Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Autumn on the Cherohala Skyway

With the grand opening of the Foothills Parkway this past weekend there is yet another scenic drive in the southeast with grand vistas of the Appalachian Mountains. While a return visit to the Foothills Parkway to see the 10 bridges of the “Missing Link” is in the works, we opted to let the initial excitement die down and instead headed to another destination about 3 hours from Greenville for our annual autumn color trip – The Cherohala Skyway.

The Cherohala Skyway is a 40-mile National Scenic Byway and National Forest Scenic Byway that connects Tellico Plains, TN, to Robbinsville, NC. The name Cherohala is a combination of Cherokee and Nantahala, the two national forests through which it passes, and the skyway provides access to those as well as the Citico Creek Wilderness, the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, and the remote interior of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest.

Fishing Indian Boundary Lake

Start your trip on the west end in Tellico Plains, mainly because the Visitor Center is located on that end.* Grab maps, updates on fall color, weather information or a souvenir before heading on. Expert tip: stop at the Tellico Grains Bakery and pick up croissants/scones for breakfast, as well as a loaf of bread for lunch. 

Tellico Grains Bakery

The first pull off is about three miles in, with a view of Tellico River, and the next (Oosterneck Creek, just 1 mile further) also serves as a boating takeout. Just afterwards is the turn for River Road, which winds along the Tellico River to multiple campgrounds and picnic areas. Be sure to take the 6-mile detour on River Road to Bald River Falls, a 100 foot waterfall that is easily viewed from the road. The Bald River and 3,721 acres of its watershed are part of the Bald River Gorge Wilderness, designated as a wilderness area by the US Forest Service.

Bald River Falls

Having returned to the Skyway, continue east. At about 13 miles in take a left on Forest Service Road 345 to Indian Boundary Campground. With 100 campsites, picnic areas, swimming, biking, fishing and hiking, this detour is worth it. There is a 3.2 mile trail that loops the lake, and the views of the mountains over the lake are breathtaking. Check ahead if planning to camp – reservations are advised during the busy season and the campground closes for winter.

The shores of Indian Boundary Lake

The skyway gains a total of over 4,000 feet in elevation over its 40 miles, climbing from a low point of just under 900 feet at Tellico Plains to a high point of over 5,400 feet near the TN-NC state line. The first overlook with an elevated view is Turkey Creek (15 miles in, elevation 2,630 ft), looking out over the Tennessee River Valley, although once you’ve hit 3,000 feet in elevation the pull-offs start coming a little closer together. Lake View (17.2 miles in, elevation 3,360ft) has a narrow view of Indian Boundary Lake, while Eagle Gap ( 17.9 miles @ 3,600ft) and Grassy Gap (19.3 miles @ 3,400 ft) offer trail access to Flats Mountain, Grassy Branch and McNabb Creek trails. At 20 miles (and 3,750ft) is the Brushy Ridge pull-off, overlooking Sassafras Ridge. The West Rattlesnake Rock Trailhead is soon followed by East Rattlesnake Rock, 4,000 and 4,110 feet, respectively. The 2.2 mile Falls Branch trail leaves from the West Rattlesnake Rock parking area and leads to a 70-foot waterfall in the Citico Creek Wilderness.

View from Unicoi Crest

At Beech Gap (4,480ft) you’ll cross into North Carolina, and the Unicoi Crest pull-off at 23 miles also sits right along the border. After crossing Old Santeetlah Road (which follows Santeetlah Creek all the way down to Santeetlah Gap) you’ll reach Stratton Ridge, an excellent place to stop: for the views, for the restrooms, for the picnic tables. We pulled out the fresh loaf of bread and our cooler, and enjoyed lunch at 4,420 feet in elevation.

The next pull-off is Mud Gap, trailhead for the Benton Mackaye Trail (BMT). The BMT begins at Springer Mountain, GA along with the Appalachian Trail, then loops west through Cherokee National Forest to rejoin the AT at Davenport Gap on the east end of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 275 miles long, it is named for the man who proposed the creation of the Appalachian Trail. At this trailhead you are actually standing on the TN/NC state line; the trail, state line and the Cherohala roughly parallel one another bearing north, while following the BMT southwest will take you to Whigg Meadow in 1.5 miles (and Springer Mountain in 160 miles). Formerly home to a shepherd’s cabin, there is a small pond tucked into the back side of the hill.

