Table Rock State Park, Waterfalls and Fall Foliage Pt 1

For my birthday this year Melanie and I wanted to do something more special.  I was tasked with coming up with a plan even better than dinner out and a cupcake with a candle.  We settled on two short trips.  One would be to Islands of Adventure down in Orlando (the best theme park we’ve ever been to) because they’ve opened a new Harry Potter section.  The second would be to Huntsville to see the science and Star Wars display at the Rocket Center.

I’m not always the quickest, but sometime later I realized that we would have several additional days free in Melanie’s work schedule as a result of all this travel.  We couldn’t just waste that precious time.  It occurred to me that the weather should be getting nice for hiking and we might just catch some leaves changing color.

The very best fall leaves we’ve ever seen was on a trip to South Carolina’s high point several years ago.  The rainfall that year, the temperature change and the clear sunny day all worked together to make something almost painfully beautiful.  I think of Bob Ross paintings as super saturated but I don’t think even he could have captured the brilliant colors we saw.  As we would ride up the steep slopes of the foothills we’d see electric blue skies and then be suddenly plunged into windshield-filling riots of oranges, yellows and reds as we crested then descended.  Literally windshield filling.  Road.  Some tree trunks.  LOTS of leaves.  It could be so overwhelming that your brain couldn’t process what you were looking at immediately.  I guess it was more than a little bit like camouflage.  The normal shapes of things were broken up flattening the landscape into one mash of color.  Like a roller coaster ride, it did take my breath away more than once.

Jump forward to mid October of this year and Melanie and I are hoping for a repeat performance.  Heck, even a quiet echo of that previous trip would be great.  A quick internet search for fall foliage cross referenced to Google Maps showed that our quickest, easiest best bet was South Carolina again.  The online guides recommended Caesar’s Head State Park as a great place to see leaves, and what’s this, they have waterfalls too!  Bright idea #2.  Even if we don’t see cool leaves we can see some cool waterfalls.  Our trip to Virgin Falls last year taught me that some of the falls in this general area are flowing nicely at this time of year.  We couldn’t lose now.

Unfortunately, Casear’s Head doesn’t have any drive-up camping.  I knew that we were going to want to camp to save money.  I also knew that we were not going to want to backpack and if at all possible we were going to want a hot shower.  I know, I’m a baby.

Technology is creeping in to the various park systems.  In SC you can now not only check out the different services offered but actually view a map of every individual campsite with details about it including if it is reserved and for which days.  This made it easy to find a state park close by that met our needs.

We chose Table Rock State Park and it was great.  It is a very well-maintained park.  Nice and clean.  It’s a great setting with a small lake and a big ol’ rock outcropping (Table Rock).  They have hike-in camping (some on the lake looked really nice), drive-up camping, RV stations and cabins (which we didn’t see).  We stayed in the area designated “Loop B” for $45.73 for two nights.  It was set up with both primitive and RV spots.  It had a few bathhouses sprinkled throughout the area.  They had been remodeled sometime very recently with fresh paint and new tile.  There was no mold or stink.  Everything was very clean.  The showers bordered on too hot. Plenty of bear-proof trash cans in the camping area.  Nice and shady.  Overall, I’d say it is as nice as any other stop n’ drop campsite I’ve ever used.

Please note:  When reserving the individual sites you will be presented with slope information for some locations.  If it says that it isn’t flat, that is something to consider.  None are sheer cliff faces but if you are in a tent instead of a self-leveling RV, it is something to keep in mind if you don’t want all your blood rushing to your head or feet while you sleep.

First View of Some Mountains
Our Table Rock Campsite

I wish I could tell you more about this park because it seems like a nice place to explore.  There were many folks there just hanging out watching football and enjoying the setting.  We were on a mission to see waterfalls though and this park just didn’t deliver in that area.

Raven Cliff Falls and Fall Foliage Pt 2

Virgin Falls: Part Two

At larger crossing of the creek we got to do a little rock hopping.  Notice the cable strung across for when the water is really flowing.  I mentioned to Melanie that we should have looked up geocaches for the trail before we left, but I had forgotten our GPSr anyway.  About that time eagle-eye Mel happened to spot a cache but we didn’t have a pen.  Hopefully the cache owner will accept our photographic proof. 🙂

Creek crossing. Obviously the water gets much higher sometimes.
Huge leaf! The black boot is a size 13.
The trail ran right beside Big Laurel Creek most of the time.
The trail really starts dropping
Large rocks on the sides begin to break through as the trail decends
The trail levels off somewhat before we reach the falls
The creek looked like this for a good while before making a sudden drop.

