April 12th turned out way different than I thought it would.
After setting the date, coordinating with some of the Exploring Panthertown Valley group on Facebook, changes of plans, more invites, plans falling through, and seemingly crazy suggestions.. there only remained two: Luke Wilson and myself. We would try to visit every waterfall in Panthertown Valley in one day.
This would be the first time Luke and I had ever met, and only shortly before had we even made contact on Facebook, through the hiking groups. As it turns out, Luke was excellent company, and our day was not only filled with great scenery, but great conversation, enthusiasm, and fellowship. It was very good to have done this with you, Luke!
For navigation, we would be using Burt Kornegay’s A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown, Todd Ransom’s Waterfalls of Panthertown Valley, my Garmin GPSMAP 62sc, and our own keen sense of direction.
All of the photos taken on this trip were date and time stamped, basically as proof of it being done in one day.
Knowing this would be a long distance day, I was really unsure of what to wear for shoes. I normally hike in 5.10 Guide Tennies, but I didn’t think my feet would hold out in them for what I’d put them through today. I chose Merrell Trail Gloves. Minimalist shoes that literally fit like a glove so there’s no movement inside, which means no blisters. These are a step up from running barefoot, as it gives you some protection but still allows you to feel the ground beneath your feet, whether its smooth or soft or rocky.
I arrived at the Cold Mountain side of Panthertown 40 minutes before our meet time, I thought I would take the opportunity to bag one more fall before we met up. So it began.
(1) Cold Mountain Branch Falls
(2) Bridge of Death Falls
(3) Raven Rock Falls
All three of these are on the same trail. I didn’t take my GPS with me to get distance, but it’s less than 10 minutes of hiking one way to Raven Rock Falls. I don’t believe that 1 and 2 are officially named, but they are documented on Rich Stevenson’s website and I drew out those names from his descriptions.
I met up with Luke and we started down Mac’s Gap Trail from Cold Mountain Parking a few minutes before 8:00am, which was a little behind schedule. Mac’s Gap Trail joins with Greenland Creek Trail for a short distance and then splits again, where we took Greenland Creek Trail. Shortly, we found ourselves as the massive Greenland Creek Falls.
(4) Greenland Creek Falls
After climbing up the STEEP side trail to the left of Greenland Creek, we took a quick look at the top of the falls where the creek disappears over the edge. NOT a good place to play. Next up we were looking for Halfway Falls.
(5) False Halfway Falls
We heard this one from the trail, and since we were looking for it I assumed that it was Halfway Falls. After looking at the map, though, it turns out that the real Halfway Falls is right at the bend in the trail. So, this one isn’t on any of the maps I have, but I have a hard time believing nobody has seen it.
(6) Halfway Falls
Realizing the error on finding Halfway Falls, the time stamp is out of sync on this one only because I took the picture on the way back. Next up was Carlton’s Falls. This was a big destination for me, and what this entire hike morphed out of. I had seen the pictures of this bowl shaped waterfall, and it honestly looked too cool not to have on this years bucket list. As we were hiking towards it, we managed to stay on trail but somehow took a wrong one. From near Halfway Falls, we found some trees blazed in orange and we assumed that was the way to Carlton’s Falls. It wasn’t long before we were standing underneath the Duke power lines. Definitely in the wrong spot. We made our way back and found an obvious pink flag that neither of us knew how we missed. Pretty soon were at Carlton’s Falls, but I didn’t realize it.
(7) Carlton’s Falls
I had seen the pictures of Carlton’s Falls, so I knew what I was looking for. What I DIDN’T know is that the bowl shaped falls I had been looking for were only part of the middle section of a much larger waterfall. There’s also a cool half cave/overhang on the right side of the falls where you can hang out for a breather. Of course, I had to make my way up to the middle falls and get my own photo of the bowl section.
Backtracking back down the trails, we accidentally took the Mac’s Gap Trail at the fork we came out of. We crossed the river on a fallen log (which is much steadier with trekking poles, by the way) and walked for only a few minutes before realizing our mistake. Back across the log and onto Mac’s Gap Trail on the OTHER end of where it merges with Greenland Creek Trail. This all sounds very confusing to read, but it will be much clearer if you’re trying to follow along on a map.
(8) Mac’s Falls
A short walk off the main trail brought us to Mac’s Falls, which empties out into a pool and the pool starts flowing quickly down around a curve that looks like a great spot to go tubing if it wasn’t for the rough landing on the other end.
