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Panthertown backpack July 3, 2014

Posted by Jenny in camping, hiking, Nantahala National Forest, Pisgah National Forest, Southern Appalachians.
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Pothole Falls.

Pothole Falls.

Last weekend I went backpacking in Panthertown with my new friends Dana and Cathy. The plan was to meet Friday morning, camp two nights, and come out Sunday. We had no set itinerary—just the desire to wander about ethereal realms of granite plutons and splendid waterfalls. Plus, Dana had a really good tip about a beautiful place to camp, not far from the Cold Mountain Road entrance.

Panthertown is located south of Sylva NC and west of Brevard NC. It is considered to be partly in Nantahala National Forest and partly in Pisgah NF.

As it turned out, we got rained on pretty hard a few hours after we arrived. In some ways that was bad luck, but in one way it was nice—we got to see some of the waterfalls foaming and roaring from the heavy rainfall. I opted to leave Saturday morning because I had aggravated a chronic hip flexor problem two days earlier on a bushwhack up Cole Creek and it was really bothering me. Dana and Cathy opted to leave Saturday evening because everything was so wet and dirty by that point that it made sense to go home and dry off.

We started by going up the Mac’s Gap Trail to the Greenland Creek Trail and turning northwest to go along a pretty rough pathway to see a couple of falls. There were lots of roots and rocks and steep little climbs, but that’s what Panthertown is all about. First we came to Mac’s Falls.

It was jungly along the edge of the stream.

It was jungly along the edge of the stream.

Mac's Falls from downstream. Peaceful.

Mac’s Falls from downstream. Peaceful.

A little further along we came to Pothole Falls.

Pothole Falls.

Pothole Falls.

We headed back upstream and located the camping spot Dana had heard about. It was just perfect, carpeted with pine needles and right beside the amber waters of Greenland Creek. There was even a tiny beach area with very fine grains of sand.

The only problem was that at this point it was pouring—just as we were trying to set up our tents. I was in such a hurry to get my tent up that when I yanked it out of its stuff sack, the little bag with the tent pegs went flying into the brush and I didn’t even see it go. Then, when I couldn’t find the pegs, I figured I’d left them behind the last time I used the tent. Dana and Cathy had extras which they kindly loaned me. Dana spotted the little bag when they broke camp.

After we got things set up, the rain tapered off and we explored the three falls upstream from there. First was Greenland Creek Falls.

Beautiful the way the Panthertown falls are all fringed with luxuriant green.

Beautiful the way the Panthertown falls are all fringed with luxuriant green.

The water was churning and foaming from the rain. To me, it had a strangely industrial sound, as if subterranean machinery was busily at work. I remember saying to the others, “It sounds like a machine,” but I couldn’t quite explain what I meant.

The fogging on my lens got worse as I went along. Well, at least it gives you a feel for how damp things were.

Raging waters.

Raging waters.

Patterns of foam below Halfway Falls.

Patterns of foam below Halfway Falls.

This rhodo blossom wanted to be admired.

This rhodo blossom wanted to be admired.

We came to the uppermost of the falls, Carlton’s Falls.

Contrast between white foam and dark amber pool.

Contrast between white foam and dark amber pool.

I took a picture of Dana and Cathy. Unfortunately, the fogged-up lens turned Cathy into a ghost.

Dana and Cathy with fog on the lens.

Dana and Cathy with fog on the lens.

We returned to camp and had supper. Afterward, I wandered up and down Greenland Creek a short distance and gazed at the beautiful stream.

There is no other place quite like Panthertown.

Carlton's Falls.

Carlton’s Falls.

 

Bartram Trail over Fishhawk and Whiterock April 24, 2014

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Nantahala National Forest, Southern Appalachians.
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Boulders on Whiterock

Boulders on Whiterock.

Today I explored a short section of the 115-mile Bartram Trail. I started at Jones Gap and did an out-and-back of eight miles total plus a couple of side trails. This is a rewarding short trip into more of the plutons around Highlands, NC. Readers may recall that I visited Whiteside Mountain a couple of months ago. That is in the same area and part of the same geological family.

The Bartram Trail goes from north Georgia to western North Carolina, roughly following the route of the naturalist William Bartram on his expedition of 1773 to 1777.

William Bartram, 1739-1823. Explorer and naturalist.

William Bartram, 1739-1823. Explorer and naturalist.

The drive to Jones Gap is fairly dramatic if you approach it from the Cullasaja Gorge. The road through the gorge climbs steeply, with lots of sharp curves and steep dropoffs. Large trucks are banned from driving it.  But the Cullasaja road is tame compared to the unpaved Forest Service road that takes you the last couple of miles up to the gap (elev. 4360′). It is the kind of road where you keep your fingers crossed no one comes the other way, as it’s just one car-width wide, with a deep ditch on one side and a dropoff on the other, and only a few spots where you could pull over.

