Last weekend, Christy and I backpacked in the Jocassee Gorges for the first time in several years.  After visiting the gorges countless times, we had gotten a little burned out on the area.  After staying away for a few years, I was ready to get back.  Once we decided to backpack over Memorial Day weekend, I knew where I wanted to go.  Aside from a few high profile spots, the gorges are rarely crowded.  Considering that it was a holiday weekend, it seemed like the perfect place.


Specifically, I was itching to get back to the Thompson River.  The Thompson is less known than its neighbors, the Whitewater, the Horsepasture, and the Toxaway.  It’s every bit as scenic though.  Initially, I planned an ambitious route starting from the Brewer Road trailhead on highway 281.  We’d hike through the Thompson River gorge from there, stopping at High Falls and some of the other cascades detailed in Kevin Adam’s guidebook along the way.  We’d spend two nights camped near the river, before hiking out to Whitewater Falls on the last day.


As so often happens with the trips I plan, I ultimately downsized the ambition level.  After much discussion, Christy and I decided to invite Thao, one of her students, along for her first backpacking trip.  I didn’t want to attempt anything too adventurous on her first trip.  Plus, we only had 3 people, and with gas at $3 a gallon, we weren’t taking two cars just so we could run a shuttle.  I revised our itinerary, switching our hike to an out-and-back route from Whitewater Falls.  Even though I was downsizing the trip, we’d still have a full day to explore the Thompson River and some of the waterfalls in the gorge.


We left early Saturday morning, avoiding the worst of the weekend traffic.  We arrived at the Whitewater Falls trailhead around 10AM.  It now costs $2 a day to park here, although there is an adjacent parking area for Foothills Trail hikers that is free.  We parked in the pay lot though, since the fee is covered under my Federal Recreation Pass.  Also, it seems more secure, and we were driving Christy’s brand new Suburu Forester.  We sold the Xterra recently, in an effort to find a vehicle that is more comfortable and gets better gas mileage.  Christy is now on her third car since I bought my Corolla, but I think she finally got it right this time.  This is the first car she’s bought that I fully approve of.


We met the trailhead caretaker, who apparently is stationed there to make sure everyone pays their $2.  I guess he’s also in charge of maintenance.  While we were packing, he was using a leaf blower to clear the dust off the paved path to the falls overlook.  I’m glad he was keeping busy.  He was a very nice fellow though, although he seemed a bit too sincere when he warned us about all of the poisonous snakes we were likely to encounter down in the gorge.  Thao was thrilled to hear this.  She grew up in Vietnam, and her idea of poisonous snakes is vastly different from ours.


My goal for this trip may have been waterfall exploration, but Christy’s was clearly relaxation and eating well.  I think we had enough food for a week as we headed down the manicured sidewalk to the main overlook.  I decided to go with the flow, as a weekend of relaxation didn’t sound too bad.  I knew we’d still find a few spectacular waterfalls along the way.


We found the first one in about 5 minutes.  Upper Whitewater Falls is listed at 411’ high, and there is a grand view of it from the end of the paved path.  Many publications list Upper Whitewater Falls as the highest in the eastern United States.  I suppose this is debatable, but it is certainly one of the most spectacular.  Descending a new staircase brought us to another viewpoint, which is actually a little better.  We found lots of folks here, who had a lot of questions about how we were planning on spending the weekend.  Our answers to their questions follow, but you’ll have to guess what the questions were:


1)    Peanut Butter

2)    The dog usually chases them away

3)    Dig a hole

4)    All weekend

5)    No

6)    45 pounds


So obviously it was pretty much the standard fare.


We hiked from the lower overlook down a steep, rocky path that brought us to the Foothills Trail.  From there, the descent was more reasonable on well-designed switchbacks.  Unfortunately, many hikers here disregard the switchbacks and head straight down the slope.  I noted several areas of severe erosion on the way down.


We reached a jumble of boulders at the riverbank and stopped for lunch.  Surprisingly, we had the area almost completely to ourselves.  Afterwards, we crossed the steel bridge spanning the Whitewater River.  From there, it was just a short walk to a smaller, wooden bridge over Corbin Creek.  From the bridge, the bottom of Laurel Falls is visible.  Unfortunately, most of this waterfall, which is nearly 400’ high, is obscured by the dense vegetation.  Corbin Creek is fairly small, and with the recent dry weather, there wasn’t much actual water coming over the falls anyway.


