In Search of Panthertown Creek Falls

This past Saturday had all kinds of rain falling on the Carolina’s. Here in Greenville, there were warnings of flash floods and the Enoree River as it runs near my home was swollen up at least 2ft, by my scientific calculations in guesstimation. The forecast for Sunday was 50°F and sunny with 0% chance of any precipitation. Our original plan was to camp Saturday night along Rock Bridge add and then explore Big Pisgah in the morning. Due to the rain, supreme likelihood of soggy ground, and sub-freezing temperatures, the trip was whittled down to making an attempt to find Panthertown Creek Falls.
Whittled down… or so I thought.
Panthertown Creek Falls appears on Burt Kornegay’s “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown” map with no trail to it. Doing a search online brought up nothing. No pictures or terrain conditions. Rich Stevenson’s website didn’t have anything on it. Todd had hiked with the late Craig Marvil, who had confessed to having been at the falls. We believed it existed, but we had no idea what it looked like or what we were looking for. Just the general idea of where it was located.
The drive in from Greenville was pleasant, especially as I was able to catch the first light before sunrise on the pull-off along the Oscar Wigington Memorial Highway, which is a very scenic connection between Hwy130 and Hwy107 in South Carolina, just before entering North Carolina. I highly recommend the sunrise here. Highly. The mountain views surrounding Lake Jocassee are absolutely wonderful.
Once I made it into NC heading towards Cashiers, so much of the rock along the road was covered in melting but still thick icicles. By the time I made it through Cashiers and onto Breedlove Rd, the temperature was still hovering right around freezing, the roads were covered with ice, and there was a dusting of snow. Slow going in the front wheel drive adventure-rig.
Todd Ransom and I met at the Breedlove Rd entrance on the west side of the valley Sunday morning. Panthertown Creek flows to the east of the Great Wall of Panthertown, so I thought we would be just following the creek and is why I suggested we park at the west entrance. Turns out Todd had already been exploring in the area twice prior and the bushwhack was so bad that we would be trying another way. I overlooked that detail. 
We came in from Breedlove Rd and headed into the valley. This was my first time on this side, and Todd made sure to take me past Wilderness Falls and Frolictown Falls, both of which he commented on having never seen so much water flowing on them. Thank you, Saturday’s rain. Both of those are very scenic and easy to access, and I recommend visiting both. After visiting Frolictown Falls, we came to a creek crossing. It had stepping stones to cross it, but what makes for gushing waterfalls also makes for swollen creeks. The stepping stones were under a few inches of water. Walking across a creek barefoot when there’s snow on the ground is cold, but good wool socks treated my feet right after drying them off best I could. I at least could feel my feet through every freezing step, so that’s good. 
We headed up the Great Wall Trail and I have to say it was much more impressive than the last time I was on it, which was in the late spring. The Great Wall of Panthertown is the west facing side of Big Green Mountain, a 300ft exposed and slabby granite cliff face. With all the leaves being down from the trees, it looked over up the entire length of the mountain, and was certainly a sight to see. We kept on the Great Wall Trail up the side of Big Green over bridges and mysterious steps cut into the rock until coming to the Big Green Trail, which we took away from Big Green towards Mac’s Gap. Using Todd’s “Waterfalls of Western North Carolina” iPad app*, we followed what the map showed as an old roadbed which dead ended very close to the headwaters of Panthertown Creek. We found the estimated start of the roadbed, and it must have been a very old road. There was great difficulty in making out what that road once was. Using his guide map, we were able to follow the “roadbed” roughly by following the topography. Eventually, after fighting through rhododendron and greenbriar and crossing the creeks a couple times, we came to a convergence of feeder streams that became the headwaters of Panthertown Creek.
Off-trail adventurers, bushwhackers, and Type2** fun seekers, make note that the greenbriar is alive and well in Panthertown Valley. There were a couple times the briars were so big they were blades and no longer thorns. The bush got really thick as we closed in on the sound of rushing water. A small cascade. Back into the bush until we heard the rushing water. Another small and nearly identical cascade. If these were Panthertown Creek Falls, we were going to be sorely disappointed. Looking at the topo map, our lines weren’t getting tight enough yet, so we kept pressing on downstream. Rushing waters again.. and we were not disappointed.. at least not entirely.
Panthertown Creek Falls has to be the wildest waterfall I’ve personally seen in Panthertown Valley. Multi-tiered over several shelves and levels, giant rock faces and overhangs shadowing it in, and we couldn’t believe where all the water had come from, those small feeder streams? The biggest downside is that there was so much rhododendron that getting a decent picture was impossible. At least of the upper tier. Making our way further, retreating from the banks, sliding down next to rock overhang caves, bushes, greenbriar, rhododendron, and mud, we came to an opening of the mid-tier. The imposing inverted rock face at the top of the falls, the walls of the gorge on either side, and the lower levels before us, this is a waterfall you truly have to see to see it. It’s impossible to take it all in on film, not that we didn’t try. Although, I’m sure Todd got better pictures than I did. 
