Upper Whitewater Gorge

NOTE: The beauty of a hike like this is perspective and recollection. Seven of us went into the woods and seven came out. We will all have different highlights, different turning points and different memories. We followed different paths and enjoyed different pairings. This is my story of the Upper Whitewater Gorge but it isn’t the only story. It is 1 of 7. At times the seven stories would probably sound like the same hike. At others they probably wouldn’t. This is the beauty of perspective. We weren’t always together on the hike but we were together in purpose. We were exploring a place than most will not. Like Bonas Defeat, I can’t provide ‘how to’, turn-by-turn directions on this hike because it’s not that kind of hike.

The Upper and Lower sections of the Upper Whitewater River Gorge are usually treated as two separate hikes, done either from the upper access covering as far downriver as Bedrock Betty Falls or the lower access coming up-river as far as Merge Lane Falls. On Sunday June 11, a day after we spent nearly eight hours getting through Bonas Defeat we were back at it on the Whitewater River, ready to tackle the upper and lower sections on an epic shuttle hike. The preparations began around 10 a.m. when two cars were parked at the NC281 bridge crossing over the Whitewater River. This was our extraction point. Our entry into the river would be from Heady Mountain Road in Cashiers. Going into the hike, none of us had previously explored the lower end of the river so after walking on familiar turf for the first half of the day, we would be venturing into the unknown to wrap things up. As it turned out, this made for an interesting day and some anxious moments near the end.

The actual hike began just after 11:30 a.m. when we left the parking area off Heady Mountain Road. For this upper section John Forbes was our guide. A veteran of this upper section, he led us through the woods to our first crossing of the Whitewater River. One look up river from the crossing point at the river hemmed in by mountain laurel told me this was going to be an amazing day. In time I would come back to this point and retrace the path John took on his creek-walk up to the uppermost waterfall on this hike. While not visible in this shot, it is above the two small cascades, tucked back in a corner of a small cove on river left.

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Looking upstream from the crossing point – June 2017

The water level was a little up where he had to cross and while the upstream look showed this gently flowing river, a glance downstream showed a much different scene. Twenty feet downstream from where we crossed the river began its steep plunge down Entrance Falls. From the crossing we could only see the brink of the falls and a log perched precariously over the river. It was at this initial crossing that we split up for the first time with John heading upstream while Amanda, David, Amos, Lianne, Everette and I navigated a narrow strip of sloping rock down the river right side. This led to an overlook above Entrance Falls. The slick passage made for some anxious moments as a wayward step could mean an express trip down Entrance Falls. The best view of Entrance Falls was from the top of the large rock on the right side of the next picture.

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The rocky outcrop and the river right way down to it (far right edge) – June 2017

Once atop the rocky area the view back up the river was impressive as the churning water raced down the steep slide into the narrow slot canyon at the base. The edge of the overlook was a vertical drop of about 30 feet into the chilly mountain water. Even if you survived the fall and going over Sculpted Falls there was no way to climb back up. I made my trip to the outcrop and while everyone else went higher onto the rocks to view Sculpted Falls, I hiked upstream to the crossing point and continued following the river toward the small waterfall. Below is the view I left behind.

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Entrance Falls – June 2017
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The swirling eddies at the base of Entrance Falls – June 2017

After having observed most of John’s trek upriver, I had a good idea of the route I was going to take. The clear water allowed me to follow the contour of the rock to avoid the deep areas. It was a winding wade as the shallow water followed a meandering course toward the Nasty Falls. The river walk required scaling two sloped cascades before exiting on river right and following the rocks on shore for a time. In time this route petered out so it was back into the water for the final push to the base of the falls. The narrow slot where the river pours through accelerates the water and if it weren’t for two sizable logs jammed in there, this would be a very attractive waterfall. Even with the wood jammed in there, I loved the setting. It was also cool to have it all to myself!

