Monday, June 17, 2013

Dismal Falls & Wintergreen Falls Weekend

White squirrel peeping round a tree at Cathy's house.

Dismal Falls Hike & Wintergreen Falls

Dana Koogler & Cathy Howell
Friday June 14 & Saturday June 15, 2013
Western NC Mountains
Dismal Falls 4 miles round trip
Wintergreen Falls 2.64 miles round trip

Pictures are here:
Dismal Falls Pix

Dismal Falls Video

Rhapsody Falls Video

Wintergreen Falls Video

    I had long wanted to do a hike to Dismal Falls in the mountains of western North Carolina.   I had heard how difficult it was from friends who had done it before.
I had read about it in Jim Bob Tinsley's book Land of Waterfalls.  I had read about it on Rich's website I read it in Kevin Adam's book about waterfalls.  Cathy recently said to me that we needed to do some of the really hard waterfall hikes while we were still physically able to do them.  I agreed and took that
quite seriously.    

       I called her up and planned to come over for a visit two weeks from the last time I was there.  I figured we'd just go ahead and do it now. She had said it could be a really hot hike and that it might be best to wait til September when things cooled down a bit.  Kenny was going to end up working all weekend. We'd had lots 
of rain and unseasonably cool temperatures.  I could see no reason to wait. 
She was agreeable so that was what we planned to do.

     I stopped in Asheville to visit  Jared Thursday morning.   Once he went to work
I finished up what I was doing at his house and set out for Mills River.  I stopped at the Ingles long enough to purchase groceries. I went inside Cathy's house just as the first drops of rain started to fall.    Thankfully we did not get much rain or wind off
the line of storms passing through.   She got home a little after 7 pm and we ate a nice spaghetti dinner and visited.  We  did some planning for the next day.  We read
Kevin Adams book and looked at the map.  We did not look at Rich's website tonight because the computer at Cathy's is kind of slow.  It was a mistake that cost us a lot of trouble. 

        We had to go by Cathy's bank when they opened at 9 a.m.
We finally got on the trail at 10:25 am.   The delay came from trying to find the starting point.   She had done this hike twice before, but not recently.  Kevin Adams
mentions in his directions .. published in 2005 that there was a planned repaving project.  It would obliterate the previous parking area.  One of the descriptors he used to help mark the starting place was the parking area along Hwy 281 being directly across from the gate.  He also used the mileage and the point at which the road went from paved to gravel.   I would highly recommend to anyone planning on doing this hike: USE THE DIRECTIONS GIVEN ON Rich's website which is the most current. Kevin Adams book Waterfalls of North Carolina  has great directions, but the book is eight years old and he mentions himself that it has its limits.
         We floundered around trying to find the starting point.  
We both had serious doubts we'd even be able to find the trail to do this hike today.
The way things were going we were not off to a good start.   Something about a trail sign we'd passed saying "Trails Carolina" kept coming back to mind. I could not recall the significance so it was useless.   We finally decided we'd try to begin the hike, but if we were unsuccessful in finding the starting point we'd go hike Flat Ceek Falls instead.    

     Cathy suggested we just strike out through the woods in the general direction and hope to find the trail.  I agreed, but still had serious doubts.  We were in rhododendron, but it was not that thick.   I looked down and saw a track about six inches wide. It was clearly an animal path, but the only path around.  We followed it.  I soon found myself at the edge of a low bank looking down at an old weedy logging road.  I was encouraged that this was a good sign.  Cathy helped get us going the correct direction on that road and we only walked a few short steps until we saw pavement end and a forestry gate!  I knew this had to be it.  During the road paving they had changed the access to the trail.   Cautiously optimistic we continued down the trail before us.

Nice level trail with soft pine needles underfoot to start the hike.
  The forest was beautiful and smelled good. The weather was perfect.  
Sunny, clear and cool.  We had a slight breeze and blue skies.   We hiked 
through a pine forest.    We had the guidebook with us and the map and 
checked the directions against the map and what we were encountering. 
It was lining up and looking right.We came to the first point where we
could turn right.  We could hear the rush of a waterfall not far away.   
I was hopeful this was Aunt Sally's falls!?  I hoped it was because while 
it was not the most spectacular falls it was new to me. It would be a sure sign we were on the correct path.
      We walked a couple hundred yards into the woods to the right and there was a pretty waterfall about 25 ft high. It was indeed Aunt Sally's falls!  We had found the right way!  

Aunt Sally's Falls

    The next sticking point along this hike is finding the West Fork of the French Broad River and fording it.    Sounds easy? It sure sounds that way, but when you are crossing stream after stream along the way it is not as easy as it sounds.  Once we found and forded the main stream we knew the next big creek would be Dismal Creek.  We had four more falls to locate along our hike. Once across the West Fork French Broad  the terrain began to steepen.  We came next to an un-named but very pretty falls on Dismal Creek.

