THE HIGH ROAD
Windy Falls is a series of cascades and sheer drops totaling 700í on the Wild and Scenic Horsepasture River in the Jocassee Gorges area of NC. Itís one of the most remote and inaccessible waterfalls in the southeast. Itís also quite dangerous. A few months ago an experienced hiker fell to his death from the top of the falls. After months of searching, the body was finally found a couple of weeks ago.
I had been to the top of the falls previously, but itís hard to get a good view from there. I had also been to the bottom, but on that occasion we had to turn back because we were running out of daylight. Although itís generally considered impossible to get a view of the entire falls (except perhaps from a helicopter), Christy and I decided to spend the weekend trying.
We left Charlotte early Saturday morning and drove to the Duke Power facility at Bad Creek. We stopped briefly at the visitorís overlook to check out the distant view of 400í Lower Whitewater Falls. We then drove on to the trailhead. The day looked quite promising, with temperatures in the 70ís and blue skies. We stopped at the porta-potties there, and were amused to note the signs inside stating "maximum capacity, 10 people". Iíll admit the porta-potties were a little more roomy than normal, but 10 people?
We started hiking by 10:30 and descended to the Whitewater River. We crossed it on a sturdy steel bridge and picked up the Foothills Trail. We followed it through mixed woods full of running cedar before beginning the big descent to the Thompson River. The Thompson is another roaring mountain stream, and we decided to have lunch on the boulders at the edge of the water. 3 dayhikers passed by, and they would be the last people that we would see until Monday afternoon.
After lunch we began the steep climb away from the river. We finally reached the top of the gorge, and the roar of the river was still audible from below. We hiked on, mainly following old jeep roads. At one point, Saucony spooked a grouse. The sound of its flight nearly gave us heart attacks. After we recovered from that shock, we descended a step stairway before arriving at Bearcamp Creek. Once in the valley, we took a short side trip up to view Hilliard Falls. It is a pleasant, 80í waterfall with an overhanging ledge near the base. We had a long break here while I filtered water for the last few miles of our hike.
We continued downstream, but turned off the beaten path onto an old road. It was hard to find in the rhododendron, but we didnít have any trouble staying on it. It led down to the creek, which we rock hopped without any trouble. We continued on the grassy road, and followed it to connect with another old jeep road. We used this to connect with the Auger Hole Road, which crosses the entire Jocassee area. Luckily, itís gated except during hunting season, so it makes for a decent hike the rest of the year.
We climbed the dirt road all the way to the crest of Narrow Rock Ridge. We dropped our packs here to do a little exploring. We followed the ridge crest, where we found a faint path. The boundary of the new Gorges State Park follows the ridge, so we had blazes to follow. We climbed a very steep knob, but the crest was forested. We did find a spot on the far side where we could peer between the trees. In the distance we could see Windy Falls in all its glory. It looked like a huge vertical white gash in the mountains. This was nice, but I wanted a better look. I went ahead alone, hiking farther out on the ridge. I was hoping for a rock outcrop that would give me a clear view. I climbed another knob, and found a nice outcrop, but on the wrong side of the ridge. It afforded a pleasant view of Bearcamp Creek valley, but that wasnít what I was after. I continued over the knob, and arrived at the base of a huge boulder. I couldnít resist, and a couple of minutes of climbing brought me to the top. Now I could look down on the falls without having to peer through the leaves. The view was worth the effort, though part of the falls was still out of sight. Windy Falls curves several times as it drops, so part of it was still hidden from view.
I wanted to explore the ridge further, but I had missed my turnaround time by 10 minutes. I hurried back to where Christy waited, and we hiked back to the road. We hoisted our packs once again, and began the long descent to the Horsepasture River. Along the way we passed blooming mountain laurel and some large, showy white wildflowers. We crossed the bridge over the river and began searching for a campsite. During hunting season, when the road is open, the sites by the river are quite popular. Unfortunately, they had also been frequently trashed. On this occasion, only 1 spot had recently been visited by redneck slobs. It was full of beer cans and other garbage. I think that if people canít use the land responsibly the road should remain closed. Typically the slobs that leave trash behind arenít inclined to walk 8 or 10 miles to get there.
We passed the trashed site and hiked upstream on an old jeep road. We walked another half mile and found a nice open site by the river. There were some tall hemlocks and a big swimming hole. The site was even graced with a jack-in-the-pulpit. We set up camp, and Christy worked on dinner while I filtered water and put the beer in the river. No, we didnít leave the cans there when we were done. We enjoyed a nice meal of Chicken Creole and a pleasant campfire. It had been a long day, and neither of us had trouble sleeping that night.
THE LOW ROAD
We slept in Sunday, since we had all day to go about 2 miles. Of course, it wasn't going to be your average 2 miles. We were planning to bushwhack and rock hop our way up the Horsepasture River to the base of Windy Falls. We fueled up first on hashbrowns and cereal bars. By 10:30 we couldn't stall any longer, and we were on our way.
We continued hiking upstream along the old road. We passed some more campsites and the road gave way to a fisherman's trail. This quickly got rugged, and soon we found ourselves along the side of the gorge, 100' above a roaring cascade. A huge boulder blocked our way, so we decided to go up and around it. We climbed up past it, but we couldn't get down the other side. The far side was a thick tangle of undergrowth and a very steep slope. We tried to continue up the ridge, but that only took us farther from the river. We returned to the boulder, and found a narrow ledge that we could slide over. This brought us back to our path. Here we found the path marked with orange ribbons and flags. Christy also found a rope marked Rosman Rescue. Apparently the search and rescue team had marked the route with flags when they were searching for the missing body.
