March always brings with it the first chance us trail maintainers get to do a Spring ‘walk-thru’ of our trail sections along the Appalachian Trail. It is usually then that the Winter snows have finally melted enough to allow us better access to the top of Big Bald. This year would be no different as my friend and fellow maintainer Doug Corkhill provided the transportation to pick me up at my trail head in Spivey Gap so that I could start on top of Big Bald where his section is, making it possible for me to walk mostly downhill one way on my section. I was happy to be accompanied by my son Tyler on this adventure. The only sad part was learning that this would be the last time that Doug would be doing this as he is giving up his section due to a job promotion that requires a move to a different location. I will mostly miss his company as we always walked his entire section to where it ends and mine begins on the summit of Little Bald which is where we would eat our lunch before I would continue onward while he backtracked to work his section. I will also miss his generosity since he went out of his way to drive the many extra miles to pick me up at Spivey Gap to which I will now have to make different arrangements in the near future. It was a beautiful and warm sunny day so our day in ‘the office’ was going to be amazing as it usually is.
The Rich Mountains chain stretches between the Nolichucky River all the way to where it joins the Bald Mountains chain at Big Butt where the Appalachian Trail is near Coldspring Mountain. The highest point on the Rich Mountain chain is Wilson Knob which is 4,590 feet and it loses elevation down to about 2,200 feet before it reaches the river. There are some very good views along the highest points and if you know where to go there are also a few nice cliffs that hide along its sides. One of the largest and most prominent cliffs is one that not many people even know about and, even if they have seen it from other mountains nearby, would not know how to get to them. On this adventure my friend Bol’Dar and I would visit this cliff system that we have assiduously named the Lonesome Pine Cliffs. This is in part to there being one very small pine tree growing all by itself near the high point of the cliffs which has been there for quite a few years now. There are no real trails to these cliffs but, only hidden ninja routes of old which we relived once again on this journey as we chose one of the steeper and most difficult routes to get there. This would bring us out at the base of the cliffs where we would have to climb its entire length in order to reach the summit.
Due to my good friend Bol’Dar not being able to attend on my last trip to Spivey Gap Falls, it was decided that we would go there for this next adventure. My son Tyler also came along as he too had not ever seen them but, was with me when we discovered a new, unnamed falls over on the other side of the mountain not far from this location. I had been informed sometime back about some downed trees directly on the falls so we took some small pack saws and loppers in case there was something we could do to improve the situation. It was a sunny yet, chilly morning and we did find some snow and rime ice in these higher elevations. It was not deep and was actually enjoyable except for the slush the sun was causing to fall from the trees overhead ! There is no marked trail for these falls and they are not listed and I hope they stay that way for their own protection. We began the hike through the enchanted old growth Hemlock forest where there are actually a few survivors from the pine bark beetles that ravaged this area some years ago.
I have been going to Buckeye Falls (over 400+ feet vertical) for well over 30 years and I never tire of seeing it. It is such a special and sacred place to me and I am probably more partial to it than any other falls or location I have ever been. Having seen it from every vantage point possible including the base, the left and right side ridges, the top, Chigger Ridge and Sampson Mountain, it always amazes me and leaves me with a feeling of rejuvenation each and every time. No matter what location you choose to visit this waterfall from, you will earn it as, it is one of the most difficult to reach no matter which way you decide to go. The most common and I hesitate to say ‘easiest’ way, is to its base via Clark Creek but, this is still a long and very strenuous off trail hike. The route is not marked although you are following a creek, and there are several blow-downs and flooded out areas to navigate plus, you must know which tributary to turn off on to begin the difficult and dangerous steep climb up to the base of the falls. This is not a place for young children or inexperienced hikers. An injury there would become a very serious matter as getting you out would require a massive and very time consuming undertaking. Once you reach the base you can only see part of the falls as there is a vertical drop of over 400 feet that you will only be able to see the lower part of because the top part will not be visible from there. Here is a picture of my son Tyler for scale. Don`t get me wrong, I love the base as much as anywhere but, these days I prefer seeing the falls in their entirety which requires a considerable effort. My favorite is the left side ridge but, coming in a close second is the more distant view from Chigger Ridge. Despite many trips to each I have yet to get any good pictures as the conditions are either too sunny and bright or fogged in total whiteout with no falls visible. On this trip we would choose Chigger Ridge and were lucky enough to be blessed with the best conditions I have ever experienced.
My friend Tommy ‘Bol’Dar’ Warden and I always try to go on a hike every New Years Day if we can. Maybe it`s because of an old saying my mom used to say that was, ” Whatever you are doing on New Years Day, you will be doing for the rest of the year “. Of course when mom was alive that would be eating black eyed peas, some form of greens and cornbread but, in the years since we have always tried to go hiking somewhere. On this New Years Day we would find ourselves in nearby Lower Higgins Creek. Not sure why. Perhaps because it is close and the water levels were up, who knows ? What I do know is that we had a grand time as we seem to always do no matter where we go. It was not one of those crack of Dawn starts, maybe she needed to sleep in but, rather it was after 10am when we met up and headed towards Lower Higgins Creek. It was not too cold nor was it too hot and there was no snow or ice yet, there was lots of water. It was very cloudy throughout the whole day which made for near perfect conditions to which we took full advantage of.