Un-named Falls -Waterfall #2 on this hike

      The trail went up and up.  I just had to take my time.  I use the Messner step
when I am on steep uphills or steady uphill climbs.   It is a rest step used by mountaineers.
It helps me to maintain the pace rather than so many outright starts and stops.  It may sound quite silly to some serious mountaineers on something so piddley by comparison.
It doesn't matter to me how it sounds. It works for me. My heart and lungs are small.My legs are short. I will never be able to keep up with the pace, stride and heart-lung capacity of men. The thing I have on my side is dogged determination.  We pushed on and before long swung round a beautiful rock outcrop and I could hear the sound of another large waterfall.   A quick walk to the right and down off the trail and we were at Rhapsody Falls.    It was gorgeous!  It had lots of water coming over the gray, rocky cliffs. Green
leaves on the trees and green plants in the spray zone and sunlight filtering down through
the rivulets of water looked beautiful like a tropical rain forest. 

Rhapsody Falls with beams of God Light shining through it!

     The first time Rich came here he thought this was Dismal Falls.
Standing here now I told Cathy I could easily understand why he thought that.  Our final
destination lay far up the mountain yet, but we spent time resting here and enjoying the view.   The mist and breeze from the falls was cooling and fresh.  I sat down and soaked up the scene and ate a quick snack and took a hydration break.  We had seen three falls thus far and had two major ones to go!

     Back on the trail for more uphill then a small level stretch.   It was a blessed break.
We finally came to an obvious intersection at a big tree.  The trail was marked here with two chunks of survey tape. One lead down and the other up.  I figured the bottom one must be Lower Dismal Falls.  Neither of us had seen that yet so we'd do that first. We turned and headed downward along the ridge.

   We soon came to a point where there was more survey tape and a path to the left indicating we needed to go down.  We could hear the falls below us.   We climbed down
steeply hanging onto saplings, roots and rocks.  Kevin Adams book warns that the climbs involved in this trip will require having both hands free to hang on. I draped my trekkers over my wrists and used them when I could which was not often.  The rest of the time I just let them dangle out in space while I swung like an ape.  The advice was sound, but what are you to do when you've brought them along? I could have left them up top and come back after them I suppose. We never saw another soul today and I know no one would bother them.  I wanted them with me in case I needed them in the creek.
Lower Dismal Falls is not mentioned in the guidebook, but was discovered by Waterfall Guru, Bernie Boyer. 

Great Wall of Dismal also discovered by Bernie.

     We hiked along the great rock wall on the way to Lower Dismal. It is approximately
four hundred feet long and probably 100 feet high. It is beautiful and gloomy dark. Photos cannot do it justice.  It drips water all along it.  Crevices burst forth with every manner of green growing plant.   Near the base of this cliff we also saw a man made wooden structure. No idea what it was. It looked like a box or a step.   The rock wall acts as a parabolic microphone capturing the roar of the falls and making it seem water is rushing off the cliff at you.  It is a phenomena I never quite get used to.  It made me shiver.

      We arrived the end of the great wall and before me I could barely see a glimpse of
Lower Dismal Falls around it. The cliff walls encroached and forced us into the stream over boulders and up through them to access the falls. We had to get in the stream as there
was no way around.  We climbed rocks and slippery logs to reach the falls. It was treachery.   We risked not death here, but injury a long ,long way from help.  Climb the rocks and logs or get in the cascades and climb them.  The flow of water was intense enough it would have meant a certain fall.   The squeezed in area of cascades was quite pretty itself, but I was unconcerned with picture taking and all about making it up to the big falls.   We got there and by then I was nervous.

      Lower Dismal Falls is beautiful in its own right.  It is 50 t0 60 feet high and
today it was flowing powerfully.   It drops sheer and flows down to one side.  From there is ends in a series of cascades through boulders.  The stream contains mica as do many
others in the area.   One chunk of mica had us thinking someone dropped a dime in the creek!  It was round and perfect and silvery.    We stood taking in the falls. It was hard
to get back far enough to get a good photo.  The base of the falls is choked with sticks and logs in one big debris mat.    I dreaded climbing back down out from this spot.
I also dreaded climbing back up the mountain!

Lower Dismal Falls. The rock here is striped dark and light similar to that of
Raven Rock Falls.
 Top of Lower Dismal in the sunshine. So pretty!

       We worked our way carefully back out of this spot. Back along the rock wall.
We began our climb up the bank hand over hand.  It was not possible to see the top of the climb from the bottom.  It was a longer climb than some.   We got back to the top
and to the intersection.   Lots of huffing and puffing and more uphill to come!

      The fifth and final falls lay up the mountain on Dismal Creek.  The last quarter mile
hike to Dismal Falls is brutally steep.   I did not like it, but  my knees liked it a lot less coming down than I did going up!  I don't have any lasting knee problems, but today I felt something straining in my left knee.  The only thing that was going to get us there was lots of Knees to the Shoulders!  We pressed ahead. The climb was tough, but finally I began to see a glimmer of hope.  We were running out of mountain so we could not have far to go!
Sure enough the climb leveled off and then it was time for another wicked down climb.

