Elusive ? Yes, elusive. Why, you ask ? Due to their remote location, lack of any real trail, plus many obstacles to negotiate, not to mention the absence of accurate directions which are not readily available, that many are unable to find (or they lack the physical ability to actually make the 7+ mile round trip that feels like 14 ! ) to get to these colossal falls. It is also dangerous and not a recommended trip for the average waterfall visitor. The route is not marked and there are no signs. Personally, I am thankful that they are so elusive and hard to find and that the route is so strenuous as I consider it a sacred place and wish for only those who think of it in that manner to visit there so it will hopefully receive the appreciation and protection it deserves in hopes that it will remain the tranquil, quiescent, unpolluted place it is now.
I first learned of Buckeye falls back in the 80`s when first exploring the vast regions of Clark’s Creek now known as the Sampson Mountain Wilderness Area. Being told they were the ‘highest waterfall East of the Rockies’ was hard to fathom especially when you hear this about so many waterfalls (which I think is basically hype put out to stir interest and attract people) but logically it all boils down to your definition of ‘waterfall’. If you consider it the distance water actually free-falls you may have to choose another place, but clearly if you go with the amount of elevation lost from top to bottom, Buckeye wins hands down as it is between 600 and 700 feet tall.
My first trip there was with the RAT > PATROL Hiking Club, formed by myself years ago in 1987. It was as awe-inspiring then as it still is today. As we gazed up at the ominous rock faces in amazement, it was then clearly understood that from the base of the falls one could not see all of them, as the upper portions are obscured and from that moment on there was this compulsion to find another location where the ‘big picture’ could be seen. There was also an insane longing to stand on top, either of which did not happen until many years later and the ‘big picture’ not being obtained until recently. This is in part to not only the precipitous slopes so steep that I wonder how even trees can stand on, but also due to the intense curvature and steepness of the ridges that protect the obviously shy waterfall. This was best described by my friend Bol’Dar : Quote: “the ridges that wrap around the Buckeye hollow, like two talons on an giant eagles claw”. Unquote.
I had not been back there in more years than I can remember until recently when Bol’Dar mentioned making a trip to finally climb the adjacent ridge to hopefully get a photo of the ‘big picture’. (I had climbed the right side ridge to the top many years ago and could not even see the falls).
At first this sounded crazy but after some careful thought and some refresher map studies, it did not take long to rekindle that old burning desire to go back to Buckeye. Besides, after the ‘Meatgrinder‘ and a few other recent ‘extreme hikes’, it actually sounded feasible.
Due to snow and cold weather on the weekend of Feb. 19, 2010, I decided not to make the Buckeye trip ending up in Squibb Cr. and Simmons Br. instead, but I had my suspicions when Bol’Dar did not go, that he may have made the pilgrimage on his own ! This turned out to be not true, however, he did end up going alone the following Tuesday Feb. 23, 2010 ! You can imagine my surprise when I heard this !
I could hardly wait to see the images he captured and hear about the extreme adventure I knew it had to be. It was a rainy day and curtains of fog descended down to enshrine the apprehensive falls. It was hard to imagine him climbing a ridge that steep (90% grade) or even worse getting back down it safely, but after seeing
the images I was then a believer. You can read about his adventure and see his photos HERE. Even though the fog obscured parts of them, it added such a somber, alluring effect to the images of this wondrous place. It also meant another trip was coming soon during better weather that I would definitely be a part of !
That trip came soon enough on March 6, 2010 after a week or more of planning. My son Tyler knew it was going to be something out of our ordinary when he was told we were leaving by 7 am ! The weather had been cold and it snowed in the mountains every day for the 4 days prior so even though there was no more snow at Hairnt-quarters, somehow I knew I was going to be hiking in it before the day was over. As forecasted it was a brilliantly sunny day with postcard blue skies but started off cold around 19 degrees. I am sure it was much colder as we headed out from the trail head at approx. 7:39 am. It was a gorgeous morning and it felt great to be in the woods again after two weeks away.
Having spent an exorbitant amount of time on numerous camping trips and hiking in this area over at least three decades, it brought back many memories as we hiked up the old road, crossing the creek many times going up past our old faithful campsite, swimming hole, and beyond to the end of the road where we used to park my old green truck years ago before it was blocked off and changed to be a Wilderness Area. As we hiked up past the triangle rock, you could still see the place where the road caved off years ago and assorted vessels with wild souls at their helms, careened over the edge down the long steep embankment to the creek below ! After that comes the end of the old road. You will know it as the old log bridge that once connected the sides of the deep chasm is long since gone. There used to be a humongous tree trunk at least 8 feet long that rested in the bottom of this and we used to climb down and take breaks on top of it as it resembled an old pirate shipwreck. There has been some major flooding since back in those days but I managed to find what’s left of it about a hundred yards down the creek. We also found some very fresh cat tracks of some sort that stayed on our route for sometime until they went off in some other direction.
After indulging in reminiscence for a moment we took the hidden, narrow, ninja trail up around and down to the creek, crossing over and climbing up the frozen rocks to the old trail above. It was like saying hello to an old friend that you haven’t seen for so long. In no time we passed the old bulldozer blade that most likely helped make the original road to Buckeye and beyond, back when they mined and logged this area many years ago. There is an old engine somewhere but we were unable to find it mainly due to previous flooding and the snow that was getting deeper and deeper as we made our way up the long, narrow, Clark’s Creek valley.
