Recently Team Waterfall headed deep into the Nantahala National Forest for a weekend of hiking and car camping. We camped on Flat Creek, at the end of a forest road that branches off of Rock Bridge Road. The site is primitive, but quiet and private. Jack arrived first, on Friday afternoon. It’s well documented that it always rains when Jack camps. This trip was no exception. In fact, he had just finished pitching his tent when a huge thunderstorm rolled through. Jack took shelter in his truck during the downpour. By the time Van and I arrived, the storm had cleared. That was the last rain of the weekend. Thanks to Jack for arriving early and taking one for the team!
That evening Jack, Van, Johnny, and I enjoyed some fantastic moonshine (also courtesy of Jack) and a damp campfire. Needless to say, getting any sort of a fire going was an achievement with everything soaked. We finally got a blaze going late that evening – about the time we should’ve gone to bed.
Saturday was spent hiking to some waterfalls that were new to all of us. That afternoon we returned to camp to relax. Shortly after we returned, two guys hiked into our site needing help. They had started from their campsite at Schoolhouse Falls Saturday morning. The got horribly lost in the northern part of Panthertown Valley. They had two compasses, but one of them was reading 180 degrees in the wrong direction. I'm guessing he was reading it backwards? Anyway, they were trying to go south but ended up hiking north. They wound up in the headwaters of Flat Creek, and decided to follow it downstream out of desperation. So they creek walked all the way to our campsite. Jack gave them a ride back up to the Rattlesnake Ridge Trail. They intended to hike it back south to eventually return to their campsite. I don't know if they made it back before dark.
That night we were joined by Darrin, Bob, and Bob’s son, A.A. Ron. The evening featured a better campfire and even more moonshine. At one point the conversation turned to “Survivor Man”, or one of those other “wilderness survival” tv shows. Of course, that led to the inevitable discussion about drinking urine. Darrin mentioned that he’d heard that the worst time to drink your own urine was first thing in the morning, due to an increase in toxins overnight. So I suggested that you should probably drink some water first – you know, to dilute it.
I assure you that this was hilarious, but maybe you had to be there.
On Sunday everybody bailed out except for Van. He joined me for a hike to Dismal Falls. Dismal Falls has been at the top of my to-do list for years, but for some reason I never seemed to get around to it. This weekend I was finally going to do something about that.
We followed Rich’s directions to the trailhead and throughout the hike. As usual, they were accurate and extremely helpful:
The first mile or so featured easy hiking on an old road. This was most welcome, after a night of over-indulgence. We reached an old homesite, and took a short side trip up to the base of Aunt Sally’s Falls. It’s a small but pretty waterfall. Unfortunately, my camera fogged up when we arrived. I tried cleaning both ends of my lens, but that didn’t help much. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it was a humid morning. Fortunately the problem cleared up later that day.
A bit later we reached a junction that was well-marked with ribbons. We followed the side trail on the left to a campsite, and down to the infant West Fork of the French Broad River. We rock hopped across, and picked up the flagged trail on the far side. We followed it over to the stream immediately north of Dismal Creek. This creek doesn’t even show up on the map, but it is substantial. We reached it at the base of a relatively minor waterfall. At this point the trail splits, continuing up both sides of the creek. We chose the right side. A short but steep climb brought us to the base of Rhapsody Falls.
What a beauty! Rhapsody Falls is like a tropical paradise due to the tree canopy, moss, and lush vegetation. It’s amazing that there can be such a lovely waterfall on a stream that doesn’t even show up on the map. It just goes to show that you never know what you might find until you get out there.
We had lunch there before climbing steeply up the ridge separating Rhapsody Falls and Dismal Creek. Near the crest we joined the other trail that bypasses Rhapsody Falls. We ended up taking this trail down on our return, which was a bit faster. Still, I highly recommend including Rhapsody Falls in your trip, either coming or going.
