Friday, September 23, 2016

Anna Ruby Falls

It might have been a mistake… We were stuck in traffic outside the Georgia mountain town of Helen with three impatient boys in the backseat, only to finally make it to the Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area to find the park was at capacity – one car in for every one out. It was Labor Day weekend, and we had just come from Brasstown Bald, otherwise we would have arrived much earlier than the afternoon hour.

Once we finally made it to the ticket booth and paid our $3/person (15 and under free), it was relative smooth sailing… only the littlest of the boys had fallen asleep. We found a parking spot, packed a backpack, and set out for the trailhead, Vilis still asleep in my arms.

Although you must pass through Unicoi State Park to reach it, the site is operated by the USDA Forest Service, part of the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest (in the Chattooga River Ranger District). The Visitor Center has full facilities, and the 0.1-mile Lion's Eye Trail that is designed for people in wheelchairs and those with visual disabilities guides visitors right down to the bank of Smith Creek on one side. To the other is the trailhead for Anna Ruby Falls Trail, the 0.4 mile trail paved foot trail that takes you up along Smith Creek to two observation decks near the base of the falls.

Legend has it that a local Confederate soldier, Colonel John H. Nichols, found the waterfall while horseback rising in the area, and named them after his only daughter, Anna Ruby. The majestic Falls are formed by two separate creeks flowing over exposed granite, and then together to form Smith Creek: Curtis Creek falls 153 feet, York Creek falls 50. Together they continue south, forming the lake in Unicoi State Park and then emptying into the Chattahoochee in the town of Helen. The two observation platforms at the end of the trail give two different vantage points, but it was a weekend of crowds, and my boys (including Vilis who woke up once I sat down at the top of the trail) weren’t impressed. The snacks I had packed received more attention than the scenery, and so it happened that we were soon on our way down, searching for a quieter spot to enjoy the summer afternoon.

At the opposite end of the parking lot is the picnic area, located right along Smith Creek. We spread our shoes and socks out next to a picnic table and waded on in, spending the next hour searching for interesting rocks and water striders in the cool mountain stream. Compared to the crowds we had passed on the way to the falls, we only saw two other people in the picnic area; we had the river to ourselves. It was tempting to spend the rest of the afternoon in the shade of the giant poplars, but we still had one more stop to make on our way back to Greenville…

Final verdict; if you're out on a busy weekend, you're better off choosing another spot to visit as the crowds will diminish the power of the falls. If we hadn't experienced Brasstown Bald that morning I would have been terribly disappointed; is all of Georgia covered in kudzu? Luckily the afternoon was redeemed by the next spot we visited, another waterfall. Oh, one additional piece of information; the Smith Creek Foot Trail links the Anna Ruby Falls trail to Unicoi State Park. For those looking for a more challenging route to the waterfall, the 4.6-mile trail starts at the campground in Unicoi and emerges near the upper bridge across Smith Creek right next to the first observation deck. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Narrows

We went on an awesome hike. (Which means this is a long post, but I had a lot I wanted to say, and a bunch of pictures!)

Now, this one isn’t for everyone. It was listed as 5 miles round-trip (and some websites had it listed as only 3.4!), but I suspect it was closer to 6 with the extra bit from the parking area and the side-excursion down to the creek. Also, it was steep. Our boys are troopers, and all three turned into a whining mess of “carry me” before we even got to the turn-around point, not even talking about the return trip. We couldn’t stop for too long in most places, as the mosquitoes liked the moist gorge habitat, and the official trail only leads to a lookout – we had to take unofficial (and crazy steep) side trails to get down to the creek.

But, this hike was magical. Even Roberts said “this is one of my all-time favorites.” Coming from him (unprompted) it’s like winning the hike-planning lottery. And, I’m pretty sure you haven’t heard of the place before - it's an off-the-radar place.

Every year around this time Horsepasture Rd. starts seeing an increase in traffic of folks looking to get out to Jumping Off Rock to take in the views of Lake Jocassee as the leaves are turning. If you’ve ever been out that way, you’ll remember the last 8 miles to get there are on a gravel, barely-wide-enough-to-pass, winding mountain road. But you’ll also have passed right by the trailhead to the place I’m talking about… The Narrows*.

