The headwaters of Georgia’s Tallulah River have long been one of my favorite off-the-radar destinations.  The area features big mountains with spectacular views, beautiful mountain streams with breathtaking waterfalls, and in late April, and incredible variety of wildflowers.  My introduction to the area came in the mid-90’s.  That was a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail that culminated on the summit of Standing Indian.  I was on the peak with a friend, taking in the view, and I was fascinated by the dramatic green ridges and valleys directly below us.  I turned to my friend and said, “I want to explore down there”.  His reply was “Why?”.  It was a genuine response.  He couldn’t fathom why I would want to go down there.  He was an Appalachian Trail hiker, and everything off the A.T. was irrelevant.  My mentality is a little different.  I see the A.T. as a convenient connection to endless adventure in more obscure realms.


I visited the area with some (different) friends a few months later.  We approached it from the Standing Indian Campground.  We hiked to Deep Gap, dashed across the A.T., and headed down into the valley.  After a long, steep descent we found ourselves along the infant Tallulah River.  Before reaching Tallulah River Road we headed back up, passing Chimney Rock on the way to Case Knife Gap.  Then we headed down to High Falls on Beech Creek.  From there I’d planned to hike up a steep trail to Beech Gap.  We couldn’t find that trail though.  We decided to backtrack, discouraged that we’d have to return by the same route.  Back at Case Knife Gap, I noticed a faint trail heading steeply uphill.  I said, “Hey, I wonder where this goes?”.  We decided to follow it.  After a steep climb we found ourselves on the Appalachian Trail just east of the summit of Standing Indian.  We were back on route!  I don’t think that trail is on any map, but I’ve heard it called the “Girl Scout Trail”.  Apparently there used to be a Girl Scout Camp near Case Knife Gap and they built this trail as a connection to the A.T.


I explored the area further on a couple of subsequent trips.  Most recently, I returned to the area in late April for the annual wildflower show.  Christy originally planned to come, but she had to drop out at the last minute due to a bad case of Plantar Fasciitis.  I decided to make it a solo backpacking trip.  Also, my friend Scott thought that he might be able to join me for part of the day on Sunday.


I had a big agenda for a weekend trip.  Recently two additional waterfalls had been discovered on Denton Creek upstream from its well-known waterfall.  I wanted to check those out.  I also wanted to explore the coves northwest of the end of Tallulah River Road.  The valleys holding New Falls, Thomas Falls, and Collary Cove all have major wildflower potential.  I was also eager to make another visit to High Falls on Beech Creek, and I wanted to hike to the summit of Big Scaly again.  I also hoped to include Standing Indian and the cliffs of Raven Rock Ridge into the weekend, if I could squeeze them in.  Finally, years ago someone had told me that Holden Cove had “a bunch” of waterfalls.  I was skeptical, but recently I heard the same thing from another source.  An exploration of Holden Cove was at the top of my priority list for the weekend.  There were some other creeks I wanted to check out, too, but I knew I’d have a tough time squeezing everything into 2 days, particularly when you factor in the 4-hour one-way drive.


I came up with a plan for a backpacking trip.  It would be a supersized version of the standard loop from the end of Tallulah River Road up Beech Creek, through Case Knife Gap, and down past Chimney Rock.  After ascending Beech Creek to Case Knife Gap I would hike up the Girl Scout Trail to the A.T. and on to Standing Indian.  From there I’d continue on to Deep Gap.  At that point I could easily bail out by descending from Deep Gap.  My preference though would be to continue over to the Muskrat Creek shelter to take the side trip out to Raven Rock.  After a bit of backtracking I would descend through Holden Cove to the river and the trailhead.  I’d heard that there was a legitimate trail all the way up Holden Cove to the A.T., but that wasn’t a certainty.  It’s not on the map.  The map shows an old road descending most of the way from the A.T. before abruptly ending.  Would it connect with the alleged trail up Holden Cove?  If not, it might be an ugly bushwhack the rest of the way down to the river.  At that point it would be late in the afternoon and backtracking wouldn’t be an attractive option.


The sensible approach would’ve been to flip the loop around and go up Holden Cove.  Of course I didn’t do that. 


Originally I hoped to make the drive on Friday afternoon so I could get started early on Saturday.  Heavy storms discouraged that plan though.  Instead I got up early Saturday morning and headed out.  I wasn’t sure how the trip would go.  A trail run Thursday evening had left me with a very sore groin muscle.  An emergency trip to my personal magician on Friday had helped some, but I was still pretty gimpy Saturday morning.  I was really looking forward to this one though.  I decided to go, but vowed to scale the trip back if my leg was bothering me.


I made the long drive to Tate City, Georgia.  It was pretty smooth despite heavy traffic on I-85.  I made decent time until I got on Tallulah River Road.  There I got stuck behind a giant pickup truck going about 10mph.  I’d been averaging about 25mph up to that point.  Why is it that when it comes to forest roads, the larger a vehicle is, the slower it moves?


I found the narrow road heading up along Denton Creek.  The entrance to it had a massive puddle, which indicated just how much rain the area had received the previous day.  I was thrilled, as that would make the waterfalls more attractive.


I hiked up the road in sandals since I knew I’d have to cross the creek in a short distance.  This stretch is often awash in wildflowers, but I was a little late for the peak bloom at this elevation.  When I reached the creek crossing I found that the water wasn’t up as much as I’d expected.  I could’ve easily rock hopped it.  Oh well.  From there I continued up the road to a fork.  I headed right there, continuing upstream to the base of the lowest waterfall.  The light was terrible for photos so I didn’t linger long.


I backtracked to the junction and followed the old road as it contoured up and away from the creek.  It eventually swung back onto the ridge high above the stream.  I could hear falling water down there, but I wasn’t sure if I was hearing the same falls I’d just left or the next one farther upstream.  I continued on the old road, and the roar of the water increased.  Eventually I couldn’t resist any longer and headed down.  I actually waited too long to start my descent, which made it harder than necessary.  The slope was very steep and loose from the recent rain.  My sandals are lousy for this sort of thing, too.  I worked my way down the valley a bit to more reasonable terrain and then resumed the descent.  This put me in the correct place, as I came out a short distance from the base of the middle waterfall on Denton Creek.  This 40’ waterfall is really nice!  I even caught a few clouds while I was here, which made for better conditions for photography.


I eventually left there and climbed back up to the road.  I followed it to another crossing.  However, instead of crossing I continued upstream on an older road on River Right.  After a short distance I reached the base of the upper falls.  This one is ok, but not particularly photogenic.


I returned to the car, had lunch, and drove to the end of Tallulah River Road.  There were several other cars parked here, which was a mild surprise.  On my previous visits to this area I’d seen very few people. 


I decided to hike to Thomas Falls next.  I’d attempted it once previously but missed it due to some confusion.  Not long after wading the river I reached a 20’ waterfall in a crevice.  At the time I thought that was Thomas Falls, but I was actually a couple hundred vertical feet downstream from it.  The hike from there was rough.  I climbed a very steep, slippery, muddy slope alongside the lower falls.  Once at the top I found remnants of an old road, but it was so thick with rhododendron that it was little better than bushwhacking.  I fought my way through the jungle, and Thomas Falls came into view.  It’s a fairly high freefalling waterfall, but it is hard to get a good view of it.  The best vantage would be from farther back, but there is too much vegetation to see it well from there.  I ended up right at the base looking up at it.  It’s a pretty nice waterfall, but it wasn’t a good angle for photography.  There were some nice wildflowers in the area, particularly trillium, but the best flowers of the trip were yet to come.


I took a different route back, following the ridge immediately to the north.  That was much better until the very end.  The final descent ended in a horrible rhododendron tangle near the river.  I eventually fought my way through it to wade the river and reach the trail (old road) to Deep Gap.  From there, a short walk past numerous campsites brought me back to the car.


I regrouped, loaded my big backpack, and started walking back down Tallulah River Road at 3:15.  After a few minutes I found myself across from Holden Cove.  I was relieved to see an old road there heading upstream on River Right.  That was encouraging, though I still couldn’t be sure if that would eventually reach the A.T.  I would find out on Sunday.


A quick walk down the road and past a few houses brought me to the Beech Creek Trailhead.  Inconveniently, the trail doesn’t start along the creek.  Instead, it climbs steeply over a ridge to avoid private property.  When it reaches the creek it crosses to the far side.  I crossed it on a fallen tree, which made a nice bridge.  From there, an easy walk brought me to a rock hop crossing of Bull Branch.  There is a waterfall a short distance upstream, but it isn’t one of my favorites.  It was getting late, so I decided to skip it.  This was fortunate for the family I ran into a few minutes later.  There were 3 generations – grandpa, grandma, mom, dad, and a young girl.  They didn’t look like serious hikers.  I asked them where they were headed, and grandpa said “the falls”.  I was a bit startled.  The hike to High Falls on Beech Creek isn’t easy for anyone, and they looked like they would could get in over their heads.


After a bit more conversation I realized that they were trying to get to the waterfall on Bull Branch.  They were carrying a page from a guidebook that apparently just instructed them to follow the blue-blazed trail.  That’s useful, since all of the trails in that area are blazed blue.  I eventually convinced them that they had just passed the turn for it and got them turned around.  Before they headed back they asked me how hard the hike was to High Falls.  I told them it was pretty tough.  They asked if it was harder than that first ridge the trail climbs over on the way to Beech Creek, because that stretch had taken them an hour and a half.  It was difficult to keep from laughing.  I told them that it was A LOT harder than that and bid them farewell.