The trailhead parking area boasts an attractive informational kiosk.

I headed in the direction of Buckeye Creek.

I headed in the direction of Buckeye Creek.

It was a beautiful morning, with a temperature in the low 50s at this elevation, blue skies, and a gentle breeze. As I expected, the wildflowers hadn’t progressed very far here. I saw violets, bloodroot, toothwort, and chickweed.

I passed through an anonymous forest of still-bare hardwoods interspersed with clumps of rhodo and laurel. Before I got to Whiterock Gap, I turned off on a short side path that led to open rock with views of Whiterock.

Whiterock shows off its plutonic dome.

Whiterock shows off its plutonic dome.

Where I stood, smooth rock was covered here and there with pads of moss.

Mosses and lichens formed mats on the smooth rock.

Mosses and lichens formed mats on the smooth rock.

Odd-shaped boulders were strewn about. It made me think of a workshop for assembling Stonehenge.

Giants could assemble these into some sort of structure.

Giants could assemble these into some sort of structure.

I returned to the trail, went through Whiterock Gap, and turned off again on a trail that climbed 0.3 mile to open ledges near the summit of Whiterock, passing through a clearing where pine trees grew out of small mats of soil and vegetation.

This pine hardly seems to have enough soil to root itself.

This pine hardly seems to have enough soil to root itself.

I came out on a spectacular vista.

The pale green of spring was creeping up the valleys.

The pale green of spring was creeping up the valleys.

Small serviceberries grew on the ledges.

Small serviceberries grew on the ledges.

After I returned to the main trail, I spotted an especially nice serviceberry in bloom.

Pretty serviceberry blossoms.

Pretty serviceberry blossoms.

I passed over Little Fishhawk and eventually arrived at the side trail to (Big) Fishhawk. It climbs steeply to the summit, which has no views but features a plaque honoring William Bartram.

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Bartram plaque.

Fishhawk summit.

Fishhawk summit.

I continued to Wolf Rock, 3.9 miles from Jones Gap. It offered a restricted view that came as an anticlimax after Whiterock, but if you were hiking from the other direction it would be a welcome stopping point on your climb. Three peregrines were racing across the sky when I stopped there.

Here I turned back, having enjoyed a short but interesting hike.

View from Wolf Rock.

View from Wolf Rock.

Waterfalls of the Dismal Creek wilds February 18, 2014

Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Nantahala National Forest.
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Rhapsodie Falls

Mini-gardens of Rhapsodie Falls.

Ah… Panthertown. What a great place. Today I explored in the fastnesses around Dismal Creek, which lies in the wildest part of Panthertown, the Big Pisgah tract. For those of you not familiar with Panthertown, it can be defined as the headwaters of the Tuckasegee and the West Fork of the French Broad, straddling Jackson and Transylvania Counties, North Carolina. So now you understand it, right?

Panthertown is considered part of the Nantahala National Forest, but US forest rangers are not seen in Big Pisgah. (Added 2/19: Unlike the rest of Panthertown, Big Pisgah is designated as part of Pisgah National Forest. Bottom line, the Forest Service doesn’t have funds for maintaining trails in Panthertown, especially in remote areas like Big Pisgah.) Even in the more heavily used areas, like Panthertown Valley, the Forest Service treads lightly. Many of the trails are not marked. People get lost in Panthertown all the time.

The USGS quads are inadequate when it comes to trail locations. I have Burt Kornegay’s map (though not the latest version), the best guide to the area. It shows official Forest Service trails with a brown dotted line and informal paths with red dots. Those red dots can be pretty hard to follow. They’re not marked or blazed, and they can be very rough.

Last year I decided I’d hike to Dismal Falls. It was a red-dot side trail off another red-dot trail, the West Fork Way. By the time I figured out where the Dismal Falls side trail started, it was too late to go past the first waterfall.

I came back home and found some good information on the Web. The Dismal Falls trail isn’t really a trail. It’s a route marked occasionally by surveyor’s tape.

Lovely fluorescent pink surveyor's tape.

Lovely fluorescent pink surveyor’s tape.

I have been known to take down surveyor’s tape. (I can just imagine the horrified reaction.)  Don’t worry, I didn’t remove any today. I figured since I was doing the hike over snow-covered ground, I might actually end up benefiting from the tape.

Having done it today, I would say I really only benefited in one or two places, in ambiguous places going down the steep descent to the base of Dismal Falls. Even with the snow, I could easily see the trough of the footpath, and there were plenty of old pruning cuts to give more clues. I could have managed the whole day without it.