The info kiosk in the Horsepasture Rd. parking lot

From Rocky Bottom, SC you head north on Highway 178 until you cross the bridge, and then make a left on Horsepasture Rd. taking the right fork (going uphill, not along the river). In about ¼ mile you’ll see the parking area for the Foothills Trail on your left; this is where you park. You’re now officially in the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges, often just called Jocassee Gorges. From here you’ll proceed (on foot) another ¼ mile up Horespasture Rd. past an access point to a spur for the Foothills Trail (Oconee SP only 61.7 miles away!), to the red gate on your left.

Once we had navigated around the gate we followed the road marked with yellow blazes (and signs) to the border of the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. The 373-acre tract encompasses a portion of the Eastatoe drainage along Narrow Ridge including “The Narrows,” our destination.

The first ½ mile after the red gate is an uphill climb, followed by about a mile of gently down-sloping trail. During this time the trail is following the old roadbed, and it’s easy hiking through a beautiful forest of wild hydrangea, towering oaks, hickories and tulip poplars, rhododendron and mountain laurel in the understory. There is a steep drop-off on the creek-side of the trail, and in spots we could catch a glimpse of Horse Mountain. The forest was alive: turkeys calling, acorns dropping, and the distant sound of water rushing through the Narrows. The smell of wild grape was intoxicating, and I wondered if it was a bumper crop, or if there is such abundance every year. We saw persimmons, berries and acorns, wow, there were so many acorns!  Considering it was the tail end of summer, I was also surprised at the number of flowers blooming; lobelia and oxeye sunflowers joined the very first signs of autumn for vivid splashes of color that included bright red black tupelo leaves and the pink and orange seeds of the strawberry bush plant.

the seeds of the strawberry bush plant

Every dozen feet the boys found something else to inspect: brightly colored beetles, perfectly cubical pieces of quartz, a toad, a daddy longlegs, “the biggest acorn ever!”…  We let them take their time, because we knew that the stretch of trail coming up would prove a challenge. About 1 ½ miles from the red gate the trail makes a hard left down into the gorge, and here the going gets steep. The drop down is made easier by well-constructed trail, switchbacks to ease the descent, and stairs & bridges where needed. However, it was still hard for the kids; Vilis was in the carrier (protesting the entire time) and Mikus and Vilis holding our hands for a good portion of the descent.

It got noticeably more humid, and although I’m unsure if the South Carolina portion of the Jocassee Gorges is technically part of the Appalachian temperate rainforest, it sure felt it! The forest here was magical, old growth hemlock and giant ferns, and it was immediately clear how the Jocassee Gorges had made National Geographic’s list “50 of the World’s Last Great Places.”

Down in the gorge we came to a fork in the trail. To the left are campsites (currently closed) and Eastatoe creek access, popular with fisherman due to the naturally-occurring rainbow trout, while to the right is the overlook of the creek emerging from the “Narrows.” In the span of this section, the stream will have dropped some 600 feet in elevation through a narrow channel very aptly named, generating the mist which helps maintain high humidity along the Eastatoe and enables three species of rare ferns to thrive in the Preserve.

view from the overlook

We took a breather at the overlook. It’s a fantastic sight, all that water gushing through a channel that can’t be more than 3-4 feet wide! There’s evidence of people going around the overlook to try to descend for a closer view, but don’t be fooled! It’s a cliff on two sides, and there’s no access to the water at this point!

We retraced our steps toward the fork and took an unofficial trail (to the left) down a draw instead. The stream descends swiftly even after emerging from the Narrows, but thanks to the low water level we found a safe spot for the boys to explore while we took in the view. I made my way upstream, crossing the creek and carefully making my way on the opposite bank for a closer look at what is simply an awesome geological formation. The channel of the Narrows is incredibly deep, and even the wide pool at the base of the chute is rather deep with a wicked current. And this is at the end of summer, several months without a good rain!

I could go on and on… How I saw trout swimming against the current at the base of a small waterfall while the boys walked on water above, how every now and again a shower of leaves would rain down upon us, the shadows bouncing off the canyon walls, how the cool air was swept along with the water and made me dizzy with wanting to breathe it all in… However both Roberts and I realized the implications of being down in the gorge – we would have to make our way back up.

