Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Chasing Waterfalls


I laid out a rather ambitious plan for today – carefully navigate to 4 waterfalls in a precise order and then wind up a dirt road to set up camp and climb a mountain. All this needed to happen within 12 hours.

With so many places where parts of today’s plan could have gone awry, I’m pleased to report that I reached each of those destinations and did everything I wanted to do at all of them. The only low points of the day, and to call them low points is a stretch – were that I didn’t get as good of a picture of Looking Glass Falls as I had hoped and I wasn’t so happy with the Max Patch Road. But more on those momentarily. 

After waking up to a thunderstorm in Asheville (fun fact: Latke does not appear to be afraid of thunder), we set out on the 2-hour trip to Dry Falls, the first of the day. This was also the waterfall furthest away from Asheville, but because I had read that Looking Glass Falls, the closest, looked best in the afternoon I decided to go all the way west and work my way back east (roughly) before turning north for Max Patch. And it worked.

Anyway, Dry Falls is unique because, in addition to being a scenic 60-foot roaring sheet of water, it falls over a rock overhang. Years ago, some enterprising young Forest Service employee decided to construct a walkway behind the falls, so you could see them and stay dry (hence the name). Personally, I think the name Refreshingly Misty Falls fits better. 

Next up were Silver Run Falls, about an hour of twisty 30-miles-per-hour mountain road away (that description is a bit redundant, as it could describe any of roads not named “Main Street” in this part of the state). This one turned out to be my favorite of the day. The parking area only had room for 1 or 2 cars but I was the only one there. It was a short trail – less than 10 minutes – that alternated between gravel and a sort of packed mulch that was very springy to walk on. Not too much elevation change either. All in all, a good hike for a lunch break, except that it would take your entire lunch break just to get there. When we reached the end of the trail, this lady greeted me.

It’s becoming quite a challenge to take decent pictures while making sure that Latke doesn’t end up in whatever water is nearby. Whether it’s a stream running next to us, a river that we’re crossing by bridge, or a 200-foot gorge just beyond the safety barriers, Latke is very good at making me think she just might decide to go for a swim. I don’t get it – even Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners can sense when they’re at the top of stairs and there’s no more ground in front of them. Does Latke not have this same instinct?

As we turned to leave, I saw a side path covered in tree roots, but definitely a path put there on purpose. Since the walk down had taken so little out of me, I decided to see what I could see. Turns out, what I thought was the end of the trail was just some spot near the end of the trail. This side path ended up spitting us out against the rock wall that Silver Run Falls was busy cascading down.

Next came White Water Falls. Actually, it was just the first 400 feet of White Water Falls. Upper White Water Falls, if you will. The White Water river runs down the Blue Ridge escarpment – the eastern front of the southern Appalachians where the elevation changes over 3,000 feet in less than 10 miles in some spots. As much as some people complain that I-40 makes this climb too rapidly for comfort, it’s a handicap ramp compared to the 3 giant leaps utilized by the river to accomplish the same journey. White Water Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Full stop. None of that “highest single plunge” or “highest but it does it through a series of rapids.” No. This is clearly a single waterfall and it’s enormous.

The only problem is that since the terrain there is so extreme, the only way to view the falls is from far away. I’m not sure how close I was at this point, but it’s the closest it’s possible to safely be. And even this view required going down (and then up) 152 stairs.

Oh, but the real reason this waterfall was on my must-see list is that the fastest way to get there from Silver Run Falls is through South Carolina. I’d been to South Carolina once before but it was on a science teacher’s conference and I wasn’t the one driving. So now I can add another state sign to my 26-member list of Welcome Signs of States I’ve Driven Through.

From White Water, I made the 2 hour windy trip to Looking Glass Falls in the Pisgah National Forest. This leg of the journey had some extra significance since it took me through the town of Brevard. If you’ve never been to Brevard, you should change that. I first heard of the place when I attended the Pisgah Forest Institute three summers ago. In addition to providing many fantastic environmental science teaching resources, it was the first place I had ever driven that required more than a day of travel. And while I was passing through, I figured I might as well stop in DC on the way back to see what I could see. Sound familiar? A year later I was on another road trip, this time instead of 1,400 miles round trip it was nearly 12,000. 

So I made sure to get lunch and gas in Brevard (if any place deserved my patronage, it was here) before setting off for Looking Glass Falls. Here I ran into a slight problem. Transylvania County, home of Brevard and the aforementioned waterfall (in fact, home to more waterfalls than any other county in America) gets more precipitation each year than any location in North America outside the Pacific Northwest. Today I literally drove through a temperate rainforest. So the question in Transylvania County is never “Will it rain today?” but rather “When will it rain today?” Fortunately for me, at this time of year it usually gets my favorite kind of rain – thunderstorms. And one of those trademark thunderstorms hit just as I was arriving at Looking Glass Falls.