On the Benton Mackaye Trail

The next overlook is Whigg Cove at 4,570 feet, and the Skyway keeps climbing to Haw Knob (4,890ft), Big Junction (5,240ft) and finally Santeetlah (5,390ft), the highest overlook along the Skyway. At the Hooper Bald trailhead a ¼ mile hike leads to Hooper Bald and the site of the old hunting preserve created in 1908 by George Moore. Although no trace of the lodge remains today, this is a nice, easy hike, especially gorgeous in the spring when the native Flame azaleas are blooming.

Returning from Hooper Bald

Our favorite hike along the Cherohala Skyway starts from the Huckleberry parking area, an easy there-and-back, 2.5 mile round-trip trail to Huckleberry Knob. While Santeetlah is the highest overlook on the Cherohala, Huckleberry Knob is the highest point in the Cheoah Ranger District of the Nantahala. At 5,560 feet the panorama includes the Skyway heading into Tennessee, and a view back over the way you came and Oak Knob. The grassy knobs are maintained by mowing once a year, and in the summer clover, buttercups and blueberries dot the green expanse. A large cross on Huckleberry Knob marks a grave of one of two men who died on their way to Robbinsville from a Tellico Creek logging camp in 1899.

Up on Huckleberry Knob

The next overlook is Spirit Ridge, 32 miles into the journey. A short trail that is accessible for the physically challenged leads to an overlook. The Wright Cove pull-off has another short trail, although this one is more challenging as it drops down into the dense forest. Popular in the spring for the wildflower showing, the loop trail totals about ½ mile.

Hiking Spirit Ridge

After Wright Cove the Cherohala drops below 4,000 feet, and the last three overlooks pull-offs are Obadiah, Shute Cove and Hooper Cove. Shute Cove has a wooden platform with views looking north across the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness Area, and Hooper Cove has picnic tables in a nice, sheltered area with a view into the Santeetlah Creek drainage.

On the Wright Creek loop trail

Then just as suddenly as you found yourself at the top of the world you round a bend to find a pull-off with an info kiosk and an intersection signaling the terminus of the Cherohala Skyway. Old Santeetlah Road rejoins 143 at this point, and a road leads off to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Rattler Ford & Horse Cove campgrounds. It is possible to circle Lake Santeetlah to the north to reach Highway 129 by heading north, while continuing on 143 will take along the south shore to Robbinsville.

Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center bear pen

There is plenty in the area to help make this into a longer trip: to the east Fort Loudoun State Historic Park, The Lost Sea, Unicoi Turnpike Trail and various Civil War Trail sites, while to the west are Fontana Dam and thousands of acres of State, National Forest & National Park lands. Get in touch with the knowledgeable folks at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center and check out the official Skyway website; this will build a soild foundation to begin exploring what is one of the wildest, most remote wildernesses left in the southeast.

* Note that while my mileages and descriptions are starting on the west end in TN, the Skyway mileposts begin at Lake Santeetlah and in fact run east to west.

Monday, October 22, 2018

King Creek Falls and Burrells Ford

Despite being in a remote corner of the state, Burrells Ford remains a crossroads: historical and natural. The old wagon road (and later logging road) that forded the Chattooga was replaced with gravel Forest Service Road 708 (FS 708 or Burrels Ford Road) in 1968, allowing access to the section of the state bordering Georgia and North Carolina. Here the Foothills Trail intersects with the Chattooga Trail and East Fork Trail. Ellicott Rock Wilderness overlaps the Wild & Scenic Chattooga River corridor. Spur trails to Burrells Ford and Spoonauger Falls depart from multiple trailheads. And three National Forests - the Chattahoochee-Oconee, Nantahala, and Andrew Pickens ranger district of Sumter National Forest – converge to form one giant natural area.

Kings Creek Falls
But the region remains wild. Isolated, winding mountain roads require 1 ½ hours driving time to reach the campground from Greenville, including the last 3 on gravel Burrells Ford Road. At one point those wishing to camp at the Burrells Ford campground could drive right to their campsite, but all that changed when the Chattooga River received the “Wild & Scenic” designation in 1974. Now parking is in a lot just off the gravel road, and requires a ½ mile hike down the old road bed to reach the campground.

