Categories
bushwhacking Gorges State Park Heaven hiking Horsepasture River http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post reflection Team Waterfall Trip report Waterfalls Windy Falls

The Day We Went to Windy Falls

Windy Falls first showed up on my radar over a year ago on the day my friend Luke and I met and hiked together for the first time. There had been talk of trying to hike it, but there were also several reports of people slipping on the Falls and dying there, as well. It was a hike both of us felt like we never needed to have on our list of accomplishments. On the tail end of this past winter, I planned to make an ascent of Narrow Rock Ridge while section hiking the Foothills Trail to get a distant view of Windy Falls, but foggy and soggy conditions factored into that plan being abandoned. A couple months ago, my friend Andy, who had spent several years working different approaches and researching past attempts and failures, led a small group on a successful expedition to the base of Windy Falls. It could be done, but not without difficulty. A few more groups that I’m aware of made successful trips to the base. Then came the invite, and I wanted to visit Windy Falls.
The Horsepasture Drop-Off
I hitched a ride with my buddy Darrin up to Gorges State Park where we would meet up with several friends, some new to us, some old to us. Those who met at the morning rendezvous were Darrin, myself, Luke, Scott, Emily, Johnny, Jack, Stephanie, Kitty, and the infamous Thomas “Badger” Mabry. At 8:45, we hit the trail. The main trails in Gorges are wide gravel roads that are super easy to follow. We left those trails and meandered down uneven trodden dirt to reach the Horsepasture River.
The boulders in that river are massive. The water flow in that river was full and powerful, even though levels were obviously down. Luke and I climbed some of the boulders upstream, and as we sat there watching the force of the water come from above and disappear over an obvious drop below, one of the late Keith Green’s songs began playing in my mind. This place is living in a garbage can compared to what’s waiting in Heaven. Luke quips, “Let’s hope we don’t find out today.” 
House-sized boulder in the upper sections of Windy Falls
The next stop downstream on the Horsepasture River is the Windy Falls terrace, a huge sloping rock where it would be less than easy to meet your demise. When we got there, the conditions were dry, so we were able to carefully explore around it. If that rock is wet, it is also slick, and no attempt should be made to walk on it. At the top of the area, the river rushes beneath a house sized boulder. We made no attempt to get close to the river. A slip up here, and you’re done. About halfway down the rock face is a large separation Crack that becomes a wedge after about four feet. It has been called the Crack of Doom in all seriousness and tongue-in-cheek. (Either way, it is nothing like the Crack of Doom in Linville Gorge.) We took the opportunity to make light of a serious place and play like we were falling in the Crack. 
Don’t slip on the upper terrace
The next section down came with much more difficulty. The path, which was essentially non-existent, split our group up in attempts to find the safest way down. Sheer Rock faces to the left of us, Windy Falls to the right, with the rugged tangle of North Carolina jungle filling in every space between. After using rope to scramble down dripping wet rock faces into standing puddles of black mud, we finally emerged through a pile of boulders onto the clear balcony overlooking the most powerful section of Windy Falls with the most technical section of the route still in front of us.
The Badger enters the Windy Falls keyhole
From the balcony above the plunge pool, with an overhanging cave right behind it, there are two ways down. The first and unfavorable option is over the edge. The water below obscures some hefty boulders that will win against your mass and inertia. The second option is climbing down through the rocks. The easiest way is a tight squeeze through a keyhole. That squeeze can be bypassed with the use of sturdy enough rope, and you can unsafely rappell-lite around the keyhole. Either through or around the keyhole, a rock shelf is the next stop, with the ground another 8 feet below. From here, the rocks angled down toward the water, but another passageway allowed us to travel beneath the boulder balcony into a near silent cave littered with rocks and driftwood beaten to smooth rounded edges by the Horsepasture River. A short scramble or committed walk in the water and we were at the base of the main drop. 
Kitty, Stephanie, and Luke exit the cave
Windy Falls is a raging fury of whitewater as the Horsepasture River crashes down rugged Rock to the plunge pool below. Within the walls of this gorge, the Horsepasture claims full right to its designation as a Wild and Scenic River. 
For the next several hours, the group spent their time eating lunch, taking pictures, scrambling on boulders, exploring ledges to get down river, were joined by Spencer and Stephanie, jumping off and sliding down rocks to swim in the plunge pools. The one thing I really wanted to do for myself was hang a hammock down there, and I was able to find a place after scouting a bit. One by one, the group split as we made our way from the pools, through the cave, out the keyhole, and back up through the boulders and black mud and ledges. 
Darrin goes for one of many slides on the slick rock, with Spencer on the balcony above.
Darrin, Scott, and I stopped at the same pool we visited earlier (where the Keith Green song came to mind), and we got back in the water. Scott took the water leisurely to enjoy a relaxing float about the surface. I wasn’t up to a full swim. Darrin got several more jumps and slides in. If there’s one thing to be said about hiking with Darrin, that dude loves to be in the water. Jumping off rocks into deep river plunge pools and lakes is his thing, for sure. The look on his face, man, he just loves life at that moment. Badger, Kitty, and Stephanie soon joined us, and they too happily entered the waters. It was like other lenses came over my eyes and these thoughts flooded my mind in that contemplative moment:
Team Waterfall loving Windy Falls with abandon
Loving life, there is no question. What struck me was the thought, where does that love come from? How is it that playing carefree in the waters equates with ultimate life? How is it possible that we can enjoy such a good gift as swimming in plunge pools and the sitting beneath the cooling, pummeling pressure of waterfalls? I know that we do, but what precedes that? Deeper questions than any of the pools, for sure. As I meditate on it, that train of thought ends at the Father. Man’s joy is a reflection of the Father’s joy, as we are made in His image. Raw delight points back to the Father, who is the fountain of living water Himself. All these things are gifts and yet, outside of Christ, we are not in a restored relationship with the Father and reject His goodness. We sit, like I did, on the side of the river, not wanting to commit to the waters. (I promise I did not sit out of the water to force that analogy.) In Jesus, the Father beckons us to abandon the shore and plunge into the depths of His reconciling grace to taste the satisfying pleasures of being His.
The walk back to the parking lot was uneventful. I’m surprised we made it the whole day without any timber rattler or copperhead sightings, considering where we had been poking around. For my first visit to Gorges State Park, outside of dipping into it on the Foothills Trail, I’d say it’s going to be hard to beat.
Categories
bushwhacking Confusion Falls hiking http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post Matthews Creek Moonshine Falls Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area Raven Cliff Falls South Carolina Team Waterfall The SC Project Trip report Waterfalls

Raven Cliff Falls Megahike

Raven Cliff Falls from the base
So there I was.. surrounded by a tangle of deadfall, briers, and rhododendron. That wasn’t even the worst part. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.

It was my pleasure to join up with some members of Team Waterfall for an exciting and challenging exploration of Raven Cliff Falls and beyond in South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Since I wasn’t planning any of the routes or destination, and it is highly discouraged to leave the trail in South Carolina’s parks (for good reason), I left my GPS at home. I wanted to enjoy the freedom of not messing with a gadget, to give my trust completely to the planner for where we would go, and to not record any route for others to follow. I don’t encourage anyone to try to reproduce what we did as described in this trip report. To have an injury in some of the areas we went would mean a world of hurt, and an extremely difficult search and rescue.

As we drove up 276 towards Caesar’s Head, we caught a few glimpses of the sun as it faithfully emerged over the horizon as a burning ball of neon orange, a color only the sun can so vividly reproduce as contrasted against the fading remnants of night. What a glorious way to start the day.

Darrin, Andy, Van and I pulled into the parking lot for Raven Cliff Falls and left the car to began our hike at 7:20am. The last thermometer reading on the car’s dash display was 20°F. It was gonna be a cold day. Praise God it was only briskly crisp, without any wind.

The most complete view of Raven Cliff Falls

I have hiked Raven Cliff twice before. Once, just to the observation deck, and once the Dismal/Naturaland/Gum Gap loop (clockwise). To my surprise, we left the main trail even before getting to the observation deck. In fact, we never even saw the observation deck on the way in. Rolling hills gave way to steep descents. The trees and scrub cleared briefly to frame our first view of Raven Cliff Falls, which was awesome. You can see so much more of it than from the observation deck or the boulder overlook on Dismal Trail. The suspension bridge, first drop, upper cascades, second drop (the big one), and lower cascades are all visible.

Then we started descending… in earnest.

It was here where I first noticed the leaves. Mid-November, there was some fall color still hanging on, though not abundantly at this elevation. Most of those leaves were now on the ground. On top of being deafening, descending over leaves is super slippery. If you’ve ever hiked down a steep slope over leaves, you know it’s more of a slide than a hike. So the descent to Matthews Creek in some places went really quickly, because I was essentially sitting on the ground and butt sliding, using feet for braking and hands for stabilizing. Yep, leaves are sketchy. They make for really unstable footing, as well as hiding hazards like rocks and roots. When we weren’t sliding, we were scrambling down rock formations, some several feet high. If you’re familiar with Linville Gorge, you might call the descent to the base of Raven Cliff Falls as a rough Cabin Trail.

We came out of a chute in a huge rockpile formation, and Matthews Creek was at our feet. The sun was just beginning to clear the ridges and illuminating the valley. You could hear the roar of the waterfall, but it was completely out of sight. Water poured over rock and ground from several directions, disappearing out of sight downstream over more rock. A wet crossing brought us to mostly dry rock with several completely frozen puddles. It would have been really easy to take a fall here. Walking upstream and then BAM! Raven Cliff Falls in all its glory. The light was perfect. Warming sunlight behind us, with the falls still hidden away in its mountain pocket, and the setting waning moon still visible above the ridge. Absolutely gorgeous. It was at this exact moment that I decided Raven Cliff Falls was my favorite waterfall. Just incredible.

Raven Cliff Falls beneath the waning moon

From here, we would begin our climb out. Our next destination was to the base of the main drop, but it’s impossible to just dead-reckon straight towards it. So here began the real tangle at the beginning of this report, which by the way, is an over-dramatic but sensational way to start a story. Bushwhacking uphill from the base of Raven Cliff Falls is a steep mess of scratchy briers and bushes, with leaves on the ground giving you the “two steps forward one step back” effect, huge jungle vines, fallen trees, rhododendron thickets, and cliff faces that block your progress. When your in a mess like that, you have one of two ways to look at your situation. Option one: You can either feel hopelessly lost with not knowing where you are exactly in an area that is fighting your every movement and will likely hide your remains from ever being found. Option two: You can enjoy the puzzle of having a vague idea where you are, but not knowing exactly, and move with the obstacles instead of against them (even if it means ungracefully doing a head over feet when a vine snags your boot while climbing over a fallen tree) in hopes that it eventually clears out while following a path of least resistance, which likely will still be quite resistant. I suppose we went with option two since we emerged to dive into another tangle on another day. Route finding in the bush is really one of the most challenging aspects of trips like these, but there are rewards.

Raven Cliff Falls on ice
Like standing at the base of the main drop of a huge waterfall. Even cooler, everything was iced over from the spray of the falls and frigid temps the last couple days. Every branch of every bush was encased in ice. The rhododendron leaves were covered with layers of ice so thick that each rhodo plant sounded like a wooden wind chime when the branches were shaken. Totally cool in there! (Check out the short video I recorded of the area) We hung around for a while, took a bazillion pictures, and hauled our way out of the slick ice and mud back to the top, where it was a long walk through deadfall and brush and deafening leaves until we finally emerged onto Gum Gap Trail.

It felt like another long walk, but we eventually made it to the suspension bridge at the top of the falls. We ate lunch at a great open section of bedrock along the bank of Matthews Creek just at the brink of the first drop of Raven Cliff Falls. Darrin and I bushwhacked down to the base of the first drop, and got a cool view of the upper falls with the bridge right above it. We neglected to go any further down, as we had some other goals we wanted to achieve during the rest of our hike. We had a long ways to go to the car. Here, Van had to part ways with us. He headed back to the car, and Darrin, Andy and I continued on.

Andy and Van on the suspension bridge above Raven Cliff Falls

At the opposite sign of the suspension bridge, there are signs saying the Naturaland Trust Trail is closed. We wanted to check out the condition of the trail, since it was closed after the extremely rainy summer of 2013 that caused landslides in the area, so we proceeded against caution. There were several points on the trail where it narrows down and it’d be easy to plummet off the side. Probably a good decision to heed the caution we didn’t. Even if the trail was open, it felt really confusing with lots of twists and turns and steep climbs down rocky terrain that demand attentive and selective foot placement. Add in the leaves, and our hike down the trail was slow. At one point, we took the trail less traveled through more scrub like we’d been through earlier, and emerged on a perfect ledge to overlook the falls. What might have been a couple hundred feet away from us was the frozen point we were standing over two hours prior. It’s a lot of work to get from one side of the falls to the other. What an awesome time at Raven Cliff Falls. We got to see it from several unique and excellent perspectives. This would be our last view of the falls today.

Ledge view of Raven Cliff Falls
What we came to next has been a favorite of mine from the first time I saw it over three years ago. That first visit to The Cathedral was also the last time I had been there, until this hike. Really, there is no way to photograph or describe the Cathedral accurately. It really must be seen to be believed. The best I can tell you is that it’s a huge multifaceted rock wall that dominates the whole area and commands attention. Water had been trickling down the sides and formed several icicles. Darrin even pointed out a hawks next in a giant crack, where he had seen the hawk circle and eventually land on a previous trip.
Ice on the walls of The Cathedral. The hawk nest is about halfway up the crack on the left

The final landmark on Naturaland Trust Trail on our way out was the old cable crossing bridge over Matthews Creek. The cable bridge had been taken down, which I heard reports of but couldn’t give a first hand account of. Indeed, the cable bridge is down. The trees it was attached to are dead, but not fallen over. Other nearby trees are, though. Two big trees have fallen over at the same spot the cable bridge used to be. The trees cross in the middle, making for an awkward climb over, but it wasn’t too bad.

After the creek crossing, the elevation levels out. We passed by the Dismal Trail and loudly sloshed our way through the leaves towards Asbury Hills. Decision time, at the intersection of Naturaland Trust and path to the car, which was just over a mile away. Back to the car? We still had a couple hours of daylight.

We continued on Naturaland Trust, looking for the large rock cairns that stand on the way to Moonshine Falls. I had been there this past May, but visiting there would really add to this trip! The leaves seemed thicker on the ground here than what we had seen prior. It was was deafening, to the point we couldn’t hear each other talk over the sound of the leaves. Though the ground cover of leaves was thick, many trees still had fall colors clinging to their branches. The displays of yellows, oranges, and reds were far better here than they had been at the trail head of Raven Cliff Falls.

One cairn, two cairns, off the ridge at the sound of water and we’re at the overhang that still has old rusted remains of moonshine stills and barrels beneath it and Matthews Creek pouring over the top of it. A pretty impressive collection of remains, really. Moonshine Falls is one of my favorite waterfalls because of the unique “cave” area behind it that isn’t overly common on our Carolina waterfalls. I found myself wondering how long ago this water had fallen over the edge of Raven Cliff Falls, and if it had become part of Moonshine Falls at the same time we were arriving. The pool at the base was full of leaves. This is really my favorite view of the falls.

Andy crafting the shot from behind Moonshine Falls

We still had daylight, still had time. When I had come earlier in the year, TJ and I made an attempt to find Confusion Falls, but abandoned it after we couldn’t follow the trail any longer down the steep slope. Today, we would find it. We dropped our packs and I found the slope down was even steeper than I had previously thought. We took turns sliding down, went too far, and had to backtrack the creek, climbing over deadfall and through rhododendron. Confusion Falls is really cool, as its the conversion of two creeks, plummeting off an overhang to become one creek at the base. It has an almost tropical feel to it, even in the midst of a South Carolina autumn.

Confusion Falls

The climb back up the ridge is a complete grunt. Andy described it as a 50-degree slope covered in acorns and dry leaves. There were several sections I slid back down towards the bottom. Secure footing is a wish and absent dream on that ascent. The best emerging technique for climbing out seemed to be to launch from one tree to another, as the trees became handholds and footholds. It’s a short trip to Confusion Falls from Moonshine Falls, but it’s not without its price.

The day had been full of leg destroying adventures, so we were looking forward to the easy hike out, even if it was still over two miles to the car. There is still an intact cable bridge over Matthews Creek on Asbury Hills property. Darrin and I used the bridge, but being only half and hour from the car, Andy decided to wade across. On the Red Trail closer to the parking area, the leaves were as bad as they’d been, obscuring thick roots and embedded rocks. Thank you, leaves, for giving us a few finals stumbles and falls at the last stretch of the hike. Though we didn’t track it with a GPS, Darrin estimates we covered at least 10 miles. 

Our final photo op over the recreation lake at Asbury Hills

Nearly at the parking lot is a small lake at Asbury Hills. The mountain behind it was lit with the last rays of the evening sun, igniting the fall leaves in a glowing tapestry of color that reflected perfectly against the mirror stillness of the lake. The day opened and closed with majestic paintings of the Lord in the colors of the sun, almost like the front and back covers of a book that told of His glory. Certainly, that was the story my eyes saw this day.