THE HARD WAY
For 20 years now I’ve been curious about an old trail shown on the topo map along Courthouse Creek in the Pisgah National Forest. The map shows it connecting Courthouse Falls with the Blue Ridge Parkway just below Devil’s Courthouse. The Allen DeHart guide to North Carolina Trails even gives it a vague, one paragraph description of dubious accuracy. The trail looks incredibly steep on the map. Did it still exist? Recently I decided to find out.
Brenda joined me for the hike. The plan was to hike from highway 215 to Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Most of the hike would be on old, abandoned trails and railroad grades. We were definitely planning to do the hike the hard way. The hike would only be 7 miles or so, but we would gain about 2,500’ of elevation along the way. Most normal people would probably do it in the opposite direction.
I met Brenda at the Devil’s Courthouse parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway on Saturday morning. We left my car, and Brenda drove us down to the Summey Cove Trailhead on highway 215. Although the trailhead is marked with a sign, it is hard to see. We parked just after a bridge on the west side of the road.
Pisgah National Forest has plans to log the Courthouse Creek area. Part of the plan includes abandoning the Summey Cove Trail, which connects highway 215 with Courthouse Falls. It also required a temporary closure of the forest road leading to the parking area at Courthouse Falls. With the road closed, we were virtually assured of having the area to ourselves.
We started out with a steep climb on the Summey Cove Trail. We eventually crested a wooded ridge, and navigated a steep descent on a slippery trail covered in acorns. From there, we enjoyed an easy stroll on a virtually flat trail. That took us to a side path down to Courthouse Falls.
It was a sunny day, but Courthouse Falls was in deep shade, as usual. Despite good light, I was reminded just how difficult this waterfall is to photograph.
It was around this time that we both realized that neither of us had brought a topo map. Mine showed only the far upper end of the trail, and Brenda had left hers in the car. Oops. Brenda had her GPS with a pre-programmed track, but her GPS doesn’t have actual maps loaded into it. The GPS would be useful if we drifted off course, and it would provide elevation readings, but nothing more. Turning back would’ve been the wise course of action, but we decided to press on. How hard could it be to follow a creek upstream?
From the falls, we returned to the trail, which we followed for a couple of minutes to the closed forest road. We followed it briefly to a gate. We continued beyond the gate, still following Courthouse Creek. After a little less than a mile, we reached the base of a sliding cascade. Rich on ncwaterfalls.com calls it Upper Courthouse Creek Falls. However, Kevin Adams describes a “Waterfall on Upper Courthouse Creek”, which is actually farther upstream. This other waterfall is called “Red Rock Falls” on Rich’s site.
We crossed the creek and explored upstream along Coalny Branch briefly. A trail continues that way, but we didn’t see anything too exciting in that direction. We doubled back, and climbed a steep hillside adjacent to the falls. After a short climb, we followed a side path over to the top of the falls. We scrambled over some slippery rocks to get the base of another small drop. From there we scrambled up the steep hillside to regain the trail. A bit later, we spotted a cascade that looked interesting. We scrambled down to it for photos. Brenda set up her tripod to get a photo of herself in front of the falls, but she slipped as she was getting into position. She ended up giving herself a complete dunking! Regrettably, I didn’t get a photo of the incident.
That wasn’t her only mishap of the hike. Somewhere along Courthouse Creek she got stung by a bee. This was traumatic for everyone, because Brenda has a severe bee phobia. That makes it two weekends in a row that one of us has gotten stung.
We rejoined the trail, which dropped back down to creek level. The trail was faint at times along here, but we were able to follow it. It crossed the creek a few times before we reached the confluence of two forks. After a quick lunch there, we continued up the right branch. This stretch featured a couple of additional creek crossings and one short stretch where we hiked right up the creek. Water levels were quite low, so I was able to keep my feet dry the whole way. That was nice, but it took away from the aesthetics. Red Rock Falls (or “Waterfall on Upper Courthouse Creek” per the Kevin Adams guide) is scenic, but it would’ve been much nicer with more water. I didn’t spend much time photographing this one, since the water level was low and the light was poor.
Beyond Red Rock Falls we followed remnants of trail on the hillside well above the creek. At one point we dropped down to the base of another 10’ cascade. Then we returned to the trail, which we were able to follow briefly before it disappeared. I knew we just had to continue following Courthouse Creek to reach my car, so I wasn’t too worried about the trail’s disappearance. We generally paralleled the creek, but stayed up on the hillside above it. It’s worth noting that the map actually shows the trail on the opposite side of the creek, so it is possible that there are still remnants of a path over there. Gullies were the biggest obstacles, but overall the bushwhacking wasn’t too bad.
After a grueling climb we found ourselves directly below the sheer cliffs of Devil’s Courthouse. We could hear tourists up there conversing as we struggled up the final steep climb. That last pitch was a grind, but my navigation was right on. We came out right at the corner of the parking lot, right next to where I parked my car. I was pleased with my navigation skills, as being even slightly off would’ve added to the difficult of the hike due to additional elevation gain.
I’d like to return to upper Courthouse Creek some time when water levels are higher. Even though conditions weren’t ideal, it was a fun a hike! Incidentally, the DeHart guidebook lists the Upper Courthouse Creek Trail as 1.8 miles, and implies that there is good trail the whole way. Our route was actually over 4 miles (not counting Summey Cove). I’m not sure where he got the 1.8 mile measurement from, but it’s not even close.
Brenda’s GPS track is here (red line): http://brendajwiley.com/gps/215_to_devils_ch.html
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