After taking a break from the Harper Creek Valley for the past two weeks, which we spent hiking in the Little Lost Cove Creek (falls) and Big Lost Cove Cliffs area instead, we planned a trip to Bard and Harper Falls on July 24, 2012. The original plan was to take two vehicles and leave one at the bottom in the Wilson Creek area and then take the other back to the top and walk downhill one way to see both falls, however, that plan did not come to fruition. Instead, we decided to just take one car and go to Harper Falls from the bottom and return back the same way. It is only 1.5 miles or so to the falls so this was easily doable and would allow for plenty of time to enjoy the falls and get out before the afternoon thunderstorms that our meteorologist Rob Williams predicted to arrive to the area around 2pm. Leaving Hairnt Quarters around the usual time of 8:30 am it took longer than the usual hour and a half to get there since we took a different and more scenic route to get to the Wilson Creek area. Instead of going to FR # 464, we chose to go up the Blue Ridge Parkway instead and take a gravel forest road that I think is # 1514 that eventually end up in Wilson Creek at the Edgemont community where the road becomes SR # 90. That is of course the same road and same place where FR # 464 comes out. From there we had to continue to Mortimer where we turned right on SR # 1328 for about a mile or so to the trail head where there is parking located on the right for trail # 260 which leads into the Harper Creek Valley.
As soon as we turned off the parkway we came around the corner and could see a bridge on SR 221 which is just below the parkway. The Grandfather Mountain above it was cloaked in the morning clouds. There is a small gravel parking area here beside a small rock cliff that is covered with colorful graffiti. A ways further down this road there is a small cascade at the first water crossing (either head of Stack Rock Creek OR Linn Cove Branch) but just beyond it at the next water source (head of Wilson Creek) is a very nice waterfall that we stopped to enjoy and take pics of. The cascade was right next to a tall, rocky area with a small cave-like impression that closer inspection revealed was burnt black from ancient campfires. The rock strata there was also impressive. The waterfall was near a similar rock formation, only smaller.
We followed that road for several miles, passing by some mountain houses, a church, and the small highland community of Gragg and then the road changed directions as it started down towards the Wilson Creek area where we came across a large Black Snake crossing the road. This is also where we seen the Wilson Creek Trail # 258 that I will definitely be doing more research on as it follows the Wilson Creek Valley between the top at the Parkway and where it reaches the valley some 6 miles or more below. There is bound to be some good hiking in there.
We found the Harper Creek Trail # 260 without issue and began hiking up the steep hill that leads out of the parking lot where there were lots of cars already. We knew these falls were a very popular swimming hole so we expected to see plenty of people there and we would not be disappointed. We also expected to have lots of bright sun to ruin our photo`s. Again, we were not let down. After the short climb up a very eroded part of the trail to the top of the ridge where the Yellow Buck Mountain Trail intersects, it does level out and become much better trail as it goes down towards the creek. This is an orange-blazed trail. You will pass a trail off to the left that leads down to the lower level where all the campsites are located near the creek.
After about a mile the terrain becomes much wider and flatter and you will see endless campsites below on the left beside the creek as you make your way to the next intersection which is where the Raider Camp Creek and Trail # 277 meets the Harper Creek and Trail #260 that we had been on since the parking lot. (The sign will show Trail # 440 but this is not 100% accurate according to some maps but both 440 and 277 do meet further up Raider Camp Creek which is straight ahead) This is also the point where the Mountains To Sea Trail comes into the picture as it comes in on Trail # 277 (aka 440) and turns up Harper Creek on Trail # 260. We took a right here continuing on Trail # 260 which was now also the MTS Trail which would lead us another quarter mile or more to Harper Falls. We met our first group of people coming out at this turn. There are a couple rough places along this part of the trail. Just before reaching the falls there is a side trail that leads straight ahead and the MTS Trail continues up the hill to your right. When the side trail dead ends at some fallen trees, you will see the falls down below. The trail abruptly ends at some huge downed trees and a cliff so there is only one way to go from there which is down, although it does require ropes to be done safely.
Looking down we could see several kids swimming and using inner-tubes down below. These falls are not small by no means and they are in two parts, an upper, more vertical and much higher falls and a lower and somewhat smaller falls. The lower part is more of a cascade type falls that drops off into a very large pool that is too large to be called ‘pond sized’. This is more of the ‘lake sized’ variety and is very deep. I spoke to one of the older boys down there later that estimated it at least 15 feet as he said he could not find the bottom and he was obviously a very good swimmer.
There are ropes that is used to climb up the slanted rock to reach the top of the lower part of the falls where the kids were sliding down them into the deep pool below using their butts and the inner-tubes. It looked like a lot of fun. The upper part of the falls are much higher and are vertical with a smaller but also very deep swimming hole below them. Although there is ropes there that can be used to climb to the top of those falls, I would definitely advise against this as a fall from there would mean certain death or very serious injury. I watched as one of the older boys did this and walked around on the top of the upper falls (see pics below) and I was informed that someone had fell to their death there only 4 days earlier.