This proved quite helpful to us as we followed the route upstream. The path led to the river, and all semblance of a trail disappeared. We began to rock hop upstream, staying on the eastern bank. A few minutes later we reached some boulders with a fine view of a series of cascades. At the upper end we could glimpse the lowest drop of Windy Falls. Myron, Dorcas and I had made it this far in January a few years ago. However, wet and icy rocks and a lack of daylight had forced us to turn back. Today I was determined to explore farther.
A route to do so was not readily apparent. Then, Christy spotted a ribbon. We rock hopped around a deep pool to the right. We then fought our way through a rhododendron thicket, under fallen logs, and across slippery rocks. After a brief detour through the woods, we found ourselves climbing a series of slanted rocks. They were steep but dry, so the walking wasn't too hazardous. We climbed up past the long run of cascades and reached a pile of huge boulders at the base of the falls. This drop was probably 100' and ended in a deep pool. This fall is situated right at an island. To the right, a separate channel of water raced around and over another falls before rejoining the main river in the pool below us. We had only been hiking a little over an hour, but it was a spectacular spot. We decided to relax and enjoy it with an early lunch.
After eating, I was eager to see how much farther we could go. Could we climb the bottom portion of Windy Falls? I found a narrow passage through the rhododendron on the right side of the river. We crawled through, and arrived at the right hand branch as it raced around the island. Until now, we had been successful at making progress on the right bank. Here though we'd have to try a different strategy. The right hand side was a sheer rock wall. However, the island across from us looked climbable.
First though, we had to cross part of the river. Although we were still downstream from the main falls, the river below us raced through a narrow and frightening chute. Christy bravely went first, and made it to some rocks in the middle with only one wet boot. I switched to tevas, and joined her after a few nervous moments. We then used a fallen log to reach the island. However, the challenge was only beginning. The slope on the far side was bare, wet rock. Neither of us could climb it. Finally we found that by pushing off of the fallen log and pulling ourselves up with rhododendron branches we could get past the treacherous rock. From there we continued to climb, with some steep hiking and mild rock climbing. We reached the top of the falls and found ourselves in mid-river. The island ended, but the huge piles of boulders continued. We rock hopped further upstream, until we reached the base of the next free fall. This drop was probably 80' high, but the gorge was very narrow. The left side was a sheer cliff, and the right side wasn't much better. Going straight ahead would take us right into the full fury of the waterfall. Our hike had reached its end.
We stopped for a long break to enjoy the moment. Not many folks had seen this spot (except of course the Rosman Rescue Squad). The creator of a website I had seen had named the lowest drop of Windy Falls Roostertail, after the way the water rebounds and sprays up just before reaching the pool. I decided to take the liberty of naming this 2nd lowest drop Seldom Seen Falls. Of course, in reality it's just another piece of the puzzle that is Windy Falls.
I really wanted to try to go further, but the right side looked downright scary. The hike thus far had been hazardous enough, and we were in one of the most remote spots anywhere. An accident here really could be ugly. Plus, we were exhausted. The first mile had taken a little over an hour, but the last 200 yards had taken an hour as well. Still, I was tempted. Judging by the map, the main 400' drop of Windy Falls should be just above us and around the next bend. In the end though, the decision was easy to make. A safe route to the right side of the river wasn't apparent. I wasn't inclined to wade the deep, powerful river immediately upstream from a 100' waterfall. Regretfully we turned back.
We returned to the base of Roostertail. We spent the next hour or so sunbathing and enjoying the spot. Then, Christy noticed that the dog's eye was swollen. It appeared that she had been stung by something, so we decided to head back. The return hike was uneventful, and we reached camp by late afternoon. Some benadryl cleared up Saucony's eye in just a few hours. That evening we enjoyed a huge spaghetti dinner, another campfire, and the rest of the beer. It was a wonderfully relaxing evening. Here it was, Memorial day weekend, and we hadn't seen anybody else all day.
Rain rolled in that night, and the thunder kept Christy from sleeping. It didn't stop me though, as I was pretty worn out from the day's adventure. I had planned to get up early Monday, but raindrops on the tent are not a good alarm clock. By 8:30 the rain had calmed to only a drizzle, so I got up to make our oatmeal and hot chocolate. Luckily, the worst of the weather held off as we packed. While we were breaking camp, we encountered a huge (2") centipede. I had never seen one before, and it was quite startling, to say the least. I generally tolerate bugs pretty well, but I had a tough time not stepping on it.
We hiked back out the same way. Climbing Narrow Rock Ridge left us boiling in our rain gear, breathable or not. Along the way, I spotted a big black and yellow turtle. Christy found a salamander with silver stripes. And Saucony roused a wild turkey. It was a good wildlife day all around. We made good time, and reached the Thompson River in time for a mid-day snack. Afterwards, we began to see people. We passed 6 other hikers on our way back to Bad Creek. This was quite startling after two days of absolute solitude. We reached the parking lot by 3pm. Upon arriving, Christy informed me that we had crossed 396 steps on the Foothills Trail that day. The Foothills Trail is notorious for it's steps, and Christy passed the time that rainy day counting them.
On the drive back to Brevard, we stopped at the new parking area and information board for the Gorges State Park. Here we found that a new trail had been constructed, up to an overlook on Grassy Ridge. I'm looking forward to coming back and hiking there. I was also quite amused to read the rules. We had only managed to break 3 this weekend. No campfires without a permit, no alcohol, and all dogs must be on a leash. I'm looking forward to breaking a fourth, no swimming, sometime this summer.
We had another great Jocassee trip, and I'm ready to declare our exploration of Windy Falls a success. That's not to say that I'm satisfied though. I definitely want to explore more of Narrow Rock Ridge, and I'm sure the lower falls will continue to call to me.
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