The access to the trail head for these falls was blocked off a few years ago by a landowner who owns property adjacent to them. He does NOT own the land where the falls are as that is all on US Forest Service property however, the USFS road that leads into the area does cross a very small section of his land. That road was discontinued many years ago by the Forest Service after a new road was built and was only opened for hunting season which was also stopped a few years ago as well. Of course the government has an easement there and will always be allowed to access it over the private property yet, the general public is not so lucky which has somehow permitted the landowner to block all access to it. I have heard first hand reports of him coming out with gun in hand and impolitely forcing people to leave and only one instance of someone being allowed to park there and access the route to the falls. Although that type of behavior is uncalled for, I can understand his frustration as in recent years there has been so much popularity in waterfalls spread by social media, and websites listing all the known falls and their map coordinates, etc., that masses of people were parking on his land at the USFS gate which resulted in mud holes and lots of trash being thrown out there. So, rather than attempt to speak with him to hopefully get access (which I was told would be futile) I opted a few years ago to find another route to the falls that did not require crossing any private property. After researching property ownership maps I was able to locate the perfect route to the falls that was not much longer or more difficult. Having hunted and explored all over the area there for many years when I was younger aided in my being able to find the perfect route to take. I have been a few times since then and it seems a small handful of others have also been traveling this route as well. It goes over state owned property which connects to the USFS land and apparently there have been issues as I noticed on this trip they have put up bright yellow property boundary markers to clearly show where state property stops and the private property begins which is a good sign as I take it to mean the state does not mind hiking over their property. I hope no one does anything to cause them to block that off because any other way in to the area would require a MUCH longer hike, so long in fact that it may not even be possible for many to accomplish on a day hike.
After being fortunate enough to having been on the first expedition to the talus fields and to be one of the first humans to stand upon the age old rocks there since at least the early 1900`s if not longer, I have been wanting to return. Although there have been a couple of trips made there since that time, I was not included on them so I jumped at the opportunity to go back again. The first virgin trip to this unique place was done from the top down and the subsequent adventures there were done from the bottom up and back. On this foray we had planned to go from the top down and back and would include the original members of the first trek which was Larry Jarret, John Forbes, and myself however, upon our crack of dawn arrival we encountered our entry point blocked by local bear hunters. Apparently they did not get the memo ! We killed some time getting sunrise pics in hopes they would move to a different location but, that was not to be so we made a slight change in our plan which turned out to be for the better as it would lead to the discovery of another large talus field that until now has not had any humans upon it prior to 1920 at the earliest.
On the fourth ride of the season for the Camel Servicer`s Union, we would find ourselves once again following our fearless leader Larry Jarret to yet another remarkable find of many unknown and unnamed waterfalls. This time would be at a new location for us which was somewhere on Holston Mountain. This mountain range is very underrated as it is much larger and steeper than most imagine and it hides many deep hollows filled with hidden cliffs and waterfalls. Larry has done a lot of very hard and time consuming legwork to explore many of them and this is just one of his many incredible finds there. This epic adventure would require a lot of extra driving time in order to place a vehicle at the bottom then drive all the way around to the top as it would not be possible to go bottom up and back or vice versa with the amount of daylight hours we now have. We would still end up coming out in the dark since it gets dark so much earlier this time of year. Once the vehicles were placed we began our descent which instantly placed us into the usual laurel hells. It was not long before the sound of water could be heard and from there the earth seemed to fall out from under us.
On the third ride of the Camel Servicer`s Union for this season it was decided that due to the unusual warm weather that we were having that we would make a trip to what we have been calling Mystery Falls. The name was actually given by our late and great friend Dave Aldridge as he spied the upper drop of them from far off in the distance when looking for the way to Twisting Falls on the Elk River. He asked me to find the way to Twisting Falls for him and take him there and as I showed him the way he pointed out the ‘Mystery Falls‘ he had found on his previous trip. The Camel Servicer`s proceeded down towards the river and Twisting Falls and upon reaching the river just above them we then saw the lower drop of Mystery Falls where it drops into the river from high above. These are most impressive falls and after researching them and speaking to many of the areas oldest locals, I was amazed that few knew about them and that a name had never been given. I guess Mystery Falls it shall be !
After a week of healing it was again time for the Camel Servicer`s to embark upon the second surf of the waterfall season. This epic selection of waves would again be found deep in the backwoods of the East Tennessee hills in yet another lost hollow on Unaka that has not seen any signs of humans in many decades. Starting at the top it is instantly apparent as to why as, the terrain is insanely steep with no traces of a trail anywhere with some of the thickest laurel hells that I have ever attempted to go through. There were very few times that the creek could even be seen for them and soon enough the terrain turned into cliffs on both sides that would be the foundations for the many unknown and unnamed waterfalls that we call the Slot Canyon Falls.