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Winter Waterfall Weekend

posted Feb 24, 2015, 12:13 AM by Justin P   [ updated Feb 28, 2015, 6:29 PM ]

This past weekend, we headed to the Brevard area for some frozen waterfalls and winter hiking.  We left very early Friday morning, the very cold day, and had to pack up the car in temperatures around 7°F.  Justine and John arrived just before 5 and we took off shortly afterwards.  We made pretty good time heading out west, arriving at the Frozen Creek Access of Gorges State Park shortly after 10.  Although the sun had come up, it was still bitterly cold.  We bundled up in many layers and started hiking off along Augur Hole Road.  The first stretch is uphill, leading away from the parking access and running concurrently with Canebrake Trail.  After the first half-mile, the trails split and we turned right to continue on Augur Hole Road.  From this point, the trail is mostly downhill, heading downstream in parallel to Augur Fork Creek.  There were a few spots where small tributaries of the creek had formed some nice icicles along the trail.

Snow and ice covered the road for the majority that we hiked, but it actually wasn’t too slippery.  In about 3 miles, shortly before the road fords Toxaway River, we turned right to follow another old road that runs upstream along Toxaway River.  The old road was about a mile long, first heading uphill for a bit then downhill ending around river level.  After this point, it became more of a trail than a road, but was pretty easy to follow along the river for about the next half-mile until we reached Panther Branch.  We rock-hopped across the stream and then made it to a steep section of scrambling around some cliffs.  The snow and ice made this a particularly challenging stretch and our Yak-Trax really came in handy.  Once past the cliffs, it wasn’t too bad and there was flagging tape conveniently placed to keep us on the path.  Soon, we came out at the huge pool at the base of Wintergreen Falls.  We had lunch here and enjoyed the view.

The water was still flowing but there was ice all over the rock face - it was quite scenic and fitting for a waterfall named Wintergreen.  It was quite cold, however, so we didn’t linger too long.  Hiking back, we followed our own footprints in the snow to keep on the trail.  After passing the cliffs and Panther Branch, I made a quick stop to get a shot of a scenic ten-foot waterfall along Toxaway River.

Then we finished up the trail and took the old logging road back to Augur Hole Trail.  The hike back to the parking lot is almost all uphill, so it was a bit strenuous after an already long day of hiking.  At least it wasn’t hot.  Through the trees we were able to see Chub Line Falls and the waterfalls at the confluence of Augur Fork Creek and Maple Spring Branch.  We were all a little tired after the trek to Wintergreen, so we decided to pass on trying to head down for these.  We were also running low on daylight.  We made it back to the car around 5 and then headed towards Brevard to our home for the weekend - Falling Water cottage, a rental just east of Pisgah Forest.  It certainly had an appropriate name given our adventures for the weekend.  After checking in and unpacking the car, we headed into town for dinner at Twin Dragons China Buffet.  After a long and strenuous day of hiking, the buffet really hit the spot.  After dinner, we headed back to the cottage and went to bed early.  Saturday morning, we woke up relatively early.  John didn’t sleep well the night before, so he decided to stay at the cabin and rest.  A good thing, as this was going to be a very long and strenuous day.  After a light breakfast, we headed west on US-64 to Sapphire and turned onto NC-281 south into South Carolina.  Almost immediately after crossing the state line, we turned into Bad Creek Power Station and parked at the Foothills Trail access.  We followed the spur to the Foothills Trail at the footbridges over Whitewater River and turned right on the trail towards Thompson River.  Not long after crossing Whitewater River, we passed the spur trail to Lower Whitewater Falls, planning to hit this one on the way back.  The trail headed up gradually, then dipped back down as we hiked into North Carolina.  Soon, we crossed Thompson River on a footbridge about a half-mile downstream of Big Falls.

After crossing the river, we headed steeply up the ridgeline.  I wasn’t expecting such a steep stretch, but I don’t think it’s ever easy climbing back up from Thompson River.  The trail then started going back down.  A couple spots were extremely difficult as ice covered steep steps heading down.  The first set of steps had a handrail that helped tremendously in safely descending.

The second set didn’t have anything to hold on to, so we had to butt-slide down.  After the “Stairs of Death”, we came out to a gated road and hiked down to Bearcamp Creek.  At the creek, we hiked the short spur trail leading to Bearcamp Falls.

