Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hiking Harper Creek Trail & South Harper Creek Falls

I don't normally blog about hiking. It's something I love to do. Something that challenges me. But writing about most hikes... I mean who wants to read "I climbed for a while and then got to this incredible view."

No, that's why I take and post pictures of hikes. The woods can look the same to many people, but the things trails lead to are the things people can get excited about.

That said, I had a hike today that warrants writing about.

The Wilson Creek Area of North Carolina sits in the Pisgah National Forest. Getting there means driving on gravel National Forest Roads. And it is stunning. I had hiked this area before to Lost Cove Cliffs and North Harper Creek Falls. It is a rugged wilderness area. Any trail guide warns you that it is a remote area and must be treated as such. Where I went today was on another side of the area, just south of Mortimer, NC.

The Forest Service (or someone) has posted a sign as you enter this area from the south noting that in the area you are entering, emergency services are going to have a hard, if not impossible time getting to you. That's the kind of place this is. You want to see the crazy stuff, you have to take the chance.

Before I set out, I made sure I had my Wilson Creek Area map. This is not an area that you want to get lost in. Also in my pack, I take matches, a knife and usual-type hiking "just in case" items. Some other supplies I have with me when I hike:

  • A bandanna - Not to wear. Bandannas are rather versatile pieces of fabric.
  • Emergency water packets - Given to me when I worked in a skyscraper in NYC and after all New Yorkers had to walk home twice in two years. For what it's worth, those air-tight packets had an expiry date of 9/09 on them.
  • First Aid kit - self explanatory
Now, before I left on this hike, I checked a variety of Web sites for information on the hike. The one I used the most was this one. This morning, as I packed my bag, I re-read that trail guide and decided to take a towel and an extra pair of socks. I will admit that the towel was mainly packed in the event I wanted to use the swimming hole toward the end of the hike. The socks... I just kinda had a feeling.

Finally, I need to note, I am a pretty good hiker. I make good decisions. I follow proper trail etiquette. I have handled some rather difficult hikes. That includes the 3,600' ascent up Mt. Mitchell.

Today, dear readers, was the most difficult hike I've ever done. Pardon the pun, but walk with me here. We start at 10:30 a.m.

The hike begins easily enough, along a well-blazed trail. It is well-blazed because there the above-mentioned swimming hole is very popular with folks. Then, came a junction where the swimming hole people turn right and walk uphill half a mile. To the left, is where the people who came to hike go, the Raider Camp Trail. And the moment you do, you come to the first crossing of Harper Creek.

Harper Creek is not a trickle. And there are no bridges on this hike. At this point, the first crossing, I have been hiking for about 30 minutes. The trail guide notes this is the place where you need to decide about moving forward. If you cannot get across the creek, turn around.

I could get across. Rock-hopping. I figured the upstream crossings I have to handle later on to complete the "loop" of my hike cannot be any worse...

The Raider Camp Trail was my hikes primary climb. About 1,200' in just over 2 miles. That is a climb, but not unmanageable. The problem I was having... I had already gone through a troubling amount of water. I was halfway done with one of my liter bottles.

I carry iodine tablets to purify water if I need to restock en route. Trouble is, that method is mainly best for springs. Stream water carries sediment, which I cannot filter.

Still, the Raider Camp Trail is well-blazed. I took it the entire way to South Harper Creek Falls. A 200' cascade, this waterfall is impressive. And you look the other way and there's Grandfather Mountain looming. It's NC at its best. Even the guided group of 10 hikers taking up my solitude couldn't ruin the moment.

The trail guide warns that the easy part of the hike is now over. I still have 4-5 miles to hike back, this time along Harper Creek, to get back to my car.

Folks, this is why you carry a map when you hike. Otherwise, I would be wandering around the Pisgah National Forest right now. Without the map, there would have been no way to know that I was to then take a different trail - feeling like I was backtracking - to go around the top of the waterfall to get to the Harper Creek Trail and begin walking back.

It's funny, though, you start to feel like Magellan or something... you say "hmm, this looks like the way to go" but it's not until you see the correct blaze that you know you were right. It's rather validating.

Now, I know I'm about to cross the creek 11 more times. Why the Forest Service didn't have the trail simply hug one side of the creek the whole way I don't know. I assume they are using our tax dollars to screw with us. Hippie hikers like me vote Democrat and I'm sure this trail design was a revenge tactic on Dems.

Trouble #1: Water is officially an issue at this point. This is not a comfortable feeling, especially when your options are 1) to turn around and climb up a big ravine that will require you to drink water or 2) hike a longer way and conserve your resources.

