THAO IN WONDERLAND
We headed for Virgin Falls the next day.† Unfortunately, we didnít get off to an early start.† A chilly night left me shivering in my 25-degree bag, and it was hard getting up first thing in the morning.† Hot cocoa and egg and bagel sandwiches helped though.† We drove through Sparta and up onto the plateau, where it was downright cold.† The Xterraís thermometer claimed it was 37 degrees at 11am (EDT).† What was going on around here?† I thought it was supposed to be spring!
We started down the trail, but stopped to register.† Shortly beyond, Christy spotted an old turtle shell, which Thao and Saucony both found fascinating.† Saucony was moving well, which was a relief.† Lately she has taken to limping after any sort of strenuous exercise.†
Over the first mile we wandered through an open forest as yet untouched by spring.† We followed a small stream, crossing it three times, before beginning a steep descent towards Laurel Creek.† Along the way, we stopped briefly at Big Branch Falls, which isnít big.† It is kind of cute, but it seems awfully insignificant compared with what was ahead.
A steep descent on switchbacks brought us to Laurel Creek, where we discovered that the water was up.† This was a concern, as Thaoís boots are not waterproof.† A dry crossing was tricky, but we were able to use a log and a cable spanning the creek to get across.† From there, we followed Laurel Creek downstream below high, sheer cliffs.† We passed high above the sink, where Laurel Creek disappears underground, and a few minutes later, the rise, where it reappears.† Beyond were countless cascades and pools.† Some of the pools looked like inviting swimming holes on a warmer day.†
A steep, rocky descent brought us to the base of Big Laurel Falls.† Iíve never managed a particularly good photo of this waterfall, and today promised nothing different.† It was another bright, sunny day.† Where are the clouds when you need them?† The last time Iíd been there, it had been snowing, which wrecked itís own kind of havoc with my pictures.† Conditions had been perfect on my first visit, when my camera was off being repaired.
Conditions were poor for photography, but excellent for lunch.† It had warmed a little, and the sun helped.† After lunch we explored the cave behind the falls.† Big Laurel Falls is quite unusual, as the creek spills over the waterfall, before running back into a deep cave underneath itself.† At the back of the cave, the creek disappears underground, never to be seen again.† Nobody really knows where the water goes.† One theory is that is re-emerges from Sheep Cave, in the next drainage to the west.† Thereís less water coming out of Sheep Cave than there is in Laurel Creek though.† Iím inclined to believe that the water runs underground before surfacing directly in the Caney Fork River.
We entered the cave, and I immediately noticed that something was different.† The last two times I had visited, the creek had run to the back of the cave and disappeared down a single sink.† Today though, much of the water bypassed the sink, following the back of the cave wall around in a long curve.† There were several more sinks along the way, before the creek ran back out towards the mouth of the cave.† Just before the mouth, the remainder of the stream disappeared down a final sink.† While I was exploring, it occurred to me that the stream was still carving out this cave.† It was already huge, and it would only get bigger.
We spent quite a bit of time in the cave.† First, itís a fascinating spot.† Itís one immense cavern, featuring a high, colorful ceiling.† The view out, through the falls to the green forest, is unforgettable.† Best of all, it was much warmer in the cave than it was outside.† I think that tells you everything you need to know about how cold it was out there!
Eventually we had to leave, as we still had Sheep Cave and Virgin Falls on the dayís agenda.† We followed an easy stretch of trail down the gorge above the dry creek bed.† Along the way we passed another cave entrance, and thousands of wildflowers.† Spring had arrived down here in the gorge!† Phlox was blooming everywhere, and Dwarf Iris and the occasional Trillium added color.† There were countless other varieties that I couldnít identify as we trekked towards Sheep Cave.
We reached Sheep Cave and Sheep Cave Falls some time later.† This one is also fascinating, as the creek emerges from the cave, cascades down a pretty waterfall, and freefalls into an abyss, never to be seen again.† If youíre paying any sort of attention, youíve probably picked up on a theme here.
Viewing the lower part of the falls and the sinkhole is rather hazardous, so we followed the trail up to the cave.† On my first visit here, I had hiked a fair distance into the cave in my boots.† On that visit, the water was just shallow enough that I could do so and keep my feet dry.† Once I got into the dark though, I couldnít be sure that I wouldnít step into a deeper hole.† On that visit Iíd gone far enough to get into total darkness, but hadnít pressed my luck any further.† Iíd vowed to come back though, and bring sandals so I could wade.
