158 – Big Falls (Thompson River)

Accessibility – Hard (Very)

Height – 250′

Distance – 7.0 miles (out and back)

Beauty – 10

Photo rating – 9

Solitude – 10

GPS Info: LAT 35.046 LONG -82.9824

Last updated – 10-26-2016


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Note: You need to think about this hike before you jump in. Really think about it. I’ve done my share of hiking and parts of this hike pushed me. There are many places on this hike where you can get seriously hurt or worse. This is no-man’s land. If you get hurt above Big Falls, you’re in serious trouble. If you fall when climbing Big Falls (The leap of faith) you will be more than seriously hurt. There is no easy way to do this. You will be dealing with open cliff areas, slick sloping rock, huge boulders, wicked bushwhacks and deep river wades. From the top of Big Falls to Rich Falls there is NO trail. Seriously, NONE. You will have to pick your way along the path of least resistance. Consider yourself warned. If you try this hike, you do so at your own risk.

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A GPS track of my Big Falls hike with points of interest – October 2016

Although these four waterfalls could be accessed independently, I’m going to combine the hike for Big Falls, Standing Stone Falls, Rich Falls and Simon Falls into one hike. I’m not going to provide a narrative that details every tree and rock or every turn, only because for the hike from Big Falls to Standing Stone Falls, you will have to make it up as you go. I could do this hike 10 times and never retrace my exact path. If you make it to the top of Big Falls, my advice is this. Don’t stray far from the river and cross only where it is safe. When applicable, error on the side of caution. Also know that once you get to the top of Big Falls, there really is no turning back. More on this later.

The complete hike will cover around 7 miles. It is part out and back and part loop. If you decide to undertake this hike as I’m describing it, please use caution, extreme caution. This is probably not the kind of hike you want to undertake alone or with kids or dogs. It combines elements that rank this as one of the more difficult hikes I’ve done. Before this hike, I thought Yellowstone Falls and Dismal Falls were hard. HA! Not even close. What to expect. The hike to the base of Big Falls is around 3.5 miles, most of which follows a relatively benign logging grade. When you leave the logging grade, make sure the boots are laced up. From the moment you start down the steep incline to the base of Big Falls until you make your way up the steep hillside back to the logging grade at Rich Falls, expect to be challenged physically and mentally. Interested? Intrigued? Terrified?

The trailhead is located on NC281 3.6 miles south of the intersection with US64. Coming from Lake Toxaway, start looking for Brewer Rd on the left 3.5 miles after turning onto NC281. Coming from SC or Whitewater Falls, the parking area is 0.1 of a mile past pullout for White Owl Falls. The trailhead follows the logging grade that meets at the intersection of Brewer Rd an NC281.

The hike begins by heading up the hill past the gate. This is only a brief ascent. The trail soon moderates before beginning into a long downhill slope. The grade is modest at best but continually descending. This will become readily apparent on the hike back! The logging grade is easy to follow. Along the way you will encounter several trails that intersect. Ignore them for now. The first is 0.87 of a mile from the trailhead. A trail veers to the left and leads to Reid Branch Falls (at most 0.1 of a mile round trip). At 0.94 of a mile from the trailhead a pronounced trail splits off to the right. This leads to High Falls (about 0.5 of a mile each way).

You’re first waypoint beyond these intersections is the Thompson River, which you have to cross. My visit was in low water and there was no way across without getting my feet wet. I don’t know what this crossing would be like in higher water but if the current is too strong, it’s probably not a good idea to cross.

After the crossing, the trial will pass a great campsite on the left, you can’t miss it. At this point the trail bends to the right. At 1.75 from the trailhead you will hear a waterfall down to your left. This is Simon’s Falls. It’s worth a stop but do so on the way back. It was a nice place to take a swim after the ordeal ahead. Thus far the hike has been sedate. That will soon end. At approximately the 2.75 mile mark from the trailhead (1.5 from the crossing of the Thompson), the trail will cross a tributary of the Thompson River. Another logging grade will head up the hill on the right before long. Stay to the left. Just over a 1/4 of a mile from the split, a steep scramble path will descend to the left. This is the way down to Rich Falls. It was marked with flagging tape in October of 2016. If all goes according to plan, you will be coming up this trail when you leave. For our group, we had no such luck. More on this later. Pass this trail and continue on the same logging grade. The trail will now be high above on the river right. Really high above. At 3.4 miles from the trailhead another side path with head down the hill. It was marked with blue paint and flagging tape. Big Falls is down there!

The upper portion of the trail isn’t too steep but this a temporary thing. The trail will zigzag down the hill for a short time. Just keep following it. On our visit we had a bit of adventure on this easy stretch as David (the leader on this segment) riled up a nest of yellow jackets that had made a home in the middle of the trail. Shortly thereafter the trail plunged downward precipitously. Using trees, scooting on our butts and making use of several ropes strung by previous adventurers, we arrived an interesting rock section. The trail emerges onto a large protruding rock. To get to the bottom there is a narrow chute in the rock where you can lower yourself down, either with your arms or using the rope. The trail bends to the right after this rock and gets even steeper. The scramble path measures about 0.2 of a mile and emerges from the woods on the river right just downstream of the collection pool below the falls. You can make your way through the pool onto the boulders and from there onto the large sloping rock on the river left. The view from everywhere at the base is incredible.

We were there on a bright sunny day with only a few puffy clouds so I ended up with an incredible blue sky and some great fall color. There was still a lot of green but on the isos of the upper drop, the colors are vibrant. We spent a while at the base before deciding on our next move. Going on somewhat vague directions that we had to head up the sloping rock, we began the ascent. At this point you should know, I was about to embark on the most challenging 0.6 of a mile hike and I did so wearing water shoes. From the moment I reached the base of Big Falls until I got to my truck, my pack was loaded down with an extra 15 pounds of Timberland Hiking Boots! Do what you gotta do but choose your footwear carefully. If the rock is wet, don’t even think about it. The sloping rock is a hell of a lot steeper than it looks and this is only a prelude of what’s next. If you thought getting to the base of Big Falls was too difficult, you will NOT make it to Standing Stone Falls. You won’t!

The cliff that forms the upper drop of Big Falls extends around the river left side of the valley, making it impossible to move inland to get the top. The further from the river you go, the more vertical the ascent and the taller the cliff. The ONLY way to do this is by staying close to the river. If you look at the second to last picture, the way we went up was just out of frame to the right. In the last picture you can see the area with the fallen tree. The point of no return is just past (above) the fallen tree. It took some doing but Kristi and David located the way up the cliff face. It is steep and there is very little to hold onto. During this part of the hike I was the sixth of seven. While making my way up what I felt was a steep section of “trail”. A voice rang out from higher up, Kristi’s voice.

“There’s nothing to hold onto. It’s kind of a leap of faith.”

I think those of us that hadn’t reached that point of the ascent all had a moment of ‘WTF’. I soon reached the ‘leap of faith’. A 4+ foot high section of cliff that had to be scaled with nothing to hold onto. I’m still not sure how Kristi, David and Adam got up the sheer rock face. I took Adam’s hand, swung my right foot up and scampered from the precipice. Two steps later there was another rock wall to ascend. This time it was David lending a hand. There was more scampering away from the edge after I was up. I knew, once I reached that next plateau, there was NO WAY, I would be going back down that way. As I have covered in the past, I am not good with heights. If I wasn’t with a group, I would have said, “There ain’t no way in hell I’m climbing up there!” On this day, Adrenalin took over. I didn’t say a word about the climb of the fact a yellow jacket was buzzing around and crawling on my calf for most of the ascent!

After the second rock ledge, Adam and I took to the lead. At this point there is no trail. The goal is to follow the river upstream. You’re on your own as to the route. Not too far from the cliff, we crossed (tight-roped across) a couple of downed trees that were leaning against another rock face (maybe 6-7 feet high). There might have been another way but this seemed the best route. The terrain ascended steeply after this to the top of the ridge. If you stay near the river you will come to an open area. The river crossing you want is further upstream but this open area is worth a cautions look. The Thompson gets funneled into a narrow chute about twenty feet below the open rock face. You can look downstream and see the river coursing though the rock. The narrowed river accelerates wildly through this cut, filling the air with the sound of rushing water. From here the water is launched over the top of Big Falls. If you fall in, you will be accelerated and launched over the top of Big Falls.

The edge of the rock might seem a tempting path but probably not wise (more like insane). Back into the woods we went. At times I felt like I was following a path and at other times I believed I was the first person to every come this way. Just keep pushing forward as best you can on river LEFT. The rhodos are thick and there are thorns and briers everywhere. There were seven of us and I venture to say that none of us took the same route. We all followed what we perceived to be the easiest route. Before long you will come to Standing Stone, a towering monolith emerging from the river. If you look at the final picture on the Standing Stone page, you will see what’s next. A tricky river crossing on a log ensued before navigating around a huge boulder while walking on slippery wet rock. You may very well encounter these obstacles or you may be on a totally different path. The important thing is this. If you want to see Standing Stone Falls you need to be on river RIGHT. If you stay on the left you will end above the falls with no good view. If you look at my pictures you will see what I mean. You will also see in the pictures the next hurdle. After taking pictures from below you need to get to the TOP of Standing Stone Falls. Some of the braver members of our group went up the sloping rock on river right. In the pictures you can see this exposed rock area sloping steeply downhill. You can also see the huge boulders below the slope that will break your fall. At this point I opted to belly crawl under the rhodos pushing my pack in front of me. Eventually my route got me to a fallen tree near the upper drop. This where I took the picture of the upper drop.

You can shoot Standing Stone Falls from the boulder at the base or from behind the log at the mid-point if you want to isolate the upper drop. There are plenty of other places to shoot from. Take your pick but be careful. One false step on the open rock areas and you’re going to end up in the boulders at the base. Once you’re done, head up the slope on the river right.

From here it was up the ridge away from the river for a short time before locating a way to the upper drop. If you head left at the rock wall that makes up the waterfall you will be able to climb up easily. If you’re more adventurous, you can climb up closer to the falls. I don’t recommend this but to each his own. Someone in our group went up that way. You know who you are. Once you get to the top of the falls take a deep breath, the worst of it is behind you. By this point you’re likely muddy, sweaty, scraped up, and breathing heavy. You’re treading where most won’t venture.

Enjoy this next stretch. It’s about 150 feet of river walk along an open stone expanse. After this there are more boulders and some river walking. By this point I was done with the woods, so I waded in the river and climbed over the rocks. I was moving at my own pace so I’m not sure how everyone else managed this section. Along the way there was a 20 foot long rock shaped like a guitar, lots more boulders and a waist deep river wade. Having cleared those hurdles, you will reach Rich Falls.

You can shoot Rich Falls from straight on or from river right. I did both. The falls is very picturesque and you will be the only one here. As we know from earlier, there is a trail down to Rich Falls. We, however, did not find it on our way up! We crossed to river right from the clearing near the base where I took the group shot. We found a way up the steep rock section next to the river and charged up the ridge. It was all but straight up with enough rhodos and trees to hold onto. There are no landmarks I can give you on this segment of the hike but know this. As long as you keep heading up the ridge, you will eventually come to the logging grade. We arrived at a point where we did not pass the scramble path when hiking back to the parking area, so if you head downriver from Rich Falls you may find the path or you may get lost. I don’t know. I GPS tracked the hike so I was able to know where to head to find the logging grade. You might want to so something similar.

As I said, the directions are vague. They’re going to be when there’s no trial. I remember the highlights, the leap of faith, the river rushing through the cut, the log leaning against the cliff face and the guitar shaped rock. If (when) I did (do) it again (which I will), I will be able to find my way. You’re going to have to trust that you can as well. None of the seven of us had been to this section of the Thompson before and we figured it out. Use your head, watch your step, take lots of pictures and remember, other than the short section at the top of Standing Stone Falls, there was no easy part of this hike.

It was an amazing adventure. One that tested me physically and mentally. It also brought me face to face with my fear of heights. If you’re considering this hike, make sure you are physically capable. This ain’t no walk in DuPont. If you have any doubts, do not do it. And remember, if you reach the top of Big Falls, there is no safe way to climb back down without a rope. I will never forget this hike, the sights I saw and the group I hiked with. It was epic!

As I continue to think about this hike, this page will likely change and the story will grow.

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Big Falls – All 250 feet of it – October 2016
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Big Falls in panorama – October 2016
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The upper drop at Big Falls – October 2016
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A wider view of the top – Big Falls – October 2016
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This one says it all! This is why I do it! This is why I go!
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From the sloping rock – October 2016
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Some members of the crew give Big Falls some perspective – October 2016

 

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