ELK RIVER POLAR BEAR CLUB

 

 

Ever since I first visited Elk Falls (Big Falls), years ago, Iíve had a mild obsession with the area.The Elk is a beautiful river, and below the falls, it runs through a remote, rugged gorge.Iíd heard that there were more waterfalls downstream, and Iíve made several trips over the years looking for them.A few years ago, a section of the Appalachian Trail was re-routed along the river, and weíve hiked it a couple of times.However, most of the gorge remains inaccessible, except for expert whitewater kayakers.

 

The most significant waterfall downstream from Big Falls is Twisting Falls.Iíve found reference to this waterfall several times over the years, but not much in the way of detailed information.A year ago or so, I drove up Poga Road, from the Elk Mills community, in search of a possible route down into the gorge.Going upstream from the Poga Road bridge didnít appear to be an option, as there is a house along the river there.Farther up the road, I found a place that may have provided a route down, but I wasnít prepared to hike on that occasion.

 

It wasnít until last week that I got another opportunity.I had a job assignment in Mountain City, TN, but stayed in Boone.Prior to heading to Boone, I did some additional research on Twisting Falls.Hereís what ďA Canoeing and Kayaking Guide to the CarolinasĒ, by Bob and David Benner, has to say about it:

 

ďThe 2.5 miles of serious water ends with Twisting Falls, where the river cascades 160í in .3 mile.The entrance to Twisting Falls is noted by the vertical rock walls that pinch the river down to a width of 20íÖ.Below here are other rapids and two more vertical drops of 16í and 45í in succession.These drops have been run, but are not recommended unless youíve been in some serious car wrecks and enjoyed the sensation.Ē

 

I found this rather entertaining, but since I had no intention of approaching the area in a boat, it didnít help me very much.I did another internet search for Twisting Falls, but this time, I actually found something useful.I found a trip report (http://www.waterfall-picture-guide.com/twisting-falls.html) with directions!What did we ever do without the internet?The directions turned out to be mostly accurate, although Iíve added some details in the paragraph below.

 

I finished my job early Wednesday afternoon, and followed a series of windy mountain roads to highway 321 in Elk Mills.I turned off the highway just before the bridge over the Elk River, and followed it a short distance before crossing the river on another bridge.Just beyond, I turned right onto Poga Road, and began following the river upstream.I crossed the river two more times, before climbing high above the gorge.There are a couple of views of the gorge along here, but I kept driving until I reached Clawson Road.I turned right, and drove Ĺ mile to Dark Ridge Road, on the right.I followed this paved road to a fork, and stayed right.Before long I passed a house, and a driveway, on the left.The road turned to dirt, but I continued ahead before stopping just short of a gate.I parked there, near an old barn, and gathered my gear for the short but steep hike down into the gorge.

 

Iím not sure if this is private or public land, but the road itself is lined with red blazes, so it may be the actual property line.If so, I may have parked on private land, but it isnít currently posted.Incidentally, this road is not shown on the National Geographic map ďSouth Holston and Watauga LakesĒ.Clawson Road is shown though, and Dark Ridge Road is gated near the gap just south of Round Knob.

 

From looking at the topo map, I think the gated road ahead continues along the rim above the gorge.If Iím not mistaken, it eventually drops down to ford the river, before eventually ending at the parking area near Elk Falls (Big Falls).One of these days Iíd like to try to hike it, from Elk Falls all the way to Twisting Falls, and back.I didnít have time for that today though.Instead, I picked up an ATV route, which descends to the right just before the gate.I followed this route, which is blazed yellow, before arriving below power lines.There is a view of the gorge here, far below.At this point, a steep but obvious path drops down to the left.

 

I headed that way.The path wasnít too bad at first, but it got worse.Itís steep, but it isnít particularly hazardous, as long as youíre cautious.At one point the path joined a dry gully.Just when the descent was getting tedious, the grade eased, and I strolled down to the river.

 

I found myself deep in a remote, pristine gorge, on the bank of a beautiful river.Looking upstream, I could just see Twisting Falls.The view from there was limited, but it was enough to make me want a better look.

 

I worked my way upstream, scrambling over rocks and following a faint path.After a few minutes, I scrambled up one last rock pile, and was rewarded with a breathtaking view.A 30í waterfall was directly in front of me, spilling over an impressive rock ledge.

 

Many of the waterfalls I hike to are on small streams that arenít very impressive when water levels are low.Not this one!The Elk is a powerful river.The bottom drop of Twisting Falls isnít the highest waterfall around, but itís definitely an awesome sight!Itís as impressive as itís big brother farther upstream.In fact, since itís in such a remote, pristine setting, I probably like it a little bit more.

