Tumbling Fun Falls on Mill Creek in the Thompson River drainage has been on my to-do list for many years. In fact, I’ve made two attempts at it over the years, and failed miserably both times. The first attempt was on a hot, humid summer afternoon. My wife and I had already hiked to several waterfalls in the area. After visiting John’s Jump – a 20’ waterfall upstream from Tumbling Fun Falls – I was eager to give it a shot. Christy was done for the day, so she decided to wait in the car. I wasn’t expecting it to take more than an hour or so – after all, it was just a short distance downstream. Boy, did I ever underestimate that! The direct route downstream seemed like a bad idea, since Mill Creek drops about 200’ in less than 0.1 mile at Tumbling Fun Falls. I tried to circle around to the east and descend the next drainage over. That drainage joins Mill Creek just downstream from the falls. Sadly, I didn’t make it very far. I thrashed around in thick brush choked with spider webs for 30 minutes without making any measurable progress. In fact, I could still hear traffic clearly along highway 281 where Christy was waiting. I turned tail and dragged myself back to the car, drenched in sweat and bleeding from dozens of scratches. Needless to say, Christy felt pretty good about skipping that one.
My next attempt was from the opposite direction. I made the easy hike from highway 281 at Brewer Road to High Falls on the Thompson River. After a brief visit to the falls, I returned to the old logging road and followed it upstream to a ford. From there I waded upstream. My plan was to follow the river to Mill Creek, and then hike up Mill Creek to the base of the falls. I knew my route would pass through a section of private property, but figured it would be undeveloped, and probably not even posted. Wrong. I found a house with a huge lawn right at the confluence of the streams. I didn’t see anybody home – except for the dogs. There was a whole pack of them, and they either heard us or smelled us. They immediately gave chase. I was with my chocolate lab, Saucony, at the time. I was more worried about her than myself. It wouldn’t be good for her to get in a fight with a pack of territorial dogs. We fled up the steep hillside above the river. Conveniently, it was choked with dog hobble. That slowed Saucony down, but it completely halted the pack of dogs pursuing us. A long climb and some horrific bushwhacking eventually delivered us to an old forest road, which took us directly back to Brewer Road.
Tumbling Fun Falls went to the back of the backburner. Over the next 10 years or so there were plenty of other waterfalls to visit. I even made it to the original Tumbling Fun Falls on an official Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) guided hike. That waterfall is on private property on a nearby creek in the Whitewater River drainage. Oddly, the two waterfalls are separated by no more than a couple of miles. Apparently the original Tumbling Fun Falls was a popular destination, even though it was on private property. The property owners got tired of waterfall enthusiasts (!) visiting their waterfall, so they simply exported the name “Tumbling Fun Falls” to an unnamed waterfall on nearby Mill Creek. The name stuck, and now that waterfall is fairly well known (albeit very hard to get to). Meanwhile, the original Tumbling Fun Falls has slipped into obscurity.
Last weekend seemed like a good time for attempt #3. Water levels would be low, but Mill Creek is large enough that the volume would still be adequate. Jonathan, Jess, and a Player to be Named Later from Team Waterfall decided to join me. It would be the first hardcore bushwhacking trip for A Player to be Named Later, but we thought he could handle it.
We met at the entrance to Bad Creek on Saturday morning and drove to the John’s Jump Trailhead, where highway 281 crosses Mill Creek. We got started at 9:30, so I packed light. I carried only a quart of water and an apple, leaving the rest of the water and lunch in the car. I expected the hike to take a couple of hours, leaving us the whole afternoon to do another hike.
It was great to see Jonathan and Jess again! They had recently returned from a mission trip in the Peruvian Amazon. They had also recently survived a huge fundraiser for Aidjoy, a non-profit charity organization based in Greenville that Jonathan runs.
We started our morning with a warm up hike to John’s Jump. The waterfall isn’t remarkable in any way, but it is still quite pretty. The short hike was the perfect way to get the blood flowing before we started our bushwhack.
Our planned route was the same as the one I’d attempted the first time, 10 or 15 years earlier. This time though, my wife wasn’t waiting in the car, we had no time constraints, the temperature was pleasant, and I had a pretty good idea what we were in for. Or at least I thought I did.