The confluence of trails can provide some confusion, and the mileages can be hard to pin down. There are two parking areas: one for the campground, and a second closer to the Chattooga on the edge of Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The Chattooga Trail (blazed green) stays along the river through the campground and emerges at this second parking area, while the Foothills Trail (blazed white) curves away from the river south of the campground and emerges adjacent to the campground parking area. There are several connector trails from the Foothills Trail to the Chattooga Trail, as well as additional spur trails to the waterfalls. Add in to that East Fork Trail leading to the only other road in this corner of the state (Fish Hatchery Road), and the horrible map posted at the trailheads, and you have an idea of why you need to come prepared with a good map if you’re planning on doing any hiking. We used National Geographic’s Sumter National Forest map on our Chattooga Trail hike, but later I utilized a Forest Service map to make a more detailed version of the campground area, as seen here.

Map of Burrells Ford campground area, as adapted from USFS map

But pack enough for a weekend, and plan to explore. Park at the first parking area (for the campground), and follow the road down to the tent sites. You’ve got bear-proof trash receptacles near the restrooms (in reality pit toilets, but luxurious compared to the alternative), and picnic tables, lantern posts, fire rings & bear poles in each campground. Some of the sites are right along the Chattooga, while others are scattered through the woods. Remember to pack appropriately, as your return trip will be all uphill. The walk in possibly deters a portion of the car campers, and the campsites cannot be reserved ahead of time; plan accordingly.

From the campground take a hike to Ellicott Rock Wilderness following the Chattooga Trail; Ellicott Rock is about 4 miles north (one way), but scenic Spoonauger Falls is less than a mile. Or, head south on the Chattooga/Foothills Trail, destination Oconee State Park (16.4 miles), Ridley Fields (11.8 miles), the Bartram Trail junction (8.1 miles) or Cherry Hill campground (about 10 miles?). Of course you could just go ahead and hike the rest of the Foothills Trail - 59.8 miles to Table Rock State Park!

Another option is to stay in the campground; Burrells Ford is the gateway to some of the most premium trout water in the Southeast. The SC DNR stocks the river with rainbow, brown and native brook trout grown nearby at the Fish Hatchery. The river is easily accessed from Chattooga Trail and most of the campsites, and even in October the boys were happy to get their feet wet.

The high point of a stop at Burrells Ford is the proximity to two of the most picturesque waterfalls in South Carolina, King Creek Falls and Spoonauger Falls. King Creek Falls is just west of the campground, and is a 70 foot, tiered waterfall that is less than a mile, roundtrip (about 1.4 there and back if you're starting at the campground parking area).

If you are interested in reading more about the history of the area, the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited posted this informative article about the Chattooga Coalition.

The US Forest Service Burrells Ford webpage is here

…and my post on the Chattooga Trail is here.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Spoonauger Falls

The Ellicott Rock Wilderness spans three states, the South Carolina portion measuring 2,859 acres in the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest. Bordered on the west by the Chattooga River, there are three main means of access in SC: Chattooga Trail coming in from Burrells Ford, East Fork Trail from the Walhalla Fish Hatchery, and Fork Mountain Trail from Sloan Bridge Picnic Area. The three trails are strenuous treks into the backcountry, but just to the south of this remote area is a 50 foot waterfall reached by just a short trail from Burrells Ford Road – Spoonauger Falls. This hike embodies the spirit of the wilderness area, but is slightly more accessible at just 0.3 miles to reach the base of the waterfall.

We started our hike on Chattooga Trail from the trailhead on Burrells Ford Road. Hiking north in the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River corridor, we passed several nice views of the Chattooga before coming to the Spoonauger Creek crossing.

The creek and the waterfall are both named for the Spoonauger family, which lived somewhere in the area above the falls. I’ve seen the waterfall called Rock Cliff Falls, as well as Spoon Auger Falls, however the Forest Service maps indicate Spoonauger is the most commonly used name.

Immediately after crossing the creek look for the Spoonauger Falls sign, and follow the spur trail east. Just a short ascent later the waterfall is visible to your right – be cautious, as the trail can be slippery after a rain. As always, exercise caution near waterfalls, and be aware that straying off the path can cause irreparable damage to sensitive plant communities, as well as allow for erosion on the steep walls of the gorge. I have read that bats will roost in the rock crevices of the cliff, however on our visit we didn't see any bats, only salamanders in the pools below the falls. Once you've taken in the falls, head back the way you came.

The ramifications of the hemlock woolly adelgid were easily visible on this short hike, in the form of enormous dead and dying hemlocks, as well as egg sacs of the invasive insect, which resemble small tufts of cotton clinging to the underside of hemlock branches. The tiny brown-colored insect sucks nutrition from the tree’s stored reserves, and injects a toxin while feeding, causing the tree to lose needles and not produce new growth. Death of the tree typically occurs 4 to 10 years after infestation.

