(or, the Further Adventures of the Accidental Trespassers)
Over the past few years I’ve heard rumors of waterfalls in the South Mountains Game Lands, southwest of South Mountains State Park and Morganton, NC. Specifically, several years ago I’d read about an organized hike held by the Foothills Conservancy to a waterfall on Sally Queen Creek. However, I’ve never seen any waterfalls in this area mentioned in any guidebook or noted on any map. In his guide to North Carolina Waterfalls, Kevin Adams mentions the possibility of a waterfall or waterfalls in that area, but states that there is no good public access. Even the internet lacks information on the area. A Google search for Sally Queen Creek basically turns up nothing. It’s funny – by now, I thought EVERYTHING was on the internet.
Jack and I did some research beyond searching the internet. We both studied the topo map, and found a likely place for a waterfall on Sally Queen Creek. Eventually Jack found someone at the Foothills Conservancy that had been to the waterfall. He provided some useful information, including coordinates for the approximate location of the waterfall. As it turns out, those coordinates matched the spot where we expected the waterfall to be. However, figuring out how to get there was more of a challenge.
The easy route to the falls involves hiking upstream along the North Fork of the Broad River and then Sally Queen Creek. Unfortunately, that route crosses several parcels of private property. The waterfall itself is on public property (the game lands), but there is no easy legal way to get to it.
Eventually Jack and I got tired of doing research and decided to have a go at it. My plan was to park on Melton Road, which provides public access to the game lands. Melton Road is a good distance east of Sally Queen Creek, but it appeared to be the best approach. We hoped that we would be able to follow old roads or trails most of the way to the creek, but we had no way to know for sure. Although the game lands are laced with old tracks, most of them aren’t shown on any map.
Last Sunday, our hiking buddy Bob joined us for our adventure. Bob arrived at our designated meeting place that morning 40 minutes late. When he arrived, he told me that everything that could go wrong had already gone wrong that morning. This struck me as a particularly bad omen, considering that we planned to spend most of the day hiking off-trail to a remote, little-known waterfall.
Bob and I met Jack in Shelby and I drove from there. We parked on Melton Road just beyond the gap between Beaverdam Creek and Pot Branch. There is a gated logging road heading west from the gap, and I hoped that we could follow it at least part of the way to Sally Queen Creek.
We started up the logging road at 9:45 under partly cloudy skies. It was unusually warm for late February, and the forecast called for highs in the upper 70’s. Our plan was to follow any road or trail that we stumbled upon that was heading in more or less the correct direction. Sally Queen Creek was west of our starting point, and the location of the falls was northwest.
After a few minutes we reached a fork in the road. The main road headed left (west), while an old, unmaintained track curved to the right. We went left in an effort to stay on the more-traveled route. This may have been a mistake. I wonder now how the day would’ve turned out if we’d taken the right hand fork.
A bit later we spotted a small cabin ahead in the middle of a large clearcut. The South Mountains Game Lands feature lots of clearcuts, so this wasn’t much of a surprise. Unfortunately the logging road ended in the middle of the mess. We decided to hike to the far end in hopes that we’d find an old road or trail there. We wandered through the clearcut, carefully negotiating the many discarded limbs and stumps littering the area. Eventually we reached the headwaters of a small stream heading west. However, there wasn’t a hint of a road or trail. Instead of following the stream, we decided to make the steep climb up the ridge to the north. We reached the crest a few minutes later, but once again there were no roads or trails to be found. What we did find was no trespassing signs. However, the area ahead wasn’t posted. Rather, we had just crossed a section of private property. Oddly, we hadn’t seen any signs on our approach.
At that point we decided to press on. Since there weren’t any trails to follow, we took a compass bearing and headed northwest. We descended rapidly towards a minor valley. Along the way we passed some surprisingly large trees. We mainly passed hardwoods, including Red Oak and Beech, but the biggest tree was a mammoth White Pine. Later we found even more impressive trees, including a stout Tuliptree.
We eventually made our way down to a small stream, which Boone found refreshing. It was here that we made our biggest navigational mistake of the day. We should’ve climbed steeply out of the valley and continued to the northwest. Instead we traversed the hillside above the stream, heading west. We stayed above the creek to avoid the Rhododendron, but that didn’t make the hike much easier. We sidehilled along a surprisingly steep leaf-covered slope. Before this hike I never realized just how slippery dry leaves on a steep slope are. We all took turns slipping and stumbling, but gradually continued our westward progress.
Eventually the creek turned south. At this point we continued moving west, up the slope and away from the stream. We eventually reached the crest of the ridge, where we enjoyed a short break in a refreshing breeze.
We continued west from there, heading down towards Sally Queen Creek. The hiking was rapid but not too steep as we descended. On the way down we passed the site of an old still. I wonder now how long it had been since someone else had passed that particular site.
A few minutes later we reached what we thought was Sally Queen Creek. We were wrong, but it was a bit later before we realized that we were actually on the North Fork of the Broad River, far downstream from where we thought we were.
We headed upstream along an old, rocky jeep road. Several creek crossings followed, but the water was shallow and we were able to rock hop easily despite slippery rocks. A few minutes later we passed a major fork. Initially this confused us. After studying the map for a couple of minutes we realized that we were farther downstream than we’d expected. The fork was actually the confluence of the North Fork of the Broad River and Sally Queen Creek. Just beyond the fork we entered an open clearing and merged with a more prominent road. We headed upstream along Sally Queen Creek, following the road. The muddy road featured fresh tire tracks. This made us a bit nervous as we began passing “no trespassing” signs. They were posted by a hunting club. As far as trespassing goes, there aren’t many worse places to do it than land owned by a hunting club. Woops.
We briefly debated our options. We all knew that if we turned back we’d never make it to the falls that day. Instead, we doubled our pace and continued upstream, knowing that we had to be close to the game lands boundary. A bit later we saw new signs, this time posted by the Galax Corporation, whatever that is. A few minutes later, we spotted what looked like a giant deer stand on the hillside above us. Either that, or it was a guard tower. I could just picture a sniper up there watching us as we hiked along the creek.
We were all relieved when we reached the boundary a few minutes later. Just beyond, we spotted a massive fallen tree spanning the creek. Bob decided to walk across it, even though it was a good 20’ above the water. Jack and I watched this, but declined to join him.
The condition of the old road deteriorated a bit beyond here, but it was still some of the easiest hiking of the day. A few minutes later we passed a series of cascades far below. They looked intriguing, but at this point the road was high above the creek, and exploring them would’ve required some effort. Instead we pressed on. We were just beginning to wonder if we’d missed the falls when we turned a corner and spotted the falls ahead.
Our initial reaction was that the waterfall had been worth the considerable effort we’d expended to reach it. The waterfall on Sally Queen Creek is perhaps 30’ high and quite pretty. It’s photogenic, except that there is a large fallen Hemlock at its base. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that tree will be going anywhere anytime soon.
We took our lunch break there and spent a good bit of time exploring the falls and taking photos. At one point I climbed over the fallen tree to get a better vantage point for photos. Beyond the tree I had to wade a deep pool to reach a promising sandbar. It was a warm day, but it was still the end of February, and that water was COLD! It turns out the pool was deeper than it looked, too. How deep was it? I’d say it was soul deep. I guess I should’ve taken my maps out of my pocket before I went in. Luckily Jack had brought a map along, too.
After lunch Jack and I explored a short distance farther upstream. We didn’t see anything exciting, but the old road continued. I believe this old road follows the creek all the way to the main road running along the crest of the range. We had hiked quite a bit of this road a few weeks earlier trying to reach Buzzard’s Roost, the highest peak in the South Mountains.
We rejoined Bob and considered our options. It was 2pm, so we had almost 5 hours of daylight to work with. None of us were crazy about returning by the same route we’d come in by. We didn’t want to push our luck any further with crossing private property. On the other hand, I was leery about trying a completely unknown route for our return. However, we had spotted an old road heading east shortly before we reached the falls. It looked like it would at least get us started in the right direction.
We headed back downstream and crossed the creek to access the roadbed. We followed it for a couple of minutes before losing all trace of it in a jungle of Rhododendron and Dog Hobble. At this point we didn’t have many options. We pressed on eastward, forcing our way through the jungle. After a few minutes of this we reached the base of a minor ridge. I suggested trying it in hopes that it would get us out of the Rhododendron. Technically this was a success. We left the Rhododendron behind quickly. Unfortunately, the Rhododendron gave way to a horrible tangle of Mountain Laurel. If this was better, it wasn’t by much. We continued climbing, crawling on occasion. Finally we emerged from the jungle high on the slopes of Richland Mountain. At that point we began contouring to the north in an attempt to avoid crossing the summit.
I’m not sure if that approach was actually any easier. The sidehilling was brutal, especially now that we were hiking on tired legs. Eventually we reached a minor gap on the north side of Richland Mountain. From there, Jack led us down a steep gully heading south. The descent was quick and featured a fair bit of buttwhacking. Finally we reached a grassy field down in the valley of Pot Branch. We hiked through the field, where we found a surprising number of briars. Why do all of our waterfall adventures involve Rhododendron AND briars?
We found the road on the far side of the field. My car was only about 100 yards from where we reached it. Overall I’d say we did a much better job navigating on our return!
Finding the waterfall on Sally Queen Creek was a fantastic adventure. It was a lot of fun researching and finding our way to a waterfall without much outside help. So what will we come up with next?
Back to North Carolina
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!