I hiked up into the Beech Creek Gorge.  Before long I rock hopped the creek and began climbing above it on an old mining road.  This stretch of trail is a bit of a tease, as there are a number of small falls / big cascades far below.  There are also a couple of high waterfalls on small tributaries above the trail.  At one point I passed some old mining ruins.  Then I reached the beginning of the switchbacks.  An old trail continues ahead here.  This is the trail to Beech Gap that we couldn’t find all of those years earlier.


I climbed a couple of switchbacks and reached a junction and a sign for High Falls.  From here I followed a rough side trail over to the base of the falls.  High Falls on Beech Creek is my favorite in this area.  It’s a fairly tall waterfall, and the relatively high water levels added to its beauty.


After a break there I returned to the main trail and resumed the climb.  After several switchbacks the trail contoured around a hillside above the creek.  The stream cascades and slides steeply directly below the trail.  Downstream I could see the brink of a waterfall.  Is that the top of High Falls, or is there another waterfall in there?  It was impossible to tell from this vantage point.  Getting down there would take a lot of effort and courage, and it was getting late.  I had to keep moving.


In hindsight, I wish I’d skipped Thomas Falls and spent more time exploring the Beech Creek Gorge.


The grade eased, and I followed the creek upstream towards its source at Beech Spring, which is just below Case Knife Gap.  The wildflowers were fantastic along here, with profuse trillium and trout lilies.  A bit below the gap I passed a couple of guys in a campsite.  They were very friendly, but they warned me that Case Knife Gap was crowded.  I was surprised, as I’d never seen anyone else camped there.  I even camped there once on a holiday weekend.  I asked them if they knew if anyone was camped up on Big Scaly.  They said they were just up there, and that there hadn’t been anyone else there at the time.  I thanked them and continued on.  After a few minutes I stopped and got a little over 2 quarts of water.  I thought that would be enough for dinner and breakfast, but I forgot that the dogs would need some, too.  I ended up giving them my breakfast water, which delayed breakfast until later on Sunday morning.


I passed through the startling crowd around Case Knife Gap and followed the side trail up the ridge towards the summit of Big Scaly.  This trail is an easy stroll most of the way.  Just before the top I reached a decent campsite in the woods.  It isn’t quite flat, but its proximity to the best views in the area more than made up for that.  I dropped my pack there and scrambled to the top of the rock outcrops to take in the view.  The vista is fantastic to the west and south.  It is very similar to the view from Standing Indian, but typically much less crowded.


I set up camp and returned to the overlook for sunset.  I had dinner up there, along with a warm cider and whiskey drink.  Although the sky was cloudless, I was treated to some nice colors as the sun dropped.  It got chilly and windy afterwards, and another cider and whiskey wasn’t enough to keep warm.  I headed to bed fairly early since I had a big day planned on Sunday.  My leg had held up pretty well during the hike.  It had only bothered me while I was bushwhacking to Thomas Falls.  It did well as long as I was on a decent trail.  I was hopeful that it would do ok tomorrow.  If it was hurting in the morning I could always bail out by hiking down Chimney Branch 3 miles to the car.


I got up for sunrise on Sunday, despite the fact that the sun was rising on the wooded side of the mountain.  I couldn’t actually see it, but the full moon was setting in the west, and the sky was colorful.  My leg was stiff and sore, but didn’t seem too bad.  I was confident I could hike on it.


Since I had no water I packed up and hiked back down to the spring to fill up.  From there I walked back up to Case Knife Gap and picked up the Girl Scout Trail.  It was right where I remembered it, and still in decent condition.  The climb was as steep as I remembered, but at least it brought me to the A.T. quickly.  10 minutes on the A.T. brought me to the junction with the side trail to the summit.  There was a group camped here, and some thru hikers on the summit.  Apparently it had been quite crowded up there the night before, but most of the other hikers had cleared out before I arrived.


There is a view from the summit, but there is a better vantage point from a larger cliff a bit farther out the ridge.  I hiked out there and made coffee and granola cereal for breakfast.  It was chilly and breezy, but the view was great.  After eating I returned to the A.T. and headed down to Deep Gap.  I stopped near the shelter to water the dogs and then continued on to the gap.  I found Scott waiting for me there.  Not only was he there and ready to join me on the trail, but he’d brought beer!  I enjoyed a post-breakfast beer and we hit the trail.  The A.T. beyond Deep Gap was a wildflower garden.  We hiked through Wateroak Gap and White Oak Stamp and on to the Muskrat Creek Shelter.  I made use of the privy there before we headed out the side trail to Raven Rock Cliffs.  Along the way we passed the remains of a plane crash.  There are pieces of airplane scattered all over the mountainside here.


