Trails: off trail
Length: 5.25 miles
This adventure and the resulting photo gallery will be the 500th adventure I’ve uploaded to my website. Hard to believe this little journey of photos and words started some 19 years ago has sustained this long. I still have a long way to go before I have many of these stories typed and online. It’s maybe fitting that this milestone trip take me back to my favorite place in the world to hike, Bankhead National Forest. I find myself increasingly looking for obscure areas to explore. I go in now with no true end point in mind, just to be there and in the moment and see whatever time allows me to see. I’m always happy with what I find. For this outing I picked a little interesting creek where hemlocks sort of start and stop in odd areas along the stretch of the creek. There’s little information about the creek online as well. A turnoff maybe to some, but it only raises the level of intrigue for me.
I missed my initial parking spot along the county road, hoping to drop down right at the head of the presumed canyon and just downstream of private land that contains the true headwaters of the creek. There was little room to park there anyway, so I continued on to the second arm of the side stream and stopped there. Unfortunately a lot of other people seem to use this spot as well from the cigarette butts, scattered cans and empty chip bags around. I dropped downhill into the drainage, an open pine forest burned sometime in the last few years, but long enough some brier and vegetation has regrown. Hundreds of young pine saplings just a few inches high covered parts of the landscape, at least along the dry stream I was walking. I passed lots of cranefly orchid through here, while ferns grew in small thickets along the steep hillside to my right. It wasn’t long before I found a spring, though, coming seemingly from the base of a large fallen tree.
To my surprise, I could already see a drop off ahead. Here, a three foot falls fell into a small pool of water with a small rock overhang on the left that appeared to be a bedding down area for some creature. There were a number of interesting mushrooms and liverwort around too, but besides the waterfall it was the old moonshine still here that got my attention. It’d be the only one I’d find all day. The tell tale circular cut groove in the land only had random pieces of metal scattered around. An old galvanized steel 3ft wide bucket piqued my interest, as did an old metal gas can that sat rusting against a tree. Headed downstream, I passed a small lions mane on a fallen hardwood, either mostly eaten or the recent cold has done a number on it. Not far from here on an old pine I spotted another one further off the ground in near perfect condition. I’ve never harvested or eaten them, but the “mane” has such an interesting springy rubber feel to it, so I tend to play with them a bit.
As I got deeper into the drainage and the pines, the stream began to disappear and reappear in another random spot further down along the branch. Soon the open environment gave way to a lot of young mountain laurel concentrated along the stream banks. Uphill I spotted one lone hemlock, which seemed almost out of place, and really wasn’t indicative of anything at this point in the hike. The stream joined with a second branch, the one I’d originally intended on parking at. Had I done so, I never would have found the small waterfall or the moonshine still site, as I never would have explored uphill from this point. It’s extremely rare something like that occurs in this type of environment in Bankhead National Forest anyway.
This area reminded me of a spot I explored back in the spring. The stream is narrow, only a few feet across, but the banks are 3-4ft high, undercut, and covered in moss. A few more hemlocks began to spring up, as did another section of young mountain laurel, especially where a dry fork joined in from my right. I found a few little plants I knew through here, namely spotted wintergreen nestled in the moss at the base of a tree, and turkeytail fungi that still had some color to it. Off to my right above the stream was what looked like a rock pile, and maybe even hints of an old road bed, but it also seemed where a large tree had been many years ago with the small pit behind it. As the stream grew larger, so did the trees. I oddly had cell phone service the entire time I was hiking, but that would soon change.
Ahead, I could see the “hemlock zone”, where the forest changes from pine and or deciduous trees into these evergreen wonders. They’re a relic of yesteryear where land couldn’t be clearcut, and usually a great but not foolproof indication of where canyons and waterfalls are in the landscape. I hiked uphill to my left to a long rock outcropping about 4ft high, but the shelter portion of it wouldn’t allow for much shelter for people. Likely used as another animal bedding spot. The hemlocks here were mixed with pines, many of them young, and confined to the riparian zone. The creek became rock bottomed, and soon the hemlocks began to grow in size until they filled the canopy above. I smiled as I could see another drop ahead, now knowing this was a good gamble after all. I was fairly prepared for this area not be rewarding in terms of falls, but this was a nice enough falls 6ft tall and about 4ft wide with a shelter about equal height on it’s left side. The falls itself comes off a long upturned lip of rock that extends the width of the area, where it freefalls most of it’s height. It has a nice plunge pool area, and a lot of room to sit and enjoy a snack and study the map.
