There is a documented waterfall on Shoal Creek in South Mountains State Park. Kevin Adams give is a brief mention in his book. When the Foothills Conservancy acquired the land a few years ago, they posted a photo of the waterfall on their website. Despite this, the waterfall isn’t well known. Although it is in the state park, there is no easy way to get to it. In fact, a park ranger told Kevin that it is impossible to get to without crossing private property.
The ranger was wrong. There is developed private property downstream from the falls, which prevents direct access. Apparently the ranger meant that it is impossible to get to EASILY without crossing private property. Impossible? No. Team Waterfall has never been about doing things the easy way anyway.
I’ve been working on this one for a couple of years now. On my first scouting mission, I checked the obvious approach from downstream. There is nowhere to park, and getting to the falls would require walking right past several houses. Next, I tried driving up a road in the next valley to the west. The map shows the road passing through private property but ending inside the state park. From there, I figured I could hike over England Knob and down to the falls.
My drive up the road ended prematurely, at a gate to some sort of compound. It looked like some sort of cult. They were handing out free Kool Aid, but I decided to pass.
I came up with a better plan. We would start at Clear Creek (Broughton Hospital) Reservoir, inside the park. That would offer ample, safe parking. Using topo maps and the Burke County GIS website, I plotted out a route that was entirely on public property. It would require careful navigation to avoid private property, but that was feasible with a GPS. It would also require bushwhacking over a mountain, but that isn’t unusual for Team Waterfall.
Matt, Rick, Bob, Sean, and I met at Clear Creek Reservoir on Saturday morning. It was a sunny but chilly day – perfect for bushwhacking. We got a late start by design, as we were confident that the hike wouldn’t take all day. We started out with a pleasant stroll through a field and up along the spillway below the lake. Our first challenge was crossing it. My dog Boone ran right across the dam, but that looked slippery. The water below the dam was very shallow, but there were icy spots. With careful footing, we were able to dance our way across it without soaking our boots. A steep climb up the opposite bank brought us into open forest. Surprisingly, we stumbled upon a trail. It wasn’t going in the correct direction, but we decided to follow it around the west side of the lake.
After a few minutes on the trail we decided it was time to start up the ridge. The forest was wide open, which was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting thick bushwhacking. The climb was fairly steep, but manageable. Once on the ridge, we continued through open woods to a saddle. From there, we angled a bit to the south to climb more gradually up Stony Ridge. We joined a road briefly on the ridgecrest, but quickly left it to follow a spur ridge down the west side. The park boundary is on this ridge, and we followed a survey trail the whole way. It brought us to a small dam and reservoir on Shoal Creek. I’m not sure what this reservoir was for, but it is a swamp now. The pond has filled in with silt, creating a huge pool of mud behind the dam.
We found a broad woods road on the far side. This road is actually shown on the map. It continues all the way back to where we parked. Unfortunately you can’t follow it here directly because it passes through private property.
We were able to follow it briefly, as it parallels Shoal Creek. After a few minutes though it turned northeast, away from the creek and into private property. We left the road and bushwhacked downstream. After only a few minutes we reached the brink of a waterfall. This was a bit of a surprise. We were at 1,560’, but I was pretty sure that the waterfall was down around 1,400’. Still, the horizon line just downstream clearly indicated a waterfall. We scrambled around and down to the base of a 12’ drop. It was nice, but there was too much deadfall to get a good photo. Immediately downstream was the brink of another, larger drop. We crossed to River Right and scrambled down to the base. This is a pretty 20’ waterfall. It’s the same one I’d see a photo of a few years earlier.
We declared victory and had lunch in the sunshine. But I was puzzled. The topo map indicated that there was probably another waterfall downstream. In fact, it looked much more promising at 1,400’ than at 1,560’. Could there be another waterfall?