(9) Pothole Falls
The rough landing. Though it isn’t a steep waterfall, it’s funneled at the rocks at the base, and there are several potholes below it, thus the name.
At this point, we came up Mac’s Gap Trail back to the car so we could make a stop at the cars. It would be the closest we’d be to them until we finished the hike. Luke had realized on the way back that he had left some of his food out of his pack, and I had a backup bottle of water there I could top off with. I should have just brought the second bottle with me. We met some guys coming in, had a short conversation with them, and walked towards Canaan Land. This with the first time I’ve walked across that footbridge and there hasn’t been music playing. We made it down to the Little Green Trail by the shortcut at the end of the first switchback, instead of taking all the switchbacks.
(10) Schoolhouse Falls
If any one waterfall were to define Panthertown Valley, it’d be Schoolhouse Falls. It’s iconic to the area. The beach was swarming with violet butterflies. I had never seen so many in one spot. Another rare sight was that there wasn’t anyone else at the falls with us. We rock hopped the creek along the left side to circle around the back of the falls, which is super refreshing. Coming back out the right side, we had one leg of this trip behind us. It was time to head up Devil’s Elbow.
(11) Warden’s Falls
This one was hard to get a good visual of. We came out of the trees on the footpath and recent rains had the waters up. There is supposed to be a footpath across the river we could follow up to Jawbone Falls, but the steep rock on that side with the higher water levels made us decide to backtrack up to Devil’s Elbow. We barely stayed here for more than just a couple minutes.
(12) Jawbone Falls
I hadn’t given much attention to Jawbone prior to this trip, but sitting on the grassy beach, just watching the water, this is definitely a new highlight in the valley for me. It seemed like the perfect time to switch out into wet shoes (me in VFF Komodo’s and Luke in Chaco Z2’s). We were heading up to Riding Ford, which was for sure a wet trail crossing. Before leaving, we got our first feel of the water. It was warm…on the shore. That mountain water is COLD. I’m sure it would only be chilly instead of frigid had we been doing this in say, August. We thought we would follow a footpath from Jawbone up to Riding Ford Falls.
(13) Riding Ford Falls
We headed down the waterfall, which doesn’t seem much more than a river crossing when Riding Ford Trail forces you into it. At the bottom of the falls is a truck sized boulder I was able to scramble up on for a good shot. There is a giant pothole at the bottom of the falls that one could easily fit into, and you can see it really well on the photo. From the bottom of the falls, we found ourselves in another overhanging cave area littered with enough debris to let me know I wouldn’t want to be in there in high water. We entered the river. This didn’t last long, though. The water was really cold. As we looked at the map, we thought we’d be able to pick up the footpath that goes down to Elbow Falls. I had been to Elbow Falls a couple years ago, and knew that where the river becomes the waterfall was not a place that I needed to be hiking in the water. We chose to take to the land, which meant bushwhacking in shorts. We fought our way through the rhododendron and briers, angling north, and finally decided our progress was so bad that we would just try to get to the Devil’s Elbow Trail and find the footpath from there. Once on Devil’s Elbow Trail, there are run-offs built into the side of the trail. We passed several, and I spotted a trail extending out of one of them. We took it. As it turns out, that trail really was just a run-off and we were back in the briers. More bush pushing finally brought us to trail that we were able to take down to Elbow Falls.
(14) Elbow Falls
Really the best way to get a photo of Elbow Falls would have to be an aerial perspective, due to the bends in it around the rock. It drops down drastically into a deep slot (good thing we didn’t stay in the river), bends around a giant rock slab with a downed tree on it, and then over a couple smaller cascades. While the formation of each segment of the waterfall may not be the most exciting in the valley, this is a spot where you can really feel that Panthertown is an ancient place. There’s the wild Tuckasegee River (“The Tuck”) winding its way, not so dramatically through the valley, but in the rock along that blue map line. It ceases to be a place where tourists or your average hiker without a heightened sense of exploration would normally go. Elbow Falls is, to me, the doorway to what I think of when I think fondly of Panthertown. It was time to keep going further in. We backtracked into the forest along actual trail to the trail to Red Butt Falls, but we came out a little further downstream than I intended.
(15) Red Butt Falls
When we left the woods, we were in the cave at the base of Red Butt Falls. A fun area for sure, but the water is too deep here to maneuver unless you wanted to go for a swim. I didn’t have a dry bag big enough for everything that needed to be dry, so we made our way up the side of the falls a few yards to where it looked the least sketchy to cross. There are these awesome colored bands in the rock at Red Butt, and honestly I don’t remember making note of them anywhere else in Panthertown during this trip. I’m also amazed at the power of flowing water. You wouldn’t think that crossing a river that is only 6″ deep would be that challenging, but when its speed increases coming down the rock and the rock is already slick (which I can only assume provided the falls its name when someone slipped), we had to take it slow! Luke almost had a red butt himself here as we stepped into the water, and I caught him only because I was in the path of his fall. It would have only been a wet landing for him and he had a dry bag for his stuff.
Once crossing Red Butt Falls, we stopped at what I’ve been calling Coffee Rock, as my first visit here we climbed up on top and made Starbucks Via in a Jetboil. Coffee Rock is a giant blade of rock standing at a 100degree angle in the middle of the Tuck. We didn’t climb up on top today, but we did stash our packs on one of the boulders at its base. I only took with me my camera, GPS, and trekking poles. We started making our way downstream, and I hadn’t quite committed to the water yet because I was staying on the slickrock at the shore. They don’t call it slickrock for nothing, as it made the decision for me to commit me to the water. I went in the drink just below my chest in one of the deeper sections. I’m pleased to report that my Canon Powershot D10 really is waterproof, and my Garmin took the water as well. Our next waterfall was one of our most anticipated falls of the day, Lichen Falls.
(16) Lichen Falls
On one hand, there is no trail to Lichen Falls. On the other hand, it was the widest trail we’d been on all day. I’m pretty sure the Tuck is wider than the Panthertown Valley Trail at this point. Still, we’d be wading and rock hopping and trying to choose the safest and surefooted path through the river as white water was increasing. Luke has been through Bonas Defeat (which was the original plan for this day), and he commented how this was starting to look a lot like it. We passed our first landmark, Honeycamp Branch, and then the Tuckasegee River went from rocky and shallow to being choked with great boulders and rapids. We were still able to navigate the river by scrambling up the boulders, wading where it was shallow enough (I don’t think we were ever in over waist deep, aside from my entry slip). Up ahead on the left, we could see some water coming over the rocks, and knew we were close. That small stream of water coming over the boulder was like the curtain that was pulled aside to reveal the main event. Lichen Falls was gushing! I had seen some pictures of it, but I didn’t anticipate it would be as big as it was, as dramatic as it was. Lichen Falls is tucked back in a cove, framed by rock and boulders. What a beautiful falls. The river walk plus all the aspects of the falls really made this one of the biggest highlights of my day. Here at the base, we also took note of a bat clinging on the side of the rocks. It took us about 30 minutes to get here from Coffee Rock.
It only took us 20 minutes to get back to Coffee Rock from Lichen Falls, which is interesting to me. On the way in, we could see into the water fairly well, but on the way back the glare of the sun made foot placement unsure. Going back, we were also fighting the current now. We also noticed by this point that the water wasn’t as biting cold as it had first been. I think acclimating to the water temps as well as the type of movement required to walk in the creek allowed us to navigate it very easily. We stopped for a snack and resupplying our water. We slowly crossed Red Butt Falls again, and easily followed the trail back to Devil’s Elbow. No bushwhacking required. Once we had made it back to the top and crossed Riding Ford, it was time to swap back into dry shoes. While doing this, we noted some guys on the other side of the river in swim trunks looking like they were getting ready to make the slide down Riding Ford Falls. The looked hesitant, standing there in trunks and shirts off. We waved, changed shoes, and were on our way before we got to see if they finally took the slide. If they found the pothole at the base, I hope it was a pleasant experience for them.
As this was definitely waterfall day, Lichen Falls would be the last picture I’d take of a waterfall for a while. Luke had not seen a lot of the places off the beaten path, so we decided to take Riding Ford Trail down to Powerline Trail and over to the Overlook Trail so we could take in the sweeping views of the valley. We came to the first view, which I call the false view because it is obscured by trees and scrub that are just below the cliffs on Blackrock Mountain, and kept heading west until we go to the REAL view. In my opinion, the bald on the Overlook Trail is the best “big view” in Panthertown Valley, and should be experienced by anyone who enjoys hiking here. Only one other gentleman was sharing the view with us here. It doesn’t have anything obscuring the view, and you can see a panorama of mountains and valleys laid out before you. Most prominent are Cold Mountain, Little Green Mountain, and Big Green Mountain. What a view! As we sat there taking it in, a group of hikers came up the cliffs. They didn’t come in on the Overlook Trail, but as we engaged them, they had followed the cliffs up after leaving Carlton’s Way. I’ve been in that area partially, but only to stand beneath the cliffs. They were definitely glad to be at the top! As we cut our scenic stop short in effort to continue our day, our friend who had shared the overlook with us commented, “That wasn’t long.” Well, we still had a lot of ground to cover, and at this point I was starting to be considerate of daylight. We had headlamps, though.
We literally ran all the way down Carlton’s Way. I’ve been up it twice, and I have to say that it is much more pleasant in descent. We took this way because I had it in my mind to find the infamous Fat Man’s Misery, as mentioned by Burt Kornegay. There is a faint trail listed on his map below the cliffs of Blackrock Mountain that I had very strong suspicions would lead us to this “boulder choked slot canyon.” Not a waterfall, and I was starting to question even looking for it on this trip since it wasn’t a waterfall and of our daylight situation, but I was feeling ambitious. We followed an obvious path just east of Salt Rock into the forest. After crossing a creek, we began to see mini-canyons filled with boulders and rhododendron. From an article I recently read, I knew we had to be in the right spot. We followed the trail until it became too faint to follow, and found ourselves at the base of the cliffs. What we did find there was bolted sport climbing routes. We climbed through boulders and briers and rhodo searching for a hole that looked like the teaser photo of Burt on the 2013 edition of his map. Eventually, Luke found something. It is possible that what he found was Fat Man’s Misery, because it was definitely a giant series of boulders you could squeeze around underneath, but if it was Fat Man’s Misery, both of us were underwhelmed. For anyone who wants to make the search, I hope this was of some help to you. For us, it cost an hour of daylight and a lot of spent energy. Maybe too much. For those interested, we noted an Indian sign tree in this area, as well.
Back on the hunt for waterfalls. Wilderness Falls would be next on our list, but we needed to decide which was the best way to get to it. We decided just to take the main trail up Salt Rock and snag the big view there. Very nice, and certainly more accessible than the one on the Overlook Trail.
(17) Wilderness Falls
Like with Carlton’s Way, we ran down the Deep Gap Trail on our way to Wilderness Falls. We only stopped here briefly, took our pictures, and headed on to the next one, which is only a few minutes away. We ran there, too.
(18) Frolictown Falls
While not as large or dramatic as some of the other falls in Panthertown, I personally really like Frolictown Falls. The area is just calm and serene. Waterfalls definitely have a restorative element to them, and that element is in effect here at the base of Frolictown Falls. I would need it. It was here I started noticing being thirsty, giving clue that I had become dehydrated. The small pool at the bottom was a great place to resupply our water, and though I knew we were starting to get onto a time crunch, I also knew I needed to drink. On to the Great Wall Trail. We ran until we started hearing people near the shelter. We crossed Panthertown Creek, and one of the stepping stone rocks wobbled and I was up to my ankles in water. My shoes were soaked. I didn’t consider it a huge deal because I had gotten them a little wet earlier when we were on Greenland Creek, and they had dried out. We got to the shelter and the whole area was filled with tents and even more hammocks. At least 3 hammocks were hung up inside the shelter itself. I took note of ENO and Grand Trunk, and I didn’t see anyone with an underquilt.
Now would come the big effort. We were about a mile from the next waterfall, and it would be an out an back. Fortunately we would have very little elevation to deal with here. Also, we had the Great Wall of Panthertown to keep us company the whole way. The Great Wall is the bald face of Big Green Mountain that faces southwest, and as we walked and partially ran the trail (energy was beginning to wane), the Great Wall of Panthertown seemed to never leave us. We got to the curve in the trail that takes us up Big Green Mountain towards the steps cut into the stone, but our sidetrack came much before that. Within a few minutes of the turn, we found the trail cutting off to the right towards Panthertown Creek Falls.
(19) Panthertown Creek Falls
Fortunately I was familiar with this area from the trip Todd Ransom and I had made together in January. I knew to angle off the trail above the creek, in search for a clearing. From there, remnants of old flagging would lead us about to the area of the falls. What a delightful surprise it was to find out that there is brand new bright pinkish-orange flagging out there! It isn’t quite a trail yet, but if people keep following the flags, it will be. We found the clearing and followed the flags to the steep side trails that lead to the different segments of Panthertown Creek Falls. We came out in the middle, and had to climb straight down the dirt and rock to the impressive falls. At the very top, there is a huge rock face, and the falls come out below it in a series of twists and turns as the creek flows downstream. As much as I would have loved to stay here, we had to move. We grabbed a quick snack and started back. We had less than an hour before sunset.
It was on the way back through the flagging to the Great Wall Trail that I really noticed a difference in how I felt. I started feeling a low grade upset stomach, which I attributed to my being dehydrated. This would be the beginning of my physical descent. I also lost the flagging on the way out, which was silly because it had been so easy to follow on the way in. Luke had gained some distance ahead of me, though we were still in earshot, and I ended up bushwhacking through to the Great Wall Trail. I had my GPS to follow the track from the way in, but I was already off at that point. Coming back up the Great Wall Trail, I also noticed my feet were still wet. And cold. But we had one more waterfall to go. Back on the Great Wall Trail, the sun was lighting up the granite. This was Luke’s highlight of the day. It was really an awesome sight. We got back to the shelter and headed into the rhododendron tunnel that is the Granny Burrell Trail. This would begin the worst section of our hike all day, as far as trail goes.
(20) Granny Burrell Falls
The trail was a soggy mess. Black mud with expansive puddles we tried to sidestep, but still couldn’t completely avoid. With the last moments of daylight, we emerged from the rhodo to the grand waterslide, Granny Burrell Falls, with it’s beautiful pool beneath.I would have loved to just crash here, but that couldn’t happen. Not only were my feet still cold, but with the sun setting, the ambient temperature was dropping, too. Our original thought was to sidetrack and climb up Little Green Mountain on the way out so we could get the big view from Tranquility Point, but that energy and daylight had been spent in searching for Fat Man’s Misery. What’s done is done. Time to go.
We cut through the pine forest shortcut off of Mac’s Gap Trail. I jumped a big mud puddle, and in slow motion I could feel the spring coiling in my leg. My right calf tightened up on me in a wicked charlie horse. It was good that I had trekking poles and my hands looped into the straps, because I leaned on them for all they were worth. As the cramp subsided, I started to walk only for it to come back again with a vengeance. Had it not been for my trekking poles, I would have fallen flat on the ground here. When the worst of it was over, I began to slowly walk it out again, as Luke was right next to me encouraging me through it. He was in much better shape than I was at this point (hmm, so that’s what electrolyte tablets do for you), and he was ahead of me on the trail. Within a few minutes of the charlie horses going to work on my leg, I announced, “I have to stop.” My low grade stomach ache that started at Panthertown Creek Falls had waved it”s white flag of surrender, and with a flash of heat, I threw up. Again, thank God for trekking poles. These things supported me all day long, in good and bad. Feeling much better, I felt the need to crack a joke about giving the coyotes something to look forward to. The temperature had dropped, as the warmth of the sun had left us. We abandoned Tranquility Point, due to my condition and the lack of light we now had, and we were back on the Panthertown Valley Trail.
This was the worst trail we had been on all day. The whole trail in sections was flooded to where you couldn’t jump over it, not that I would have made the attempt anyway. What a soggy, nasty mess. We crossed paths with the guys we had met earlier in the day when we made our stop at the cars. They told us they had set up camp at Schoolhouse Falls, and were out exploring while the rest of their group was sleeping. As the Panthertown Valley Trail neared where Panthertown Creek and Greenland Creek merge to form the Tuckasegee River, the trail conditions improved greatly. The terrain turned from black mud pits to white sand, and we saw the cool white sandbars. We took the shortcut straight up the ridge and avoided the switchbacks. Finally, finally, back at the car. Wow.. what a day.
We did it. I could barely believe to have visited all the waterfalls in Panthertown Valley in one day. We got to see so much, and we got to travel in all kinds of terrain. Dry trail, sandbars, steep hills, rocky scrambles, creek walks, mud pits, rhodo and brier bushwhacks.. This day was truly a grand adventure. Again, Luke was a great hiking partner, and I enjoyed his company as our conversation was filled with faith, creation, environmental stewardship, adventures, anecdotes, and husbandry.
As the day came to a close, a verse from Psalms 98 came to mind. I had first read it this morning at the base of Raven Rock Falls, and it came back to me again as I sat in the car.
Let the rivers clap their hands;
let the hills sing for joy together
before the Lord, for he comes
to judge the earth.
We truly experienced the glory of God displayed in creation today. The glory of Panthertown Valley and it’s waterfalls does not belong to the valley, and certainly not to the mere men who hike it, but to the One who crafted it.
UPDATE: I finally got the Google Earth overlay of our track off my Garmin, and according to Google Earth the distance was significantly shorter than my Garmin recorded. At any rate, here is our path for this day.
Stats for the day:
somewhere between 19.5 and 23.85 miles
13 hours and 17 minutes