Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Waterfall Walks

Tranquil and energizing at the same time, waterfalls are unlike anything else. Their sound will move you whether it’s the shhhh of a modest cascade or the roar of a massive plunge. And they are always scenic, no matter if you’re looking at a thin ribbon of a fall or at a burgeoning cascade than gets wider as it drops.

Here in America, they are so plentiful that there are probably more than a thousand locales for which you can make a list of “hikes to nearby waterfalls,” but for this post I had no trouble choosing one -- the area around the close-together towns of Sylva, Bryson City, and Cherokee, in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains.

In selecting the walks themselves, my criteria were: 1) that they be easy enough for a family with kids to complete, and 2) that the drive from town to trailhead not take more than several minutes. Having said that, here they are:

Mingo Falls

Tumbling almost 90 degrees down rhododendron-studded granite, this is the most impressive waterfall I have encountered east of the Rockies. I can not attest to exactly how tall it is, because I have seen it listed anywhere from 120 to 200 feet, but it does appear closer to 200. To reach the trail, turn onto Big Cove Road where it begins at the Saunooke Village Shopping Center in Cherokee, then drive for six miles or so until you see a sign that says “Mingo Falls Next Right,” directing you across a small bridge to the trailhead. The hike to the falls is only one-fifth of a mile and mostly flat, but be aware that it begins by climbing up 161 wooden steps. The picture at the beginning of this post is of me and Erika at Mingo Falls when the water volume was high (June 2001) and the one below is of us and Sarah when it was a little bit less (December 2008):

Juney Whank Falls

As waterfalls go, Juney Whank is not the most dramatic. But it has an undeniable calming effect and is one of my sentimental favorites because it is the first waterfall I ever hiked to, when my grandparents brought me and my cousins here in 1982. To reach it, follow the signs from Bryson City to Deep Creek Campground and drive to the end of the campground road, where you will find a parking lot on your left. The trail departs from the upper end of the lot and is clearly marked. Although it goes up and down quite a bit, it is only a third of a mile before it reaches the falls, where a log bridge offers a close-up view. From here you can backtrack to your car; or cross to the other side of the bridge and turn right on an intersecting path, then turn right on another one 25 yards later and follow it downhill to the Deep Creek Trail (described next).

Deep Creek Trail

This trail begins next to the same parking lot as the one above. Wide and level, it is actually a gravel continuation of the campground road, located beyond a metal gate that prevents cars from coming this way. It runs beside Deep Creek and after about one-fifth of a mile arrives at the spot where Tom Branch Falls is visible on the opposite side of the creek. Walk another half-mile and you will you reach a junction with the Indian Creek Falls Trail on the right. Turn onto it and after 100 yards or so you will arrive at the walk’s main destination, Indian Creek Falls itself. Unmarked side paths allow you to get right next to it, like I did here:

Pinnacle Park

This park is one of Western North Carolina’s best kept secrets. From Sylva, drive east on Skyline Drive, turn left on Fisher Creek Road, and follow it until it ends. A trail departs from here and follows Fisher Creek up the mountainside. Though the trail does not lead to any named waterfalls, the creek cascades plenty of times due to the mountain’s steep grade. The cascade pictured below was about 10 minutes into our walk and was not the first one we encountered. The trail through Pinnacle Park is easy in that it is wide and clear, but difficult in that it goes up, up, up for more than six miles; however, if you are here to see the cascades, they are everywhere and you can turn around whenever you want. Continuing all the way to the summit is a topic for another post!