For a few minuets I tried to wait it out but I didn’t have the patience for that. Last year I visited Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains in the rain and didn’t really have any problems other than a soggy hat, so I decided to brave the short staircase and see what I could find (Latke stayed in the car this time. It’s bad enough the car smells like socks and Meaty Bone, I don’t need it smelling like wet dog too).

Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the spray from the falls, or maybe it’s that I haven’t cleaned my lens-cleaning cloth in… ever, but I could not find a way to keep water off the camera lens. The best I did was to hold my hat over it, but then I wound up with lots of pictures of a waterfall as seen under the visible brim of a Red Sox hat. So I’ll have to wait until I get in front of my real screen at home to see just how much of each picture is blurred from water droplets, but for now I can already tell that what looked great at the time probably didn’t turn out the way I thought. Not a wasted trip at all though. I got to stand at the foot of a waterfall braving the pouring rain with thunder crackling all around me while I stood hunched over my tripod doing my level best to protect not the camera but the potential images we were attempting to create. I hear National Geographic photographers sometimes have to sit in mud puddles for days at a time to try and see a frog. I think my experience was better.

Thus completed my quadruple waterfall morning. From there I drove through the rest of the Pisgah National Forest – which actually means over the forest, as the only road through maxed out around 4,700 feet. From there I could see the water cycle in action. I was on the eastern (is that windward or leeward? I can never remember) side at first, where clouds had already formed and were dropping precipitation. After crossing the crest to the western side, the rain changed to fog. Here, the water vapor was still in the process of climbing and condensing into clouds that would dump rain just a few miles down the same road. Science, bitches!

My final and most anticipated stop of the day was near Max Patch in a national forest whose native American name escapes me. Since it’s a national forest, and not a national park, camping is allowed anywhere in the forest, as long as it’s more than 50 feet from a road and any water source. So the plan was that somewhere close to Max Patch I would pull over to the side of the road, find a level piece of ground, and make my own campsite. So that’s what I did, including making my own fire pit out of locally-sourced stone (See pretentious people? It’s easy to make “rocks I found on the ground” sound organic and expensive). The problem was in getting to the potential campsites in the first place.

Every set of directions I had found online said to take I-26, get off at the last stop in North Carolina, get on this one road for a mile or two, and then turn onto Max Patch Road and go another mile and a half. For some reason, Copina decided to take the back way here, which skipped I-26 altogether (which is a shame, because after spending 2 days on a 45-mph road, doing 65 with a passing lane feels like piloting the Space Shuttle). Instead, I got to experience the entire Max Patch Road – all 20 miles of it. Like yesterday’s adventure, I could take solace in the fact that this potholed gravel road was still in better shape than most of Canada’s surface roads, so the dozens of cliffside switchbacks didn’t bother me much. Plus, I knew there would be a faster way to get out of here in the morning – just ignore Copina.

That brought me to Max Patch itself. It’s an example of one of the unique ecological features of the southern Appalachians – the bald mountain. It’s not above tree line, something just happened that killed all the trees on top and has prevented them from growing back (in this case that first thing was farming and the second thing is mowing). But thanks to this careless misuse of resources, places like Max Patch have unobstructed 360-degree views. Here, the bald summit is surrounded by mountain ranges of comparable elevations or higher, creating that iconic Blue Ridge “rows of mountains” look.

While I was wandering around the gently sloping summit area, Latke decided that this was a field and that fields were for (for lack of a better word) frolicking. If I had known she was going to act like that I would have brought her 25-foot leash so she could really let loose. Regardless, she had a wonderful time pouncing, biting her leash, and especially sticking her nose (and often entire face) into mounds of dead dry grass. 

While I was mildly concerned she might upset a chipmunk or two, I did start to really get nervous when she kept finding large piles of animal droppings. They were large enough to be a cow’s doing, but I had a feeling no one was grazing cattle up here anymore. The only other animal that size that frequents these parts is a bear. And apparently these bears were frequenting Max Patch quite… frequently. I immediately thought back to my near-death experience with the moose this summer and decided that staying all the way until sunset, getting a perfect picture, and walking back in the dark was not even a little bit worth it. So I left about 15 minutes before the show was technically over, but between the time I spent on the summit and the few stops I made closer to the bottom of the trail (where I would be able to see bears coming from far enough away to keep Latke from inviting them over to play) I did come away with some pretty noteworthy stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Those waterfall pics seriously are amazing today! The sunset look paintings!