Just beyond the creek we reached the remains of a bridge that was recently crushed by a falling tree.  We had to scramble over the tree and the remains of the bridge, which was awkward with a heavy pack.  The trail remained challenging beyond that obstacle, with a couple of short but steep ups and downs and one memorable staircase clinging to the side of a cliff above the river.  Beyond that, the hike turned into a pleasant stroll through peaceful forest along the banks of the now lazy river.  It was hard to believe that this was the same river that plunges over two 400’ waterfalls within a couple of miles of where we were.


A few minutes later we reached a junction with a spur trail leading out to the Bad Creek Trailhead.  There is an information sign here, featuring incorrect mileages to nearby destinations.  From there, we endured a long climb to another junction.  From here, a spur trail leads 1 mile to the Lower Whitewater Falls overlook.  I decided to save that for the return hike on Monday.


We hiked on, passing a designated campsite in a pleasant glade.  Several ups and downs followed, as we hiked along footpaths and old logging roads.  We crossed a number of small streams, which Saucony enjoyed wading in.  It was a warm, humid day, and the dog didn’t pass up a single one.


Eventually we passed the junction with the old logging road leading up above the Thompson River gorge to Brewer Road and highway 281.  A long, winding descent followed.  We finally reached the Thompson River, and passed through an occupied campsite just before the bridge.  We crossed the river, and found a good site on the opposite side.  Actually, there are two sites here, as there is a small but private site farther downstream beyond the main one.  Later we discovered two more small campsites upstream from the trail.  The second of those requires some bushwhacking to reach.


We set up camp around mid-afternoon.  Originally I thought we might hike up to Big Falls afterwards, but the women weren’t having it.  They were done for the day, and I guess maybe I was, too.  I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing around camp.  This took a great deal of restraint, as I knew there were numerous outstanding waterfalls nearby.  Later we taught Thao how to play scrabble.  She picked up the game quickly, and was surprisingly competitive, considering that she only learned how to speak English a few years earlier.  We grilled steaks for dinner that night, and complimented them with instant mashed potatoes and salad.  Later we made Smores, before heading for our tents.


We got off to a leisurely start the next morning.  I made scrambled eggs and hashbrowns for breakfast before we packed up for our day’s hike.  I’d abandoned plans to hike to High Falls and the other waterfalls in the upper part of the gorge.  Instead, we’d spend the day at Big Falls.  Big Falls of the Thompson is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the southeast, and I’d only been there once, 8 or 9 years earlier.  That visit had been brief.  Today, we could afford to spend the whole day.  Of course, we had to get there first.  Hiking to Big Falls is not a trivial undertaking.


Kevin Adam’s guidebook suggests descending to the falls from the old logging road running above the west side of the gorge.  On my previous visit, we had reached the falls by hiking upstream from the Foothills Trail.  My recollection of that hike was that it hadn’t been that bad, so we decided to try it the same way.


From our campsite, we rejoined the Foothills Trail, and climbed briefly away from the river.  After 30 yards or so, we reached a faint path heading back down to the river.  We followed it to a campsite.  From there, a faint route continues upstream.  We began bushwhacking, fighting our way through the thick tangles of rhododendron covering the riverbank.  At times progress was easier on the boulders bordering the river.  In hindsight, hiking up the river in sandals may have been the easier route, considering the low water level.


We eventually reached another small campsite.  Not far beyond, we were faced with a choice.  We could try to continue along the river, or we could climb steeply up the bank to bypass a line of cliffs.  I recalled hiking well above the river on my previous visit, but we had made good progress closer to the water this time.  Ultimately, we ended up continuing ahead.


Eventually our luck ran out, as our progress was blocked by the cliffs we should’ve climbed above.  Instead of backtracking, we followed Thao as she rock hopped across the river.  What looked like an easy crossing proved to be treacherous, thanks to the extremely slippery rocks.  Unfortunately, I was carrying all of our gear in my pack.  This gear included three digital cameras and an IPOD.  Despite this recipe for disaster, I made it across with only one slightly damp boot.