Having returned to Burrells Ford Road, take a short stroll down to the bridge for the view up the Chattooga. Of course, make sure to cross into Georgia so that you can make this a two-state excursion. If you were to continue on the Chattooga Trail north of the Spoonauger Falls spur trail, you would reach Ellicott’s Rock with a 4.4 mile hike from the Burrells Ford trailhead. East Fork Trail is only 2.7 miles from the trailhead, but continues another 2.4 miles to the Walhalla Fish Hatchery. For detailed hike descriptions and trail maps, I use Johnny Molloy’s “50 Hikes in South Carolina.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Wild and Scenic Chattooga River & trail

From its headwaters southwest of Cashiers NC, the Chattooga River runs 57 miles south, emptying into Lake Tugalo. Here, the Tallulah River emerges from the Tallulah River Gorge and is held back by the Tugalo Dam before continuing south. Water, in one form or another, forms the South Carolina/Georgia border all the way from North Carolina to where the Savannah River flows into the Atlantic. However only at the very northern section of the state is the water undammed, undeveloped, untamed – this is the “crown jewel” of the southeast, the Wild & Scenic Chattooga River.

The Chattooga was the first river east of the Mississippi to be granted the designation, allowing no roads to the river or development of any kind on 39.8 miles of the river since 1974. This is a remote corner of the state, the river bisecting the Ellicott Rock Wilderness which straddles three states (Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the Chattahoochee, Nantahala and Sumter National Forests). The 15,432 acre protected corridor isn’t easily reached, especially as a portion of the “wild” river is closed to boats – your transportation here will be your own two feet.

One of the best ways to experience the Wild & Scenic Chattooga is by hiking the Chattooga Trail, a 15.5 mile trail that stretches from SC Highway 28 to Ellicott’s Rock and the SC border with NC and GA. This is the section of river that is closed to boats and there is only one other road that crosses the trail – the gravel Burrells Ford Road. This isn’t to say that it’s hard to hop on the trail – there are spur trails and intersections with other trails that lead to Oconee State Park, Cherry Hill campground, the Walhalla Fish Hatchery, and to Sassafras Mountain and beyond via the Foothills Trail.

We opted to park at the Ridley Fields parking area and hike north to Burrells Ford for a total of 11.8 miles. If you add in spur trails to the many waterfalls, this total approaches something more like 14 miles. Ellicott’s Rock, while only an additional 3.3 miles north, is an in-and-out hike – the closest parking in SC is at Burrells Ford – so truly to hike the entire Chattooga would be 18.4 miles, plus any spur trails bringing the total up to around 20.

From the southern trailhead, the trail immediately turns inland, climbing in altitude away from the Chattooga and skirting the slope of Reed Mountain. There is an option to stay on an old roadbed closer to the river, but we opted to follow the Chattooga Trail, shared with the Bartram Trail. In 1765-1766, John Bartram visited the Southeast as King George III-appointed Botanist Royal in America, bringing with him his son William Bartram. William returned to explore the Southeast when he was offered financial support from a friend in England, and traversed a significant portion of North Georgia, including Ellicott Rock; the Bartram Trail continues south along the Chattooga on the Georgia side of the river from Highway 28.

Three miles in the trail descends to the river and joins the old roadbed, and not long after crosses Ira Branch. There is a spur trail here, although I’m unsure where it comes out; the indication was that it’s 3.5 miles to SC Highway something, but the number was scratched out. There were multiple campsites along this stretch, with small sandy beaches and a towering white pine canopy. Just before hitting the 4 mile mark we passed Nicholson Ford, and soon we turned into the Lick Log Creek Valley.

Bottom tier of Lick Log Falls

At 4.3 miles, a spur trail leads directly down the slope to the confluence of Lick Log Creek with the Chattooga. The unofficial trail is steep, but takes you to the base of the lower tier of the two-tiered, 80 foot Lick Log Falls. Returning to the main trail and continuing on, you can catch glimpses of the upper tier of the falls through the rhododendron before emerging to a small flat at the head of the falls.

Pigpen Falls and plunge pool

Just after crossing Lick Log Creek on a wooden bridge, Pigpen Falls is off to the right. This 25-foot waterfall marks the junction with the Foothills Trail. Taking a right and heading 0.8 miles east will take you to the Nicholson Ford parking area, and we saw several people that had taken advantage of the proximity to the Chattooga to camp for the weekend.

