Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Catawba Falls and Montreat

McDowell County, NC
Monday, January 18th, 2010

Just follow Spot!

Photos are posted here:

Thanks to Martin Luther King, I ended up with the day off on Monday. I decided to show my appreciation for Dr. King by going hiking. Since the US Postal Service was also closed, my mailman hiking buddy Bob decided to join me as well.

After tossing around several ideas, we decided on Catawba Falls, near Old Fort, NC since neither of us had ever been there before.

We agreed to meet at the McDonalds in Old Fort at 9:00am. As usual, we were both early and each of us showed up at around 8:30am. After a quick McMuffin cholesterol boost, we drove in tandem a few miles down the road to the trailhead.

Directions to the trailhead can be found on Waterfall Rich’s website:

For many years the trail to Catawba Falls crossed private property and the only reasonable way to visit the waterfall was to blatantly violate obvious No Trespassing signs. Fortunately this private property went up for sale several years ago and the “Foothills Conservancy of North Carolina” immediately stepped up to acquire the land.

The trail has recently been officially opened up to the public.

The Catawba River at the trailhead
We were the only vehicles at the trailhead and were greeted almost immediately by Spot, the resident trail guide. Spot volunteers his time to lead daily hikes to Catawba Falls. In return all he expects is a rub on the head and possibly a few bites of your sandwich.

Bob and Spot Leading the Way
So after gathering our gear, we followed Spot down the trail. Bob and I were surprised by how cold it was and how much snow was still on the ground. With temperatures forecasted in the 60s we were expecting a relatively warm hike, but things were definitely a little chilly starting out. The last thing we wanted to do was get our feet soaked!

Spot didn’t mind the cold water and lead the way across to the other side of the Catawba River. According to Rich’s directions, we should be able to rock hop across. That is unless the River is up. After a very wet winter season, a good shower the previous day, and loads of snow melt, the river was definitely up. There was no way we would be able to cross without getting our feet wet.

A less obvious trail continued upstream on our side of the river, so we followed it through the Rhododendrons. Spot backtracked through the water again to rejoin us. This trail ended up at some neato ruins from a 1920s era Hydro Electric facility. While interesting to check out, these ruins would not help us get across the river.

Fortunately we spotted where a large Hemlock Tree had fallen across the river. We used the tree as a balance beam and made our way across staying 100% dry for now. However, we knew there were (2) more crossings to come. We picked up the main trail and Spot took the lead again.

Bob crossing the Catawba River

Even with the high water levels, we did not have any problems rock hopping across the 2nd crossing (Clover Patch Branch). The trail crosses over Clover Patch Branch at a scenic little spot. A small cascade is located just above the trail, and immediately downstream is a slightly larger cascade.

A short distance later is an old dam (more remains from the 1920s hydro-electric facility) where the entire volume of the Catawba River is squeezed through a small hole in the dam, plunging down and forming an impressive waterfall. We noticed a side trail that appeared to lead towards the base of this waterfall, but decided to save that until the way back. I wanted to get to the main attraction (Catawba falls) before the sun climbed too high above the ridgeline.

Bob at the old Hydro Electric Dam

By the time we got to the third crossing (Chestnut Branch), we could see Catawba Falls through the trees. For the second time of the day, we used a downed Hemlock as a balance beam to get across Chestnut Branch. While it’s horrifying to see the devastation that the Woolly Adelgid has done to the Hemlock population, these downed giants sure came in handy today!

Catawba Falls is very impressive and well worth the hike! But we wanted more! Rich, Andy, KT, and several others who have ventured on have all said that Upper Catawba Falls is a must see! However, Andy also mentioned that trying to make it to the Upper Falls during icy conditions would be “suicidal”!

Jack at Catawba Falls

That warning did not stop Bob as he continued on up the trail. I backtracked to retrieve my pack before following in Bob’s footsteps. I wanted I place to put my tri-pod as I figured I would need both hands for the climb ahead! Plus, I had my Yak Trax in my pack just in case I needed them.

The unofficial trail to the Upper Falls leads steeply up alongside the main falls and offers several additional viewpoints. The trail was definitely as steep as Rich and Andy had described. The ice and hard-packed snow certainly didn’t help matters. There are definitely spots where you need to use all fours; grabbing on to trees, roots, and rocks as you make your way up the mountain.

Catawba Falls

A handy rope was tied off at one particularly steep area which definitely helped out. Spot was choosing to avoid the rope climb and instead crawled up through the heavy brush alongside us.

No doubt about it; this is a tough climb, but Upper Catawba Falls was worth every bit of effort it took to get there! This is truly one of the most amazing waterfalls anywhere and is now one of my all time favorites! Spot cooled off by taking a swim in the pool at the base of Upper Catawba Falls. If it was summer, I would have joined him!

The only problem with Upper Catawba Falls is that the spray from the waterfall is intense, making it almost impossible to snap a photo without getting water droplets on your lens. Especially if you are trying to use a slow shutter speed to obtain that silky water effect! Most of my shots did not come out very good due to the unwanted water droplet on lens effect. However, I did manage to get a few keepers.

Upper Catawba Falls

The climb down is actually tougher than the climb up! I decided to slip on my Yak Trax to help out on the icy sections. I am not sure why I didn’t put them on earlier in the hike! They definitely make a huge difference when it comes to traction on ice!

We returned back the way we came, taking our time to check out several other cascades and small waterfalls along the way, including the short side trail to the base of the waterfall below the dam.

Waterfall below the Old Hydro Electric Dam

Despite passing several other groups of hikers on the way back, Spot stayed by our side all the way back to our vehicles at the trailhead. I gave him a little pat on the head before leaving him to lead the next group of hikers on to Catawba Falls.

Since Catawba Falls is a relatively short hike of about 3 miles round trip (closer to 4 miles if you include the scramble climb to the Upper Falls), there was still plenty of time left in the day for another hike.

One place that I’ve wanted to check out for a while is the Montreat network of trails. A nice map and trail descriptions can be found here:

Using this information you can create a hike of just about any length and difficulty. I selected the Lookout Trail, but managed to make a wrong turn on the drive to the trailhead and ended up on Appalachian Way.

The goal for this afternoon was just to get a feel for the area. Therefore, it didn’t really matter what trails we hiked. Since this is where my wrong turn put us, we started our hike up the Appalachian Way Trail.

Despite all the snow still on the ground, the temperature was well into the 60s by now. After a good bit of elevation gain, we were warmed up enough to remove our jackets and zip-off pant legs. This would prove to be a mistake!

We had several options at the end of the Appalachian Way Trail and decided to hike the East Ridge Trail up and over the Summit of Brushy Mountain. This trail proved to be in horrible condition!

The shady side of the mountain was still covered with several inches of snow with drifts of over a foot deep. The snow really wasn’t much of an issue. The big problem was the huge amount of deadfall along the entire route. The winter storms have wrecked havoc on this trail system. I regretted removing my pant legs because the deadfall and briars where wrecking havoc on my bare legs!

Bob along the snow covered trail

We eventually made it to the summit of Brushy Mountain where we stopped for a late lunch. It was here that Bob realized he lost his cell phone. He though he lost it when removing his pant legs, or possibly somewhere back along the Catawba Falls trail.

So we cut our hike shorter than planned and returned to the Appalachian Way Trail via the Old Mitchell Toll Road. We thought this would be an easier route, but the deadfall along this trail was just as bad, if not worse than the East Ridge Trail. By now, I had a significant amount of blood running down my legs from various cuts.

We made it back to the spot where we removed our legs earlier, but Bob’s cell phone was not there. I even gave it a ring to see if it would call out to us from under a pile of leaves or from within a snow drift. No luck! Maybe Bob left it in his truck?

So we returned back to our vehicles. No cell phone to be found. Bob was planning to retrace his steps back at Catawba Falls. To me that sounded like searching for a needle in a haystack. And since my color-blind eyes would be absolutely no help in finding the red cell phone holster, we parted ways.

One the drive home, my cell phone rings. It was Bob! It turns out that Spot led him about half-way up the Catawba Falls Trail right to his cell phone!

Our Hero - Spot!
Additional photos from our hike are located here:


HemlockMan said...

Spot! What a gal!

~Christina~ said...

I dont know which photo I like the best but that damn looks interesting. These are all just stunning!