Waterfall below Rhapsodie Falls – March 2016
Waterfalls on this hike:
West Fork Way
*DISCLAIMER: Parts of this hike, especially those after Rhapsody falls are most assuredly not for everyone. This section of Pisgah is remote and rugged. The first 1.5 to 1.75 miles are moderate to difficult. The degree of difficulty increases markedly after you reach Rhapsody Falls. To get to Lower Dismal Falls you will have to descend down a steep scramble using the native rhodos and a climbing rope someone has secured to a tree. You will face the same type of rope-aided descent to get to Dismal Falls but on a far grander scale. A fall at either location has the potential to be life threatening. This isn’t like DuPont where a family of four will be along in a few minutes and find you lying there with a broken leg. There’s a better chance a bear will find you before rescuers do. There are also a lot of large boulders to climb over and around. Again, this is a remote area and a tumble from one of these 8 to 12 foot high chunks of rock will likely be your last.
Although this hike does not fall within the confines of Panthertown Valley I’ve listed it here since it is on the Kornegay Map of Panthertown. All of the waterfalls on this hike are in Pisgah Forest. The hike to furthest destination, Dismal Falls is going to be between 4.6 and 5.0 miles depending on the order of visitation and the route taken. The difficulty in access for each waterfall on this hike increases with Dismal Falls being the hardest to reach (although if you have the heights thing going on like I do, Lower Dismal Falls is no treat). The trail is scenic and easy enough to follow, although around the creek crossings the ground is very soft. There are a several downed trees to contend with, most of which you can go over without undue effort. Two others you have to go around but they have been down for so long that the path around them is apparent.
Before you decide to take this one on, consider a few things. This is a remote area and the terrain near Lower Dismal Falls and Dismal Falls is extremely rugged. To see Lower Dismal Falls you will have to repel down a steep scramble path using rhodos and a climbing rope that someone left strung to a tree. To get to Dismal Falls it will be more of the same but on a far grander scale. You will also have to climb out of these respective locations. If the ground is wet or there is a chance for rain, you might want to postpone. You do not want to be going up or down Dismal Ridge in the rain. On the plus side, when I was climbing the ridge to Dismal Falls I found out I had 3 bars of 4G cell service. Thanks Verizon! The problem is, if you get hurt by Dismal Falls or Lower Dismal Falls, you are in a steep rock valley with no service. You probably don’t want to do this hike alone. Bring lots of water. I planned out how many bottles I thought I needed, tossed in an extra just in case and still needed more.
To get to the parking area, take US64 west out of Brevard. Approximately 11 miles into your westward journey on US64 you will see Bear Tracks Travel Center. This is a good place to get your map of Panthertown Valley. As I said, we’re not going to Panthertown Valley but we will be on the Panthertown Map. While not a necessity, it won’t hurt to have it. If you’ve previously hiked Panthertown Valley you know how confusing the trail system can be. The Kornegay Map will be money well spent. Leaving Bear Tracks, resume your trek west along US64 until it intersects with NC281 North (if you get to Toxaway Falls turn around and go back 0.6 miles). Bear right onto NC281 and enjoy the amazing homes on the banks of Lake Toxaway. Drive for 1.3 miles, passing the Toxaway Fire Station and bear left onto Slick Fisher Road. If you miss the turn, no worries, Slick Fisher Road reconnects with NC281. Follow Slick Fisher Road for a little over 4.5 miles until it dead ends at NC281. Make a left onto NC281 and follow it for just over 0.25 of a mile to Winding Gap Road and make a left. There is a sign here for Trails Carolina. Winding Gap Road forks at the entrance to Trails Carolina. Bear to the right and enter the woods on the gravel road. The road goes around to the right and stops before too long. Park so as not to block the gated access road.
Begin the hike by bypassing the gate and following the trail down the hill. For the most part this first section of the trail is easy to follow and the terrain is benign. There are two
creek crossings as well as some soggy areas to contend with but nothing too drastic. At 0.4 of a mile from the trailhead, there is another creek crossing. Just before the crossing there is an obvious trail heading to the right. This meandering trail follows the creek upstream past several nice campsites to the base of Aunt Sally’s Falls. The detour is minimal and the falls is worth seeing. You can shoot from the middle of the low flow creek, the right bank behind the fallen tree or from the right side against the falls. Here are some pictures of Aunt Sally’s Falls. Retrace your steps to the main trail, make a right and cross the creek. The trail will split. Stay to the right and make your way around another nice campsite. The terrain is little changed but you will be making your way over a few fallen trees. The trail wanders through a rhodo tunnel before reaching a large fallen tree, which was there on my first two visits in March and April of 2016, forcing a detour. As of September 2016, it has since been cleared.
There are two more creek crossings on this stretch. At around a mile into the hike you will pass under some power lines. Not too long after this the trail enters a pine forest and splits. Stay to the left, which will lead you into a camp site. On the far side of the campsite the trail dead ends at the North Fork of the French Broad River.
On all three of my visits the water levels were modest and rock-hopping across the ten foot wide creek wasn’t an issue. Fun time is over. Ignore the trail to the right that follows the creek upstream and head up the steep bank. The incline is mercifully short. At the top the trail moderates as it continues to ascend as it curves to the right toward our second destination. Not even 0.25 of a mile after the crossing the trail splits. To the left it ascends steeply toward the top of the falls. Stay to the right. About 50 feet from the split you will reach an unnamed Waterfall below Rhapsodie Falls. This 30-35 foot waterfall is tucked in a secluded cove and bordered by a thick tangle of rhododendron. The colored rock adds to the scene. You can get a decent shot from the open area at the base of the falls but be wary of the steep drop to the downstream side.
