WATERFALLS AND WILDFLOWERS
I'm always looking to try something new, and this weekend we accomplished that. We returned to a familiar area, the Jocassee Gorges, but this time there was a twist. We had the folks at Hoyett's Grocery ferry us across Lake Jocassee to one trailhead Saturday morning. On Sunday afternoon, we were scheduled to be picked up at another boat access farther down the trail.
Christy, Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, Linda, and the dogs, Saucony and Izaak, joined me for the ride. This was the first backpack for Wayne and Linda, and we had a special trip planned for them. The rare and endangered Oconee Bells grow in a few places around the Jocassee Gorges area, and no where else in the world. They bloom in late March, so we hoped to find a few during the weekend.
The boat ride was exciting though uneventful. Jocassee is a beautiful lake, and we were seeing it from a new perspective. When we arrived at the Laurel Fork boat access, we talked the captain into taking us upstream to Laurel Fork falls. We had to wiggle around a huge outcrop and through some shallow water to get a view. Our captain was up to the challenge, and we soon found ourselves in a narrow passage, with the 150' falls dropping straight into the lake. We had just enough time for a picture before we backed out.
Our intended route would take us to Cane Brake to camp. However, we decided to go up Laurel Fork a short distance for lunch. We stopped at the excellent campsite there, right at the brink of Laurel Fork Falls. Before lunch, we headed upstream in search of Oconee Bells. We didn't have to go far. Christy and I found one patch in bloom along the creek. Meanwhile, Dorcas found another bed that we had missed. We took lots of pictures before returning to the campsite for lunch.
By 1:30, we were ready to start the hike. Pretty soon, we were climbing a long, slow hill. With temperatures pushing 80 degrees, we were all struggling. 2 weeks ago at Mt. Rogers, we had hiked in wind chills well below zero. Today it was 80, with some serious humidity.
The trail was a unique combination of old roads and annoying steps. It frequently went up and down, rather than following the contour of the land. You could definitely tell that it was built by Duke Power engineers, rather than hikers. It proved to a challenge to each us, but especially to the newbies in our group.
Eventually we reached beautiful Rock Creek for a long break. Here we found more Oconee Bells. We considered camping there, but decided to press on for a lakeside campsite.
The trail then began its steepest stretch. We climbed up onto a narrow ridge, with Rock Creek down to our right, and the Toxaway arm of the lake to the left. We had some nice views of the lake through the trees. After considerable climbing, the trail dropped straight down the far side. We eased our way down an incredibly steep staircase. It reminded me of a piece of twisted fantasy artwork - a steep, winding staircase descending into the darkness.
It was a relief to finally bottom out along the lakeshore. We found one nice campsite overlooking the lake, but decided to continue on. 10 minutes later we found an outstanding site on the bank of Toxaway Creek, just above the lake. We enjoyed a nice meal, a couple of beers, and a pleasant fire courtesy of Wayne. Christy and I even fell asleep by the fire, relaxing under the towering hemlocks above. We eventually made it to the tent, where we slept to the sound of the rushing stream below us.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
Sunday was a free day, since we only had a 1/2 mile hike to the boat access. I had originally hoped to hike to Great Falls on Toxaway Creek, which drops over 400'. However, it's on private property, and I wasn't able to get permission to cross it. Instead, Christy and I decided to hike back over to a falls on Rock Creek. It was going to be an adventure since no trail went there. In fact, I had never found any information on the falls, nor seen a picture. Nevertheless, the closely spaced contour lines on the topo map indicated a waterfall, and we were determined to see it.
Christy, Saucony, and I hiked back up the trail, climbing the horror of a staircase to the top of the ridge. From here, we left the trail, ascending the ridgecrest. Although no trail was shown on the map, a clear route existed along the ridge. We crossed a knob and reached a gap. At this point, we began bushwhacking down a steep hillside. Soon the narrow ridge we followed dropped away, leaving us in a narrow streambed. Oconee Bells were literally blooming all around us. However, the passage ahead was choked with vegetation. Still we pressed on, ducking and crawling over, under and through limbs and branches. We crawled over boulders, and lowered ourselves over wet, mossy rocks. Finally we reached a 15' pouroff that we couldn't descend. Instead, we climbed straight up the hillside on our right, working our way past the chute. Soon we dropped again, finally reaching Rock Creek. Rock Creek is a beautiful stream, with no hint of a trail to be found. Thick stands of rhododendron were everywhere, and the walls of the gorge were almost sheer above us.
We worked our way upstream, rock hopping in the creek and crawling through the brush. We were almost ready to give up when we turned a corner and saw the falls high above us ahead. With a renewed effort, we soon found ourselves at the base of a thundering 100' falls. The creek was squeezed through a narrow chute, and then it spilled over a sheer cliff. Halfway up the right side, a large cave stared down at us. A tropical assortment of ferns clung to the cliffs all around us. Christy and I agreed, it was worth the hell of getting there. We also agreed that we'd never go back. Could we be the first people here? Well, probably not. But we probably could've stayed for months and not seen another soul.
The hike out was no less harrowing. Even now I have very little skin left, thanks to the thorns and rhododendron limbs. We stumbled back into camp around noon, and everyone wanted to know where we were going for an afternoon hike. I politely told them that I intended to spend the afternoon sunbathing on the rocks by the Toxaway River. Christy and I had a relaxing picnic there, listening to the river spill into the lake.
Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, and Linda decided to hike up Toxaway Creek a short ways. Great Falls was out of the question, but the lower falls might be reachable. They eventually reached a spot on the hillside, where the lower falls was visible through the trees. Above and beyond, the top of Great Falls could be seen. They had a nice hike, though a closer look at the lower falls would've required wading the creek.
We packed up late that afternoon, and hiked over to the Cane Brake access to catch our ride. We crossed the immense suspension bridge over the Toxaway River, and then climbed and descended some more steps. For good measure, we passed another bed of Oconee Bells along the way.
Thanks to Christy, Myron, Dorcas, Wayne, and Linda for joining me on the hike. Thanks also to the people at Hoyett's for helping to make the trip possible.
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