     We hung on tight and climbed down the steep mountain side hanging on to more rhododendron shrubs, roots and rocks.  The climb was long enough and layered enough that we could hear the falls, but it was a soft sound for a huge 150 ft falls.   It still sounded off in the distance.   We slipped and slid. We sent our trekking poles skidding down the mountain ahead of us in places to have hands free.  Finally I could see the creek and began to really be able to hear it.   We spotted two survey tape flagged routes to different vantage points of the falls.   I just picked the lower one first and went ahead. Finally before me was the legend.. Dismal Falls in its glory.  

150 ft high Dismal Falls

    I was not disappointed!  We did some victory whoops and hollers.  We made it!
I could not believe I was finally standing here! I was elated.  I was also very sweaty, tired, and hungry.  We had waited to eat lunch til we were at the main falls.  We sat down and soaked up the sight of the massive waterfall while we ate our sammidges and chips.
Cathy remarked she had not seen this much water on the falls on previous trips. 
I knew just from checking out Rich's photos it was high flow by comparison.
Cathy found a cap at the falls on that log. Rich, did you leave one behind? If so Cathy has it and regardless where it came from.. she wore it!  She was trying to show that unlike you she is not a germphobe! She put it right on her head!  I had mixed feelings about that.
I wished I knew for sure if it was yours or not. I also wondered if you'd wear it again after
it got left there in the weather? It had a few pine needles on it.  

Closer view of the top portion of Dismal Falls

      We left the falls around 3 pm and began our trip back.   The climb up and out was tough, but we made it safely. I swallowed a bug of some kind. Cathy got me to laughing
and wanted me to make chimpanzee noises as I climbed.  I was happy to oblige but then the laughing started! We had to be giddy by now.   The hike out was rough on the downhill part, but leveled off finally.  I sat down and put on dry socks which helped my sore toes feel better.

      We had the last bit of trouble when we got back to our starting point.  She preferred the idea of just going back the way we came. She picked the shorter, steeper route back to the vehicle versus a longer, more gradual path.   I was ok with that, but she then took us back up the logging road.  I had thought she meant go back the same way.  No.. a different way.  It took us through briars which had me cursing. I got stabbed in the knee by a stick.   We finally came  out at a thicket of rhodo far worse than the first one we'd faced.  I knew the road was below us somewhere but could not see it.  It sounded far off.
I had no desire to get clawed up more. I also refused to risk the climb down not knowing
where we were in relation to the vehicle.  I had the sense that our luck was about to run out with the snake population.  Evening is when snakes crawl out to bask and move.
I told her I was turning around and heading back and going to walk the road back to the car.   I was in a foul mood from being tired and in pain. I had scratches upon scratches.
My legs were bleeding and bruised.

      We walked the road and it turned out to be Trails Carolina property.
We should have parked here and walked. It would have simplified things greatly.
We had a hot road walk back but it was shaded and very little traffic.  We had a little breeze.   Any future trips we'll know. It all made sense now.  Trails Carolina meant something to me and I had been correct, but it was all for nothing now.

I should have spoken up sooner.  Hind sight is always 20/20.

  Back at Cathy's home we ate dinner and were ready for bed by 9:15 pm.
We did not set alarms for the next day.  We slept in and each got 10 1/2 hours of much needed rest! We were both stiff sore wimmens that night.  Next day we were fine.

We had some breakfast and went for a nice EASY hike today.  Wintergreen Falls in DuPont State Forest. It was the last waterfall to see for us there.  It was a super easy hike and very pretty. It was another bluebird day.  I feel fortunate indeed to have a best friend like Cathy to have these adventures with!

Wintergreen Falls in DuPont State Forest is about 25 ft high.

**Edited to add: Dismal Falls is a part of the Carolina Mountain Club's Waterfall 100.
I mention this because the entire route was flagged with survey tape and appears to be traveled more than in the past.  The days of trying to locate this falls and the accompanying difficulties are greatly reduced because it is now a better known hike.
While screwing up directions on parking areas and access were a P-I-T-A... it was probably the only navigational challenge left associated with the hike.  Kevin Adams, Rich Stevenson, Harry Jones,Kelvin Taylor, Cathy Howell, Bernie Boyer, Jim Bob Tinsley and past hikers
who braved this trip before it was well known are trail blazers.  Those of us who visit the falls now will never experience the trip in quite the way they did.
 Props to these brave souls!


  1. Great job! Sounds like there were quite a few testy moments. Congratulations on toughing it out to the end!

    1. Thanks. I thought of you and wanted to make certain you did not screw up like we did on the parking. Turn left onto Trails Carolina.. 1st left after Slickfisher Rd. Park at the dead end. walk past the gate. No worries! There is a trail the entire way. I'd print copies of Kevin Adam's book pages that give directions and take them along. I know you are wanting to do this one.

  2. Just did the hike on Sunday Oct 25 with a group of adventuresome waterfall hikers. There are ropes for part of the lower 1/4 mile now. There is also recent dead fall as you are getting close to the bottom of falls. Makes for bit of a scramble.

    1. Though you post a comment under "anonymous" you must be part of the group Daniel Jack went with.