Downstream the terrain is steep and beautiful, full of hemlock and some large hollies oddly. The stream, once it levels out, does several hard bends before joining the main branch of Creek. Heading upstream, the creek is filled with small rushing rapids, the water no better than knee deep at most. Instead of bluff walls here, large boulders protrude from the hillside offering small shelters, but no caves I could find. At a hard bend in the creek was a nice set of rapids, and a blue hole, excellent for summer swimming. Large mountain laurel hung out over the water and swayed in the breeze. This spot was among the most beautiful I found this trip. I could have sat here for hours enjoying it.
I crossed the creek only to cross back again at another little set of cascades. Coincidentally this is right where the next little side stream joined, with hopefully another waterfall waiting. As is the case though with streams in Bankhead, each little canyon is almost wildly unpredictable in terms of what you’ll find, especially in this side of the forest. There were no bluffs here or anything save a small 2ft falls with a long slide above it.
Back on the main creek, some bluffs finally appeared on the far side, about 10-15ft high, but they didn’t pique my interest enough in terms of a shelter to go explore them. The bluffs didn’t last long, and past there was a very intermittent long series of small cascades that eventually joined a deep bend in the creek. Past here the creek narrowed a bit, but widened as it straightened out, and another little intermittent stream joined in from the far side. The hemlock forest continued on like this for a while, alternating large deep holes with rocky rapids. I turned up what would be the last little draw in search of a waterfall heading upstream, finding a only a small cascade, helped in part by a large tree root crossing the creek.
There were no other waterfalls to note heading upstream here until the hemlocks vanished, the forest returning to all deciduous trees and the threat of crossing into private property pretty high. I did stop along the way to photograph yellow jelly fungus, something I don’t see a terrible amount of. I also found the third of a series of broken down black plastic gardening containers, the previous two in the wash area of a waterfall, and this one near an old glass jug turned upside down on a tree limb stub. A slight draw existed here, but it resembled more an old road bed, and this perhaps marked a way out. Almost all the little ridges above the creek had an old road bed of some kind on them. A discarded beer can advertising Super Bowl XXXI from 1997 just made me feel old.
Headed back downstream I photographed one of the most beautiful displays of turkeytail mushroom I’ve ever come across. It swirled and was so symmetrical. I also found a neat little “falls” on the creek close to the first little side stream I entered the canyon on, where water formed a bit of a fountain off a long flat rock. A storm damaged section of the creek was ahead, with several large trees down. I ended up backtracking a bit and crossing on a stretch of rocks where the water funneled through one small spot and then swirled back on itself, mounding a small area of silt in the center. The far bank, like lots of spots along this stretch, was layers of exposed striated rock. Past the storm damage some bluff walls began to appear on the east side, but nothing that offered shelters to explore. Just before rounding a bend in the creek I came across a large egg shaped pool below another little set of rocky rapids. Like the trek upstream, the walk downstream on the creek was very similar with regards to this.
Soon both sides of the creek had bluffs, and while I was distracted trying to see if a spot on the other side was worth crossing for, I nearly was caught off guard by what ended up the tallest falls of the day, roughly 8ft tall. There was some small shelter behind it, but most interesting about this one was that it featured three little channels of water, one of which may have been the emergent point of a spring right at the edge of the falls, something I’ve not come across before. There was also a good bit of cyanobacteria here, marking the back of the shelter in brilliant orange. Now, the reason I was caught off guard was I didn’t hear it at first, and the stream goes underground pretty quickly, reemerging in an area of thick sand/silt right where it joins the creek. Something has been digging out a lot of sand here too.
Downstream the creek widened, and it finally added some consistent depth to it instead of the alternating deep pools and shallow rocky areas. I found deer prints, and some kind of bird print I could not identify. I’ve spooked a blue heron in the wilderness portion of the national forest before, which always seemed out of place to me. This bird however, wasn’t very large. Heading uphill, I passed a large set of boulders with beautiful vibrant green moss growing on them, while the small cascades in the creek below made quite a noise. There was no easy way to get to them. Back closer to the creek I found an old carving, most indecipherable. I read in part: “JM?OIL /M??O??E?S”. Moss has overtaken much of it now. The next little drainage brought no falls, but the one after had a small 2-3ft falls that fell in a narrow channel down a very sharp faced rock. It’s edges were so exact it seemed as if it’d been cut that way.
After more little rapids on the creek, I crossed and explored really the first significant shelter of the day, finding a lot of digging, an old broken bottle, but little else. Usually in a sight this disturbed I find at least a few little flint shards around, but there was nothing here. I followed along the bluff for a short bit until the land became ridiculously steep and I retreated to the creek, finding one of the most picturesque scenes I’ve seen in a while. Framed by large leaning beech trees on the left, the soft tufts of hemlocks on the far right, the creek, wide and low again, splits around one boulder in the middle, carved like a mushroom from so many years of erosion.
The next little side stream I ventured up had a few little interesting slides and chutes where the water twisted through. I passed storm damage and almost turned back, but an odd turn in the stream kept me going. As I rounded the bend and found the falls, a long slide maybe ten feet at it’s highest, I was spooked by footsteps. Behind me was a tall hill with a steep slope down. The land everywhere else was open. I never figured out what made the noise. The only part of this falls that truly fell was the last few feet or into a shallow pool. A number of rocks and small boulders piled in the middle of the cascade above it obscures most of the falls itself.
Back down by the creek I found a lot of evidence of pigs rooting around. Was this was spooked me earlier? Here I entered a long stretch of of just endless hemlock forest. The creek was wonderful to wander along. There were no bluffs, no waterfalls, just myself, the hemlocks, and the creek. I turned up what would be the next to last stream joining the creek with crossed fingers and high expectations, as quite a bit of water flowed here. The hillsides had large boulders, even as the stream began to narrow a bit. I stopped briefly to check out a small spring, then mistaking several large dark boulders in the stream bends as the waterfall, when they were nothing more than rock outcroppings. When I finally did come to the falls, it reminded me of a similar falls I’ve seen elsewhere in Bankhead, but I can’t recall where. The right side of the bluff was heavily undercut from the stream, and the 6ft or so falls was just beautiful nestled in this little canyon. It was the only one with a fire ring. There wasn’t enough room for a tent here now, and none of the trees were strong enough to support a hammock. The fire ring hadn’t been used in many years. The plunge pool in front of the falls was wide and deep, a good spot for a swim. I navigated a narrow slice of land that reached almost all the way to the falls on the left side. I stood here for a long time. Whenever I revisit this creek, I may start here.
Back on the creek, I kept downstream close to the edge. The hemlocks now had retreated to just along the riparian zone of the creek. The hillsides became less steep, and longer, covered in a mix of deciduous and a few pines. Some boulders mixed in along the way, and soon the entire landscape I was walking through was covered in them and smaller rocks. With all the fallen leaves it was a slick trek at times. I found another fire ring, this one also appearing to have not been used in many years. I doubt many people frequent this area of the forest, though. Much like a stretch earlier in the hike, it once again just became a triad of myself, the water, and the hemlocks. That is, until I stopped to rest by a large hemlock and came eye to eye with a sizable locust. After a brief chat, I went on my way.
Soon the hemlocks would end, but I like to end my hikes going out on a small stream instead of walking ridge lines, so I continued on. The forest became an absolute battlefield of fallen trees that took some navigating to circumvent. Just before the next (and last) little stream to explore, I found some deer rubs on trees and more track. Across the creek was a rather large plastic container. I’ve no idea why people bring these things to the woods. Upstream on this little creek was a completely different vibe with no hemlocks. I did find occasional tree carvings, all too degraded for me to make out unfortunately. I also found orange flagging, and noticed a number of other trees with it leading uphill to the ridge. I had some hope for a small falls here, and I wasn’t about to quit the hike this close to the end.
The little stream zigzagged and became more and more narrow. A quick check of the map suggested maybe there was something still to see further up. Occasional outcroppings of striated rock gave some boost to the notion of one more something. More and more beech trees through here had carvings, and unfortunately every one of them were still too difficult to read. When I finally came to one little slide, a six inch drop of water, I had a laugh. Was this what I was after? Fallen trees, black with rot, would confuse me as bluff shelters partially hidden, each one coming up a disappointment. When I finally came to the head where two small streams joined I found two intermittent long slide/cascades right at the junction. Each fell at the end only a few feet, but it was enough to call it the final falls of the day. Past here was the typical walk out, a trek through deciduous trees and a disappearing/reappearing stream, culminating in a large area of pines with burn scars some 15ft up the trunk where the fire got a bit hotter.
The last leg out was through the dreaded brier thickets, which tore my jeans despite the use of my hiking staff. Finally back on a road, I took time on the mile or so walk to my car to enjoy some of the different landscapes through here, particularly the sections clearcut, as they offered refuge to a number of birds, and being late in the day, a number of hunters now as well. With a great day’s hike behind me, I made my way home.