After taking your pictures it is decision time. You can either cross the creek and climb the right side of the creek or backtrack to the split and ascend on the left. I have tried both. On my first visit I opted to cross and climb the right side. On my second visit I climbed the left. The left side is easier to follow, especially when you get to Rhapsodie Falls. Proof of this came on my third visit in September when crossing the creek wasn’t even considered. If you do cross, the right side ends with a gnarly creek crossing. Both are steep in places but there are enough rhodos for support. If you ascend on the left side, the trail will pass a huge bounder shortly before it levels off and reaches a T as it passes between a waist high stump and a tree. To get to Rhapsodie Falls make a right. The trail is short and the difficult part is near the base where it gets steep. The trail ends in an elevated clearing to the left of the 75 foot high falls. You can shoot from here. Getting it all in will likely result in the magnitude of the falls being diminished. I shot a bunch of isos from here. There is a lot going on at various places along the cliff. The creek isn’t high volume but the small drops and various sprays look great with the cliff-dwelling vegetation. The waterfall presents a tropical feel. You can get closer by climbing down to the creek but if you do so use caution around the base of the falls. The rocks are wet and covered in very delicate vegetation that doesn’t need to be trampled. Return to the elevated clearing then ascend back to the trail split where you came up from the unnamed waterfall.
I do not say this lightly. You are now done the easy part.
At this point, you need to decide if you really want to continue because this next section is not for everyone. If you came in from the left side of the falls, reverse course to the split where you came up from the unnamed waterfall. If you came in from the right, take the trail that heads up the left side, while veering away from falls. Bypass the trail between the tree and the stump and follow this trail to the next split. Along the way you will have to cross over, go under or work your way around a fallen tree. A large tree used to mark the split. Sometime between April and September the tree fell across the trail to Lower Dismal Falls. If you’re going to Lower Dismal Falls first (read on), head around the tree, basically continuing straight. If you’re going to Dismal Falls, make the right (and skip down in the directions).
Follow the trail to a ridiculously steep scramble down. If you need to make a phone call, take the right fork and work your way up the ridge. A few minutes up the steep incline, I had 3 bars of 4G Verizon service. As a matter of fact, while I was waiting for my climbing partners to reach me on my April trip, I managed to launch an attack in Boom Beach and update my Facebook status: “Climbing Dismal Ridge!” I’m not sure if this is a normal condition so I would go on the assumption that your cell phone is not going to work.
Back on the precipice of Lower Dismal Gorge, it is time to get serious. On my visit I found that some kind soul had strung a climbing rope to assist with the descent. I made occasional use of it but I don’t know that I’d put my full weight on it. It helped me get from one handhold to the next. Between the rope and the abundant rhododendrons, getting to the bottom wasn’t nearly as intimidating as it looked from the top. I also have a heights thing going on so the fact I even tried it was a personal success. I have been down the rope three times and it does get easier each time. When you reach the base the trail heads to the right. As soon as you come around the bend you will see the Great Wall of Dismal. I stood and looked at it for ten minutes. Impressive. Follow this monstrous cliff as it curves around to the right on a defined trail. This part is fairly flat and easy to follow. The trail will end at a pile of enormous boulders. To see the falls, you will have to climb up, over and around these impediments. Lower Dismal Falls is jammed back in the corner. Do not assume this to be a simple rock hop, these are serious boulders and a fall from many of them is going to result in some broken bones. Getting a decent shot of this waterfall is going to require a lot of effort. I can’t give you a step by step here. Take the route that suits you best.
In the picture of the boulders you can see what you’re in for. The angled boulder near the left center of the image is about 8-10 feet high. Getting to the tree leaning against the wall in the center of the image is straight forward. A trail does lead to the left but going this will will leave you facing a huge boulder that there is no way over or around. Stay to the right and follow the creek upstream as it goes to the left around a 20 foot high boulder. Here there is a tricky creek crossing on a log perched between two boulders. The creek is flowing over one of the boulders, which only adds to the challenge. After rounding the large boulder, veer to the left and climb up the next pile of boulders. This route will leave you on the far side of the creek at the base of the falls. There aren’t a lot of other vantages of the falls and from here I didn’t see way to get to Dismal Falls other than by going back the same way and climbing out of the gorge.
Four down and one to go. Reverse course back over the boulders and up the rope. When you reach the fallen tree, take the trail to the left to get to Dismal Falls. If you are going to Dismal Falls from Rhapsodie Falls, make a right and head up the ridge. The ascent is going to be steep. The first section of the climb will lead you to a large boulder before leveling off. The next segment of the ascent will be steeper and longer. Right about the time you feel like you can’t go another step the trail will level off at the base of a large tree. Now for the steep part. This is the final uphill segment. I’m in good shape but the 85 degree day had me huffing and puffing by the time I reached the top. There is a short flat section before the downhill adventure begins. There was a yellow climbing rope tied in place as a guide. Follow it down to a green climbing rope, which will guide you to a flat section. A pink climbing rope will lead you close to a split in the trail. If you go to the right, you will come out at the midpoint of the falls. A left will take you to the very bottom. I did both because I wanted the full experience. Here are my pics of Dsimal Falls.
If you go to the midpoint, you will be walking on exposed rock. If it’s wet or covered in leaves, this has the potential to be life-threatening fall. Commonsense is a must.
With an open canopy the lighting is difficult I took shots from a lot of different places just to try and capture everything. Sadly the vantages just don’t do justice to the immensity of the falls. It is a truly amazing place. Soak it up and enjoy. Not a lot of folks make it to this one. When you’re ready to go, it’s back up the ridge following the series of climbing ropes.