This waterfall is also called Hilliard Falls, in honor of Glenn Hilliard, the founder of the Foothills Conference.  There was a great campsite right at the base of the falls.  If I ever backpacked the Foothills Trail, I would try to camp here as it was a lovely spot where you could hear the waterfall and see it through the trees from the tent.  Approaching the waterfall, there was a nice cascade at the base, but trees blocked a good view of the main waterfall.  Going a little further, we stopped at the base for lunch and pictures.  It’s a pretty cool waterfall, with the water flowing down the rock face in several distinct streams.  I was surprised that there wasn’t a lot of ice on it, though.  We didn’t linger too long, however, as we still had quite a bit of hiking to do to get back.  So we started the rather long hike back towards South Carolina.  Although there was a lot of uphill on the way back, the icy steps were a lot easier going up.  After a while, we got to the spur trail and headed to Lower Whitewater Falls.  The trail went through the woods, then followed a gravel road, before skirting around Whitewater Mountain.  It then descended steeply to a nice wooden overlook for the waterfall.  The falls were a good distance away, but the overlook was positioned well for views of the 400-foot waterfall surrounded by ice.

After a few photos, we headed back and soon were back at the car.  Our hike for the day ended up being more than 13 miles and we were all exhausted.  But that doesn’t mean we couldn’t get a couple more (easy) waterfalls.  Heading back into North Carolina on NC-281, we pulled off at the grassy spot on the side of the road at John’s Jump.  First, we ran across the street and hiked up the short D.E.W. Falls Trail (#281) to this waterfall.  Although the hike is short and normally easy, we had to put our Yak-Trax back on to make the final descent to see the falls.  We were surprised to see another couple and their dog at the waterfall, the only other people we've seen on our hikes so far.  D.E.W. Falls is not a huge waterfall, but it’s in a really pretty setting.  Even more so today with a thin layer of ice coating the pool and some nice icicles framing the waterfall.

After a couple pictures we hiked back to the car and made a quick detour to John’s Jump.  It was a steep descent down to the base, but at least it was short.  The snow and ice surrounding this waterfall were beautiful; I think this one had the best ice that we had seen.

Once we got some pictures, we headed back to the car and drove back to Brevard.  We got take-out from Hawg Wild BBQ and ate dinner back at the cabin.  We all fell asleep quickly after our very busy day.  Sunday morning we woke up and packed up our stuff. We had to change the sheets, make the beds, and take out the trash to avoid a cleaning fee. Once finished, we headed west on US-64 to NC-215 near Rosman. Driving north for about 10 miles, we turned right onto Courthouse Creek Road (Forest Service Road 140). The forest roads do not get plowed or treated so this road was a little tricky to drive. It was going to get relatively warmer today, but it was still cold in the morning so much ice remained on the road. After about 2 miles, we got to a hill and the car was unable to drive up, so we parked at a pull-off and hiked the rest of FSR 140. It was a steep hike up the gravel road and then back down to Courthouse Creek. Across the bridge, we got on Courthouse Falls Trail (#130) and hiked to the falls. The orange-blazed trail follows Summey Cove Trail a short ways and then splits to the left, leading down to the falls. Courthouse Falls is a pretty 45-foot waterfall nestled in a cove with high rocks walls surrounding. A thick layer of ice surrounded the narrow chute of water on both sides.

We got some pictures here and then hiked back up. We continued hiking down FSR 140 to the gate and then continued past the gate. In about three-quarters of a mile, the road ends at a Middle Waterfall on Courthouse Creek. We crossed the creek to the island to see the waterfall, but it was too icy to get down for a good view.

Besides, this was not the one we were aiming for. We followed a steep path up the left side of the waterfall and then continued following a faint, overgrown path heading upstream along Courthouse Creek. There was no flagging tape and the path was little more than nothing at all. The only thing that helped was the snow - we followed where there was the most white on the ground. At one point, a small stream that flowed into Courthouse Creek was completely frozen with icicles going up the mountain as far as I could see.

We crossed the creek twice and although the rocks were icy and slippery, we didn’t have any trouble. Where two forks came together, we crossed to follow the right fork and then crossed one more time. Soon after, we came to Upper Waterfall on Courthouse Creek. It was almost completely covered in snow and ice and we could only see the flowing water in a few places through the ice.

We had a quick snack here and then started making our way back. Knowing the way to go, it was a lot quicker hiking back. Soon, we were back at the car and started making our way home. On the way, we stopped at Las Salsas in Morganton for a much-deserved feast after an exciting weekend of winter waterfalls.  Here's a video I made of our trip: