Burke County, NC
Saturday, August 28th, 2010
Photos are posted here:
On page 94 of Kevin Adam's, "North Carolina Waterfalls" book is a listing for Steels Creek Falls. For years I have been meaning to make a visit to this waterfall on the way to one of my twice a year camping weekends in Mortimer, NC.
Since the hike is listed at 0.89 miles, I always figured it would only take me an hour or two to check this one out. After Andy suggested this area for a day hike this weekend, I visited Waterfall Rich's website, and decided that this is not be one to tackle on a solo trip.
This adventure should be done in the summer on a day with no chance of rain following several rain free days. You do not want to attempt this when the creek is up and/or the rocks are wet! Saturday's conditions seemed perfect for this, so I agreed to join Andy for this hike.
I met Andy and Boone in Morganton, NC and rode with Andy the remaining 20-miles to the trailhead. Detailed directions to the trailhead can be found using either of the excellent resources listed above.
Boone fetching a stick in Steels Creek
The hike starts out on an easy wide track trail. After about a quarter mile we reached a nice little cascade with a great swimming hole at the base. There was even a rope swing tied to one of the trees. Note: you won't catch me swinging into a creek on one of these. The last time I used a rope swing I ended up in an emergency room with over 20 stitches; but that is another story.
Cascade along Steels Creek (note the rope swing hanging from the top of the photo)
We knew we wanted to connect to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on the other side of the creek, so we got our feet wet for the first time and crossed over above the cascades. You could probably find a way across by rock hopping, but since we came prepared for and knew that we would be spending a lot of time in the creek, we got the first plunge out of the way early.
To the left, the MTS trail heads South West into the Linville Gorge Wilderness towards Table Rock Mountain. We took it to the right (North) following Steels Creek upstream. The easy way to go would be to stick to the trail, but we could see the creek through the trees and wanted to see everything this section of Steels Creek had to offer.
For the most part we stayed in the creek for the next half mile. We did take to the trail a couple of times when there was no safe way to get around the occasional obstacle. We stopped at several nice cascades and small waterfalls. At one of the earlier cascades Andy accidently dropped his polarizing filter into the creek never to be seen again. He blamed it on Boone!
Cascades along Steels Creek
After about 0.75 miles we reached another great swimming hole! The entire creek volume gets squeezed through a narrow crevice in the rock and empties into this awesome spot. My photos to not do justice to this spot! It is much more impressive in person.
Awesome Swimming Hole on Steels Creek
Here, we ran across two young guys (probably college kids) who were camping near the swimming hole. They mentioned some awesome waterfalls upstream. Of course we knew that already because that is why we were here!
We decided to try heading up the left side of the creek. We found a very steep, but obvious path that kept taking us higher and higher. We could see some impressive whitewater down below through the trees, but saw no safe way down. We knew we would eventually end up back at the MTS trail and could get to the main waterfall the way we were going, but we wanted to see as much of the creek as possible.
So we backtracked back down and talked to the two guys we saw earlier. They recommended heading up the right side of the creek. So we found a faint path up through the woods to the right and soon worked our way back down to the creek and found this nice little cascade.
Cascades along Steels Creek
We continued upstream to a nice little waterfall. It was here that I fell on my butt for the first of what would be many times today! In fact, I hit the deck twice in the same spot! Those rocks are slick! I gave up trying to get the angle I wanted and settled for this shot.
Small Waterfall on Steels Creek
From here things got a little tricky! To the right of the waterfall is a cave you can climb through to get above the waterfall and on to the next series of drops. A handy rope hangs down and I made it up quickly and without any problems. However, there was no way that Boone would be able to make it through and up through the cave.
Andy and Boone went to find an alternate way up through the woods. I figure it must have been tough going for them, because I spent about 45 minutes at this next multi-tiered cascade before Andy and Boone eventually joined back up with me.
Cascades along Steels Creek
I was passing the time by posing Iggy on some rocks in front of the falls. The first thing Boone did when he emerged from the forest is he grabbed Iggy in his mouth and dropped him in the creek for a swim! Good thing Iggy floats or he might have ended up with Andy’s polarizing filter!
Iggy on the rocks (bottom of photo)
Continuing upstream we passed another nice cascade before getting within sight of the main attraction!
