Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve and Virginia Hawkins Falls

Over the weekend we were looking to get out to one of the waterfalls for a short hike, and selfishly wanted it all to ourselves; it had been a long week, and a few hours of solitude didn’t seem like too much to ask. Our choice was Virginia Hawkins Falls, known as Double Falls up until the Foothills Trail Conference renamed it in 2004 in honor of the longtime executive secretary of the FTC. The drive is still relatively short (about 1.5 hours), whereas heading up to more remote districts of the Pisgah or Blue Ridge would have added a couple of hours in the car. Horse Pasture Road is far rougher on vehicles than Persimmon Ridge Road (and longer), meaning we only passed Jeeps and pickups on our way in and out. And really, out of the Heritage Preserves, Laurel Fork is one of the lesser known; it’s mostly through-traffic on the Foothills Trail.

To reach the Preserve head up to the Pickens County on US178, as you would to Sassafras Mountain. After crossing Scenic Highway 11, continue 8 miles north, through Rocky Bottom and over Eastatoe Creek. Immediately after crossing the bridge turn west to enter Laurel Valley, and keep right to stay on Horse Pasture Rd. The gravel road starts climbing in elevation right away, winding up into the mountains of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges. Soon you’ll pass the Foothills Trail parking area. It is possible to reach the falls via the Foothills Trail; park here if you’re up for a strenuous 10 mile round trip up past Flatrock Mountain (or keep driving for a much shorter hike!). Almost immediately after passing the Foothills Trail steps to the right you’ll pass the gate to Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve on your left, possibly my favorite hike in the area. This portion of Horse Pasture Rd. can be a little rough on a passenger vehicle (especially after a rain), but while high clearance, all-wheel drive/4x4 are recommended, we just took it nice and slow with our Ford sedan. The disbelieving looks from the drivers of a few beat-up pickups were well-earned. Remember that the road is narrow in places, and not all portions are wide enough for two vehicles to pass – take it slow!

3.6 miles from Highway 178 you’ll reach a fork in the road. Horse Pasture Road continues to the right, while the left option is a dead-end that is used for parking for Laurel Creek Heritage Preserve. There’s a turnaround at the end, but on our recent visit it was a mudpit; we opted to back up into the road and parked to one side to allow other vehicles passage. Then we continued up Horse Pasture on foot for just over a tenth of a mile, until we reached an intersection: Horse Pasture Rd. continues straight, and Canebreak Road splits off to the north. If you were to continue on Horse Pasture you would soon come to the gated Laurel Fork Creek road off to the right – the old roadbed will be our trail for most of the hike. However the trail starts at the Canebreak/Horse Pasture fork; look for the Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve sign at the intersection of the two roads, and head down the stairs before taking a right on the old road.

The Virginia Hawkins falls trailhead on the corner of Horse Pasture and Canebreak Roads

The hike itself is easy to moderate, and totals about 3 miles round trip. It follows Laurel Fork Creek Road for about a mile, slowly descending down into the lush green paradise. We crossed several small tributaries and finally came to Laurel Fork Creek, the Foothills Trail and a primitive campground. Here we left the gravel road, cut across the campsite, and then traversed the bridge with the sign “to Virginia Hawkins Falls.”

We heard the waterfall before we saw it, the rush of the creek turning into a roar before we rounded the corner. Turning off the Foothills Trail we descended to the base of the 25-ft multi-tiered granite waterfall. Despite a low water flow and several large downed trees, the falls are beautiful; mossy shelves, a rainbow of colors in the rock and a sheltered glade make it one of the more scenic waterfalls in the Upstate. 

The protected wilderness of Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve encompasses 1,361 acres along the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the Jocassee Gorges, which take their place on the National Geographic list “50 of the World’s Last Great Places.” Home to enormous tulip poplars, Blue Ghost fireflies and an array of rare plants such as the Oconee Bell, the Preserve has also been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audobon Society. The Creek itself is full of small fish, crayfish and salamanders; Jocassee Gorges is claimed to have the greatest number of salamanders found anywhere in the world.

Some of the wildflowers we saw on our visit included spotted wintergreen, wild hydrangea (everywhere), yellow star grass, multiple different members of the mint family, blue-eyed grass, false and smooth Solomon’s seal, fire pink – and that was only the simple stuff that I could identify!

We were successful in finding some solitude. A beautiful June day that probably brought crowds to Jones Gap and Table Rock brought only a handful of people to Laurel Fork during our visit, all but two passing through on their Foothills Trail hike. This was a nice change of pace from our usual day trips, as we stick to short hikes without more than a couple travel hours in the car when hiking as a family – the recipe for a popular, crowded trail. On the other hand, along with the solitude we also found quite a bit of poison ivy, ticks, chiggers and gnats. It is important to do frequent tick checks on the kids when we are out and about – even during the days after, as sometimes ticks will hitchhike home and jump back on in the car the following day.

After refueling and getting our fill of waterfall time we packed up. We made quick work of the short descent back down to the primitive campground, and although we felt the pull to cross the second bridge and continue on the Foothills Trail to the shores of Lake Jocassee & Laurel Fork Falls, it just wasn’t an option this time. The boys found the gradual ascent back up to Laurel Fork Gap a bit tedious, but made it back to Horse Pasture Road in record time. We (very) briefly considered continuing on to Jumping Off Rock and the spectacular view of Lake Jocassee, but quickly discarded the idea as it’s another 6 miles west, and then either 8 miles back the way we came or 12 miles continuing through back around to Highway 11; it just felt wrong to spend so much time in the car on such a spellbinding day. Instead we used the time saved for a stop at Sassafras Mountain, the views stretching for miles and miles of blue ridge mountains...

* Note: During 2016 several large trees fell across the base of the waterfall. To see a picture of the falls unobscured and for a detailed description of the hike, please visit this post by waterfallshiker.

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