We followed the signs to stay on the Chattooga Trail, now hiking the Foothills Trail as well. Around 9 miles into our hike we came to Big Bend, where a steep spur trail took us down to the highest single drop on the Chattooga. The water cascades over a rocky slope before being forced between massive boulders for a 15-foot drop before widening out across the bedrock once again. Once back on the trail we soon came to the intersection with Big Bend Trail, which leads to SC 107 and Cherry Hill campground.

Big Bend Falls on the Chattooga River

The final third of our hike went quickly, with frequent stops to take in the scenery from the banks of the river. Eventually we encountered a higher frequency of visitors, signaling our approach to Burrells Ford campground. Here the Foothills Trail splits off to the east (with a spur trail to King Creek Falls), while the Chattooga Trail continues along the edge of the river. A myriad of paths crisscrosses the campground, but following the green blazes takes you through the campground alongside the river, then up through the forest to Burrells Ford Road; the trailhead has room for a dozen vehicles. Another option is to park in the campground parking lot; in this case make a right on the gravel road (which is actually the historic Burrells Ford) and follow it up to the road and parking area.

Chattooga has historically been spelled Chatooga, Chatuga, and Chautaga, and to some is known as Guinekelokee River. It gained fame as the fictional Cahulawassee River in the book and film Deliverance, but these days is much better known as a hiking, camping and fishing wonderland. A favorite of anglers due to trout released by the SC DNR, and beloved by waterfall hunters due to the number of falls on creeks that tumble down the Chattooga Ridge. In some places the river is a wide, calm river flowing over bedrock, in others it splashes noisily on down from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In the summer the green shores shade the cold mountain waters, while in autumn the colorful hardwoods are reflected in the waters around lone trout fisherman. The Chattooga is a mysterious beauty that will lure you back again and again to the most remote corner of our state. However, with each visit you’ll discover another of the many faces of this wild & scenic mountain river that defines the boundaries of SC as surely as the character of the South Carolina wilderness.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Artesian springs in Lee State Park

We are slowly crossing off State Parks on our Ultimate Outsider list, the ultimate goal to visit all 47 state parks in South Carolina, but with the intent to take our time and enjoy each park. Last month we spent a couple of nights camping at Huntington Beach SP, but needed a stop on the way there to help break up the drive. As it turns out, Lee State Park is located not too far past Columbia, just before Florence, SC – only 2.5 hours from Greenville.

Artisan well at Lee State Park

Lee State Park is one of several Civilian Conservation Corps parks in the state, built in 1935 to provide recreational opportunities for the residents of Lee County on the shores of the Lynches River. Named for Thomas Lynch, Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, the headwaters of Lynches are in North Carolina near Waxhaw. From Lee SP it flows southeast into the Pee Dee, which in turns empties into the Waccamaw River just west of Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park – it would have been perfect if we could have just floated from Lee the rest of the way to the Atlantic instead of having to finish the drive.

While the favorite thing to do in Lee State park may be kayaking and canoeing through the park’s hardwood forest floodplain, we were drawn to the ponds created by the artesian wells near the Visitor Center. The wells tap into confined aquifers, the pressure of the water seeping in pumping water out of the well. The CCC drilled seven wells at Lee in the 1930s of which five are still operational.

Definitely walk down the 0.2 mile boardwalk and observe the aquatic wildlife that thrives in the surrounding waters. We saw a snake, frogs, and an assortment of birds. 144 species of birds have been documented in the Park.

For a longer hike, head out on the 5 mile Loop Road. Open to all traffic, the loop takes you around to the equestrian campground, the equestrian trails on the north end, and then back along the Lynches River. There are additional artisan wells along the way. A group area that is located adjacent to the show ring and stables is available for horse clubs and other equestrian groups to rent. Lynches is designated a State Scenic River, and unique wildlife seen in the bottomland forests include the endangered wood stork, marsh rabbits, and fox squirrels.

If you bring a picnic, head to one of the two historic CCC shelters. Be sure to stop in at the Visitor Center and stamp your Park passport, but while there pick up some of the excellent brochures featuring everything from the flora and fauna of the park, a scavenger hunt (which the boys enjoyed), to a CCC history brochure. Quite a few of the State Parks we visit have the CCC in their history, but fewer and fewer have surviving structures with the classic Conservation Corps architecture.

CCC constructed bridge at Lee State Park

Lee also offers a variety of educational programs; for more on the hikes and crafts (such as pine needle basket workshops), check the Park website.

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