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Nasty Falls – June 2017
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A better view of the logs – June 2017

I returned to the crossing and once reunited with everyone else, we had to backtrack into the woods past an abandoned house. We shifted to a new trail and along this trail we stopped at a different kind of landmark, a derelict school bus. The 1939 International Bus looks as if its been here for decades. In that time is seems as if more than one person has called it home. It is also frequently used for target practice as evidenced by the hundreds of bullet holes. I did manage to find one window that wasn’t broken. The rusty yellow bus from the Central School District was backed into this spot decades ago and left to rot. It made for a fun way point as you can see from the picture below. That’s John on the roof, while Everette and Amos are heading that way.

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Everyone is getting on the bus – June 2017
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Target Practice – June 2017

The trail we followed was easily walked and well maintained. I hadn’t expected this for such a rugged area. It curved around and eventually emptied out onto a large flat stone area just below Bedrock Falls (Bedrock Betty Falls). This single drop waterfall spans the width of the river and drops around 16 feet in all. Most of the water flows over the river left side with only a few smaller tendrils falling on the right. This contrast adds to the appeal of this waterfall. There is a large log leaning against the falls that can be used to get to the top of the falls if you’re sure footed. If not, the way upstream is in the woods. For this section of the hike, I went up the riverbed as far as I could before I joined the rest of the group in the woods.

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Bedrock Betty Falls – June 2017

It was an easy hike of less than ten minutes following the river upstream to reach Exit Falls. Along the way there were a few muddy places and a narrow log crossing to contend with. The trail was also hemmed in by a lot of briers, which was a portent of things to come!

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Exit Falls from the huge boulder in the pool – June 2017
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John, Amanda, Everette, Lianne and David at the top of Exit Falls – June 2017

Exit Falls had a huge swimming hole at the base and a sandy beach area on river right where we could relax. Between the beach area and the falls there was a huge boulder in the shallows that provides a great vantage for viewing the falls. It was also a nice place to get some sun while part of the group was climbing across the top of the falls to get to Little Canyon Falls. Getting up to the top of the waterfall began with a climb inside a natural cave up a pile of boulders before having to get into the roof of the cave and then down to the top of the falls. I didn’t partake in this part of the adventure but I’m going to have to on my next visit.

We spent a long time enjoying Exit Falls and when it was time to go, we retraced our steps back to Bedrock Betty Falls before resuming downstream. At this point we were venturing into unknown territory. The trail we had followed to this point was no more so our course shifted to the river. It wasn’t a terrible river walk and before long we reached our next stop on the trip, Merge Lane Falls. This name, and all the others, on the lower end of the river have their origins with the Kayaking community which has been paddling this part of the river for a long time.

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Merge Lane Falls – June 2017

Merge Lane Falls is a single sloped drop with a very unique jagged rock pattern on the river left side. The black and gray rocks jut out over the river and stand out in contrast with the white water below, giving off a sawtooth appearance. The falls is about 18 feet high and empties into a large pool. There is a nice spot to view it close to the base but the better vantage is downstream where you can wade out toward the middle of the river to shoot. In either case, this is one of the nicer falls on this section of the river.

Up to this point the river walk had been fairly tame and the trail sections had been easy to follow but that was about to change as we walked downstream to our next stop. The uniquely named 55 M.P.H. Falls was where the course downstream became blurred. The initial blurring was finding a route to the base of 55 M.P.H. Falls. Getting below the upper drop required a tricky walk down a mossy rock with the river rushing over it. Once to the middle section the way down was blocked by a sheer drop of about 15 feet at the lower section of the falls. The only choice was to backtrack to the top of the falls, along the same narrow passage before taking to the woods.

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Looking up at the upper drop on 55 M.P.H. Falls – June 2017
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The last drop of 55 MPH Falls from my second visit – June 2019

A rudimentary trail led us away from the falls and into the forest. It was little more than a fisherman’s path, wildly overgrown in places and impossible to locate in others. Before long we reached an intersection in the trail and split up. This is never a good idea on this type of hike but the next thing I knew, David, Lianne and I were following the fading path forward while everyone else was making their way down toward the base of 55 M.P.H. Falls. The first indication of trouble for me was the path taking us away from the river. The path turned higher up the ridge and no matter how we tried, we couldn’t find a way down. Every roadblock forced us toward the sparser vegetation higher on the ridge. It wasn’t going great and this was before the trail abruptly stopped. We searched for the path but it wasn’t to be found. At this point the three of us decided to wait it out. This was a wise decision as Everette, Amanda and Amos caught up to us. John was walking the river and we soon discovered through the use of primal shouts and yelps that he was directly below us.