The Raven Rock Cliffs were a spectacular spot for a late lunch.  Although the view is less expansive than from Standing Indian, I like it just as much.  There was one close call with disaster out there.  I was attempting to put my camera away when the lens cap popped off.  Somehow it landed on a ledge about 10’ down.  I thought it was lost forever, but Scott managed to retrieve it.  My hero!


After lunch we backtracked a bit on the A.T. towards Whiteoak Stamp.  Earlier we had hiked down to a spring there to get water, and Scott had scouted out the route down into Holden Cove.  The map shows an old road heading that way, and Scott reported that the road was a bit overgrown, but definitely still in existence.  We were most of the way back to Whiteoak Stamp when we reached a point where the old road was directly below us.  I decided to take a bit of a short cut and head down.  Scott elected to head straight back to Deep Gap from there.  I tried to talk him into joining me, but he wasn’t too crazy about having to wade the river and then hike all the way back up to Deep Gap with wet boots.  I couldn’t really blame him.


We parted ways, and I hiked down through open forest.  Before long I dropped down onto an old roadbed.  Like Scott said, it was a bit overgrown, but passable.  There were enough briers though that I was glad I wasn’t trying this in the summer!  I followed it down into Holden Cove on long, lazy contours and switchbacks.  At one point I took a short cut down through open forest to avoid a particularly long switchback, but for the most part I stayed on the old road.  The wildflowers were fantastic along here, particularly the white trillium, which were abundant.


Down around 3,700’ I had a decision to make.  There was a junction here.  The road shown on the map crosses the creek and then begins heading downstream high above the creek.  Another road headed south.  That wasn’t the correct direction, but it was flagged with pink ribbons.  I knew from years of experience that those ribbons could be meaningful or worse than useless.  Chasing ribbons can be the beginning of a navigational disaster.  I decided to cross the creek and stick with the road shown on the map.


Unfortunately, the map shows that road staying high above the creek before descending steeply along a spur ridge before abruptly ending near 3,400’.  It seemed unlikely that it would really end like that, but I knew there were no guarantees.  Plus, I wanted to check Holden Cove for waterfalls, and that would be hard to do 100’+ above the creek.  After a short distance I grew impatient.  I found myself at the top of a moderately steep ramp heading down towards the creek through open forest.  It was too tempting to pass up.  I headed down.  I was maybe 40 vertical feet above the creek when the forest changed from open to jungle.  I was hoping to avoid horrible bushwhacking, so I decided to sidehill downstream to intersect the road I’d abandoned.  This was my only mistake.  As it turns out, descending to the creek would’ve been faster and easier than the roundabout route I took.  After some rough bushwhacking and steep sidehilling I saw a ribbon (!) on the ridge directly above me.  I scrambled up to it, and discovered that the ribbon was actually the remains of a balloon.  The good news was that I was back on the road.  The bad news was that I was at the end of it – exactly where the map shows it ending.  The slope down to the creek here was exceptionally steep.  That wasn’t an option, but I didn’t really want to backtrack.


There was a tributary stream below the far side of the ridge.  That slope didn’t look too bad.  I knew if I could reach it I could follow it down to the main creek.  Getting down to it wasn’t too bad, but the tributary runs down through a steep, narrow ravine.  Descending it was slow and messy.  It was relief when I reached the main creek and found a trail!  The trail is primitive, but it was recently flagged with pink ribbons. 


This stretch of creek features a long run of cascades.  First I headed upstream to see if I’d missed anything significant.  I passed a couple of nice cascades, but no true waterfalls.  After a short distance the cascades eased, and the trail split, with ribbons running up both sides of the creek.  The trail was faint to this point, but almost non-existent beyond.  That seemed like a good place to turn around.  I doubled-back to the tributary and continued downstream.   After a short distance I passed above the biggest cascade.  I would say this a legitimate waterfall, as it cascades steeply for 40’ or so.  I stopped for photos there, as the waterfall was fully in the shade.  As far as I know, it doesn't have a name. Widespread Panic is one of my favorite bands, and one of their oldest songs is "Holden Oversoul". Since this one is in Holden Cove, I'm calling it "Oversoul Falls".


I followed the trail downstream from there.  There were a few more cascades, but nothing major.  The wildflowers remained abundant though, and the trail eventually became an old, rocky, wet roadbed.  I continued following this and reached the Tallulah River a bit south of the stream draining Holden Cove.  I waded the creek and reached a campsite adjacent to Tallulah River Road.  A couple of minutes of walking on the road returned me to car.  It had been a great hike, with waterfalls, wildflowers, views, and a good bit of adventure.  This is one of my favorite areas, so I’ll definitely be back!


The GPS track from my backpacking trip can be see here.  Note, this track does not include the short hikes to Denton Creek and Thomas Falls that I did before the backpacking trip:



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