“A LOT CAN HAPPEN IN 40 FEET”
I’ve learned a lot of things about hunting for new (undocumented) waterfalls over the years. Some words of wisdom:
- The best place to look for an undocumented waterfall is upstream from a known waterfall. Or downstream. Or on the next stream over, at about the same elevation.
- If someone gives you a tip on an undocumented waterfall, complete with a map and detailed directions, it might be worth checking out.
- Sometimes, topo maps lie.
- A lot can happen in 40 feet.
You can go ahead and carve that last one on my tombstone.
Eleven years ago Jack received an email from someone with a tip on a waterfall in South Mountains State Park. The email included a hand-drawn map and detailed directions. The alleged waterfall was upstream from High Shoals Falls, but it wasn’t the “Upper Falls” that is immediately upstream. A major trail passes right by that one. This waterfall was supposedly much farther upstream. In fact, the map showed it on Nettle Branch – a major tributary of the Jacobs Fork.
I looked at the topo map, but I was skeptical. I studied the stretch of Nettle Branch highlighted on the map, but there wasn’t anything there to suggest a waterfall. The creek drops all of 80’ over a mile or so in that area. Judging from the map, it’s practically flat. If there was anything there, it would be small. Jack agreed, and we dismissed it.
I overlooked a couple of things in my initial analysis. While 80’ of drop in a mile is very gradual, what if a good portion of that drop happens all at once? I also ignored a sharp bend (nearly 180 degrees) in the creek at that spot. Something caused the creek to bend like that – perhaps a change in geology? A different (harder) type of rock could cause the creek to turn – and it could also create a waterfall. Maybe I was a little too quick to dismiss this lead.
Last weekend I was looking for a place closer to home to hike. I had plans Saturday evening, and I would be out late Saturday night at a Band of Heathens concert. That ruled out a long drive on Sunday. Normally I don’t consider the South Mountains for summer hiking, but for some reason I remembered that email about the mystery waterfall from years earlier. Getting to it would require wading upstream, so summer was the perfect time. I decided to give it a look.
Saturday night’s show was excellent. I’ve seen the Band of Heathens twice now, and both performances were outstanding. Sadly, very few people have ever even heard of them. It’s a band that would have widespread appeal, if the music industry wasn’t such a complete failure.
“LA County Blues” by The Band of Heathens: http://cf.topspin.net/api/v3/player/57560
I got a late start on Sunday due to the concert, but that worked out ok. I drove through rain all the way to the park, but it finally started to let up when I arrived. By the time I hit the trail, it was foggy and drizzly. Backcountry campers were evacuating the park like the forest was on fire. That left me with the trails to myself. It also gave me perfect photo conditions at High Shoals Falls. I hadn’t planned on photographing the upper falls, as getting a decent composition requires climbing over a fence to access the base. There are no signs prohibiting this, but my guess is that the rangers probably wouldn’t approve. Still, the fog made for ideal light, and the entire hillside by the falls was covered in blooming rhododendron. So obviously I was compelled to climb the fence.
From there I hiked to the Upper Falls backcountry campsites. I then continued upstream. Initially I was able to follow a fisherman’s path, but it didn’t last long. Before long, the only reasonable option was to wade upstream. That wasn’t unpleasant, since water levels were moderately low. Still, progress was slow due to slippery rocks, tree branches, and a fairly strong current. On several occasions I was suckered into trying one bank or the other because the vegetation looked thin. Each time I regretted the attempt. The “thin” vegetation quickly closed in, and before long I was wriggly through dense rhododendron and briars. Ultimately I ended up back in the river, slogging upstream.
My only navigational concern was finding the confluence of Jacob’s Fork and Nettle Branch. It turns out I didn’t need to worry. However, when I reached it, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place. The main stream continued ahead, while a minor tributary flowed in from the right. I studied the map for a few minutes before I concluded that the minor tributary was in fact Jacob’s Fork. About 90% of the water was actually coming from Nettle Branch. Usually the river’s name goes with the larger stream, but in this case, the names seem to have been reversed.
I continued up Nettle Branch. The stream was quite placid, although the surrounding terrain was rugged. I heard the waterfall before it came into view. I worked my way around a boulder and there it was.
It’s not a big waterfall, but I already knew that. Although it is fairly small, it is scenic. There are actually two drops. The lower section cascades briefly before plunging vertically about 10’. The drop is next to a deep, dark grotto formed by an overhanging boulder. Just upstream is a deep channel and another drop. This one features two steep 5’ cascades separated by a 5’ vertical drop.
Getting a view of the upper portion was challenging. From the base, I had to backtrack downstream to avoid a cliff. I climbed through the woods adjacent to it, but rock walls kept forcing me up. I ended up climbing about 100’ before I could get around the cliff. I then descended all the way back down to the creek. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good vantage point to photograph the upper portion of the falls. The vertical drop was hidden behind rhododendron, and a huge boulder and a deep pool prevented me from repositioning myself.
My plan from there was to continue upstream another ˝ mile or so. At that point, I would hit the Fox Trail where it crosses Nettle Branch. However, to go upstream, I once again had to climb well above the creek. Once I was up there, I didn’t see a good way back down due to the steep terrain. I was on a ridge, so I consulted my map. I was a long way from the nearest trail, but it looked like I could continue up the ridge to a more prominent ridge running west. That would take me to the Fox Trail, too. I’d had enough creek walking and rhododendron bashing, so I decided to climb.
This worked out well. The forest was more open, and I was able to keep a reasonable pace. I stumbled upon old roadbeds a couple of times, but they didn’t last long. Finally I found myself on a more substantial road. I followed it out to a junction with the Fox Trail. At the junction I passed a sign, facing the opposite direction, that pictured a hiker in a circle with a line through it. Oops. I guess maybe this part of the park is off limits? Of course I didn’t pass any signs on my way in.
The hike back was quiet and uneventful. There were many more rhododendrons in bloom, too. I finally started running into people on the last mile of the hike. I returned to a relatively crowded parking lot, which was pretty funny. Somehow I’d managed to miss most of those people on my hike.
Although the mystery waterfall is small, it is scenic, and the hike was fun! There’s nothing better in the summer than a creek walk. I might even do this one again, since it is close to home but off the beaten path.
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