Tuesday, September 23, 2014

2014-09-17 Big Falls on the Thompson River

Big Falls on the Thompson River
Nantahala National Forest
Transylvania County, NC
Wednesday, September 17th, 2014

Big Falls on the Thompson River has long be on my waterfall to do list.  However for one reason or another, I have never gotten there!  Until Now!

 Me and Darrin at Big Falls

A visit to Big Falls requires several factors to fall into place all at the same time.
  1. Water Flow should be fairly low.  This trip requires a lot of river walking, rock hopping, and wading.  The Thompson River is powerful enough that anything much above normal would make this trip unsafe.
  2. Rocks need to be dry, therefore you can't have rain the previous evening, morning, or any chance of rain throughout the day.
  3. An overcast sky for optimal waterfall photography
  4. Temperatures need to be warm to be comfortable getting in the water!
  5. Temperatures need to be cool enough to avoid heat exhaustion during the steep bushwhacking, climbing, and scrambling.
  6. A hiking buddy crazy enough to go on this adventure with you. (You definitely should not do this one solo!)
  7. A day off from work!

Last Wednesday was one of those days when it appeared that all these factors would fall into place.  My buddy Darrin and I each decided to take the day off from work and finally tackle Big Falls!

We started our hike at the Intersection of Brewer Road and NC Hwy 281 near Sapphire, NC.  From here we started our hike on the old logging road that heads south into the Nantahala National Forest towards the Thompson River.

This is no official trail, no blazes, no signs, and various forks and side trails to confuse you along the way.  You really need good directions, a good map, GPS, compass, and good navigational skills.  Even some of the premier waterfall gurus we know have had failed attempts at finding Big Falls.

Between the photo-copied pages from Kevin Adam's "North Carolina Waterfalls" book and the printed directions from Waterfall Rich's www.ncwaterfalls.com website, Darrin and I were confident that we would not have any problems finding our way.

The first test comes about 1.2 miles into the hike at the 1st crossing of the Thompson River.  If the water levels are high enough that you are the slightest bit concerned at this crossing, you should turn back.  Things will only get more difficult from here.

Fortunately for us, the water levels were low enough that this crossing was a piece of cake.  Definitely a get your feet wet crossing but not much more than ankle deep!

The next mile or so was rather uneventful until I saw Darrin suddenly jump backwards in shock.  A Timber Rattlesnake was hanging out right smack in the middle of the trail.  After getting over the initial shock, we took a break to take a few photos of this deadly viper!

 Timber Rattlesnake along the trail

Soon after our snake encounter it was time to start looking for landmarks in our directions to find the side trail down to the river.  The old logging road runs mostly parallel to the Thompson River, but a good bit above it.  It turns out we were hiking a faster pace than we thought and by the time we started looking for specific landmarks, we were already past them.

We ended up arriving at the river right at the spot where the Foothills Trail crosses the Thompson River, a little over a half-mile downstream from Big Falls.

 Foothills Trail Bridge across the Thompson River

This left us with two options:

     A. Turn back and try to find the right side trail down to the base of Big Falls
     B.  Head up the river from here.

We went with Plan B

This turned out to be a very enjoyable part of the hike.  Heading upstream on the Thompson River from the Foothills Trail is challenging enough that it makes things interesting, but at no point did we feel that our safety was in jeopardy.  Of course this would be an entirely different story if the rocks were wet and/or the river level was up!
 Darrin making  his way up the Thomson River

Things got a little more difficult the closer we got to Big Falls, but by the time we had Big Falls in sight, there was nothing that would have been able to turn us back!  This one is truly spectacular!

Big Falls on the Thompson River

 Big Falls on the Thompson River

It was just over a half-mile from the Foothills Trail to the base of Big Falls and well worth the effort!  Photos really do not do this one justice.  However, this next shot should help give you a sense of scale (Look for Darrin in the upper right of the photo).

 For a sense of scale, find Darrin near the upper right of this photo

I really wasn't keeping track of time, but we probably spent close to two hours at Big Falls.  There are virtually unlimited vantage points and angles to photograph this waterfall. 

Me at Big Falls

 Upper Section of Big Falls

 Darrin Photographing Big Falls

But it wasn't just about the photography!  The lower section of the falls has a spot where you can slide down into an awesome swimming hole.

 Darrin Sliding down Big Falls

 Darrin Sliding down Big Falls into an Awesome Swimming Hole

Eventually it was time to continue on as there was more we wanted to see upstream.  We chose to head up the right side of the waterfall!  This was 100% pure hell and I would not recommend the way we went to anyone!  I will most definitely be making a return visit to Big Falls, but I most definitely not be scaling Big Falls the way Darrin and I did!

Shortly upstream from Big Falls there is suppose to be another waterfall that Kevin Adam's refers to as "Waterfall #3".  The way Darrin and I went had us crawling hands and knees through a mass tangle of Rhododendron and Briers.  Every place we tried to get back down to the river was blocked by sheer cliffs!

Through the tangle of brush, I believe we saw what was probably "Waterfall #3".  However, what we saw did not appear to be worth risking our safety to get to.  So we continued on through Rhododendron Hell!

By the time we finally found a relatively safe spot to rejoin the river, we knew we were well past "Waterfall #3", but we really didn't care.  Neither of us even considered backtracking to try and find a safer way down.  Plus, this gives us an excuse to return and find a better route to get to "Waterfall #3".

We continued our way upstream via the path of least resistance, which in this case was a lot of creek walking and boulder climbing!  This was a much more enjoyable way of moving than the going through the brush higher up the banks.

There were definitely some tricky spots, but we had no major issues making our way up to "Waterfall #2".

 Me at Waterfall #2 on the Thompson River

 Waterfall #2 on the Thompson River

Waterfall #2 is a beauty and really deserves a better name!  While not as tall or impressive as Big Falls, I think it is actually a prettier waterfall.

 Waterfall #2 on the Thompson River

Waterfall # 2 on the Thompson River

Even though temperatures where not much above 70-degrees, the humidity was close to 100% and we were both drenched in sweat by the time we made our way here.  Fortunately, this is another waterfall with an awesome swimming hole which we both took advantage of.
 Darrin jumping off a rock into an awesome swimming hole

 Darrin sliding down Waterfall #2

After a nice long break and refreshing swim it was time to move on.

We had no problems finding the "side trail" from the base of Waterfall #2 back to the old logging road.  This was a very steep climb, but nothing too difficult.  It was still a welcome relief to get back to the relatively level ground of the old logging road and a nice relaxing hike back to my truck.

It was an awesome day!

The Complete Set of Photos is posted here:


Unknown said...

Nice photos and description of your trip. i have been to all three waterfalls plus High Falls. Tumblin' Fun Falls, D.E.W. Falls,Slippery Witch Falls,White Owl Falls and John's Jump so that is a wonderful area for waterfalls. Did you go to the waterfall up the road from Slippery Witch Falls.Thanks again for posting your excellent photos.

Jack Thyen said...

Thanks! I haven't been to Tumblin' Fun yet, but I have been to all the others you have listed. I have also been to Twin Falls on the Thompson River which I believe is the one you are referring to when you say up the road from Slippery Witch.

keith said...

Thanks for your blog...very helpful! I haven't been able to find waterfall # 3. Is there a trail to it from the logging road or do you have to travel upstream on the river from Big Falls?

Jack Thyen said...

I have yet to find a good route to Waterfall #3. We tried heading upstream from Big Falls up the Right side (River Left). We were successful getting up stream, but we ended up too high to safely get down to Waterfall #3 (Standing Stone Falls). I believe there is a much easier and safer path from the Logging Road, but I have not been that way yet.