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
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
We left early Saturday
morning, avoiding the worst of the weekend traffic. We arrived at the
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
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.
1) Peanut Butter
2) The dog usually chases them away
3) Dig a hole
4) All weekend
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
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
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
We set up camp around
mid-afternoon. Originally I thought we
might hike up to
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
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
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
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
rest of the hike was largely uneventful.
After a relatively quiet weekend, we began seeing lots of people
were abundant along the
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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