we passed below a sheer, 100’ cliff.  It is an impressive feature that is probably popular with rock climbers.  Just after that we crossed over a cascading tributary.  After the tributary, we found ourselves high above Walker Creek.  From the roar, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more waterfalls down there.  We spotted a nice sliding cascade, but we were done with bushwhacking for the day.  Further exploration of Walker Creek will have to wait.


Minutes later we reached Walker Creek again.  The road passes directly below Walker Falls, which is a steep, 50’ cascade.  We stopped for photos, but as luck would have it, the sun came out shortly before we arrived.  It didn’t last long – just long enough to muck up our photos.


From Walker Falls we continued south on FR 74.  Before long we reached the upper end of the Walker Creek Trail.  The Perkins Trail continues on the opposite side of the road, and we headed that way.  Initially we climbed on an old rocky road.  Eventually the road narrowed and the trail began to like more like a path.  We crossed a tributary of Walker Creek below a pretty sliding cascade before continuing up the mountain.  According to the map, we were in the Walker Cove Research Natural Area.  I don’t know what that means, but it certainly was a pretty forest.


Eventually we found ourselves high above Walker Creek.  Once again the creek was making a lot of noise.  Could there be waterfalls upstream from Walker Falls?  It was getting late in the afternoon, so investigating was out of the question.  However, we turned the next corner, and the creek was directly ahead of us.  It must drop about 200’ in less than a ¼ of a mile.  That’s another stretch of Walker Creek that requires further exploration.


We rock-hopped the creek and continued up the mountain.  Before long we reached a junction with the Laurel Gap Trail, which is an old, grassy logging road.  We followed this trail south, passing patches of lingering snow.  We were treated to some modest views of the high ridges above along here, the spruce and fir indicative of just how high we had climbed.  At one point we even passed below a hillside of spruce trees decorated with rime ice.


After 2 miles on the Laurel Gap Trail we reached the Bear Pen Trail.  We took this trail down to FR 74.  On the far side we picked up the Staire Creek Trail, which is exceptionally steep in places.  The absurd grade and slippery mud slowed our pace, which was a concern.  It was late in the afternoon, daylight was dwindling, and building clouds promised another storm.


We eventually reached Staire Creek.  The lower portion of the trail was much nicer.  We passed below some massive boulders.  One featured an impressive overhang complete with a fire ring and some rock chairs that someone had built.  We followed the stream out from there.  We reached the junction with the Walker Creek Trail and hurried down to the car.


There was a bit of drama back at J Bob’s truck.  Surprisingly, there were three other vehicles in the parking area.  When we arrived, there was a puppy wandering around our car.  That created a lot of excitement with my dogs, who had behaved quite nicely all day.  I eventually got Boone and Kona in J Bob’s truck.  Unfortunately, the puppy had similar plans.  He jumped into the back of the truck and refused to budge.  We were debating our options when a group of young people emerged from the woods, calling his name.  He jumped out of the truck and ran to them, which was a huge relief.  A minute later another group appeared after walking up from the creek.  Where did they come from?  It was a little bewildering seeing this many people at the trailhead after a day of almost complete solitude.


I definitely want to return to Big Ivy.  I suspect there are more waterfalls on Walker Creek, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other streams in the area have undocumented waterfalls, too.  Also, the Big Ivy Trails aren’t far from the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Mountains to Sea Trail.  After I returned home, I studied my topo map of the area, from 1941.  The map shows two trails connecting the Laurel Gap Trail with the Parkway.  One ascends Walker Ridge to meet the Parkway near Walker Knob and Balsam Gap.  The other ascends Locust Ridge to meet the Parkway below Locust Knob.  If those old trails still exist, they could provide connections that would create possible loops for backpacking trips.  I’m looking forward to scouting them out.

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