Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Elk River Falls, Pisgah National Forest

Elk Creek Falls

Located in the far Western part of North Carolina, Elk Park is almost in Tennessee, to the Northwest of Grandfather Mountain. This is a popular destination for not only the locals in the area, but also for the college kids at the various colleges in the Western part of the state. The waterfall is very easy to find as it is located pretty close to main roads. The directions that I had all seemed to start from the intersection of NC 194 and US 19E, which seemed easy enough, but I had no idea where that was. I'll start my directions in Boone, NC which is a standard location for this part of the state.

From the town of Boone, you need to take Hwy 105 South toward Blowing Rock. You can access this road from either US 421 or US 321. It is a nice little drive through Foscoe and Seven Devils. You will turn right on US 221 which will change into NC 181 going toward Newland. Right before you get to Newland, you will take a right on NC 194 and go North. The junction with US 19E is a little confusing because your inclination will be to turn left, but you need to continue straight as this road actually becomes US 19E going to Elk Park. There will be a very short street to the right leading to Elk Park that is right before you get to the fire station. You need to turn right, and take an immediate left onto Old Mill Road. You will stay on this road for about four miles when it dead ends in a gravel loop in the Pisgah National Forest.

The trail is very simple, and goes straight from the parking area to the waterfall. There is access points at the top of the falls, but the real sight is a bit lower down. the total trail length is about 0.1 of a mile, and is easy to hike. Do keep in mind that people have died at this waterfall recently, and there are a lot of hazards associated with waterfalls to keep in mind. I am told that one of the pastimes at this waterfall is jumping from the top into the deep pool of water below. This is a tall waterfall at 85 feet (Kevin Adams cites 50 feet) according to most sources so be very careful if you insist on jumping.

For those interested in photographing this waterfall, you will find that it has some unique challenges. The first one is trying to compose with the sky not in the frame. This can only be done from the right side, since as you move to the left there is nothing to block the sky from your field of view. There is a nice long rocky barrier in place that can be walked across with relative ease. There are boulders and some cascades between yet another barrier wall. If you are willing to get wet, there will likely be some interesting compositions using the rocks, but I chose to hug the right side of the falls and use the woods as a backdrop to avoid having the sky in my images.
Tree Topper

However, this is one of the few waterfalls that does photograph well in the sun. It is advisable to use a graduated neutral density filter when incorporating the sky in your compositions to keep the exposures to a tolerable level. Early morning is said to be a good time to photograph this waterfall, but I'm thinking that late evening might give a little front light for the waterfall.

This is a nice waterfall, and for shear size, it is great bang for your buck. However, be warned that if you go during the warmer months you will have a hard time finding any quiet or privacy from those swimming and sunning themselves. Judging by the bare trees near the cascades, I would imagine that fall would be a good season to visit. Whenever you go, just remember to be careful and watch your step.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mouse Creek Falls, Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Soothing Chaos

Located in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, in the French Broad River Basin, Mouse Creek Falls is a very impressive and beautiful waterfall. With two distinct sections, the waterfall totals about 25 feet before dropping straight into Big Creek. I think that makes this waterfall a bit of a gem, as normally falls will turn into a stream that eventually flows somewhere else. Here, you get not only the cascades of the falls, but the rapids of a swift moving creek. Sharing the same water as Midnight Hole, you will also find that lovely aqua color in the water here.

To get to the trail head, you will take I-40 to Exit 451 which is on the Eastern edge of Tennessee. The falls themselves are actually located in North Carolina though. After exiting the interstate, you will continue North on Green Corner Rd which will lead you to Waterville Rd. Turn left when you approach a one way ramp (coming at you with "do not enter" signs at the base). You will cross the Pigeon River and turn immediately back to the left heading South. Continue on this road past the Walters Power Plant. The road will guide to the right, and you will cross a narrow bridge. Staying on the road will take you through the community of Mount Sterling. You will come to a four way intersection where you will see a sign straight ahead for The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Continue into the park and stay on the narrow gravel road for about 0.8 mile. You will end your trip in a gravel parking lot.

To find the trail head, walk back along the driveway that lead you into the parking lot. You will see a gate with a sign for Mouse Creek Falls, and Midnight Hole. The distances are marked 2.0 miles and 1.5 miles respectively. Don't let this discourage you as the hike is an easy one on a well maintained path. Moving with a purpose, I was able to cover the 2 miles back in about 30 minutes.

A Smooth Embrace

One thing you will quickly recognize...the Big Creek is just that...a really big creek. There are lots of rocks and boulders, along with elevation drops that provide lots of small cascades and rapids along the way. Much of the way though, the trail is well above the water, making it very difficult to see the water up close. Occasionally though, the creek comes right up to the trail, or maybe I should say that the trail meets the creek in places. It is easy to get distracted looking at these sections and forgetting to look for the actual waterfall.

What you are looking for is a horse hitch post to the left of the trail in a wide section. If you look through the brush and trees you will find yourself face to face with the waterfall. While the view is great from the trail, you owe it to yourself to scramble down the bank to the creek level. Here you can rock hop on various boulders taking you closer and closer to the waterfall. Keep in mind that the force of the water is strong, and if you leave the rocks, you are likely to be in trouble in the currents. With a good water flow, I was only able to get half way across the creek, but that was plenty close enough to really be able to take in the beauty of this waterfall.

Having seen many waterfalls in North Carolina, I would have to say that this is one of my favorites to photograph. It is difficult in a way to make a great photograph of this falls because so much is going on. however, if you can isolate just the elements that you want to show, there are many different compositions available to you. Again, as with Midnight Hole, the green water is amazing.

It should be noted that the trail to both Midnight Hole, and Mouse Creek Falls is a horse trail. Therefore, no pets should be brought on this hike. For those of you with horses, this is a great trip to take. There are sections of the trail that look like they could be accessible to horses, but are clearly marked "No Horses". Looking at these locations, I would think this warning should be adhered to.

Edit 11-20-2016

I have just gotten back from a trip out to Big Creek after a month long drought.  From my experience with this location, I really didn't expect to see massive drops in the water levels, but I was shocked to see most of the area dried up.  I was happily surprised to find that Mouse Creek Falls survived quite well in the drought, and actually showed a bit more character with the reduced water flow.

An Autumn Blanket
Also, it is worth noting that you can continue on the trail past this waterfall, and you are very likely to come across some more really nice scenes.  A short distance up, you will cross over the river on a carriage bridge and will start walking along the opposite bank.  Most of the sides are too steep to easily access the water, but there are some places that will allow you to scramble down for some closer views such as this...

A Bit of Drama
So, it doesn't really matter what the water levels are like here at Big Creek.  You can still find plenty to see, and to photograph.  Just always be very careful walking on the rocks. They are pretty slick and will surprise you if you take them for granted.  With due caution, you should be just fine though.


Midnight Hole on Big Creek, Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Midnight Hole

While only about six feet tall, this named waterfall can be seen along the Pigeon River on Big Creek. The trail to Mouse Creek Falls will take you right past this section of the river. To get to the trail head, you will take I-40 to Exit 451 which is on the Eastern edge of Tennessee. The falls themselves are actually located in North Carolina though. After exiting the interstate, you will continue North on Green Corner Rd which will lead you to Waterville Rd. Turn left when you approach a one way ramp (coming at you with "do not enter" signs at the base). You will cross the Pigeon River and turn immediately back to the left heading South. Continue on this road past the Walters Power Plant. The road will guide to the right, and you will cross a narrow bridge. Staying on the road will take you through the community of Mount Sterling. You will come to a four way intersection where you will see a sign straight ahead for The Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Continue into the park and stay on the narrow gravel road for about 0.8 mile. You will end your trip in a gravel parking lot.

To find the trail head, walk back along the driveway that lead you into the parking lot. You will see a gate with a sign for Mouse Creek Falls, and Midnight Hole. The distances are marked 2.0 miles and 1.5 miles respectively. Don't let this discourage you as the hike is an easy one on a well maintained path. Moving with a purpose, I was able to cover the 2 miles back in about 30 minutes.

One thing you will quickly recognize...the Big Creek is just that...a really big creek. There are lots of rocks and boulders, along with elevation drops that provide lots of small cascades and rapids along the way. Much of the way though, the trail is well above the water, making it very difficult to see the water up close. Occasionally though, the creek comes right up to the trail, or maybe I should say that the trail meets the creek in places.

Worry Stones

The picture above just such a place where the trail and the creek merge. While not a named waterfall, the rapids in this section were just too pretty to resist. Midnight Hole is just a few more yards upstream and as you can tell from the first picture, the personality of the water changes greatly in short amounts of time.

Midnight Hole is impressive not for the cascading water, which is only about six feet tall. It is impressive (to me) because of the aqua color of the water at the base of the falls. I believe this has something to do with the sediment from the creek bed, but whatever it is, I really like it. Also, you can see how this creek suddenly just calms and forms small lagoons along the way. For the most part, this looks like a river that white water rafters enjoy going down. Personally, I enjoyed this location for the relaxation it provided in its calmness.

Islands in the Stream

It should be noted that the trail to both Midnight Hole, and Mouse Creek Falls is a horse trail. Therefore, no pets should be brought on this hike. For those of you with horses, this is a great trip to take. There are sections of the trail that look like they could be accessible to horses, but are clearly marked "No Horses". Looking at these locations, I would think this warning should be adhered to.

Waterfall on Little Branch, Pisgah National Forest

Waterfall on Little Branch

Located in the Pisgah National Forest, along the French Broad River Basin, in Harmon County, this waterfall seems to spring up from nowhere. This 40' waterfall can be found along the Little Fall Branch stream near the Harmon Den Horse Camp. Locating this waterfall is very easy to do, but you need to pay particular attention to the details as there are no actual trails that lead to the falls.

To get to the trail head, you will need to come from I-40 in North Carolina near the Tennessee boarder. From either direction, you will exit at Exit 7 and head north toward a gravel road. This gravel road is called Cold Springs Creek Road, and is also listed as FR 148. You can't miss it, as it is visible from the exit ramp from the interstate. After traveling approximately 3.7 miles, you will come across a picnic area and horse camp. There will be a sign for FR 3526 which you will turn right on. Stay on this road for about three or four tenths of a mile until you come across a gate on the left and one ahead. There is a pull out by the second gate on the right side of the road where you can park. Take care not to block the gates.

Here is where things get interesting. While the hike is no more than 0.3 mile, there is no trail. I'm not an advocate of off-trail hiking, and would not have proceeded here except that there seems to be a clear path that has been used before. As you came past the first gate, you saw a stream crossing which is Fall Branch. It is actually the second one, Little Fall Branch, that you are wanting to find. It crosses right at the gate. You will want to follow this upstream to find the falls. I found that a path of sorts has been cleared along the right side of the stream which is the route I would recommend. Keep sight of the stream so you reach your destination, more importantly....so you can get back to your vehicle.

As you walk along the stream, you will find yourself wondering about this waterfall. The hike is relatively flat, and the stream only has a few elevation drops here and there. I thought I was on the wrong path. However, in a matter of minutes you will find yourself face to face with a near vertical wall with an impressive waterfall. While this is a very pretty waterfall, photography is limited because of all the surface clutter. It is not uncommon to find large tree trunks at the base of the falls which will restrict any close-up photography. However, good compositions can be found by stepping back from the falls.

Stream Observation

Also, the stream itself introduces a few nice little jewels for the photographer. With several little cascades here and there, you can find lots of opportunities to trip the shutter. While this is not a great waterfall, it is really worth a stop if you find yourself in the area. The hike is very easy and doesn't take long at all.