I had my Tevas this time, but there was one problem.† That water was cold!† I waded a short distance before realizing the absurdity of my plan.† I hurried back out of the cave, defeated again.† I wonder if that water gets any warmer in the summer?† I wouldnít bet on it.† I guess I need some sort of waders to fully explore Sheep Cave.† Before we left, we watched Thao explore on her own.† She climbed up to the cliffs above the mouth of the cave.† For someone that had never been hiking before, she certainly wasnít tentative.† It seemed like our biggest challenge with Thao might be reigning in her enthusiasm.
From there it was a short hike to Virgin Falls.† Along the way we passed more wildflowers, and two other hikers.† They were the only other people weíd see all day.† This was a little surprising, considering the popularity of the area.† It was a Thursday, but it was the Thursday before Easter.† Perhaps the cold weather scared off the crowds.
We arrived at Virgin Falls, and Christy and Thao were blown away.† Virgin Falls has that affect on people.† In fact, I hardly cared that I couldnít get a decent photograph.† I spent my time enjoying the falls, and checking out the adjacent hillside, which was covered in blooming Great White Trillium.
After our break, we climbed to the top of the falls to explore.† At the top, the river emerges from a cave, runs peacefully for 100í or so, and plunges off a cliff.† 110í of roaring foam later, the river disappears underground.† (I told you there was a pattern!)† I led Christy and Thao to a small cave adjacent to where the river emerges, which leads back to a viewpoint of the subterranean river.† Unfortunately, itís impossible to proceed from that point, without jumping into the river (which I definitely donít recommend).† While we were exploring outside the cave, Christy followed a path up above the river.† The path ends at a cliff, where there is a large cave entrance.† This one looks quite appealing, as there is no water.† Getting down into it looked a little tricky though, and it was getting late.† It was already 4pm, and we still had a 4-mile uphill hike between us and the car.† Once again, it looks like Iíll have to save this cave for another time.
The hike back was fairly uneventful.† We were running late, so we didnít fool around.† I was worried that Thao might run out of gas on the way out.† After all, an 8-10 mile hike on rocky trails over rugged terrain is a lot for someone that had never been hiking before.† Sheís in good shape though, and I neednít have worried.† In fact, my biggest concern was keeping up with her!
Just past Big Laurel Falls, we reached a signed junction with a side trail to an overlook of Scotts Gulf.† Iíd never hiked to the overlook before, as Iíd always been in a hurry to get back to the car (another theme).† Today though, I was determined.† My plans to explore Sheep Cave had been thwarted, and I wanted to see something new on this trip.† I told Christy and Thao to continue on to the car.† Iíd hike to the overlook, and pick up the loop trail that would be bring me back down to the main route near the crossing of Laurel Creek.† If I pushed it, I might catch them before they reached the car.
The climb to the overlook proved to be long and steep.† In a couple of places, steep staircases (almost ladders) enabled me to climb the cliffs.† Saucony found a way around those, with some difficulty. The path finally brought me to the top, where I found campsites and a fine view.† The view stretches the length of Scotts Gulf, which is the gorge carved by the Caney Fork River.† I enjoyed it for a couple of minutes, before hurrying to catch up with Christy and Thao.
My plan derailed on the way down.† I couldnít find the connecting loop trail.† There were paths running all over the place, but none went the direction I wanted to go.† Eventually I ended up back down where Iíd started, 30 minutes behind Christy and Thao.† Sigh.† The women werenít going to be happy about this.
I hurried up the trail, hoping to make up some time.† I kept a brisk pace all the way back, even up the steep hill beyond the creek crossing.† I reached the car 10 minutes after they did, just in time to claim the last of the tortilla chips and salsa.†
We headed back to camp, which we reached just before dark.† While the women showered, I started the fire and the charcoal.† That evening, we enjoyed steak, potatoes, and salad.† Thao garnished her steak with sweet pickles.† Apparently, she enjoys pickles with pretty much everything.† Iíd heard that Vietnamese people eat some strange food, but this wasnít what I expected!
That evening, Thao bailed out on us again before the smores were ready.† Clearly, she didnít know what she was missing.† That evening, I made the mistake of turning on my weather radio.† A few days earlier, the forecast had called for highs each day in the upper 50ís, with lows in the lower 30ís.† What a difference a few days makes!† The latest forecast was calling for highs in the lower 40ís, with lows in the upper teens!† Clearly, the forecasters had been way off.† This didnít go over well with Christy, who doesnít enjoy being cold.† Thao was in one of our old winter bags, which are rated to zero degrees.† They have a lot of wear and tear on them though, and they are probably only good to 20 degrees at this point.† Plus those bags are huge, and Thao is tiny.† Thao didnít exactly have a lot of warm winter clothing, either.† I was also concerned about my bag, which is only rated to 25 degrees, too.† Clearly, we would all have some challenges staying warm through the rest of the weekend.
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