From John’s Jump we climbed back up the road and headed east. Before long we dropped down into a gully with a trickle of water that was thick with rhododendron. I thought this was the gully that runs parallel to Mill Creek and joins it just downstream from Tumbling Fun Falls. I was wrong about this, but didn’t realize it until much later.
The gully was choked with rhododendron and fallen trees. My topo map showed an old road running parallel to the gully on the ridge directly above us to the east. I suggested we climb up to the ridge to see if we could find remnants of the old road. That would be easier than crawling through the gully. After heading north along the ridge we would drop back down into the gully near its lower end.
The climb was fairly easy, and as luck would have it, we found a trace of the old road. It wasn’t much better than bushwhacking, but it was a huge improvement over the gully we had left. We were following it when suddenly Boone and Kona took off. They had caught a scent, and by the time I started yelling for them, it was too late. Either they couldn’t hear me, or they decided to ignore me. A few minutes later we could hear them barking far off – probably down near the falls. We continued heading that way, calling for them periodically. A few minutes later Boone returned, panting heavily. There was no sign of Kona. This worried me, because Kona always follows Boone. I started yelling for Kona. While I was preoccupied, Boone suddenly took off in the opposite direction, back the way we had come.
I started yelling for Boone again, but he was long gone. Suddenly Kona appeared, so at least we had one of them back. I leashed her and resumed calling for Boone.
After 10 minutes there was still no sign of Boone. This was highly unusual. In fact, he had never run off without returning within a few minutes. I decided to go looking for him. Jonathan and Jess waited with Kona, while I followed the roadbed back towards the highway. A few minutes later I heard panicky barking in the distance, roughly near where we had parked. At first I didn’t recognize that it was Boone, because I’d only heard him bark like that once before. That was the time that he had slid down a 200’ waterfall. After his tumble, he had barked constantly for 30 minutes until we were able to rescue him from the brink of another, vertical drop. Although I was relieved to identify his location, I was worried about the barking. Was he injured? Trapped?
I headed that way, and reached the edge of someone’s back yard. I skirted around it, staying in the woods, occasionally calling for Boone. His barking stopped, but a few minutes later I heard Jess yelling. I couldn’t tell what she was saying, but hoped that he had returned. I headed back, and found everybody waiting for me. Boone seemed fine, except for a single cut under one eye. It looked like a briar or tree branch got him there, but otherwise he was unscathed. What a relief!
We resumed our hike by following remnants of the old roadbed. It wasn’t much, but it was better than full-contact bushwhacking. We followed the ridge north, and eventually began to descend. At this point, I thought it might be time to drop down into the gully to the west. We headed down and west, but arrived at Mill Creek without seeing the gully. My first thought is that we had overshot the base of the falls, and we were just a short distance downstream from the mouth of the gully and the falls. We started upstream, and spotted a house on the hillside on the far side of the creek. I looked upstream, and didn’t see terrain that would account for a major waterfall.
I called a halt and studied the map. It eventually dawned on me that we had followed the ridge immediately east of Mill Creek, rather than the second ridge to the east. That explained why we hadn’t encountered the gully. The gully we had crossed near the beginning of the hike must’ve been too insignificant to show up on the topo map. Once I realized my error, I knew we had to cross the ridge behind us to access the gully we needed to descend.
We climbed back over the ridge and descended the far side. Before long we intersected a clear trail marked with ribbons. This was a surprise! Unfortunately, it wasn’t going in the correct direction. To the left it was heading up and around the nose of the ridge we had been descending. It seemed like it was heading towards the top of the falls, or farther upstream. Later I confirmed this – we followed it almost to the house we’d seen earlier on the far side of Mill Creek. In the other direction, it was descending gradually into our gully, but heading upstream. I’m not sure where it ultimately goes in that direction, but we wanted to hit the gully as far downstream as possible. We ignored the trail, and bushwhacked straight down to the creek.
We followed the narrow, slippery streambed downstream through thick tangles of rhododendron and dog hobble. Finally, just ahead we saw a distinct horizon line. Apparently there is a waterfall on this stream, too. The creek is too small for it to be very significant, but continuing downstream looked dangerous. Unfortunately, our options were unappealing. We were surrounded by extremely steep slopes choked with vegetation.