Having repacked all the backpacks to lighten the boys’ load we started back up. I won’t write about this part other to say it was hard. We distracted, we bribed, and we took frequent breaks to eat candy. And we climbed out of the Eastatoe gorge and emerged at the trailhead tired and sore, but with one heck of a hike under our belts.

Jack-in-the-pulpit berries

I can’t remember a single time when I was this unsure about writing a blog post about one of our adventures. It’s selfish – unreasonably, I feel that if I share the location with my readers, there will be no room for us next time we go. It’s out of fear – this is such a biologically and geologically unique(and sensitive!) area, I don’t know of any other place in the Upstate that is similar and I hate the thought of seeing the damage that has been wrought on many other popular spots take place there. And it’s out of anger – I watch videos like the one out of Oregon and wonder how many vandals it would take until every last one of the beautiful places in our area are destroyed.


But in the end, I decided I have to write about it. My goal with posts about our favorite hikes and waterfalls is to share them with others. I want everyone to get off their couch and get out into the fresh air, to feel the magic we found, and to realize that it isn’t just Alaska, Arizona or Hawaii with the incredible natural places – we’ve got them right here in the Upstate.

Oxeye sunflowers

So having said that, I hope you make the hike, and I hope you enjoy it! To break it down, it’s an hour drive from Greenville and we spent 5+ hours hiking and resting at the creek. The sign at the Foothills Trail connecter says 2.7 miles to Eastatoe Gorge, so that’s 5.4 total +the additional 0.3 or from this point to parking lot and back, and 0.2 to descend to the creek. It is NOT 1.7 miles as stated on several hiking websites, a fact easily checked through a look at google maps. Beware of poison ivy, mosquitoes, and chiggers, the aftermath of which still itches as I write this post. Finally, be prepared for one of the most intriguing hikes you’ll ever go on in the Upstate… See you on the trail!

* This hike is featured in the book South Carolina Nature Viewing Guide: Your guide to more than ninety of the best and most easily accessible nature viewing sites in South Carolina by Patricia L. Jerman. 

en route to the Narrows we passed this field of sun

Monday, September 19, 2016

The high point of our trip: Brasstown Bald, GA

Another state peak conquered!

Georgia’s highest point is Brasstown Bald, coming in 25th (out of the US 50) at 4,784ft. The 360˚ views from the top of the observation tower include four states: Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. The name is derived from the Cherokee work Itse'yi (New Green Place), which was often spelled Echia, Echoee or Etchowee, and in this case was confused with the word for brass, Úñtsayĭ’.

Visitors to the mountain must park in the designated parking area, and then either hike up the 0.6 mile paved trail or take the shuttle service to the summit. We opted to take the shuttle up, as we still had a couple of hikes ahead of us that day; the Brasstown Bald Summit Trail connecting the parking area to the Visitor Center & viewing platform is very steep. We did descend via the trail, and although it is a scenic climb, it is a high-traffic area. I didn’t regret taking the shuttle with our three boys, especially after seeing the expressions on the faces of the parents pushing strollers and corralling kids that we passed on the way down on what was a humid summer morning.

Within the parking area complex you’ll find the ticket booth ($5/person ages 16+), restrooms, a ‘country store’ selling souvenirs & ice cream, the shuttle staging area, and picnic tables/grills scattered on the fringes of the parking lot. We arrived rather early in the morning and there was no wait for a shuttle; we simply climbed in and were immediately taken up, all the while treated to a running commentary of the history, flora and fauna of the area. Kudos to our tour guide for continuing on despite the endless crying he received in return; Vilis wasn’t happy with his backpack being on, and didn’t want to take it off.

At the summit you’ll climb the stairs to the lower deck and Visitor Center. As the sun hadn’t burned off the morning fog yet, we first headed to the visitor center, the boys requesting scavenger hunt forms and immediately disappearing into the maze of exhibits. Not only was the scavenger hunt age appropriate (and they have a Jr. Ranger option for older kids), but it was educational and fun, and I highly recommend participating as the boys all earned a treat for their efforts. The word search and maze gave them something to do in the car on our drive back east, an added bonus!