There is only one kind of crappy map that I could find for the trail, but it wasn’t an issue since the trail is well marked and maintained.  Even so, at about lunch time we heard a roaring noise up ahead and noticed that the creek disappeared.  We had been on the trail for a while but had we really been moving that quickly?  As the trail descended to a nice flat area in front of a large cave, we thought we were there.  It reminded me of something out of a movie.  There was a cave with a sheet of water dropping down the front of the entrance and disappearing into the cave itself.  I had never seen a fall with no creek in front of it.  It was really unusual and fascinating – kind of like seeing someone without eyebrows.  You know something is different but can’t place it immediately.  Before we could pat ourselves on the back, I noticed a sign saying Big Laurel Falls.  D’oh!  We were only about halfway there.  At least it was a great spot for lunch.

Trail map
Standing on the trail about 50 feet above the falls
Front view. Much larger than it appears. I'm guessing 25 feet tall.
Lots of Hulked-out mossy rocks around Big Laurel Falls

After eating we quickly picked up the trail again and continued on, passing a spur for a scenic overlook and another for Sheep Cave Falls.  We could see Sheep Cave Falls from the trail and didn’t want to spend any extra time going to explore the cave in the off chance we’d be hiking back in the dark.

Most of the trail is spend descending a gorge but somewhere around this time we reached the bottom, made a sharp u-turn and began ascending the other side.  Not too long after this we could hear a thunderous roar and out popped Virgin Falls.  It amazed us both how close we had to be to the falls to hear it.  It was so quiet on the rest of the hike that this was a dramatic contrast.

First sight of Virgin Falls. We had only heard it a few feet before this.

Let me tell you that this falls is spectacular and well worth the hike.  Even in the fall when leaves are down it is hard to get a completely open view of it but that just makes it even better.  The best landscape architects site their buildings to get glimpses and framed views of the subject matter before the big reveal.  Mother Nature had a similar thought here.  There is a little trail that goes up and behind the falls to the cave that it emerges from.  I’m sure that this is a neat place to play in the summer (if you don’t get eaten alive by bugs).

Where does the water go? Behind it into the cave. So cool!
Mel and I for scale. We are about 25 feet up from the bottom on a ledge.

Here we met up with our Ohio buddies again.  They had turned off at the scenic overlook and were just catching up with us.  Donning headlamps, they we excited to finally entire the cave after a year of waiting.  I tried to gently explain that the cave was waist deep in water right now but they could not be deterred.  NOTE:  I can’t believe that I didn’t get a picture of the creek emerging from the cave before it tumbled over the falls!

The trip back to the car was uneventful except to say this is where this trail earns its “strenuous” title.  The first 45 minutes of the last hour of the hike was a continuous uphill climb.  It made me wish that we had more money so that we could throw in a couple of gym memberships to mix the Stairmaster and inclined treadmill into our workouts.  Tough stuff, my friends.

Woodland Sarlacc or sinkhole? I wasn't going to stick my foot in to find out.
We walked under this big rock shelf. You can see the S-shape of the trail where it goes under the rocks. The light grey stone dust is the trail.
For most of the hike the sky was a steely blue-grey and the leaves were pastel pink color. This image really shows off those colors. I kept thinking about Samurai Jack.

Oh, and I almost forgot, in the last 15 minutes of the hike, when the trail had leveled off I heard a loud crash and then a heavy thump-thumping off into the woods.  I’m certain it was a deer drinking from the creek.  I wish I could have seen it.

I ended up drinking my entire 2L of water.  Melanie drank half of hers.  If I were doing it again, I’d pack more water or be prepared to filter some.

Overall, this is one of my favorite day hikes I’ve ever done.  I encourage anyone to do this hike.  If you are not in shape, let this be a goal.  Just don’t go in the summer.