Dave and I dropped our packs and setup our tripods to get some pics of the falls from above and were soon joined by a large group of freshmen college kids that had been camping out. According to their leader, most had never been in the woods before so I am sure this was a great experience for them. While Dave talked to them, I scouted around for a way to get down to the base of the upper falls which I knew would be required to get any good pics of that part of the falls. I found some small side trails leading down over the steep edge but they all ended at a drop off that was too steep to descend safely. I was making my way around the edge of the rocks when I looked through the weeds and trees to see what I thought was a rope. As I got closer I could see that indeed it was a rope and would be the only way down other than swimming across the lake at the bottom and climbing up the lower part of the falls ! This was a large rope (the size used to tie large boats up with) that was hanging over the steepest part of the rocky drop off at the end of the side trail. This was a very steep drop off and would require a ‘batman and robin style’ descent. Any steeper and it would be called rappelling. I went back and told Dave that this was not for him, and instructed him to go down below and find the easier way down to the base of the lower part of the falls instead. He readily agreed and I mustered up enough courage to begin my descent, backwards over the edge of the cliff. This was an adrenaline rush but was very fun and once I neared the bottom, the large rope ran out and a small, string-like rope was tied to the end of it ! It was not really needed as there was some dry rocks there, so I reached the bottom and could see the incredible view of the upper falls and the size of the amazing pool at the bottom, I knew it was more than worth it. I knew it would also be just as much fun going back up.
The upper falls were incredible. There was decent water coming off them on this day and despite the bright sunlight, I very much enjoyed these falls. I spent a lot of time there taking pics and watching these kids of all ages climbing up the lower falls and riding the inner-tubes back down, sliding on their butts down them, and floating the tubes in the upper pool at the base of the upper falls. They were having quite a time. The rock cliffs on the left side of the falls are unreal high and very steep and I was a bit concerned about two of the much younger girls who were climbing up and playing around on the far left side of the falls. They looked so tiny in comparison to the rocks and I knew if they were to slip and tumble off from their perch there that it would mean serious injury or worse but apparently their guardians had faith in them and did not seem overly worried about it.
I could now see Dave who had negotiated a successful (and easier) rope descent of his own and was now standing on the other side of the large pool at the bottom and was setting up his tripod and talking to the older folks there. I had hoped that he would get some pics of me climbing back up the steep slope but as it turns out he did not but, he did get pics of me standing there with some of the other kids before I did the climb which does show just how big and steep these falls and rock cliffs are.
I eventually did the climb and managed to take a few pictures of the upper falls and of Dave on my way up while holding on to the rope with one hand before I soon made my way back down the side trail and found the next rope descent down to the base of the pool at the lower part of the falls to join Dave and the other folks there. The view from there made the falls seem even larger, especially the swimming hole.It was shallow on the far end but quickly became very dark and deep as it got closer to the base of the falls. No wonder this is such a popular swimming hole. These kids were having a grand time here.
Dave got some pretty good pictures that I must share with you:
We stayed for quite a while but around 1:30 pm we noticed some clouds coming in and I thought I heard some distant thunder so we decided it was time to make the climb back up to the trail and hike out of there before any storms arrived. Although not near as steep, this rope climb still was just difficult enough to where you really needed the rope and it was hard to hold a hiking stick and use the rope at the same time. I managed to get back to the top and took pics of Dave as he slowly made his way up. He ended up throwing his staff up a couple times so he could use both hands to pull himself up the slick, wet rocks until he made it to the top. Way to go Dave !
After that it did not take long to hike the mile and a half back to the car and just when we could almost see the car about 2:15 pm we heard the first loud clap of thunder ! Rob Williams had predicted it just right ! It was a hot day so the cool AC in the car felt great. I had wished all day that my boy Tyler had gotten out of the bed and went with us that morning as we would surely have done some swimming, but he did not so we will have to come back for that another day. We stopped at an interesting place just up the road from the trail head where some old, oddly shaped, concrete buildings remained standing from days gone by that we took some pics of and tried to guess what they might have been used for. I still have not learned the facts on this as of yet.
We went back to the Edgemont community where I got some pics of the information center there which looked to me like an old railroad building of some sort. We also chose to not take the FR # 464 back but instead took the gravel Roseborough Road (FR # 981) which we knew would lead us back to the Parkway and then to Linville and promised to be a very scenic drive at that. It actually had a short section of paved road where we passed by a picturesque prayer chapel.
We found a couple nice spots along that road plus located the place where the MTS Trail crosses but, it was not until we got in the upper elevations of it that I happened to catch a glimpse of what I thought was the Big Lost Cove Cliffs through a small opening in the trees beside a steep rocky place. We stopped and investigated and sure enough we could see not only the Big Lost Cove Cliffs but also the Little Lost Cove Cliffs out beyond and behind them ! Due to the brightness and leaves on the trees, it was hard to get any really good pics but we did get some that at least show the features of these awesome cliffs. I hope to come back here in the fall and get much better shots from this angle.
After this it was not much further to the top where we crossed the Parkway and went down the other side to Linville and then home. Of course we stopped at the BBQ place in Roan Mountain along the way. Another great day in the woods with the most awesome falls yet, a view of the most awesome cliffs, two scenic drives and delicious BBQ. It just does not get any better than this.
To see these and more photo`s of the Harper Falls, please visit our Photo Gallery here.
To see these and more photo`s of the Big and Little Lost Cove Cliffs, please visit our Photo Gallery here.