We didn’t have much choice. We crawled up the ridge to the west, wriggling through tangles of rhododendron and vicious briars. We traversed around the nose of the ridge, and we could hear the falls just around the corner. We crawled under another thicket, because it looked slightly easier than tightroping across the top. One final muddy descent brought us to Mill Creek at the very base of the falls. Even there views were elusive. We scrambled up some boulders, and waded across the creek to get to a better vantage point.
The topo map suggests a large waterfall, perhaps as much as 200’. However, Kevin Adams describes it as being closer to 50’. Kevin is right – the visible portion from the base is 50’ at most. However, the creek twists as it falls. I suspect there is another drop, or drops, immediately upstream. However, I didn’t see any realistic way to see them. Both sides of the waterfall are cliffs covered in a horror of vegetation. On our way out I tried to scramble back over to the creek after a bit of climbing, but found the “route” completely impassable. The other side of the creek might be more hospitable, but I doubt it.
Although part of it is hidden from view, the waterfall is scenic and rarely visited. It was wonderful to finally get there!
I ate my apple, and gladly took a granola bar from Jonathan. We attempted to take a more direct route back. We climbed straight up the ridge immediately east of Mill Creek. We crawled through a nasty assortment of briars, but eventually the forest opened up a bit. We eventually reached the ridgecrest, but had trouble following the trace of old road on the way out. We eventually gave up on it, and headed west and down towards the creek. Once at Mill Creek, we creek walked upstream. This was fun, but challenging at times. There were numerous deep pools, and several places with deep, soft sand. Fallen trees were plentiful, and there were a couple of minor cascades that we had to scramble up. We finally reached the base of John’s Jump, for the second time that day. Seeing it was a huge relief! From there, a short stretch of trail took us back to our cars. We returned at 2pm, 4 ½ hours after starting.
Jonathan and Jess were done for the day, but I wanted to squeeze another short hike in before driving home. I drove across the bridge over the Whitewater River and parked in a narrow space on the far side. I ate lunch quickly and started my second hike of the day. My intention was to do a 5 ½ mile loop combining the Foothills Trail, an official spur of the Foothills Trail, and an old road connecting highway 281 with the Whitewater Falls parking area.
The dogs and I headed up a blue blazed trail following an unnamed tributary of the Whitewater River. We passed an official campsite, and several unofficial ones. It was a pleasant, gentle climb through the woods. Despite the easy grade, I actually got a weird cramp in the inside of my left thigh while I was hiking. I guess that sums up the difficulty of our earlier hike!
I joined the Foothills Trail and followed it over Grassy Mountain. My Foothills Trail guide mentions numerous views along this stretch, but I only found one, and it was part of the way down the descent from the summit. At least that one viewpoint was nice, as it encompassed Lake Jocassee and the surrounding mountains. A steeper descent followed, and we crossed highway 281 near the state line, just south of the entrance to Whitewater Falls. I was tempted to walk up the road to the parking area, but aesthetics demanded that I stay on the Foothills Trail. I wish I’d given in to temptation. The next ¾ of a mile were very tedious, with a rocky tread, stairs, and numerous short but steep climbs and descents.
Eventually we joined the trail / stairs descending from the parking area. We climbed up to the lower Whitewater Falls overlook, where we ran into other hikers for the first time all day. I took a couple of quick photos of Whitewater Falls despite poor light before resuming the climb. At the top, I turned right onto an old roadbed. After a short distance I swung around a fence and continued down the road. There are impressive cliffs along here, and an incredibly steep drop below me into the gorge. There was only one place where the grade below me eased – at a minor tributary shortly before we reached the brink of the falls.
The old road entered a small clearing and campsite on a cliff 100’ above the top of Whitewater Falls. I didn’t see a route down initially. I picked up a trail heading upstream, and quickly reached a side path heading down. The descent was a little steep, but nothing dramatic. It led to a really cool spot at the brink of Whitewater Falls. There is a great view from here, encompassing the falls below and Lake Jocassee in the distance. It’s actually reasonably safe there, as long as you watch your step. Needless to say, it is not a place to stumble! I actually leashed the dogs up shortly before reaching the brink, just to be on the safe side.
From there the hike back to the road was quick and easy. Along the way I passed a great swimming hole in the river. The water is placid there, and it is far enough upstream from the brink to be safe for swimming. The top of Whitewater Falls is definitely a place I will return to!
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