We climbed up the ridge from there, but after a short distance we reached a junction with a trail flagged with ribbons heading left. I was on the lookout for a Bernie trail that descends steeply into the Dismal Gorge. It leads to the base of some impressive cliffs as well as a lesser-known waterfall downstream from Dismal Falls. According to Rich’s directions, the turn is only a short distance beyond where the two trails rejoin. I figured this was it, so we headed down.
A steep descent brought us to an impressive rock overhang. We dropped farther, and a creek appeared on our left. This made sense, except that the creek was running the wrong direction. We were hiking downstream, not up. Van realized my error before I did. Instead of dropping down to Dismal Creek, we had crossed back over the nose of the ridge. We were actually downstream from Rhapsody Falls, going the wrong direction. Ugh!
We doubled-back, and continued up the ridge. We passed both junctions (Rhapsody Falls and the false trail). After another hundred yards or so, we reached another flagged trail on the left. This turned out to be Bernie’s Trail. The route was extremely steep, but at least it was short. Before long we dropped down onto a bench just above Dismal Creek. From there, we enjoyed an easy stroll along the base of a towering cliff wall. The rock was probably 100’ high, and nearly vertical. Eventually our bench ended, and further progress required boulder scrambling and one rock hop creek crossing. This stretch featured some difficult footing, but before long we reached the base of the unnamed waterfall downstream from Dismal Falls.
This waterfall is fairly small and there is a lot of deadfall, but it is still pretty. At that point, Dismal Falls was a very short distance upstream. However, we didn’t see a likely way to get to the top of the falls in front of us. The far side of the creek was a cliff, and the steep slope above us was a jungle of vegetation. It may be possible to continue upstream from here, but we decided against it. We backtracked, and climbed back up to the top of the ridge. I’m proud to say that we made that whole ascent without stopping. If you’re wondering – the side trip down into the gorge is absolutely worth the effort. That cliff is one of the most impressive ones that I’ve seen.
More steep climbing followed. In fact, we were high above the creek when we finally reached the turn to head down to the bottom of Dismal Falls. The final descent was incredibly long and insanely steep. There were several places where I was more comfortable sliding on my butt. Finally the creek came into view, but the descent continued. Eventually we bottomed out at the creek at the very base of Dismal Falls.
Dismal Falls is spectacular. It starts with a freefall of at least 50’, followed by an elegant run of steep cascades and slides. The gorge is a jungle, and our spot is probably the only place where the entire waterfall is visible. We took a long break there, mainly waiting for passing clouds to provide photographic opportunities. Meanwhile, the dogs amused themselves by chewing on bones from an animal carcass. We found a pelvis and two ribs. Judging from the size of them, I’m guessing it was a deer.
Before leaving, we followed a rough path up the lower section of falls. This brought us to an upper viewpoint that is less obscured by the trees. However, the vantage point isn’t great for photos because it is impossible to exclude the sky at the top of the falls from the composition.
The climb out was brutal. Several stretches required us to pull ourselves up on rhododendrons, rocks, and roots. One small ledge presented a bit of an obstacle, but we were able to wriggle up with the support of a tree. Beyond that, it was just a steep, strenuous climb. That pretty much sums up the hike. There wasn’t any real bushwhacking – all of the hiking was on established paths – but stamina, strength, and scrambling skills are definitely a necessity.
We reached the top of the ridge and headed back down. Incredibly, we made it from the base of Dismal Falls to the river in less than 30 minutes. At that point my senility kicked in. I thought I remembered mention of a waterfall on the West Fork of the French Broad in the Adams’ guide. I studied the map, and decided that it must be upstream. It was still early, so we decided to have a look.
We passed the campsite and returned to the main trail (old road). We followed it gently uphill, until coming near the river in some fairly steep terrain. However, the river was little more than a trickle. There certainly wasn’t a waterfall near here. When we returned to the car, I discovered that the waterfall I was thinking of was actually on a TRIBUTARY of the West Fork. That waterfall was later named Rhapsody Falls – the one we’d visited that morning.
The hike out was quick and uneventful. We did pass one family on their way in. One guy was carrying a little fluffy dog in his arms. We wondered where they were heading – hopefully not Dismal Falls!
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