Final stats:
VIRGIN FALLS
N 35.83917 W 85.33083 (unverified but matches Google Maps)
Website
Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552
Three hours from Huntsville
Six hours for the eight-mile round trip hike (four miles one-way to falls)
Trailhead located at N 35.85414 W 85.28263 (unverified but matches Google Maps)
Late fall to early spring is traditionally the heaviest water flow

PS  If you want to have some fun, drop the coordinates into Google Earth and angle down so that the hills get some elevation.  This will give you a better idea of how the trip played out.

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At larger crossing of the creek we got to do a little rock hopping.  Notice the cable strung across for when the water is really flowing.  I had been talking to Melanie that we should have looked up geocaches [ref] for the trail before we left, but I had forgotten our GPSr anyway.  About that time eagle-eye Mel happened to spot a cache but we didn’t have a pen.  Hopefully the cache owner will accept our photographic proof. J

There is only one kind of crappy map that I could find for the trail, but it wasn’t an issue since the trail is well marked and maintained.  Even so, at about lunch time we heard a roaring noise up ahead and noticed that the creek disappeared.  We had been on the trail for a while but had we really been moving that quickly?  As the trail descended to a nice flat area in front of a large cave, we thought we were there.  It reminded me of something out of a movie.  There was a cave with a sheet of water dropping down the front of the entrance and disappearing into the cave itself.  I had never seen a fall with no creek in front of it.  It was really unusual and fascinating – kind of like seeing someone without eyebrows.  You know something is different but can’t place it immediately.  Before we could pat ourselves on the back, I noticed a sign saying Big Laurel Falls.  We were only about halfway there.  At least it was a great spot for lunch.

After eating we quickly picked up the trail again and continued on passing a spur for a scenic overlook and another for Sheep Cave Falls.  We could see Sheep Cave Falls from the trail and didn’t want to spend any extra time going to explore the cave in the off chance we’d be hiking back in the dark.

Most of the trail is spend descending a gorge but somewhere around this time we reached the bottom, made a sharp u-turn and began ascending the other side.  Not too long after this we could hear a thunderous roar and out popped Virgin Falls.  It amazed us both how close we had to be to the falls to hear them.  It was so quiet on the rest of the hike that this was a dramatic contrast.

Let me tell you that this falls is spectacular and well worth the hike.  Even in the fall when leaves are down it is hard to get a completely open view of it but that just makes it even better.  The best landscape architects site their buildings to get glimpses and framed views of the subject matter before the big reveal.  Mother Nature had a similar thought here.  There is a little trail that goes up and behind the falls to the cave that it emerges from.  I’m sure that this is a neat place to play in the summer (if you don’t get eaten alive by bugs).

Here we met up with our Ohio buddies again.  They had turned off at the scenic overlook and were just catching up with us.  Donning headlamps, they we excited to finally entire the cave after a year of waiting.  I tried to gently explain that the cave was waist deep in water right now but they could not be deterred.

The trip back to the car was uneventful except to say this is where this trail earns its “strenuous” title.  The first 45 minutes of the last hour of the hike was a continuous uphill climb.  It made me wish that we had more money so that we could throw in a couple of gym memberships to mix the Stairmaster and inclined treadmill into our workouts.  Tough stuff, my friends.

Oh, and I almost forgot, in the last 15 minutes of the hike, when the trail had leveled off I heard a loud crash and then a loud thump-thumping off into the woods.  I’m certain it was a deer drinking from the creek.  I wish I could have seen it.

I ended up drinking my entire 2L of water.  Melanie drank half of hers.  If I were doing it again, I’d pack more water.

Overall, this is one of my favorite day hikes I’ve ever done.

Final stats:

VIRGIN FALLS

35.83917N 85.33083W (unverified but matches Google Maps)

Website [http://www.state.tn.us/environment/na/natareas/virgin/]

Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552

Three hours from Huntsville

Six hours for the eight-mile round trip hike (four miles one-way to falls)

Trailhead located at 35.85414N 85.28263W (unverified but matches Google Maps)

Late fall to early spring is traditionally the heaviest water flow

Trekking Poles

You can read about how my opinions of trekking poles were changed on our Virgin Falls hike.  I don’t consider myself a gearhead.  You might call me that but I won’t claim that moniker.  Well, not completely.  I appreciate things that work well, but I’m not the guy that has to have the latest and greatest.

