Friday, June 15, 2012

Flat Creek Falls Trip Report

Flat Creek Falls Trip Report

Dana Koogler solo hike/bushwhack
2 miles round trip approx.
Tuesday June 12, 2012

Pictures are here:

     I had been wanting to get back over to Balsam Mountain in the Smokies for awhile now.  I knew the purple fringed orchids had to be peak bloom.  All wildflowers and flowering shrubs are about a month ahead of schedule so I knew if I was going I better make smoke!
I was bound and determined to make it to the base of Flat Creek Falls this time.  A couple years back my friend Maggie and I hiked here. We had a wonderful day's outing, but did not make it to the base of the falls.  We were both disappointed.  I was especially disappointed since I had been before and felt I should be able to recall the way down.  It had been a decade since I went the first time with Kenny. We made it to the bottom then. 
     Flat Creek Falls is seldom visited because of its location.  It is in a part of the National Park that receives far less use than all the other areas.  It has a trail that takes you to the vicinity.  It has a manway that leads to the top of the falls.  After that you're on your own.
Guidebooks describe there being a view of it from the road in Winter. The waterfall guidebook for the park also says bluntly there is no way to the base.  It goes on to say that the track to the left is NOT A PATH!  And it is true and a good warning.  Heading downstream there is a track that continues and you can see where others have tried it. 
It is a rocky crevice and slick. Almost perpetually wet.  It does not lead to the base. Having tried that twice before I speak from experience. 

     I drove over to the trail head today and enjoyed the beauty of the scenery on my drive.
The Carolina rhododendron was in bloom along the main highway.  Saw lots of mountain laurel, flame azaleas, rosebay rhodo, catawba rhodos all blooming at once!  The day was clearing off and promised to be gorgeous.  I stopped along the main road once to take photos of a mass of columbines blooming there.  It was quite pretty.    I arrived at the trail and parked. Not a soul around.  I had the place to myself!

Foggy Day on the Blue Ridge Parkway but the mountain laurel and azaleas did not seem to mind!

Roadside lined with wild columbine blooms.

    The Flat Creek Falls Trail is beautiful and runs through a boreal forest high in the mountains.   It is always lush and green and very little used.  Today it had been freshly maintained and was extra nice. It smelled good enough to eat!  Citrusy smelling and clean of pines and damp earth.   The tread was soft under foot and most of the path is in deep gloom.  Mountain laurel bloomed along the path and here and there mushrooms could be seen springing up yellow, brown and orange.

Flat Creek Trail
Flat Creek Trail in the shadow with just a little sun coming through.

    I enjoyed the beauty and ease of hiking the trail while I could. The woods smelled so wonderfully fresh today.  The temperature was a balmy 65 degrees. Perfect hiking weather! Sunny skies.   Before I knew it I was on the manway portion of the hike. A grassy, overgrown snarl that is narrow and goes over fallen logs.  Last time here grass and briers were up over our knees!  Today was not as bad. At least I could see my feet most of the time.  I quickly came to the top of the falls.  Standing facing downstream there is something that appears to be a path, but it is not.  It is merely a rocky track where folks have tried to climb down only to be forced to turn around and perhaps struggle back up it.  It is always slick and dangerous.   I crossed the creek at a cascade. No path from now on. 

     Once across the stream I picked my way up higher in the drainage and wound through rhododendron, dog hobble, briers, over fallen logs, around boulders always heading downstream.   I got to a point where I knew I was past the initial drop of the falls and things opened up a little. The going was still slick, but not as bad.  I was able to see the first drop of the falls. I sat down on a rock to enjoy the view and rest.

Bushwhacking! No Trail!

First drop of Flat Creek Falls. You can see where it gets its name!

     I worked my way down gradually and from here it was actually not as bad.
Just being able to not have to swim through rhododendron was great!  I picked my way down the slope and got right over against the stream and took in the falls from as many different vantage points as I liked!  It is an impressive sight and I was pleased to have the place totally to myself!   I managed to make it to the base of the falls. I was so thrilled.  I had wondered if I'd ever stand there again. I savoured the spot.  I got right in the creek. I sat down and ate my lunch in the creek.  It was just absolute Nirvana to me.

Flat Creek Falls from the base.

   Beyond here the stream splintered into many smaller streams and widened out. It no longer had the benefit of the rocky channel to help turn it into a waterfall. It was running beneath boulders and down Bunches Bald.   I decided against trying to go further.  I figured it probably was not worth it.  I knew I had to save some energy to get my butt back up the mountain and out.  I finished my lunch. I filtered some water to replenish my supply and I began my ascent back out. 

     I had one brief Uh-Oh moment.  I was not lost.  I knew exactly where I was.
I just had to cipher how I was going to get from where I was back to where I needed to be.   I spent a few minutes in the rhodo trying to decide should I work my way back closer to the stream or go higher into the drainage?  Going higher meant traveling further and possibly still not making my traverse any easier.  Going lower meant a possibly shorter route and perhaps easier, but also more dangerous. Potentially more slippery. Potentially getting too close to the falls upper rim to be safe navigating around it.  I'd done that bit before at Big Falls and really didn't want to tempt fate.  I was having such a rough go in the brush that I decided to dance a little closer to the edge.  I'd risk the fall rather than the rhodo.
I finally decided since I was sweat soaked and drowned anyway.. I"d just GET IN THE CREEK!   Traveling off trail reduces you from miles per hour to hours per mile!