Cascade along Steels Creek
Continuing on to the main waterfall required crawling hands and knees up a slick and sloped rock face covered with thick patches of stinging Nettles. Unlike poison ivy, stinging nettles don't usually cause long term effects, but in the short term they sure were annoyingly itchy!
Usually, the first thing I do when I arrive at a waterfall is go for the camera! In this case the first thing I did was hit the cool swimming hole at the base of the falls to hopefully wash the sting away!
Me cooling off below Steels Creek Falls
Feeling refreshed and with the sting of the Nettles subsided; we decide to make this our main break spot for the day, so we could take our time photographing the main Waterfall on Steels Creek and enjoy our lunch.
Steels Creek Falls
The two guys we ran into earlier soon showed up. There is no way I would attempt to climb up either side of this waterfall! However, in bare feet these two guys scaled a 25-foot high 70-degree sloped rock wall to the top like it was nothing! Then one of them proceeded to do something even more insane!
Steels Creek Falls (note the two guys on top of the rocks)
He leaped off the boulder and plunged 25-feet into the pool below. I was quick with the camera and snapped off a series of shots.
Getting ready to jump
In the Air
Watch out for that rock!
He is OK - Just Insane!
Can you say Crazy! There is only about a 5-foot radius where you can safely land in the water, but oh so much could have gone wrong.
There was one more series of falls just upstream from the main drop that we wanted to check out. But neither Andy nor I is crazy enough to attempt to scale this one. So we bushwhacked up through the woods and connected with the MTS trail. From there we found a short side path to the upper drop.
Upper Steels Creek Falls
After about 4 hours, we had covered only about one mile of the creek. We decided we wanted to get a little actual hiking in, so we continued up the MTS trail about another half mile. We had planned to go further, but the trail started a series of switchbacks up hill.
According to the map, the trail should be following the creek. So why the switchbacks? We could clearly hear the creek down below and caught a glimpse of white through the trees. Obvious signs of a pretty good drop. Nothing we had previously read, heard, or seen led us to believe there were any more significant drops along this section of creek. So we decided to check it out.
I suggested that we backtrack down to the creek and head upstream. But Andy’s idea was to bushwhack down through the forest directly towards the action. Andy decision cost him dearly as he took an awkward step, slipped, and a loud crack was heard.
His beloved walking stick that has been with him since his college days had snapped.
Despite that, we eventually made it down to the creek below some huge boulders. A little more rock scrambling and creek walking and we were in sight of our big surprise of the day.
Downstream from "Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls"
A 30-40 foot sliding waterfall like this would usually be considered nice, but fairly unremarkable and not really worth the effort to get to. However, this one has a unique feature that in my opinion makes it a really cool spot!
Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls
At the base of the slide, the creek takes a 90 degree right turn through a narrow channel of rock. Since we have no idea if this waterfall has a name, Andy decided to call it, "Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls".
Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls
While I am sure others have been here, neither Andy nor I can find any reference or photos of this waterfall in any publication or anywhere on the web.
Looking on Google Earth, I can clearly make out "Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls", and it appears that there are a few more drops just upstream, so another exploration hike will definitely be required!
Rather than heading back up the trail the way we came down, we decided to stick to the creek. This proved to be a much easier way to go, and Andy with his broken hiking stick regretted not following my earlier suggestion.
Here is the best way to visit "Screaming Right Hand Turn Falls".
After the MTS trail passes the upper drops of the main Steels Creek waterfalls, continue on the trail for about another half mile. Just before the switchbacks begin, there is an obvious campsite. This is the best spot to head towards the creek. Once at the creek, make your way upstream using the path of least resistance.
For the return to Andy's vehicle, we stayed on the MTS trail the whole way. We spent about 6 hours exploring Steels Creek on the way upstream, but we made it back in less than an hour. The only eventful part of the hike back was just as we encountered a group of hikers, one of the young women in the group started screaming!
Now, I know I was all dirty from a day of bushwhacking and creek walking, but I didn’t think I was that scary. Turns out she saw a small and harmless snake at the exact same time we ran into them.
Total distance traveled was probably only about 4 miles, but it felt like a 15-mile day!
It was a great day to be outside and this turned out to be one of my more enjoyable adventures! Thanks Andy for talking me into this one!
My full set of photos is posted here: