Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Narrows

We went on an awesome hike. (Which means this is a long post, but I had a lot I wanted to say, and a bunch of pictures!)

Now, this one isn’t for everyone. It was listed as 5 miles round-trip (and some websites had it listed as only 3.4!), but I suspect it was closer to 6 with the extra bit from the parking area and the side-excursion down to the creek. Also, it was steep. Our boys are troopers, and all three turned into a whining mess of “carry me” before we even got to the turn-around point, not even talking about the return trip. We couldn’t stop for too long in most places, as the mosquitoes liked the moist gorge habitat, and the official trail only leads to a lookout – we had to take unofficial (and crazy steep) side trails to get down to the creek.

But, this hike was magical. Even Roberts said “this is one of my all-time favorites.” Coming from him (unprompted) it’s like winning the hike-planning lottery. And, I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard of the place before - it's an off-the-radar place.

Every year around this time Horsepasture Rd. starts seeing an increase in traffic of folks looking to get out to Jumping Off Rock to take in the views of Lake Jocassee as the leaves are turning. If you’ve ever been out that way, you’ll remember the last 8 miles to get there are on a gravel, barely-wide-enough-to-pass, winding mountain road. But you’ll also have passed right by the trailhead to the place I’m talking about… The Narrows*.

The info kiosk in the Horsepasture Rd. parking lot

From Rocky Bottom, SC you head north on Highway 178 until you cross the bridge, and then make a left on Horsepasture Rd. taking the right fork (going uphill, not along the river). In about ¼ mile you’ll see the parking area for the Foothills Trail on your left; this is where you park. You’re now officially in the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, often just called Jocassee Gorges. From here you’ll proceed (on foot) another ¼ mile up Horespasture Rd. past an access point to a spur for the Foothills Trail (Oconee SP only 61.7 miles away!), to the red gate on your left.

Once we had navigated around the gate we followed the road marked with yellow blazes (and signs) to the border of the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. The 373-acre tract encompasses a portion of the Eastatoe drainage along Narrow Ridge including “The Narrows,” our destination.

The first ½ mile after the red gate is an uphill climb, followed by about a mile of gently down-sloping trail. During this time the trail is following the old roadbed, and it’s easy hiking through a beautiful forest of wild hydrangea, towering oaks, hickories and tulip poplars, rhododendron and mountain laurel in the understory. There is a steep drop-off on the creek-side of the trail, and in spots we could catch a glimpse of Horse Mountain. The forest was alive: turkeys calling, acorns dropping, and the distant sound of water rushing through the Narrows. The smell of wild grape was intoxicating, and I wondered if it was a bumper crop, or if there is such abundance every year. We saw persimmons, berries and acorns, wow, there were so many acorns!  Considering it was the tail end of summer, I was also surprised at the number of flowers blooming; lobelia and oxeye sunflowers joined the very first signs of autumn for vivid splashes of color that included bright red black tupelo leaves and the pink and orange seeds of the strawberry bush plant.

the seeds of the strawberry bush plant

Every dozen feet the boys found something else to inspect: brightly colored beetles, perfectly cubical pieces of quartz, a toad, a daddy longlegs, “the biggest acorn ever!”…  We let them take their time, because we knew that the stretch of trail coming up would prove a challenge. About 1 ½ miles from the red gate the trail makes a hard left down into the gorge, and here the going gets steep. The drop down is made easier by well-constructed trail, switchbacks to ease the descent, and stairs & bridges where needed. However, it was still hard for the kids; Vilis was in the carrier (protesting the entire time) and Mikus and Vilis holding our hands for a good portion of the descent.

It got noticeably more humid, and although I’m unsure if the South Carolina portion of the Jocassee Gorges is technically part of the Appalachian temperate rainforest, it sure felt it! The forest here was magical, old growth hemlock and giant ferns, and it was immediately clear how the Jocassee Gorges had made National Geographic’s list “50 of the World’s Last Great Places.”

Down in the gorge we came to a fork in the trail. To the left are campsites (currently closed) and Eastatoe creek access, popular with fisherman due to the naturally-occurring rainbow trout, while to the right is the overlook of the creek emerging from the “Narrows.” In the span of this section, the stream will have dropped some 600 feet in elevation through a narrow channel very aptly named, generating the mist which helps maintain high humidity along the Eastatoe and enables three species of rare ferns to thrive in the Preserve.

view from the overlook

We took a breather at the overlook. It’s a fantastic sight, all that water gushing through a channel that can’t be more than 3-4 feet wide! There’s evidence of people going around the overlook to try to descend for a closer view, but don’t be fooled! It’s a cliff on two sides, and there’s no access to the water at this point!

We retraced our steps toward the fork and took an unofficial trail (to the left) down a draw instead. The stream descends swiftly even after emerging from the Narrows, but thanks to the low water level we found a safe spot for the boys to explore while we took in the view. I made my way upstream, crossing the creek and carefully making my way on the opposite bank for a closer look at what is simply an awesome geological formation. The channel of the Narrows is incredibly deep, and even the wide pool at the base of the chute is rather deep with a wicked current. And this is at the end of summer, several months without a good rain!

I could go on and on… How I saw trout swimming against the current at the base of a small waterfall while the boys walked on water above, how every now and again a shower of leaves would rain down upon us, the shadows bouncing off the canyon walls, how the cool air was swept along with the water and made me dizzy with wanting to breathe it all in… However both Roberts and I realized the implications of being down in the gorge – we would have to make our way back up.

Having repacked all the backpacks to lighten the boys’ load we started back up. I won’t write about this part other to say it was hard. We distracted, we bribed, and we took frequent breaks to eat candy. And we climbed out of the Eastatoe gorge and emerged at the trailhead tired and sore, but with one heck of a hike under our belts.

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries

I can’t remember a single time when I was this unsure about writing a blog post about one of our adventures. It’s selfish – unreasonably, I feel that if I share the location with my readers, there will be no room for us next time we go. It’s out of fear – this is such a biologically and geologically unique(and sensitive!) area, I don’t know of any other place in the Upstate that is similar and I hate the thought of seeing the damage that has been wrought on many other popular spots take place there. And it’s out of anger – I watch videos like the one out of Oregon and wonder how many vandals it would take until every last one of the beautiful places in our area are destroyed.


But in the end, I decided I have to write about it. My goal with posts about our favorite hikes and waterfalls is to share them with others. I want everyone to get off their couch and get out into the fresh air, to feel the magic we found, and to realize that it isn’t just Alaska, Arizona or Hawaii with the incredible natural places – we’ve got them right here in the Upstate.

Oxeye sunflowers

So having said that, I hope you make the hike, and I hope you enjoy it! To break it down, it’s an hour drive from Greenville and we spent 5+ hours hiking and resting at the creek. The sign at the Foothills Trail connecter says 2.7 miles to Eastatoe Gorge, so that’s 5.4 total +the additional 0.3 or from this point to parking lot and back, and 0.2 to descend to the creek. It is NOT 1.7 miles as stated on several hiking websites, a fact easily checked through a look at google maps. Beware of poison ivy, mosquitoes, and chiggers, the aftermath of which still itches as I write this post. Finally, be prepared for one of the most intriguing hikes you’ll ever go on in the Upstate… See you on the trail!

* This hike is featured in the book South Carolina Nature Viewing Guide: Your guide to more than ninety of the best and most easily accessible nature viewing sites in South Carolina by Patricia L. Jerman. 

en route to the Narrows we passed this field of sun

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