Like a trip back in time we passed all the familiar cascades, swimming holes, and ninja log-walks that we used to indulge in on our many trips through here over the years. I even remembered the place where Mike Kelly caught a trout with his bare hands that one time. The old trail is mostly gone and you basically have to just make your own in places and there are a few large downed trees to negotiate over but eventually we reached the cool spot with the impressive rock ‘strata’ which gives some insight on just how these mountains and valleys were formed back when the continents crashed into one another causing the land to buckle and roll like waves during an ocean storm.
After taking a short break there to ‘snack early and snack often’ we soon got our first view of the ridge off in the distance that we knew we had to climb later that morning. It was portentously looming above us, waiting.
It wasn’t long after a few more blow-downs and numerous creek crossings that we found ourselves standing at the old scarred tree that marks the turnoff to the Buckeye falls hollow. It had been a long time since I stood in this spot and it was a huge relief to actually be there but that was soon replaced by a feeling of apprehension as we stared up at the incredibly steep ridge that we knew we were going to climb. No trace of a trail and at least 90% grade. It seemed inconceivable that anyone could even stand on it nevertheless climb it.
It was hard to overcome the longing to head up the hollow and climb to the base of the falls but we knew we would not be able to go there and still climb to the top of the ridge to get the ‘big picture’ we came after, so after a short inspiration break and stashing our hiking sticks, we began our ascent. If I had not known that Bol’Dar had climbed this once already two weeks prior, I would have had second thoughts
about doing it. It was the steepest thing I have ever climbed and the snow did not make it any easier as we belly crawled our way up slowly one step at a time like climbing a ladder into the sky, using all fours and still sliding backwards occasionally when traction was lost. Holding on to laurels, rocks, trees, and saw-briers, we gained altitude quickly. It was not long at all before we got our first glimpse of what we came after. This energized us to make it further up the narrow spine as each side became sheer drop offs that nothing but a wildcat or bear could even think of climbing or surviving a fall from until we came to a rock cliff obstacle. You could see Buckeye falls off in the distance from this vantage point. You could also see excellent views of the Butte end of the Clark’s creek valley below Wilson Knob and also Sampson mountain just across from us. After carefully finessing our way over the rocky obstacle, we climbed to the ‘sweet’ spot near the top where a small opening in the trees allows only those diligent enough to be here to get rewarded with a birds eye view of Buckeye falls in their entirety. It was breathtaking to say the least.
There was hardly anywhere to stand it was so steep but we managed to hang out here for quite awhile, taking pictures and enjoying the tranquil sereneness of it all.
The sun felt great but was working against us, already becoming very bright and shining right towards us from over the left side of the falls so we had only a few minutes of usable light once we got there and it was still too bright. I was in awe of the view as we rested, ate lunch, and thanked the higher forces that gave me the strength to be in this very special place and see the site that I had always wanted to see that was now reality.
To my knowledge there is only one other picture that exists of this view of the falls which was taken by a friend of ours (Roger aka ‘The Human Snowplow’) who climbed this ridge once several years ago, but we have been unable to obtain a copy of it.
There is one other photo taken from Chigger Ridge by Stephen Kaston in 2009, (which is a considerable distance away) using a zoom lens, but I am sure
the images we took from this ridge are one of a kind and I don’t think there is anyone else crazy enough to climb up there ! It was well worth it for me and we hung out as long as we could taking pics and saying our ‘UmBa Ba Gumba`s’ to the mountain , studying the topography, and contemplating the climb down. I feared it would be more of a slide as the snow was no longer crunchy and was becoming slick and mushy as it was melting in the warm sun.
As expected going down was just as hard if not harder than going up. I would not recommend this for anyone as it is VERY dangerous. One wrong slip and you would be long gone and even if you survived, getting help to such a remote area would be nearly impossible and would take a considerable amount of time and effort. The snow made this descent treacherous but we eventually made our way back down,
changing the route slightly before reaching the creek intersection where we started. My legs were burning as was my desire to climb the hollow to the base of the falls but I knew if I did that, there would not be enough energy or time to make the 3.5 miles back to the vehicle. We bid our adieu and began the hike out with the visions of what we had just seen still playing like an endless movie loop in our heads. It took awhile before the boosted adrenaline levels came down. My adventure level was no longer low ! We took our time going back and actually made it out before dark for a change, arriving at the vehicle around 4:30 pm some nine hours after we started. I had some minor cuts and abrasions, along with a few bruises and sore muscles and knew my back would be hurting the next day or three, but overall this trip was a major success having completed a quest we started nearly 20 years earlier.
On the way home I was already planning a trip back to the base of the falls the following week to get more recent pics from that angle. I was unable to make that trip but our new found ‘hiker trash’ friend Melissa and her ‘posse’ did go and after
two previously failed attempts was finally successful in finding them. It rained over an inch and a half the day before and with all the melting snow she could not have picked a better (or wetter) time to go. Despite being cold and wet from crossing the now raging creek over 20 times, she managed to get some very decent photos.
There are few times when there is actually a quantity of water coming off the
falls as you can see from other pics taken over the years, it is usually just a wet rock as the water becomes just a mist by the time it makes the 600+ feet descent down the rock face. Thanks go out to Melissa for sharing her photos with us and we also wish her a Hairnty Birthday. I am hoping it is not going to be another 20 years before I can get back to the base of the falls myself but who knows where my next adventure will be.
To see more photos of Buckeye falls please visit the Gallery.