Here’s the important distinction: unobtrusive flagging placed where even a careful person might go the wrong way, versus conspicuous flagging not needed for anyone who’s studied the map.

Pruning cut.

Pruning cut.

If it had been summer, I would have been awfully tempted to rip that godawful ugly stuff out of the trees. But I didn’t. The only reason the horrible pink has been used so freely is that Dismal Falls is on the Carolina Mountain Club’s “Waterfall Challenge” list of 100 area waterfalls. So we have waterfall-baggers, like peakbaggers, and wherever bagging is involved, we start seeing surveyor’s tape.

I found a couple of good route descriptions on the Web. So I did the car-sickness drive on NC 281 south from Cullhowee and found the obscure trailhead for the West Fork Way. Early fog had burned off, and the day was evolving into a beautiful sunny warm appetizer for spring. Great to be out in this weather.

I re-found the side trail with no problem and soon crossed the West Fork.

The West Fork of the French Broad isn't very broad here.

The West Fork of the French Broad isn’t very broad here.

Panthertown water is the color of panthers.

Panthertown water is the color of panthers.

I didn't need the surveyor's tape in these parts.

I didn’t need the surveyor’s tape in these parts.

I came to a small unnamed waterfall. Since many of the waterfalls in the area have names, I suggest calling it Ethelred Falls, in honor of the ruler from the Dark Ages, Ethelred the Unready. I’m sure no one will adopt that.

Ethelred Falls.

Ethelred Falls.

I climbed along on the left bank of this stream—an unnamed stream that is not the same drainage as Dismal Creek—and reached a side trail to Rhapsodie Falls. One of my route descriptions from the Web said, “Rhapsodie Falls is a beautiful 70′ waterfall that will give you the feeling you are in a tropical rainforest—unless you go in the winter.”

Well, I did go in the winter, and I found it to be an absolutely beautiful waterfall, full of green life. I might even say this is one of the best waterfalls I have ever experienced. It was just horribly lovely.

Icicles and rainforest, combined. Incredible.

Icicles and rainforest, combined. Incredible.

Tidy shelves of icicles and plants.

Tidy shelves of icicles and plants.

Miniature dog hobble under snow and ice.

Miniature dog hobble under snow and ice.

I tore myself away from this enchanting place and continued climbing. Now the path traversed the divide between the drainage of Rhapsodie and Dismal Creek. I knew from the Web trip reports that a side path went over to a big wall of rock in a gorge on Dismal. I saw where that path split off, but decided I’d wait until after I’d done Dismal Falls to make up my mind whether to do that side trip.

I climbed along the dividing ridge, then descended the steep path toward Dismal Falls as it did the typical “unmaintained manway” thing of lurching from one clump of rhodo to another, or sneaked across underneath ledge systems. In slippery slushy snow, this was just a delight. Ha ha, you didn’t really believe that, did you?

I went down most of it on the seat of my pants. Since I tended to pick up considerable speed once I started sliding, I’d look out for a friendly tree or shrub where I could plant my foot and put on the brakes. It was sketchy.

Finally I made it down to the bottom of Dismal Falls. Just before I arrived, I heard a big rockslide—no doubt caused by the suddenly warming temperatures. That loud and ominous sound made me realize I might not want to spend a lot of time in a narrow slot surrounded by cliffs.

At the bottom, the falls disappeared neatly under a collar of ice.

The running water disappeared under the ice.

The running water disappeared under the ice.

Dismal Falls is said to be 150′ high. Due to subtleties of slope angle and perspective, it doesn’t look as high as that. And there was another problem for me—when I was looking up at the falls, I was looking absolutely straight at the sun. I knew it would be hard to get a decent photo. This was the best I could do.

Dismal Falls.

Dismal Falls.

I figured I might as well leave the falls and tackle the climb up the slope that I had butt-glissaded most of the way down. It wasn’t easy. I diverged from the path into the brush many places to get better footing. I wonder if there is anything slipperier than an unmaintained pathway that’s steep and packed down and covered with slush. These really weren’t the best conditions to do this trip.

I found the sight of my own footprints to be cheering once I topped out on the ridge and made my way back. Given the conditions, I opted not to do the side trip to the rock wall and the gorge.

Cheering footprints.

Cheering footprints. They’re at an angle because I was climbing—the slope isn’t obvious in the photo.

After I got back to the West Fork Way, I made a side trip to Aunt Sally Falls. Now see, if there can be an Aunt Sally Falls, why can’t there be an Ethelred Falls?

Ho hum, just another waterfall in Panthertown.

Ho hum, just another waterfall in Panthertown.