From here, the hike turned into sheer hell.  Before long, we found ourselves in jungles of rhododendron that made the previous bushwhack look like a walk through a garden.  I once heard someone criticize the term “bushwhack”, saying that hikers should never “whack” at the vegetation.  He encouraged the use of the term “bushpush”.  What we were doing wasn’t a bushpush.  Unfortunately, this person had a fundamental misunderstanding about bushwhacking.  You see, when hiking somewhere like Big Falls, it’s not the hikers doing the whacking.  


Fallen trees added to the fun, and before long, we were clinging to a steep sidehill.  The route was solid rock covered in a layer of dry leaves.  I was almost across a particularly tricky spot when my wet boot slipped on the dry leaves.  I fell, and bashed my knee on a stump.  Luckily I caught myself, and didn’t fall into the river.  Unfortunately, Thao was treated to some inappropriate language immediately after this incident.  A few minutes later, just after extricating ourselves from a patch of briars, she turned to me and asked, “what are we doing here, anyway”?  I didn’t have an answer for her.  Fortunately for me, the answer came a few minutes later.


We fought through a final tangle and turned a corner beyond a narrow spur ridge.  As we did, the falls came into view.  I turned around and grinned, as Thao’s jaw dropped.  She was briefly speechless, before saying, “wow, this is the best one yet!”  That was big praise.  A month earlier, she had accompanied us to the Cumberland Plateau of central Tennessee.  On that trip, we had visited some of the finest waterfalls in the southeast, including Burgess Falls, Virgin Falls, Caney Creek Falls, and Fall Creek Falls.  Obviously, Big Falls of the Thompson is in some pretty select company.


We picked our way across the giant boulder pile at the base of the falls.  On the far side of the river, we reached an immense slab of sloping bare rock.  The rock runs along the falls, most of the way to the top.  The view of the falls from there is fantastic, and it’s a great place to spend a sunny afternoon.  We loitered there for four hours, having lunch and enjoying the sun.  Later, we braved the chilly water for a little swimming in the pool below the falls.  Even Thao got in the water, which was surprising, since she doesn’t know how to swim.  Christy took things up a notch, by sliding down the lowest section of the falls.  This is relatively safe, but the rock at the base of the falls is exceptionally slippery.  While Christy was trying to position herself, she took a nasty fall right on her can.  To make matters worse, she had an audience for her accident.  Three other hikers had just arrived from downstream, and witnessed the whole thing.  Those folks didn’t hang around long though, and we ended up having the falls to ourselves for most of the afternoon. 


With all that free time on my hands, I was tempted to explore.  I knew there were more waterfalls upstream.  Not far beyond Big Falls is another drop that Waterfall Rich ( calls Standing Stone Falls.  However, his description of the hike to it, as well as the description in Kevin Adams’ guide, made me reconsider.  It sounded like I would be in for a wicked ordeal, all to get to a waterfall that was less attractive than the one I was already at.  Plus, I would have to go solo.  There was no way I could uproot the females from this spot.  After much consideration, I decided it probably wasn’t worth the trouble.


By 4pm, we had to face the dreaded hike back.  On the way out, we stayed on the east side of the river the entire way.  This was slightly better, but not by much.  No matter how you go, the last hundred yards or so below the falls is pretty brutal.  Fortunately, the rest of the route is more manageable.


That evening we dined on salmon cakes and macaroni and cheese.  Smores and another fine campfire rounded out the evening.  We slept well that night, with the white noise of the rushing river constantly in the background.


We started the next morning with blueberry pancakes.  After a late departure, we headed back to the parking area at Whitewater Falls.  We stopped for lunch at the junction with the trail to the Lower Falls along the way.  The women had seen enough waterfalls for one weekend, but I wanted to visit Lower Whitewater Falls before heading home.  I hiked down to the overlook in about 20 minutes, and spent a few minutes there enjoying the view.  Lower Whitewater Falls is almost as impressive as its upstream brother.  At just over 400’, it’s probably also the highest in South Carolina.


The rest of the hike was largely uneventful.  After a relatively quiet weekend, we began seeing lots of people though.  Dayhikers were abundant along the Whitewater River.  When we reached the bridge, we were surprised to see at least a dozen people playing in the river.  On the way out of the gorge, we passed even more people on their way down.  When we finally reached the parking area, we were stunned to see the lot nearly full.  After a visit to the restroom, we were more than happy to give up our parking space.


I’m already looking forward to returning to the area.  Next time, our trip will focus on the waterfalls farther upstream.

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