Faced with only one option, we pushed forward, making a trail as we went. At times we encountered a trace of a path and at others we were making a new path. We found a set of pruning shears hanging from a tree, likely left by some fisherman cutting a trail to his favorite fishing hole. Several times David and I plunged down the mountain in hopes of making it to the river. On each foray we were thwarted and forced to climb back up the ridge. On one somewhat terrifying plunge down the mountain David went over a fallen tree onto a pile of branches and leaves on the other side, only to find out there was nothing under the branches and leaves! The worst feeling in the world was knowing we just plunged down this mountain through a tangle of undergrowth and now we had to climb back up.

Getting nowhere fast, our group broke apart again, seeking a way off the ridge and down to the river. Time wasn’t an issue yet but we were all aware of the fact we didn’t know which way to go. The directions we had were for much lower on the river. At this point we were in no man’s land! Finally Everette and Amanda found a clear area lower on the ridge. The rest of us made our way down to their position and with the six of us reunited, we pushed downward. Our wanderings led us to a small creek, which we believed at the time to be Waddle Branch. Not exactly!

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Not the Waterfall on Waddle Branch – Relief Falls – June 2017

Following the creek down the ridge made life easier until we emerged at the top of a waterfall about 15 feet high. A steep descent next to the fully vertical falls brought us to the base. After two hours bushwhacking, trailblazing and occasionally crawling along the ridge, it felt amazing to stand under the meager flow. The waterfall doesn’t have a name but I’m calling it Relief Falls because I was so relieved to be off that ridge! The creek proved a suitable guide down to the Whitewater River where we found John coming downstream.

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Big Ledge Falls – June 2019

After the recent ordeal on the ridge I figured we would be staying together for the push to the finish. We really had no idea how far we had to go but at one point I looked at my waypoint manager (I marked the extraction point when we dropped the cars off just in case) and saw we were still a mile from NC281. We began the riverwalk toward a bridge we believed was just downstream. Around each bend we expected to see it but we found nothing but long stretches of rapidly flowing river. Again it was David, Lianne and I in the lead and by the time we reached Wheelchair Accessible Falls, possibly the oddest waterfall name I’ve encountered, we had lost the other four members of our group again. We found out later that they backtracked upstream to check out Big Ledge Falls.

The only way to get below the falls was to climb down the center and then make a couple of deep-water river crossings to get beyond other impediments. We were below the falls and looking back when we saw something. A pink ribbon. Anyone who has ever hiked in Western North Carolina knows the woods are littered with pink and orange ribbons. They mark the way to waterfalls! Our hopes soared. This day was about to end. All we would have to do was follow the ribbons out of the river and to the trail. We found a second ribbon a few feet downstream. There were no more.

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Wheelchair Accessible Falls and the pink ribbon – June 2017

With renewed effort, we resumed the riverwalk. David moved into the lead position and before long, he left Lianne and I behind. We continued our downriver trek at a modest pace. For me, exhaustion was setting in as the light began to fade. Sunset was at 8:45 but down in the valleys it gets dark much faster. We knew before long, walking the river would become problematic. We stayed upbeat and positive. Lianne was certain David would get to the cars and then double back to get us.

As it turned out, our journey held one more surprise. We came out of the woods just below a waterfall. We had no idea what waterfall this was and we didn’t have time to find out. I pulled out my Nikon, squeezed off half a dozen shots without setting anything and pushed on. We were running out of time. The waterfall was Portage Left Falls, the last waterfall on the river before NC281. Of course we didn’t know this. It was just one more waterfall.

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Some dappled sunlight over Portage Left Falls – June 2017

Energized after this surprising waterfall, we set our sights down the river. Lianne and I wondered about David up ahead and the rest of or group behind. We didn’t know where anyone was. Had John, Amanda, Amos and Everette found the trail out? Had David reached the cars? We talked about little else. Then we saw it. Again our hopes were raised by an orange ribbon tied to a fallen hemlock. This ribbon put us on a trail. An easy to follow trail through the woods. Our pace picked up and our hopes rose. Now we were left to wonder if David found the trail. We passed a campsite that showed signs of recent occupation before the trail began to move higher above the river and as it did I recalled Amos saying that the correct trail would be along the river left side and follow it high above. We were on the right track. We came to a side path heading steeply down.