That said, I thought hiking or trekking poles were a gimmick to suck money out of people.  I mean, I’d used walking sticks before (and hated them).  How could this be that much different?

I borrowed my brother’s poles, a pair of Leki Summit Antishock Trekking Poles, and loved everything about them except the locking mechanism.  It is a twist lock system and twice while the pole was planted my hand turned unlocking the pole.  It was mostly just slightly annoying but in the wrong situation it could be downright dangerous.  I loved that they had cork handles.  I wouldn’t have thought this would be a big deal but I didn’t get blisters or the warm spots that turn into blisters after using them for an entire day.

Also, they had a shock absorbing system that seemed worthless.  It didn’t really help and just added complexity.  I could actually imagine a time when the inner springs might get loose and hit the pole.  This could be maddening on a long otherwise quiet hike.

Based on this, before my next big hike I plan to buy a pair of Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Trekking Poles.  They are lighter weight than the ones my brother had, have cork handles and a cam locking system that seems much more secure than the standard twist lock that most poles have.

Virgin Falls: Part One

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Melanie and I visited family in Huntsville, AL with the specific goal of going on a nice hike someplace around there.  November tends to be a sweet spot for hiking when mosquitoes are dead, air is cool but not cold and many waterfalls are flowing nicely.

Earlier in the year while doing research on the TAT, I ran across a reference to Virgin Falls.  A few mouse clicks brought up a couple images and a description of a falls that emerges from a cave, drops 110 feet and disappears into another cave.  Cool!  Sold.

Usually day hikes like this are easy to set up but in this case it took a little more effort.  You see Virgin Falls is not in a state or national park but instead sits in a wilderness area.  The best information I got was from the Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552.  They were able to give me accurate-to-the-week information on how strong the falls were flowing and the conditions on the trail (falls flowing nicely and no flash floods in the creek).  This was important to me as the trailhead is a long drive from Huntsville.

We are used to getting up early to run so it wasn’t a problem hitting the road before daybreak.  We estimated a four hour drive to get there, six to eight hours of hiking and a four hour drive back.  Our big goal was to be off the trail before it got dark which happens early in the fall and earlier in the shadow of hills.

Our gear all firemanned for a quick departure the next morning
Happy to eat

We made it to the parking area in three hours (shaved off an hour and there was even a bridge out that we had to navigate around) and were delighted that it was turning into a pleasant overcast day that would be perfect for hiking.  There were only three other cars in the lot so we knew it wouldn’t be busy on the trail.  One was an old blue station wagon beater that looked to have been sitting for a while and probably belonged to some overnighters.  There was a monster mega truck still tick-ticking as the massive V-8 cooled.  That guy had probably just started his hike.  A white Prius belonging to a friendly couple rounded out the trio.  These folks were sitting on the bumper booting up when we pulled in.  They were from Ohio and they talked to us for a few minutes about their experiences on the trail from last Thanksgiving.  They had found out about Virgin Falls at the last minute and on a whim and had tried to squeeze in a hike.  Unfortunately they hadn’t been able to make it all the way to falls last time, but they assured us that we would have plenty of time that day and besides the hike itself was really nice.  After that they wished us well and were on there way while we unloaded our gear.

Misty morning. Will it rain?
We saw many barns along the way
Bridge out. Find another way.
Gravel road to trailhead
Virgin Falls parking lot

The trail and the falls are quite obviously carved out of land set aside for tree farming.  During the last leg of the drive and brief glimpses on the trail itself you can see stands of identically-sized pine trees.  Don’t misunderstand me, most of the area within view while hiking has been left to grow naturally and is quite nice.

The trail starts off relatively flat and wanders along until it reaches the Big Branch of Big Laurel Creek where we had our first little creek crossing.  My brother had loaned us his trekking poles, practically forcing them on us, even though I was making the I-just-drank-sour-milk face.  Aren’t trekking poles for sissies and grandparents?  Just try them.  Ok.  Well I can say that they were great!  It was just a little crossing but what would have been a balancing act turned into a simple stroll.  Time and time again, as we went up and down steep terrain, they not only kept us surefooted but made hiking easier.

The first 15 min of the trail is like this.
Big Laurel Creek

Most of the hike to the falls had us paralleling Big Laurel Creek which was really cool.  At some points the water would slinky down a cascade of rocks.  Other times it would drop and spray and still other times it would be knifed in two by some jutting boulder.  All around us were big oak trees but I also noticed other species.  I really wish I could remember half the things I learned in that elective forestry class I took.  My father-in-law, who is a forester, has mentioned to me that this part of America is the most biodiverse of any place in the US and I noted that the website says that there are more than nine species of tree to be seen – let alone bushes, ferns or animals.

Will Melanie and Jason make it to the falls?  Will they get rained on?  Will they have a run in with a boar?  Tune in next week to find out.

To be continued…  here

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Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Melanie and I visited family in Huntsville, AL with the specific goal of going on a nice hike someplace around there.  November tends to be a sweet spot for hiking when mosquitoes are dead, air is cool but not cold and many waterfalls are flowing nicely.

Earlier in the year while doing research on the TAT [ref], I ran across a reference to Virgin Falls.  A few mouse clicks brought up a couple images and a description of a falls that emerges from a cave, drops 110 feet and disappears into another cave.  Cool!  Sold.

Usually day hikes like this are easy to set up but in this case it took a little more effort.  You see Virgin Falls is not in a state or national park but instead sits in a wilderness area.  The best information I got was from the Sparta Chamber of Commerce 931-836-3552.  They were able to give me accurate-to-the-week information on how strong the falls were flowing and the conditions on the trail (falls flowing nicely and no flash floods in the creek).  This was important to me as the trailhead is a long drive from Huntsville.

We are used to getting up early to run so it wasn’t a problem hitting the road before daybreak.  We estimated a four hour drive to get there, six to eight hours of hiking and a four hour drive back.  Our big goal was to be off the trail before it got dark which happens early in the fall and earlier in the shadow of hills.

We made it to the parking area in three hours (shaved off an hour and there was even a bridge out that we had to navigate around) and were delighted that it was turning into a pleasant overcast day that would be perfect for hiking.  There were only three other cars in the lot so we knew it wouldn’t be busy on the trail.  One was an old blue beater of a sedan that looked to have been sitting for a while and probably belonged to some overnighters.  There was a monster mega truck still tick-ticking as the massive V-8 cooled.  That guy had probably just started his hike.  A white Prius belonging to a friendly couple rounded out the trio.  These folks were sitting on the bumper booting up when we pulled in.  They were from Ohio and they talked to us for a few minutes about their experiences on the trail from last Thanksgiving.  They had found out about Virgin Falls at the last minute and on a whim and had tried to squeeze in a hike.  Unfortunately they hadn’t been able to make it all the way to falls last time, but they assured us that we would have plenty of time that day and besides the hike itself was really nice.  After that they wished us well and were on there way while we unloaded our gear.

The trail and the falls are quite obviously carved out of land set aside for tree farming.  During the last leg of the drive in and for brief glimpses on the trail itself you can see stands of identically-sized pine trees.  Don’t misunderstand me, most of the area within view while hiking has been left to grow naturally and is quite nice.

The trail starts off relatively flat and wanders along until it reaches the Big Branch of Big Laurel Creek where we had our first little creek crossing.  My brother had loaned us his trekking poles [ref], practically forcing them on us, even though I was making the I-just-drank-sour-milk face.  Aren’t trekking poles for sissies and grandparents?  Just try them.  Ok.  Well I can say that they were great!  It was just a little crossing but what would have been a balancing act turned into a simple stroll.  Time and time again as we went up and down steep terrain they not only kept us surefooted but made hiking easier.

Most of the four mile (one way) hike to the falls had us paralleling Big Laurel Creek which was really cool.  At some points the water would slinky down a cascade of rocks.  Other times it would drop and spray and still other times it would be knifed in two by some jutting boulder.  All around us were big oak trees but I also noticed other species.  I really wish I could remember half the things I learned in that elective forestry class I took.  My father-in-law, who is a forester, has mentioned to me that this part of America is the most biodiverse of any place in the US and I noted that the website says that there are more than nine species of tree to be seen – let alone bushes, ferns or animals.

Will Melanie and Jason make it to the falls?  Will they get rained on?  Will they have a run in with a boar?  Tune in next week to find out.

To be continued…