 

I took a few photos, which was challenging, thanks to the heavy spray from the falls.Then I started looking for other possible compositions.

 

The river splits into two just above the falls, and the left side of the falls is hidden from view from the riverbank.From my perch, I could see a long rock ledge extending across the river, just below the falls.If I could get out to it, Iíd be able to see the falls in their entirety.However, getting there looked like a challenge.

 

I packed my gear, and descended the rocks ahead of me.This required a great deal of caution, as the footing was very slippery from the constant spray.At the bottom is a large pool, and further progress is blocked by a tall cliff.Luckily, someone had placed a log at the base of the cliff.The log looked like it would serve as a bridge over to the next pile of rocks.From there, I could climb the rocks to access the ledge.

 

I inched across the slippery log, knowing all too well what the penalty for failure would be.The footing was awkward, thanks to the proximity of the rock wall in front of me.Somehow I made it to the rocks without incident.Here I used some hand and foot holds to scramble up onto the ledge.The rocks were incredibly slick, but I never gave a second thought to how I would get back down them!

 

Once on the ledge, I inched my way out towards the middle of the river.My efforts provided two immediate benefits.First, I could see the entire falls for the first time.Second, I passed out of the spray zone, which provided a more pleasant viewing experience, and made photography much easier.I took a few shots, and found myself wondering if there were more falls above.Itís apparent that the river drops dramatically through here, and it seems likely that there is more to see above.However, I didnít see a good way to get there from my ledge.Going up the right side would be exceptionally steep, and would require crossing the river.The left side is guarded by sheer cliffs.Back where I first stopped, I noticed a path climbing up and around those cliffs.Itís possible that following that path might provide a route to explore the river further upstream.

 

I packed my gear, stashing my camera in my pack, for the hike back.I followed the ledge back to the cliff face, and gazed down at the route I had taken up.Climbing up here had been fairly easy, but how was I going to get down?The rocks were as slippery as a bathtub covered in greased banana peels.Unfortunately, the way I had come up was the only plausible route back down.

 

I sat on the ledge, and slowly lowered myself down to the first foothold.So far, so good.I shifted my weight, to drop down to the next step, and suddenly I was hurtling downward.In the split second before I hit the water, I had time for two thoughts.The first was, ďThank God I put the camera in the top of my packĒ.The second was, ďThis is going to be unpleasantĒ.

 

From above, the water looked no more than knee-deep.Imagine my surprise when I plunged in up to my abdomen!I jumped out of the river almost as quickly as I fell in.What a rush!If it had been any colder, I wouldíve expected to see icebergs floating by.

 

I started the hike back, all thoughts of trying to explore farther upstream banished from my mind.I knew I was flirting with hypothermia.Fortunately, I had plenty of warm clothes in my car, which was less than a mile away.I found the trail heading back up out of the gorge, and quickly warmed up as I climbed steeply up from the river.By the time I reached my car, I was actually almost comfortable, except for my water-logged boots.Still, it was a relief to change into warm, dry clothes.

 

It was only 4pm, so I decided to drive over the Valle Crucis to check out Craborchard Falls.Although I lived in Boone for four years, Iíd never heard of this waterfall before reading about it in Kevin Adamsí guide to North Carolina Waterfalls.From Dark Ridge Road, I followed a series of back roads through some of the most remote settlements in the Appalachians before finally rejoining highway 321.I followed 321 to the Watauga River, where I turned off onto Old Watauga River Road.This road looks like a shortcut on the map, but it probably isnít.Itís a dirt road, and it was slow going.On the upside, it was very scenic, as it offered many fine views of the river.I eventually reached highway 194, which I followed through Valle Crucis and on up the mountain to the Valle Crucis Conference Center.

 

At the conference center, I followed the signs for ďwaterfall parkingĒ.There werenít any cars there, so I was pretty sure Iíd have this waterfall to myself, too.I parked, and followed the dirt road.The route is well-marked with signs, and after a fair climb, I turned off the road in favor of a trail.I descended on the path and a staircase to reach the base of the falls.Craborchard Falls is a long series of pleasant cascades.Itís a pretty nice waterfall, but it seemed insignificant immediately after visiting Twisting Falls!Unfortunately, there are a couple of fallen trees in the pool at the base of the falls.As a result, it was difficult to make a good photo here, despite the ideal weather conditions.

 

I hiked back to the car, and headed for home.Originally I had planned to stop at Upper Falls on the way, but it was getting late.Iíd spent more time at Twisting Falls than I had originally planned, what with the swimming and all.I canít wait to get back there to explore further, but Iíll probably wait until summer, when the water is warmer!




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