The trail we were on showed no obvious signs of use so we marked the intersection, pointing the way we were going. A few minutes later we came to another steep path heading down. We marked this one as well and plunged on. The river could be heard far below and this drove us forward. Sunset was 15 minutes away when the trail abruptly ended in a dense thicket. Through the trees I could see something was wrong, very wrong. We were supposed to be following the Whitewater River downstream. Through the trees I could see a waterfall falling toward us. We were following the wrong stream! We looked for the path forward but there was nothing. I remember saying, “there shouldn’t be waterfall there!”

We were nearing decision time. As sunset neared we had talked about the possibility of being stuck here for the night. Suddenly at a dead end the realization hit. We might be spending the night in the woods! I remember thinking that this was the last thing I wanted to do. I had no gear. My hydration pack was empty as was the one-liter bottle of water in my pack. I had about three bites of beef jerky in my bag which I didn’t dare eat since I had nothing to drink. The extent of my emergency supplies were a $1.99 LED flashlight and a Zippo lighter. So much for ‘be prepared’. Compounding the dilemma, when I checked my phone I saw the cars were 0.3 of a mile away as the crow flies. I had 7% battery left so my phone was out as a navigational aid. Without it, there was no way we could bushwhack 0.3 of a mile in the fading light. I pulled up a map on my dying phone and Lianne took a picture of my screen in case my phone died. At least we would have something.

We decided to backtrack to the last trail heading down. If we had to spend the night, we would do so on the bank of the river as opposed to the middle of the woods on the trail to nowhere. The trail down led to a creek (Waddle Branch, of course we didn’t know this) and once across, the trail resumed. It was easy to follow and in time we ended up paralleling the Whitewater River. Occasionally Lianne would blow her emergency whistle to see if David were nearby. She had been doing so for about half an hour and after nothing but silence, a call came back through the woods. We picked up the pace and after coming up a rise, we ran into David, who was coming back to find us. He had reached the cars and armed with a pair of headlights, he was ready to come find everyone. He let us know the cars were about ten minutes away and with that, we split up again.

We emerged from the woods at 8:40 p.m. relieved and exhausted. My phone died when we reached the car, the battery having held out long enough for me to save my GPS track of the trip before the screen went black. It was almost 9:00 p.m. when David, John, Amos, Amanda and Everette emerged from the woods. The light was fading rapidly but there was just enough, using the headlights from David’s truck for us to take a picture in front of the Whitewater River sign on the NC281 bridge. It was a nearly 9 hour adventure covering 5.5 miles or rugged terrain, most of it unknown to all of us. I saw a total of 9 waterfalls on the hike, among them a significant one for me. Portage Left Falls, the waterfall that took us by surprise at the end of the hike was my 200th.

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My GPS track – June 2017

It’s hard to believe it’s been already been a week since my adventure in the Upper Whitewater Gorge. It was roughly 9 p.m., about the same time I’m finishing up this hike summary when the 7 of us gathered in front of the Whitewater River sign on NC281 for a group picture. Seven went in and seven came out. We were tired, exhausted and amped up after our adventure. It was one of those hikes, like Standing Stone Falls or Bonas Defeat where whenever you think about the hike, you can’t help but think about the people you shared the experience with. I didn’t know any of the people I hiked with well. Heck, I met John and Amanda that morning. I met Everette and Amos the day before at Bonas Defeat. I hiked with David and Lianne to Big Falls last October. I don’t remember every conversation but I remember various interactions with everyone; a joke, a comment or a remark.

A lot of people don’t understand why I do these kinds of hikes. I hear it all the time at work. Why do you do that kind of stuff? I always give the same answer, if you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand the answer. For people who have never embarked on this kind of adventure, they can’t understand the feeling of accomplishment you feel at the end or the tight bonds you develop with the people you hike with. Down the road I hope I get to hike with everyone I shared this hike with again but if I don’t we will always share this adventure.

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