James, Nick, and I started looking for the post with “61” on it around 8:30am. At 4.7 miles from the turn off 281 onto Cold Mountain Rd, we found our pulloff and started the first leg of a full day of adventuring. It was a pretty easy hike down to Raven Rock Falls on a easy to follow trail. You pass a couple small waterfalls and cross over a wooden footbridge, when once you’re down at Raven Rock Falls there is a nice shallow pool before the creek makes its way down the mountain. There are a couple spots where you have to be careful not to whack your head and a few slick spots, but overall it’s a pretty big payoff for little effort. Highly recommended.
Next on the agenda is the recently found, or at least recently documented and surveyed, August Cave. I was able to get some directions from the founder, Buford Pruitt, who I have never met. Cavers are aware that caves are fragile environments, and they definitely and rightly don’t want to have their caves full of goat trash. The only way I was able to get those directions was from my involvement with the online Linville Gorge community. I am intentionally vague with my descriptions here. I do my best to follow Leave No Trace outdoor ethics, and I will simply leave it at that, get off my soapbox, and continue on. We drove around a short while looking for the description Buford gave me for where to park in search of the cave’s southern entrance. We loosely followed a ridge up, looking for signs of previous foot traffic that we could follow, didn’t see much except false game trails, and ended up doing some low-level bush whacking. Back and forth we explored and poked, looking for what I could remember from Buford’s photos of the entrance. Finally, we doubled back and I was ready to give up. We’d been bush-pushing out here for over half-an-hour and weren’t getting really anywhere. I was pretty disappointed, but it is was it is, and I knew we may come away empty handed. After all, I had a lengthy hike planned starting in Panthertown. No sense in spending all day looking for a hole in the ground. On the traverse back to where we were going to head back down the ridge, I noticed what may be a promising area in the opposite direction from where we had been investigating, and left James and Nick at the ridge in case this proved fruitless. I climbed up and over and through the bushes until the guys were well out of sight. I found it. “I found it!!!” I hollered back. Pretty soon, we were all standing at the mouth of August Cave, a contrasting black space breathing a cold breeze down the hill. We took a couple pictures, put on our headlamps, and headed in. I’m estimating the entrance to be maybe 3′ wide and 8′ tall. We stepped in and within a couple yards, we could see another side entrance of slightly smaller size come in a few feet off to the left. With our eyes upwards, we were glad to not see any bats, but we did see a mess of spiders in one area and a few high chockstones that would be nasty to have fall on your noggin should the mountain decide to shift. After crawling under a chockstone, the passage narrowed quite a bit, not for the claustrophobic. Even with daylight still visible at the entrance, I couldn’t believe how inky black it was in there. Pressing on, the cave walls (which I’m assuming are some kind of granite gneiss) were striped almost perfectly horizontally with a stark white quartzite. Very cool! The floor began to fall away beneath us, but ledges of maybe 2-3″ in width gave us enough foothold to continue backwards as we pressed our backs against the wall. Here, I’m guessing the crack passage we were in was right around 12″ wide. Looking around, each wall of the cave seemed to perfectly match the other, so I’m guessing at one time this cave was solid, and I took another glance up at the chockstones. We went maybe a total 40-50ft in. We decided not to climb down, as the flake that was against the wall looked too smooth to climb out should we go down that far, and none of us were interested in exploring upwards which would only increase our fall should we lose footing. As totally novice cavers (does that make us spelunkers?), we chose to head back out. Upon exiting, we were all taken aback by the temperature difference. I had in Buford’s report of a pit entrance to August Cave. We circled around a bit, and I scrambled around and found my old dear friend the greenbrier guarding the upper ledges. I continued up, leaving James and Nick below the briers, and poked around a bit but came up with nothing. Time to head back to the car and park at the Cold Mountain lot. For further reading, I recommend yo you Buford Pruitt’s blog at onrappel.blogspot.com.
With Burt Kornegay’s “A Guide’s Guide to Panthertown” map, which I consider essential for hiking in Panthertown, we left my Matrix at the Cold Mountain Gap Trailhead at 11:15am. Now, the big item on my checklist today (as if August Cave wasn’t cool enough) was Dismal Falls. This is actually one of my bucket list destinations for 2013. If you have any knowledge of Dismal Falls and it’s location, you’re probably asking why I parked at Cold Mountain instead of 281. Apparently because I like pain and suffering. From 281, it’s approximately 4-5 miles round trip. From Cold Mountain? I don’t carry a GPS with me, and someone correct me if they have an accurate number, but I’m guessing it was at least a solid 8-9 miles round trip (which is on top of the terrain we already covered up to this point). I was over-zealous and since this was James’ first time hiking (and come to find out Nick’s as well), I wanted to show off Panthertown. We headed down the trail past the familiar worship music that is always playing from the gate and bridge at Canaan Land. We did see some pink and painted trillium on the way in along the Panthertown Valley Trail and the switchback bypass, some lovely orange flowers scattered throughout the whole area later identified as the fire azalea, and plenty of ground level violets, but I was disappointed that the rhododendron and mountain laurel weren’t blooming. Once we made it to Greenland Creek, we took the turn on Devil’s Elbow and started the 1.5 mile hike to get to the unofficial trail (unofficially named West Fork Way) which would lead us to the hard stuff. Last time I was there, we were in the Tuckasegee Gorge area with fantastic waterfalls and scenery, and the way to Dismal from there was along the east rim up the Devil’s Elbow trail. Unfortunately, the great scenery I remembered from the valley was hidden up on the ridge. There was very little reward, aside from the trillium, for parking where we did. It mostly only added extra miles to the hike.
West Fork Way is named as such, I’m assuming, because it follows the west fork of the French Broad River. One thing I had not counted on was how wet the trail would be. There was thick black soggy mud in several sections. We also had quite a few creek crossings, which I did anticipate. Unfortunately, they didn’t all have easy stepping stones. Some of them required a hefty jump across, or a step that you hoped wouldn’t sink your foot. I wore my 5.10 Guide Tennies (which I heartily recommend to any scrambler like myself). They aren’t waterproof, but they are leather, with soles and toes sealed by climbing shoe rubber. My guys were wearing New Balance and canvas sided boots. This’ll add to the difficulty of the trip later on. For what seemed like way longer than it should have taken, and with more trail in the middle of the creek than i would have liked, we slogged along the West Fork Way with an eye out for that left turn to start up the gorge in the north side of Big Pisgah and to Rhapsodie Falls and Dismal Falls. It finally came (I was starting to wonder if I’d missed it) in a patch of white pines. A few yards south we came to a great campsite with plenty of level ground to pitch a tent (for my ground dweller friends) and at least a couple spots to hang a hammock from (for my tree hanger friends). We stopped here and had lunch. We pumped some water from the West Fork and started studying the final leg of getting to the halfway point in our hike. I feel like it was sometime around 1:15 when we stopped, but cant recall exactly. From this point on, I stashed the Kournegay map and went off a printed description to Dismal Falls from www.ncwaterfalls.com, which is a great site for anyone who is looking for some destinations. After the last two hours of hiking up and down muddy trails and creek crossings, with no big views or vistas, and only the occasional flame azalea or deep burgundy trillium to break up the endless green tunnel, I didn’t have the heart to tell them that the easy part was over and our work was about to begin.
Dismal Creek has been spoken of as being one of the hardest hikes in North Carolina and one of the most foreboding places in southern Appalachia. We were about to find out just how much truth was behind those words.
We crossed the West Fork of the French Broad, managed to lose footing or step on sinking rocks thus finalizing our wet feet, and came upon a lower waterfall on an unnamed creek, which is not on the map. Rhapsodie Falls is upstream of this falls. Dismal Creek is the next drainage to the east, which was totally out of sight from here. From here, there was trail on either the right side of the waterfall (which would require an easy and dry crossing) or the left side (which was steeper but would keep us on the Dismal Falls side). We stayed left, and this is where the flagging became confusing. The guide said that on the left there would be a false trail to the right, but skip that, and keep on going until a good trail on the right will take us to the base of Rhapsodie Falls. We ended up hiking steeply next to house sized boulders, and came to a giant overhang. Someone was even so thoughtful to spray paint “420” with a peace sign as the 0. Is no place safe from goats? At least there wasn’t a pile of empty beer cans. We went around the 420 overhang to the left and were met with pink and orange flagging, each following a different route and seemingly sometimes intersecting. There is a huge rock wall downstream from Dismal Falls which may or may not be flagged that I wanted to visit, but would require an hour sidetrip per the guide, and I felt sure the left-most trail would take us that way. We could catch Rhapsodie later. To my surprise, the trail I was estimating took us to Dismal spit us out right at the base of what I immediately recognized to be Rhapsodie Falls! It was totally green and lush with an amazing pool of shallow crystal clear water at the bottom. Water flow was good as it plunged from 70′ above us, spraying and misting everywhere, creating an almost tropical environment. Praise the Lord that we didn’t have tropical temperatures that day, or they may have found us washed up somewhere in Asheville.
I decided to skip the rock wall for sure at this point, which we passed. Orange flagging equals rock wall (I’m guessing). Pink flagging equals Dismal Falls. Up we went. The guide said at this point we were only (a very difficult) 1/4 mile from Dismal Falls, and as we started up the mountain was when I began to feel bad for James and Nick that I brought them out here for their first hike. I heavily considered adventuring out to Bullface Ledge in the Linville Gorge for this trip, but decided against it because, “I don’t want to do that to James.” Sorry buddy. I need to start using Linville comparisons here to describe the difficulty, though.
We began to climb up the ridge to the drainage that contained Dismal Creek, which I would describe as steep as Linville’s Ampitheater with trail easy to follow like PinchIn. The grade was ridiculous as we went up and up and up. This would have surely been not as tiring had we come in off 281 instead of Cold Mountain. Just a note for people I have mentioned this to as being brutal. It didn’t have to be as hard as it was. The terrain is still super steep, but after hiking the ups and downs of Panthertown, Devil’s Elbow, and West Fork Way, we were not at our freshest and most energetic. I’m estimating 4 miles of hilly terrain just to get to the crossing below Rhapsodie. Back to the uphill, sorry. At least the trail was good as we hiked up that mountain. Easy to follow and flagged pink, not rocky or rooty, but just a plain steep uphill grind. Then we got to the top of the ridge, which had the potential to be the biggest obstacle of our entire day, and it was the final obstacle that stood between us and our ultimate destination.The best comparison I can give for the descent trail to Dismal Falls is that it is like a combination of the last stretch of Leadmine where it meets the Linville Gorge Trail and the descent to the viewing area of Cathedral Falls from the Linville Gorge Trail, except it’s over 100ft in elevation. I am not sure exactly all the numbers of it, but I estimated it at a 60% grade. It is all trail, though! I remember thinking of the movie Predator, where Jesse Ventura said, “If you lose it out here, you’re in a world of hurt.” If you were to get injured on Big Pisgah, rescue would be extraordinarily difficult. We safely made it to the bottom after several sections of butt sliding and came away with dirty pants only, no injuries, praise God. The sound of the falls was loud in our ears and we knew it was close! Some more mud, creek walking, scrambling over downed trees and rocks, and we came to a spot where Nick went left as he was in the lead, but I caught a pink flag way up the hill on a slick rock drainage. I called him back, but scouted up towards the flag by myself so I wasn’t dragging them up any more elevation that wasn’t necessary. Just past the flag and a left turn, I emerged at the base of Dismal Falls! I was caught up in it, took a video, then heard them yelling. I forgot I had told them to wait as I scouted. Oops! With the final push, Nick and James emerged from the bushes, past the last pink surveyor’s flagging tape, and stood at the base of one of the most amazing waterfalls I’ve ever seen. We had certainly paid to get this far, moreso than necessary thanks to my route planning, but at over 150′ high Dismal Falls gave us a payoff that was huge. It was about 3:15. it took us nearly 2 hours to climb and descend here (although that included some route finding and a stopping rest at Rhapsodie). We took our pictures, soaked in the beauty of the waterfall that is so big you can see it from Google Earth and Bing Bird’s Eye, and rested from the arduous hike that brought us here. This was the halfway point.
We started our climb back out, which consisted of standing at the base of one tree and grabbing for the next one up. At one point in one of the steepest sections, we actually had a vine to use as we climbed up (I did get a picture of that), but as I looked back I saw Nick carrying the vine after the ascent, so I suppose it won’t be there now… The climb out, while tough, was actually a lot of fun and not nearly as bad as we thought it would be. No severe slips or slides, we were tired at the top of the ridge, but we were having a good time. Going back down the mountain wasn’t so bad either having gravity on our side, I was able to kind of do a side shuffle move aiming for the trees to catch myself. Yeah, how’s that for a mental picture? By the time we got down to the creek, we needed to refill our water again. I peeled off my socks and shoes and dunked them in the cold mountain water of the West Fork while I pumped (upstream of my feet) water for the remainder of the hike back. With shoes off, the crossing was easy, but I think we had at least one pair of wet shoes again after the crossing. Looking at my watch, it took us an hour to get back to this point from Dismal Falls. Two hours up, one hour down. It’s all regular trail back from here to the car, although some of it is soggy. That regular trail is about 4 miles, too.
Unfortunately, I think this is the point where the trip became “ready to be over.” Somewhere between the West Fork and Devil’s Elbow, the wet feet gave way to friction and I’m pretty sure hot spots were giving way to blisters in my buddies shoes. What would normally be an uneventful hike with the usual trail banter to pass the time became what I saw as painful. On one of our stops, I broke out the bag of dried apricots, one of my favorite trail snacks, hoping for a nice sugary energy boost. I don’t think it did a lick for sore feet, though. It seemed like West Fork Way would never end and Devil’s Elbow would never come, but finally we emerged. As we made our way back down to the valley floor, the Tuckasegee River was loud below us, and visions of descending to what we call Coffee Rock kept coming to mind. That would require a descent, a bit of backtracking on unofficial trail, and walking through the water to even get there. Not this time. I’d be doing good to make it to Schoolhouse Falls, which even in the condition we were in, I felt the short side trip was doable. Once we made it back to the Panthertown Valley Trail, I mentioned Schoolhouse and we mutually decided to just go back to the car. We opted for the short but steep ascent on one of the bypass trails instead of the extra distance but easier grade of the switchbacks to get back to the trailhead. As we approached Canaan Land, the song “I love you Lord” was playing:
“I love you Lord and I lift my voice To worship You, oh my soul, rejoice.
Take joy my King in what You hear. Let it be a sweet sweet sound in Your ears.”
Knowing that the music meant less than 5 minutes to the car, those words brought more hope than usual. We made it to the car, and finally back down to Rosman and the way too curvy 178 back into South Carolina. If you’ve ever been on a Caribbean cab ride, that’s what I always think of when I’m on 178.
I cannot remember the conversation that led up to this, but it was worth remembering this as the quote of the day.
Me: “Carpe diem, James.”
James: “Oh, there was seizing: my ligaments.”
This was what I would describe as a brutal hike. Yes, Big Pisgah has ridges that are steeper than any trail (not including off-trail) I’ve hiked on, but there is great opportunity for fun and adventure on Big Pisgah. There are great creeks, drainages, boulders, rock walls, and waterfalls all for exploring. I’m confident that shadowy and ominous mountain holds more pearls to be found. What made the hike so tough was coming in from Panthertown Valley, adding at least 4 extra miles of green tunnel and elevation gain and loss, than if we had parked at 281. Or better yet, camping at the site just north of the West Fork crossing. Without the added mileage, wet feet, and blisters, this would be a great adventure. It still was, but those added elements were for sure detractors. I think the combination of Rhapsodie/Dismal Falls makes this one of my favorite waterfall destinations. Additionally, we didn’t see another soul all day, with the exception of a line backpacker returning to his car at Cold Mountain Gap Trailhead while we were heading into the valley. I sincerely hope to return, now more educated, to find what secrets are out there. This hike proved that Panthertown has the potential to be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. It can be a leisurely stroll to good waterfalls you can reach out and touch, or it can be a meatgrinder leading you to places where few fear to tread. There is so much out in Panthertown. So many creeks and falls and cliffs to explore and map. So much adventure. Even if your adventure doesn’t take you the long way to great sights, the short way still offers great rewards that are easy enough to take children with and can be had with only a few hours. Whatever you’re after, Panthertown caters to almost everybody, with or without seizing your ligaments.