      The creek was filled with cascades. They were covered in dark green moss like carpet. This helped my travel considerably and I was tickled about my choice. Until I realized I did not recognize anything around me. I had missed the cascade I came down to to start.  Ok so I'm not lost. I'm still standing in Flat Creek in the Smokies.  The trail is here I just have to find it.  I swallowed down that feeling of panic and looked around.  The stream goes down the mountain. I need to go UP the mountain so follow the stream. The trail will be along the stream on my right.
I went a few steps more and saw above me a level area. I just climbed out of the creek and went up the bank to the grassy, overgrown manway.  I was never more tickled to see that tall, snakey grass and briers. Oh well, a little trail confusion is part of it.  I sat down and rested and mopped the sweat away.  Halleluyer! I was going to be ok.



Trail Confusion will make your head spin!

      I  got back to the jeep and was tickled to change clothes.  A van was parked there. A man got out and started messing with his camera and hiking stuff in the back of it.    I put my stuff away.  Got out my dry clothes. Kept an eye on him. He wisely and politely averted his gaze while I changed. I opened both jeep doors and stood between them to shuck off the wet and muddy in favor of the clean and dry and comfortable.  I had leaves and sticks stuck in my hair and to my body.
I just wore that the rest of the day. It really scares people and how often do I really get to rock that look? Not often enough!  I was covered in black mud smudged on my face and legs. My nails were caked in black mud though I had washed my hands in the creek before coming back.  A woman's gotta eat a peck of dirt before she dies anyway. 

    I set to work photographing purple fringed orchids which were found all along the Heintooga Road!   I just left the vehicle there and set out on foot walking with only my camera and keys. 

Purple Fringed Orchid with bumblebee.

    The orchids were peak bloom and I saw lots of them.  I'd say about 200 total today.   They were growing on both sides of the road. More than I'd seen in previous years!  I saw a few people pass by in cars, but not many.  The guy in the van left to parts unknown.  No one bothered me.  I was free as a bird.   I decided to drive the Straight Fork Road today to see if the wildflowers were pretty along it?
I did see one more purple fringed orchid, but that was it.  The road had partial views, deep gloom, and I only saw three vehicles on it total from start to finish.
I saw lots of bright red fire pinks, bold yellow primroses, orange and yellow flame azaleas, milkweed, mountain laurel in white and pink, rosebay rhododendron, and deep blue spiderwort.     I passed by the trail head for CS 42.  Now that is a place to go! It is so high up there that if you go up there with the right person and you can see God! How do I know this?  I've done it. 

      I listened to some great tunes on my iPod and listened to the quiet. I took in the sights all along the lonely road.  I confirmed that there IS a waterfall coming off Ledge Bald. It's a nice one too! Perhaps sometime I'll get back to visit that and photograph it.  I was running out of steam and had a long drive home yet.  I saw a turkey hen and her brood of chicks.  I saw a ruffed grouse. I saw a downy woodpecker. I also saw an elk in full velvet!  

Deep gloom of Straight Fork Road at middday.

One open vantage point along Straight Fork.. the Heintooga Overlook.

I had seen both main things I came to see. The falls. The purple orchids.
And so much more! I soaked up enough beauty & peace to hold me for awhile.
I drove my weary self home and slept like the dead.


  1. The orchids are lovely! Did this hike quite a few years ago but never did find a good place to view the falls. That's probably the best photo I've ever seen of it. Great job!!

    1. Thanks Pearl. I figured I'd better make it count! Get good photos and plenty of video footage to last me!

  2. HI Dana, We have tried to get back up on the Balsam Mtn. Road a couple of times. We did make it to the campground once --but the Heintooga Round Bottom Road was closed. One of these days we'll get there. We've never hiked to Flat Creek Falls --and not sure I'll try it. Looks rough for us oldies!!!!!

    We did go to Biltmore yesterday to check out the summer blooms --including the roses. We also saw lots of beautiful Carolina Rhodies in bloom.

    I've never seen those Purple Fringed Orchids.. Gorgeous...

    Thanks for sharing.
    Have a great weekend.

    1. Hi Betsy! Thanks for reading my post and checking it out. I read about your Biltmore trip and enjoyed your sunset photos. I just had not commented yet. It was later than it should have been when I read it. I had trouble sleeping last night. You captured a beautiful sunset and I look forward to reading about the rest of the trip and seeing the photos. Balsam Mtn Road is open from May through October. There is always something pretty to see and it is so quiet! I just love it. I've seen elk, turkeys, all sorts of things on that road. Getting to the base of Flat Creek Falls again for me was a matter of principle. I was tryin to prove a pernt! ;^D I think I am done with that now so I'll move on! As many gorgeous waterfalls as there are to visit with far less difficulty I can understand why you and Lots of others would not want to tackle that undertaking. It is rough for anyone of any age.
      We hiked to Mingo and Upper Mingo Falls today. Some other jaunts too. I found more purple fringed orchids in a different location! They smell good too! I did not know that until today! Pictures and a blog entry to follow. Hugs ya back! Dana Bee


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