Please excuse the quality of these pictures. I only had my phone with me this day and it was dark and rainy almost exclusively. My phone does a rotten job in these conditions.
I am so thrilled to be sharing the recap of our recent trip to New Zealand! This post will serve as an intro and talk you through the months of planning that we did. If you are dreaming of visiting New Zealand in the future, I hope this information makes your planning quicker and easier.
Be sure to follow this blog as upcoming posts will walk you through each day of our trip with details and pictures.
*** I am running an old story I wrote about our trip to Yosemite in 2008 for the next couple of weeks. I enjoyed reading it again and looking at the pictures. If you’ve seen it before, I hope you enjoy the encore presentation as much as I did. ***
After some careful planning and reservations a year in advance, we made it out to Yosemite National Park. Being such a highly photographed location we felt like we knew it well but were really excited to get out, hike in it and see it with our own eyes. If we learned nothing else from the Grand Canyon, we learned that seeing these spectacular places in person is so much more than a photograph can convey.
Other folks that had visited before recommended that we go in the spring to see the waterfalls and to avoid some of the crowds. We knew that this would limit our hiking opportunities somewhat because much of the park would still be inaccessible due to snow.
Yosemite has some pretty drastic geography (which is a pretty big part of why it is so beautiful). The bulk of the touristy stuff rests on the valley floor which is a small portion of the park nestled in a drastic V-shaped slot of granite. The remainder of the park is on top of this granite where Little-House-on-the-Prairie-style alpine meadows perch waiting for summer flowers so small girls in pigtails and bears can romp and play. In addition, mountains rise from these meadows creating a breathtaking backdrop (even from the valley floor).
Because of this tremendous change in elevation in such a relatively small area, you get some big differences in weather. Most of the time that we spent in the valley the temps ranged from the 70’s to the upper 80’s. The higher elevations that we climbed to were typically 20 degrees cooler than this but in some instances they got even colder (and much windier). In one car drive or hike you could go from shorts and sunscreen to every layer of clothing you had and snow on the ground. It was warmer than usual when we were in the park but not warm enough for the northernmost road (Tioga Pass to Reno, NV) to be open. This cut our day hiking choices in half and eliminated the possibility of flying in to Reno and driving by Lake Tahoe on the way to the park.
We got a guidebook succinctly titled “Yosemite” from Moon Handbooks. I looked at several before settling on this one and I heartily recommend it. If Rick Steves did US guidebooks, they would be like this. It strongly recommended staying in the park if we could afford it. Our friends also cautioned us against staying outside the park. Yosemite is not a small place but even more importantly it is a slow moving place. The roads are small and very twisty and the speed limit is 20 mph in many places but I imagine that during most of the year when traffic is bad you can’t even go that fast. Trying to commute to the park every day would have been terrible. I really think it would have ruined the trip for us. It would have been like staying in Ponte Vedra and driving downtown via rush hour JTB and I-95 every day of the trip. No thank you! For you non-Jaxvillians that is a slow 45 minute drive.
So step one was reserving a room. After reading the reviews from Moon it was obvious that we wanted the Yosemite Lodge. Real beds. Real walls (not a tent). Not as expensive as the outrageous super duper high end hotel. I got online and looked at availability. It was almost exactly a year before our trip to the day and there was only one availability for one week for the spring season left! It turned out to be the perfect time to go. It would be the week leading up to Memorial Day. Sane people did not want to visit anytime around then. We would be getting out of the park on Friday morning. Hopefully this would keep us out of the clutches of the angry horde of summer tourists. We would also potentially have the warmest weather possible when the waterfalls were still cranked to 11. Most folks choose to wait until after Memorial Day because most of the summer-only amenities open that weekend such as the swimming pools, snack shacks, etc.
Step two was figure out our path to the park. Initially we thought Fresno made sense. We’d never been there and it was the closest bigger city. After checking ticket prices it became apparent we’d be going via Sacramento. We’d been to Sacky before for a wedding but the cost difference made this a no brainer. Maybe we’d be able to find something else to do besides tour the capital (which we’d done previously).
We chose to stay at the Governor’s Inn for a night on the way in and out of the park. The guidebook highly recommended this place. We thought it was decent but nothing special. Ok price. Good newer Hampton Inn-ish room. Good location. Pretty crappy breakfast bar. I can forgive no make-your-own-waffles and no hot items like eggs or biscuits, but no cereal?! Come on! If generic Tang and a generic Svenhard count as a continental breakfast they must be thinking a sub-Australia-sized fictitious continent.
Last year when we hiked to Virgin Falls we decided it was just about the perfect time for hiking that part of the country – no bugs, no heat, no humidity, not too cold and good water flow in streams and waterfalls. This year we decided to find another place to hike in the area at about the same time. The choice was the Walls of Jericho near Scottsboro, Alabama.
The Walls of Jericho is a natural rock amphitheater where water sprays and cascades out of multiple holes and cracks in the surrounding 200’ tall gorge walls. Apparently the water flow varies by season and the appearance of the place drastically changes accordingly. It was a place I’d heard about as a kid but was off limits to the public. In 2004, Alabama’s Forever Wild Land Trust purchased some of the large tract of land that spans Tennessee and Alabama and contains this scenic wonder, bringing it back into public use.
You can get to the Walls from Tennessee or Alabama. This trip details an out and back trip on the Alabama trail. If you had two cars, it would probably be more fun to drop off a car at the Alabama trailhead and then drive up to the Tennessee trailhead and start from there.
The description of the hike I’ve read other places is pretty accurate. It has earned its strenuous rating because of its length, incline and trail conditions. There is an elevation change of at least 1000 feet over the course of the Alabama trail. If you are in pretty good shape, expect it to take you four hours to hike the six miles (roundtrip). It isn’t as tough as Virgin Falls, but it will probably get you breathing hard from time to time.
Guides recommend allowing two hours for playing around at the Walls. There is a lot of rock scrambling and some cave exploring you could do but if you are just planning to hike in, take a look and eat lunch, you won’t spend nearly this much time there. Our total hiking time including a short lunch was just over four hours.
We had been warned that it would be muddy and slippery even if it hadn’t been raining recently. This proved to be true for us and it hadn’t even rained much lately. For this reason I highly recommend leaving a change of clothes and footwear at the car just in case you take a tumble or a slide somewhere on the trail. Trekking poles are a huge plus. Grippy waterproof boots are great too. Does this mean you must have this equipment? No way. There were folks strolling along in their tennis shoes that did ok too. It was definitely more enjoyable and safer for us with this equipment though. Also, it would be smart to hike this trail with a partner. We didn’t see anyone going it alone when we were there.
PRO TIP: If you are traveling north on Highway 79 to get here, be aware that you will come to the horseback riding parking lot first. We just assumed that the nice sign with the horse on it meant that it accommodated both hikers and horseback riders. After just a few minutes on the trail, we realized that something was wrong, looked at our map again and realized what we had done.
Back in the car, we continued up Highway 79 for just a short distance and we found the correct parking area. It had a handy sign too. This one showed a hiker instead of a horse.
The trails, trailhead parking and camping areas are extremely well maintained with good signage. They even have porta-potties at the parking lots. Certainly the lap of luxury.
The trail starts off very flat with easily identifiable red blazes (not the yellow blazes of the horse trail). Fairly quickly you begin your descent. After two miles and many switchbacks you reach Hurricane Creek which you cross on a log footbridge. Solid and fun.
Somewhere along the way you will have passed a larger than average sinkhole on the right side of the trail (unverified GPS location 34.978626, -86.088583). When we were hiking, there were three people that went in the cave at the bottom of this sinkhole. They caught up to us later at the Walls and showed us pictures they had taken inside. I was a little surprised at how extensive it was. It would be a cool but muddy side trip to consider for a future hike. It didn’t appear that they needed any spelunking equipment to enjoy it.
Once across Hurricane Creek, the trail levels out for a while in a much more open setting (no big trees towering over you) and you come to another log bridge but this time it is over Turkey Creek. You’ll be following Turkey Creek all the way to the Walls now.
Just after you cross Turkey Creek (at about 2.5 miles) you will come to a large and well maintained campsite. Just on the edge of the campsite is a graveyard called Clark Cemetery. This would probably be a great place for ghost stories around the campfire.
At the campground you could take a left and follow the South Rim Trail which, not surprisingly, would have you climb out of the gorge and follow the Walls along its southern rim. We chose stay straight on the main trail that passes the graveyard and continues into the gorge.
Staying on the main trail, you’ll follow Turkey Creek along and up the hillside that opposes the one you just descended. When we were there it was just a dry creek bed for a good while. Counter-intuitively, this is where the muddy stuff really starts and there are more loose fist-sized rocks to deal with. It is nothing treacherous but footing can be tricky and your pace will slow.
Near the end of the trail (about another half mile) you will cross Turkey Creek. By this point for us, it was a nice-sized slow-moving stream that required getting wet to cross. It was fun but the rocks growing algae were slick as ice.
Immediately on the other side you’ll summit a little hill where you have a nice view of a big pool with water cascading into it.
Just around the corner you will enter the amphitheater. To your left will be a large cascade of water issuing out of a big hole in the side of the gorge. You can scramble around and get right up to the opening, but be warned, it is super slick around here. We saw another hiker fall hard here. Melanie slipped and did a 270 around one of her poles (pretty spectacular to see) but stayed upright. I wasn’t so lucky and did James Brown-worthy split landing on my knee and thigh. Fortunately it was slowed down by my trekking poles and it didn’t really hurt at all.
While Melanie sat in the sun and ate lunch. I dumped my gear and climbed the back wall of the amphitheater to see what lay beyond. There was another flat stone area with a raised back wall. I climbed that wall and beyond that was another flat area with another raised wall.
At this point the caving hikers caught up with me and explained that this series of “steps” continued up to a dead end in the gorge and apparently there was a fairly difficult-to-find trail that lead back to the parking area from there. They didn’t know exactly where it was and weren’t planning to go that far. I turned around since it didn’t seem like there would be much to see that way and there was no way that Melanie was going to be able to climb up there without my help anyway because the first wall was so tall.
The hike to the Walls is pretty simple and easy. You have to watch your footing for the last half mile, as noted above, but other than that it is a downhill walk. Of course that means the return trip is mostly an uphill climb. If you exercise regularly, it probably won’t be a big deal. If you don’t, just plan to stop and catch your breath every now and then. I think most adults could complete this hike and still be happy at the end.
Back at the car, I decided to check out a primitive camping area within a couple hundred yards of the parking lot. Just like the other one, this one is nice and clean. It has a decent view of the valley and is within walking distance of the parking lot porta-potty.
If you are within driving distance of the Walls of Jericho it is a worthwhile hike. You don’t have to dedicate an entire day to it so you can take your time or start later in the morning. There are other things to do in the area (I’m interested in finding out more about the Bear Den Point Trail). You could even break it up into a two day affair if you like to camp or backpack, which would be great for younger hikers. It isn’t the greatest natural wonder I’ve ever seen but I’m certainly glad that I got to visit.
Walls of Jericho – Alabama Trail
Location: Near Scottsboro, AL (Just north of Hytop) on Highway 79. Google Maps has a surprisingly accurate push pin location for it if you enter “Walls of Jericho, Estillfork, Jackson, Alabama 35745” (see image below).
Trailhead: Latitude and longitude 34.976714, -86.080982 – large well-maintained gravel lot – campsite and porta-potty nearby
Length: 3 miles (6 miles round trip)
Time: 4-6 hours depending on speed and time spent exploring
Rating: Strenuous – 1000’ elevation change – downhill in and uphill out
Notes: Trail is muddy and slippery in parts. Recommend a partner and trekking poles. Requires a shallow stream crossing. Recommend waterproof boots and/or change of socks and shoes.
On the way back toward Table Rock we diverted to an out-of-the-way falls called Twin Falls. It gets this name because Reedy Cove Creek splits at the top of a rock wall and cascades down it in two distinct places. I didn’t find conclusive information on how tall it is but I’d agree with one source that mentions it being about 75’. It is a beautiful location and feels a little bit like a secret. I’m guessing it sees about as much traffic as the little piece of property can take as there is an observation platform at the end of the trail that looks like it is there to prevent erosion. Unfortunately, it is not in the ideal viewing location. If they had just moved it about 100’ further into the area you would have a great view of the falls. The graffiti and wear bare this out as you can see where people must regularly hop the rail and walk out into the rock piles at the base of the falls. By no means is view bad though. Melanie and I both liked this falls very much and recommend seeing it.
To get there, head W on US-178 off South Carolina 11. Stay on US-178 for about 7.5 miles. Take a left on Cleo Chapman Rd (SC 100) at Bob’s Place (biker bar). Bob’s is practically on top of the road. Across the street you’ll see some outdoor seating and The Road Kill Grill. Stay on Cleo Chapman for 1.9 miles. Take a right on Estatoe Community Road and stay on this road for 0.9 miles. Turn right on the very narrow one-lane Water Falls Rd. Stay on this road for 0.3 miles past the private property up to the gate at the parking area. While the first part of this road cuts through an open field the last part is through a narrow channel. Slow driving is recommended as there is no room to pass in that section.
The trail runs right beside the creek and is an easy short walk (15 min?). Along the way you will pass a small swimming hole and end at a covered observation platform very near the base of the falls.
Although we didn’t see many colored leaves on our fall foliage trip, we had a blast camping, hiking and getting to see a bunch of waterfalls. Check out the area where South Carolina and North Carolina meet in the mountains if you are looking for some gorgeous scenery.
The next day after we broke down camp we decided to squeeze in two more drive-up falls before we hit the road. The first was Whitewater Falls which was only about 40 minutes west of Table Rock. This is the big daddy of the area. In total it is over 800’ tall and crosses the state line between North Carolina and South Carolina. The North Carolina part is 411’ tall making it the highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains. The part in South Carolina drops another 400’. Sadly, just like Raven Cliff Falls, you cannot get very close to the falls so the effect is diminished.
From the parking lot you walk along a basically flat paved trail for about half or one mile to the upper overlook. From there you can go down a flight of steps to the lower overlook which offers a better view.
Next we headed back through the park and down the mountain. There were two more falls we could see in this park but the shadows were beginning to get pretty long and our limbs were pretty tired. We did a drive-by of a little tiny waterfall called Wildcat Falls. We had been warned that it probably wasn’t flowing very well. It wasn’t flowing at all and worse, there really wasn’t any good place to park beside the highway in our little Honda Civic (drop offs on the road shoulders). Falls Creek Falls was next on the list and it got lopped off. It was going to be a moderate-length steep hike and we just didn’t feel like it.
So we headed back toward Table Rock keeping an eye out for places to eat. We had to stop at the little shopping area with the giant rocking chair out front. The only thing open was the country gadgets and antiques store. The white-haired lady inside was friendly enough and welcomed us to Pumpkin Town Mountain.
“Where do you recommend we eat around here?”
“Did you see the gas station down the street?”
“Folks eat there. And at Ain’t Sue’s.”
“Where would you go if it was you?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t eat out much. I think I like Pumpkin Town Café.”
“That’s a shame. I can see that it is closed tonight,” I said gesturing to the restaurant next door.
“Oh no. Not Pumpkin Town Mountain. I’m talkin’ about Pumpkin Town.”
“What’s the difference.”
“You know Pumpkin Town.”
“If it isn’t here, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“This here is Pumpkin Town Mountain. You gotta go to the gas station and turn right. From there you drive all the way into town. Pumpkin Town is the name of that town. You’ll see the café.”
“What do they serve?”
“Everything. All kinds of food.”
So how could we pass that up? Even though we ate lunch, with all of our hiking I was ready for a giant plate of everything. Carefully following our guide’s instructions we quickly (within 2 miles) came upon the booming intersection of Pumpkin Town and there was the café. Inside we found a short order dinner with a menu listing hamburgers and hotdogs. When we asked about any other items (I was hoping for BBQ) we were told that was it – and they were out of hamburgers for the day.
Back in the car, we decided the next place to check was Aunt Sue’s. We passed it on the way to Caesar’s Head that morning and it looked like a tourist trap, but we were in for a nice surprise. As we drove by, we saw that the parking lot was full. We took that to be a good enough sign, went back to camp, showered and came back for a nice sit-down meal.
Aunt Sue’s was delightful. It was basically like a one-off Cracker Barrel that consisted of a series of “houses.” It started with the Ice Cream House and when that became a success Aunt Sue expanded to a tourist trinket house, some other house, a restaurant house and, after she passed away, her successor added the Golf House. I got chicken fried steak and was a very happy man. For dessert I had cherry cobbler, which made Melanie happy since she got “just a taste” of it.
Next up was Rainbow Falls. I am so glad that I did a little checking online before we went on this trip. You see there are two ways to get to this falls. The first is a long relatively flat trail that ends with a steep climb up to the falls. The second is a much shorter decent from above the falls. It is equally, if not more, steep but it is quite short. I’ll let you guess which one we picked.
Taking the short trail Rainbow Falls requires some advance planning. It is outside the park, there aren’t good maps for it and it is unmarked. Because it is on private property, it requires permission to hike on it. You can contact the YMCA’s Camp Greenville at 864-836-3291 to find out what they want you to do.
To get there we left the Raven Cliff Falls parking area and continued north on 276. Almost immediately after leaving the park and very close to the North Carolina/South Carolina border, we turned right on Solomon Jones Rd (also called CR 15 and YMCA Camp Rd). There is a Camp Greenville sign at this location. Continue down the road to the east for 4.6 miles to the small unmarked gravel parking area on your right. The trailhead is back down the road the way you came just a few feet.
The trail itself is easy to find and follow but it is obviously less used. Even in the middle of the day we were running into cobwebs and scaring small critters off the trail. As I mentioned before it is quite steep almost the entire way but there are numerous hand holds, roots and ropes so it is quite manageable. As long as you are comfortable lifting your legs up to your waist you will do fine. As mentioned before, it is a short hike too. I’d estimate about 20 minutes going down and 30 minutes coming back up. I’ve read that it is about half a mile long, but it’s really hard to tell with all the switchbacks. There really is nothing to see along the trail itself. Just a bunch of dense woods.
We almost didn’t do this hike in favor of more famous/popular falls, and that would have been a tragedy. Melanie and I quickly agreed that this was our favorite falls of the entire trip. It is so neat! Even though it’s only about 100’ tall (1/4 the height of Raven Cliff) you can get right up on it and that makes all the difference. As you near the falls you turn a corner and suddenly you hear it. You walk a little further into a stone amphitheatre and right in the middle is a tightly packed shaft of water that seems to punch a hole through the canopy of trees above and splashes down on the rocks below. I really wish that I had a nice camera again so I could have better captured the feel of this place. The pictures I took don’t even come close.
After climbing our way back up the side of the mountain, on a lark, we continued down the road to an overlook called Pretty Place. Magnificent! The view was about as good as any I’ve seen in the Smokies and the chapel that surrounds it is quite nice too. Melanie and I agreed that if we weren’t already married, this would be high on the list. It was surprisingly large. Normally when we visit places like this they seat 10-50 people. I’d bet this facility would seat 100 and it had a couple of bathrooms. Not exactly the Four Seasons but good enough that I made a point of finding the camp staff before we left and inquiring about cabin rentals for a future men’s retreat.
Day two of the trip was going to be the workhorse. This was our only full day to hike and we wanted to pack in as many falls as possible. First up was Raven Cliff Falls. This is the postcard waterfall for the park – actually for the entire area – so we didn’t want to chance missing it. It also was going to be by far the longest hike with a minimum of two miles to get to the observation platform or four miles get to the suspension bridge. We opted to do both and I’d estimate the total round trip mileage to be eight to nine miles. Sadly, I’ve waited too long to write this down and I can’t remember the total hiking time. The trail was only moderately difficult. Most of the time it was pretty flat without any really spectacular views. Just a nice walk in the woods. It helped that we visited in the middle of the week I’m sure. I’d imagine with its popularity, this one could get unpleasantly busy on the weekends.
Strangely enough, as popular as these falls are, the trailhead is pretty poorly marked. The parking lot is easy to find. You then cross the street to find a big map listing a bunch of trails. It does not identify this as the Raven Cliff Falls Trail. You then walk a few paces down a well-maintained path and see a sign for the Foothills Trail (had I bothered to check my map from home more carefully I’d have seen that the Foothills and the RCF trails merge at this point). It lists several destinations, but not RCF. You then walk further down the trail and finally you see the sign you’ve been looking for. We were not the only ones confused by this. We met a conductor for the local symphony wandering around on the road looking for the trail head. We even met folks as we were leaving that had been hiking down the trail for a while that weren’t sure they were on the right one. Now you, dear reader, know what to look for and you can be the expert when you visit the falls.
After awhile you reach the fairly new observation platform. I had read a report from one of the locals lamenting the replacement of the old platform. He claimed that this new platform was in a completely different location and the view was ruined. I had to agree once I saw the falls. They were spectacular. A really great shape in a nice setting but they were so tiny! How can a 400’ falls look so small? You can see that they are distant in the attached picture and this is zoomed in as far as my little point and shoot camera would go. We were not even at the best viewing angle. It was obvious that the promotional images of this falls were not shot from this location. I cannot understand why this change was made. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
We had planned to hike to the suspension bridge before but this less-than-stellar overlook sealed the deal. We backtracked to the Foothills Trail split and continued on to the Natureland Trust Trail which took us to the suspension bridge. This was pretty cool. It was nice and shaky like a suspension bridge is supposed to be. The view from here is good and unique, but because of the way these falls are made up, you can only see the upper drop from here. A worthwhile side trip but it isn’t wide-eyed greatness. We stopped and ate lunch on the bridge with the sounds of the water rushing under us.
Just for fun we decided to follow the trail across the bridge to see if it ever popped out of the underbrush really close to the falls. It was obvious almost from the second we crossed the bridge that this is not a popular option as the trail becomes much wilder right away. It is also incredibly steep. At one point I found a small side spur marked with double blue blazes that I wanted to follow. It was so steep here that we didn’t think Melanie could lower or lift herself over some of the sheer drops so I decided to check it out myself. I was reminded of the description of the secret trail to Elrond’s Last Homely House. I dropped down the trail to an open area roped off with a steel cable fence. Sadly, it was at a bend in the mountain and the falls were around the corner from me. I guess we were not going to get a better view of this falls. I’m really glad Melanie didn’t climb down with me. I was just barely tall enough to pull myself back up to the main trail.
After that, it was a simple backtrack to the trail head. We passed a lot more people on the way back and were thankful that we had started so early that morning.