Once we finished at the falls, we both agreed it best to climb the ridge and work our way back towards the Great Wall Trail. To our surprise, we actually found some orange flagging in several places, marking the path towards Panthertown Creek Falls. As we got closer to the southern slopes of Big Green Mountain, the flags started to disappear. No matter, we were almost at the way we had hiked in, according to the GPS track. 
We made it back to real trail, and after bushwhacking through thick weeds, low brush, and greenbriar, it was a welcome sight. During the off-trail section we had just come out of, Todd had made the comment about this being our second hike together, and this one and the first one were both epic bushwhacks. They aren’t all like this, I promise! 
We hiked up Big Green Mountain, caught the view of Goldspring Ridge on the first overlook, and headed on down the unofficial trail off the backside of Big Green. Supposedly the USFS had closed this trail, but we were able to follow it without much trouble: it’s backpackable, but it’d be miserable. That trail is no joke, is very steep, and would be really unpleasant to go up. Fortunately, we were going down and didn’t have to, though there was still ice and snow on the trail at this point. This drops you right out at the campsite behind the entrance to the Granny Burrell Falls Trail. 
We hiked north on Mac’s Gap through the pine forest and what an amazing campsite that is. Near water, and room to have a serious group event (REMEMBER TO LEAVE NO TRACE AND PACK OUT YOUR TRASH). There is room for dozens of tents and the tree spacing is perfect for hammocks. The floor of the forest is shrub free and all fallen pine needles. The only thing missing is a rock outcrop to go sit on to see the stars (which you can get at Tranquility Point, but there’s a lack of water on top of the mountain. You can easily fill up before at Schoolhouse Falls). 
On towards the Panthertown Valley Trail, we crossed over to the North Road Trail to hike Carlton’s Way. Last time I was there, it was a guess to which was the right side trail, but this time there was an official USFS sign and the trail was designated with a number (which I didn’t record – sorry). I had remembered hearing that the Friends of Panthertown were doing trail work here last summer, which I thought odd because it hadn’t been official last time I was in the area (August 2012). The hike up Carlton’s Way turns your leisurely walk along the flat valley floor into a steep uphill workout, instantly letting your body know it’s time to switch gears. The views from the top once you get to the Overlook Trail, though, are worth the extra effort and are some of the best views in the whole valley. Little Green Mountain with Tranquility Point facing straight at you, Big Green Mountains shadowy side, the pine forest in the valley, the clearing which is actually a bog (so don’t plan to camp there!), Cold Mountain and Shelton Pisgah in the distance. What views!
We made our way up to the Blackrock Mountain Trail (you start ascending Blackrock once you start up Carlton’s Way). A nice walk through the woods which reminded me of hiking in Upstate SC as we completed the final leg of the journey back to the cars.
Approximately 10 miles later (I forgot to reset my trip computer on my GPS until a tenth or two into the hike), we had gotten some great views, made note of campsites, and seen many waterfalls and creeks. There is a very tame side to Panthertown, and there is a very wild and rugged side to Panthertown. The trail network is a maze, but some of the best waterfalls are not far to get to, either. Panthertown truly is a great destination for all kinds of outdoor adventurers. It can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. It can be a couple hours of dayhiking, or several days of backpacking. It can be a pleasant stroll on old gravel roads to swimming holes and dramatic waterfalls, or it can be an epic bushwhack through greenbriar and creek crossings and endless rhododendron to find waterfalls that are so complex a picture could never represent what’s out there. There is so much mystery to the area, it feels like a mine that one could never possibly deplete. It feels old, and ancient, and has parts that don’t seem anything like North Carolina. The diversity of what is there is amazing. Whatever you do, take a map or guidebook with you, so you do not get lost. Any time of the year is a great time to visit Panthertown, and this weekend I discovered the delight of winter hiking there.
* Waterfalls of Western North Carolina is an app developed by Todd Ransom for iPhone and iPad that guides you to waterfalls in the area of WNC with driving and hiking directions, downloadable map tiles for use when there’s no reception, and photos of each waterfall. You can buy it on the App Store here –> http://appstore.com/FlickinAmazingInc
** There are different types of fun. Type1 fun is fun to do and fun to talk about later. Type2 fun is not fun to do but fun to talk about later. Type3 is not fun to do nor is it fun to talk about later.

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