We then climbed the stairs to the upper deck, and spent the next hour admiring the extensive views. I feel we really lucked out in terms of visibility, as we could easily distinguish the Great Smoky Mountains all the way over in Tennessee. Downtown Atlanta wasn’t visible, but I really don’t believe that it ever could be with all the smog they put up…

The boys each had binoculars in their backpacks which allowed us to skip feeding quarters into the stationary ones, and we had luckily brought an extra layer – it was much cooler on the summit until the sun came out. It was also nice getting there early, as I feel we beat some of the crowds. The only other tip I have is to pack a lunch and utilize the picnic areas. The scenery is fantastic, there’s parking nearby, and grills, tables & bear-proof garbage bins are provided.

Should I consider joining the Highpointers club, with our recent summit of Sassafras Mountain in SC and 2013’s foggy climb to the top of North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell? It looks like we’ve got a long way to go (literally!) to continue crossing off peaks, because I couldn’t find a single other peak I could already strike from the list (not even Charles Mound in Illinois, at 1,235ft!) and I don’t see us climbing Denali anytime soon. On the other hand, this might be the motivation I need now that Vilis is a little older… 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Hiawassee and Lake Chatuge, GA

With a full day of hiking and swimming behind us, we crossed the Chattanooga over into Georgia. As we  continued west on Highway 76, we drove through a patchwork of Chattahoochee National Forest and private lands, through the town of Clayton, across beautiful Lake Burton, and almost to the North Carolina border - to the town of Hiawassee on the shores of Lake Chatuge. Selected on a whim, our lodgings were a perfect one-night getaway; the Lake Chatuge Lodge was comfortable, situated in a great location right across from the beach, and features spectacular views of the lake and the mountains.

First things first – dinner. We had packed food and charcoal in hopes of finding a campground/picnic area with built in grills, but when we came up empty in the first two areas we looked, it seemed to be fate to find ourselves in front of a bbq joint situated on the edge of the lake just when our stomachs started growling. The antiques shop and restaurant featured a back deck overlooking the lake, delicious food, and Saturday night karaoke. If you’re looking for good food and the friendliest service in town in addition to a view, Sadie Blue’s BBQ is your place.

Upon returning to the hotel we took in the sunset from the back patio. This was the most beautiful sunset I had seen in quite some time, rivaling even the izrāde sākās! sunsets overlooking Gaŗezers.

The next morning after eating a small breakfast and packing up, we headed across the street to Towns County Recreational Beach and Playground for some time on the playground and a stroll along the water. The beach looked nice, but I had planned another ambitious day in the mountains, and so despite the boys’ pleas we loaded up and headed out after only an hour spent in the coolness of the mountain morning.

Hiawassee has much more to offer visitors than a county beach and BBQ, but further exploration would be saved for another time. Besides its proximity to the state line and therefore dozens of recreational options in North Carolina, the town is also within easy driving distance from a score of state and county parks. In addition, it’s in the heart of the Chattahoochee National Forest; this puts sites such as Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in the state, within a 30 minute drive. Can you guess where we were headed next?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fall Colors in the Upstate SC and Vicinity

The fall equinox and the official end of summer are just around the corner, and you know what that means… It’s time for the annual display of fall foliage! We’re lucky to live close to so many public lands that offer a variety of hikes and drives that showcase this vibrant seasonal show, so grab your camera and hit the road for what promises to be another fantastic year of color!


Although the exact height of color varies from year to year, the time to go leaf-viewing is somewhat predictable based on geographic location and summer weather, and this year’s predictions are calling for a close-to-normal schedule. The Blue Ridge Mountain Foliage Guide calls for peak color September 28th through October 5th for areas above 5,000ft, and October 5-16 for areas between  4,000 and 5,000ft. This covers most spots in the Appalachians: more specifically, the Great Smoky and the Blue Ridge Mountains. To maximize your fall foliage experience, start north in the mountains late this month and in early October, and mid- to late October head to destinations closer to the Upstate.

Many of the State Parks and other popular leaf-viewing areas have up-to-date information on color levels on their websites. Here are a few links for current conditions:
Blue Ridge Mountain Life Fall Foliage 2016 Forecast and Guide
The Smoky Mountain Fall Foliage map
The Blue Ridge County Daily on facebook
Grandfather Mountain fall color gallery

Autumn on the Blue Ridge Parkway


A world-famous leaf-peeping destination is the Blue Ridge Parkway. The 469-mile drive meanders from North Carolina all the way to Virginia, and a longer drive on the Parkway in October through changing elevations and aspects will most likely yield some sections at peak color. Plan a hike or two at locations such as Graveyard Fields (milepost 418, elevation 5,120ft), Linville Falls (milepost 316.3, elevation 3,360ft) or Sam Knob (milepost 420, elevation 6,045ft) for the full experience. (For those looking for a longer road trip, the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park is also an autumn leaf-viewing drive destination – Blackrock Summit is an awesome hike ending in almost 360˚ views of the mountains that will soon be bursting with color!)

Blackrock Summit in Shenandoah National Park

Not too far off the Blue Ridge Parkway, these North Carolina parks will give you an early preview of color (due to their high altitude) and unbeatable views for next couple of months; Grandfather Mountain near Linville, Blowing Rock near Boone, and Mount Mitchell (highest peak in the state of NC) are three of our favorite fall destinations in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And on your way north into the Appalachians plan a stop at Looking Glass Falls near Brevard in the Pisgah National Forest; this roadside waterfall will leave you breathless!

Looking Glass Falls

Been-there, done-that in North Carolina? Head west to Georgia with a stop at the Chattooga River before making your way up to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in the state of Georgia. Scenic Anna Ruby Falls and Tallulah Falls in the awesome Tallulah Gorge also deserve a mention as two of the tallest waterfalls on this side of the Mississippi that, come autumn, cascade through a riot of color into their mountain coves.

Looking for a destination closer to home? Chimney Rock, NC is just over an hour from Greenville, and together with nearby Lake Lure and the Rocky Broad Riverwalk offer views, hikes, waterfalls and lake views galore.

View from Bald Rock near Cleveland, SC

Autumn at the Biltmore Estate is a special time, and the mountains around Asheville are well-known for the hardwood forests that turn brilliant yellows, reds and oranges this time of year. Nearby find the North Carolina Arboretum, the 343-acre preserve that becomes a kaleidoscope of colors every fall.

Just because the viewing tower at Sassafras Mountain is still under construction shouldn’t keep you from heading up to the highest point in South Carolina for spectacular views of the leaves turning in four states!

Triple Falls in DuPont State Forest

Any one of the dozens of waterfalls in the Upstate and nearby North Carolina will offer spectacular scenery with a backdrop of color as the leaves turn. Head to DuPont State Forest and the Hooker Falls area for a 3-mile hike that encompasses three waterfalls including the majestic Triple Falls. Or try Raven Cliff Falls, a 2.2 mile one-way hike to the overlook or the 8-mile round trip hike to the base of one of the most scenic spots in the Upstate.

The Blue Ridge Escarpment offers a multitude of hiking and viewing options this fall. Our favorite views are from Pretty Place (verify chapel hours before making the trip!), Caesars Head State Park, Bald Rock Heritage Preserve and Jumping Off Rock, all around an hour’s drive from Greenville. The lower elevations mean peak leaf color will be in mid- to late October.

View of Lake Jocassee from Jumping Off Rock

If you’re not looking to make the drive up into the mountains, go for a drive on Scenic Highway 11 that  follows the base of the Blue Ridge Escarpment and offers unbeatable views of the foothills such as the often-photographed Table Rock.  Plan a stop at Table Rock State Park or Long Shoals Wayside Park for a picnic and some fresh mountain air.

Only have a few hours to spare? Head to Paris Mountain State Park for a hike to Mountain Lake, take a ride on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, or go for a stroll in Falls Park with a stop at the iconic beech tree with its exposed roots and effervescent yellow foliage. Pack an apple from one of the nearby orchards to snack on, and enjoy fall in the Upstate in all its glory!


While we still have some hot days ahead of us here in Greeville, remember that higher elevations mean cooler temperatures, especially in the a.m.; bring warm clothes and a steaming thermos of coffee, tea, hot chocolate or cider to warm up that brisk mountain morning!

Maps and directions will come in handy when you lose cellphone coverage up in the mountains! If you’re headed into the mountains, bring an atlas or state highway map for easy reference to nearby cities and possible scenic routes. Or, if you plan on taking a cruise on the Blue Ridge Drive, print off a mile-marker map for easy reference to all the pull-offs, hikes and visitors centers in the park.

Finally, bring your entire family. You’ll find that the pictures you take of your autumn excursion are nowhere near as vibrant as the memories you’ll make with your loved ones.

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