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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.