Fortunately, the only direction I am heading is down if I stay on the creek, so I press on. And in the process of climbing over a fallen tree and some odd roots, I slam the top of my boot into something and crush my left index toe. It's an odd feeling to know that you aren't going to want to look at your tow later on. And then...

Trouble #2: Is this the trail? Chances are, you are a normal person. And that means you hike only every so often and usually in your friendly neighborhood state park. The Wilson Creek Area is not a state park. And this trail, the Harper Creek Trail is not only blazed badly, but very badly. Adding to the fun is that parts of it are ridiculously overgrown. You come to realize that if a plant is not sprouting from the ground directly below you, you are on the trail. Doesn't matter if you cannot see the trail. If it's clear at your feet, you're on the trail. This is occasionally verified by a blaze. You can at least take solace in that you brought a map. And looking at the map tells you that, as long as you are beside Harper Creek, you can only be so lost.

You can be more wet, however. As if bushwhacking through rhododendron and other flora wasn't enough of a physical challenge, the creek crossings provided an extra element of challenge. You're on the trail. There's a blaze right there. Problem: all that is in front of you for 30 feet is water. You can see the trail way over on the other bank. The Forest Service was kind enough to put a blaze over there. That's well and good, but right now it is taunting me. "I'm over here and you're over there! Haha!"

Now, most of the creek crossings were rock-hoppable. Some required some improvisation. My apologies to the Forest Service, but yes, I left the trail once or twice so that I didn't end up in the drink.

You find out on a hike like this just how waterproof your boots are. Mine, from previous experience, are known to be pretty waterproof, actually. I can stand in water up to my ankles and stay dry. But if water overtops that level... water will flow down my sock into the boot.

On two crossings, I cannot believe I did this because it's probably less safe, I removed boots and socks and went barefoot. And I got a look at that toe. Yeah, it's not pretty. Unless you find under-nail bruises pretty.

And on one crossing, I didn't think I needed to shed my footwear. This was a mistake. My foot slipped on a rock and, in the process of bracing myself to not fall down, my other foot slammed into a rock. At least, with matching bruises on each foot, it looks like it's supposed to be that way.

Oh and... yeah, boot, sock and foot are now wet.

Point being, the towel and extra pair of socks got their use. As did my emergency water packets. And, unfortunately, the bandanna did, too.

See, on a descending rock hop (over ground), my footing went an unexpected way. This happens. When I reached down to brace myself, my wrist scraped the ground - and a root - ripping one end of the stainless steel band clean off my watch and giving me some dandy wrist scratches. Sweaty summer hiking doesn't go well with band-aids. The first aid kit would have to wait. And I couldn't use the precious water I still had to rinse the wound. Only option: bind tightly with the bandanna. This worked. Surprisingly well, actually.

I finally came to the swimming hole. The original plan was to go take 30 minutes and relax. Now, I cannot begin to tell you how unattractive an idea that was. I carried on. And in the process robbed myself of a great photo opp. The swimming hole is a SIGHT, but the idea of climbing down and back up... not happening.

At 4:30 p.m. I emerged at my car. Which is... pretty much exactly the time this hike should take (without a swimming hole stop). I would like to thank the group of wonderful people from Monroe, NC who provided me with a water bottle at that point. I should note that came to be because I made a comment about a Penn State shirt one of them was wearing. Say what you want about sports fandom... you meet a fan of one of your teams, they'll do stuff for you.

Anyhow, I smelled like a homeless person, was covered with little pieces of stream, trail and loveliness. And, remember that "trail overgrown" part? Let's not act too surprised that I found a big ol' tick on my leg when I got home to shower. Better the big ones that the little Dear Ticks, though... all about avoiding Lyme Disease.

When all was said and done, it was a rewarding 8.5 miles. I got to see sights that only a handful of people get to see; most people would be daunted by this kind of hike. I challenged myself like I never had... I can honestly say I pushed myself about as far as I care to push.

But it did come at a price. My body will heal (though I shudder to think how my legs will feel getting out of bed tomorrow). My watch can be fixed. But, I was absolutely ready to not be hiking be the end of the day today. And that's not something I say too often.

So next month... going with something much easier.


Brad said...


Yea, did that trail in the scouts about 20 years ago. All the stream crossing is what sticks with ya. lol

Actually plan on doing it again in October but will be camping Fri & Sat so it will get broken up. Not as young as I used to be.

Glad you had fun.

Chuck said...

Great story. Glad I found it before attempting this one. No way but it was fun to read your account.