We had to check. We found a trail leading away from the base of the falls and followed it downstream. After a short distance it turned away from the creek, towards private property. We stayed with the creek, sidehilling above it. After a long flat stretch of creek the terrain became more rugged. We began seeing rapids and small cascades in the stream below. Then the world fell out from underneath us.
We found ourselves high on a rocky point, with the creek tumbling dramatically far below. We regrouped and then started down. There were lots of thick bushes and briars here, so I followed a combination of my instincts and the path of least resistance. Bob and Matt took a slightly different angle and reached the creek farther upstream. Before long, I found myself directly above the brink of a huge waterfall! Matt and Bob worked their way down towards the precipice. Meanwhile, I swung around the cliff to the entrance to a towering stone amphitheater. The cliff loomed above the falls, but it looked like it might be possible to scramble down through it. I seriously considered it, but it was impossible to tell whether I’d be able to make it all the way down. The slope was very exposed, and there was nothing but a steep rock face to hold onto. Having Boone with me pushed me towards caution. Rick and I decided to climb up and around the cliff that forms the amphitheater. It looked like it would be safer to descend on the far side. Sean (and later Matt and Bob) took the direct route and made it unscathed. Matt said it was sketchy, ending with a 10’ slide down a wet rock. Climbing back up that way would be impossible without a rope.
Once Rick and I cleared the cliff we had our first clear view of the falls. It’s spectacular! It is at least 50-60’, and nearly vertical, as it is surrounded by cliffs. We picked our way down the slope right on the state park boundary. Then we worked our way up to the base.
It was a sunny day, so conditions were poor for photos. The waterfall faces north though, so it wasn’t hopeless. We spent quite a bit of time admiring Impossible Falls and taking photos from a variety of angles. While we were down there we noticed an old rope dangling from the brink of the cliff adjacent to the falls. It is on a wet cliff, and looked like a death wish. Who would “rappel” on that?
We decided to make the hike out more fun by scrambling up the series of rock outcrops adjacent to the amphitheater. This was grueling but fun, and we were rewarded with a thru-the-trees view of the Black Mountains from the uppermost outcrop. After a break we climbed a bit more before turning to contour across the hillside along the park boundary. The boundary forced us to descend gradually back towards the creek, which was inconvenient, but we were being purists about staying on public property. Also, the ridge above seemed to be covered with clearings and deer stands, so it’s probably wise to avoid wandering through there.
Before long we found ourselves back at the base of the upper falls. One more steep climb and moderate bushwhacking brought us to the dirt road that led back to the Upper Reservoir. Earlier Rick had realized that he had dropped his gloves. He thought it had happened near the Upper Reservoir. As luck would have it, he found one of them shortly after we reached the dam. There was no sign of the other one. Since we weren’t in a hurry I suggested that we take a few minutes and look for the other one.
Rick: “Good idea, since we have 5 sets of eyes”.
As he said this, Sean walked into a tree branch and poked himself in the left eye.
Me: “Well, four and a half”.
Although Sean may lose his eye, at least Rick found both gloves. We declared victory and followed our GPS track back to Clear Creek Reservoir. Along the way, one member of our group, who shall remain nameless, dropped back to use the bathroom. When he caught up a few minutes later he exclaimed, “my legs are really sore and cramping”. Sean responded with, “that must’ve been one hell of a dump.”
For variety, we hiked around the upper end of the lake on the return. The descent to the lake was much more gentle than the route we’d climbed in the morning. There we were treated to nice views across the water towards the Black Mountains. We also passed a beaver dam and a small cascade with a pothole on Clear Creek. After rock hopping Clear Creek and a tributary we picked up a trail along the northeast side of the lake. This trail provided us with more views across the lake and lots of signs of beaver activity.
We returned to the cars around 5:30, which is pretty reasonable for a Team Waterfall hike. We celebrated our successful adventure with a beer (thanks Rick!) and headed for home.
Here is a GPS track from our adventure: https://www.gaiagps.com/public/spjKYSSegpxPdhYTKjyWH4kB/?layer=GaiaTopoRasterFeet
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