August, 2012
The Foothills Trail near The Gorges Area: North Carolina / South Carolina border

Friday afternoon…

The Perfect Summer Hike

We have all, we hikers; felt it in some of the places that we pass through on our treks. That instinctive awareness of something that is just out of reach. Some invisible aura that seeps into our perception and causes us to pause and scrutinize our surroundings. For me, Hilliard Falls is such a place. It is a place that I have hiked to three times now, always in the summer. It is a place I think, that I will make a pilgrimage to every summer. Because you see, magic lives here.

To reach the falls requires an eight mile trek out and back for a total of sixteen miles. This is just far enough to deter the average sightseer. On the way are two foot bridges crossing major water flows and several minor creeks, all with swimming holes, white water and water falls, under the shade of a fine southern hardwood forest. The perfect summer hike.

A Summer Night in the South

Chef and I along with my dog Judy, leave my truck at the trail head at 8:30 and start hiking east on the Foothills Trail. It is over ninety degrees. The air is like a thick moist blanket enveloping us. Water from a late passing shower drips from trees bursting with vegetation at summer peak. Thunder softly growls in the distance. The sun is setting somewhere on the other side of the ridge rising up over our left casting soft light on the clouds towering into the blue sky on our right. We walk between light and dark.

The trail is an easy steady downhill track with some short strenuous ups and downs. After a half mile we start to hear the subtle sound of a rushing wind drifting through the forest. But as we walk the wisp of sound slowly morphs into a musical chord of tantalizing notes, an infinite range of high and low, with countless rhythms caused by water rushing over a million large and small rocks. After a two mile walk, we have arrived at High Falls River crossing.

A three foot wide steel and wood bridge crosses fifty feet of river. Standing like sentinels, a dozen car size boulders guard the approach to the bridge with the trail winding between and around them. At one point it becomes so tight it is difficult to squeeze through with a backpack on. After the boulder field we gaze up at the eight foot high boulder that this end of the bridge is anchored to. On the other side of the river a behemoth anchors the opposite end. It is starting to get dark. We pause to rig our head lamps.

Gaining access to the bridge is somewhat difficult as it requires climbing the steep smooth sided boulder. Chef grabs the handle on Judy’s pack and lifts her up to me. I pull her up to the bridge, Chef soon joins us. As I step onto the bridge I notice that it is well engineered and solidly built. I look up. One hundred eighty feet above us the river emerges from a cleft in the top of the hill. It thunders down twenty or thirty feet and disappears into a myriad of channels hidden behind a rock and boulder field only to emerge again and crash over a series of cascades. The final thirty foot wide torrent lies before us rolling through house sized boulders until rushing into a relatively calm pool then under the bridge and splashing through the rocks and down the hill on the other side. It is getting darker. Time to turn on the headlamps and continue on into the night.

For the next couple of miles the trail follows the river current flowing on our right. It alternates between white water rapids and smooth flowing stretches that look like molasses at night.

Hiking at night alters reality. The whole world is condensed into the limited cone of the headlamp. I seem to loose my three dimensions. Everything is compressed. My depth perception is lost. It is easy to trip on normally small rocks and roots. But, sounds penetrate the black and white borders of sight. Katydids sing and tree frogs croak and click. Small shallow springs gurgle over rocks and cross the trail. The strange cries of owls weave through the tapestry of sounds. The occasional snake or toad is illuminated as we pass by; they seem frozen by the light. Bats flitter through the light hunting moths. Judy leads the way about twenty feet in front of us. She looks back at us over her shoulder; her eyes glow red in the lights.

In three miles we reach the intersection with the Duke Power approach trail. Turning left the next two miles are a steady uphill climb punctuated with shorter downhills into steep dirt gorges carved by numerous spring run offs. Up and down, the elevation steadily increases. The trail is wide and well maintained. Several steep climbs are negotiated by climbing long wooden stairways carved into the dirt and rock. I count seventy five steps at one.

We finally reach the top of the ridge on a low mountain at twenty five hundred feet. Although low by even Appalachian standards, these are after all named the Foothills. This highpoint is cooled by a breeze rushing across the top. I call it “nature’s air conditioning”. As we hike down the other side, the numerous creeks and spring crossings with waterfalls help to cool the air as well.

Soon the Thompson River announces itself just as High Falls did; a slowly increasing crescendo of sound as we approach the bridge. It crosses the thirty feet of river over numerous boulders damming waist deep pools under spouts of water. This is prime swimming territory. But, we hike on knowing that this will be a sure stop on the Sunday afternoon hike out.
Another steep incline out of the Thompson River Gorge and we reach the opposite ridge top. It will be another three miles of downhill trail before we finally attain Hilliard Falls. It is one thirty in the morning as we set up camp. At two thirty we jump in to the lower pool of Hilliard Falls. It is amazing to float on my back in the ice cold water, enveloped by the rushing sound of the falls, gazing up at the stars gleaming from the pitch black dome of the sky.

Refreshed, I change into clean dry clothes and climb into my hammock. The nearby falls cool the summer night air. Sleep comes easily. Nine hours later I open my eyes and look around me. This is the magic of night hiking; you wake up and you are there! It is like a time warp. One day I am in the “world” and then I open my eyes and I am in a natural paradise. The effect is stunning.

A Curtain of Water

I grab my cook kit and walk out onto the large boulder that dams the lower pool. I scoop up water in my cup and place it on my alchy stove to boil for morning coffee. Chef is already settled in with his coffee and the Wall Street Journal that he packed in, reading in the sun. Judy joins us curling up on the smooth cool rock after her morning run in the woods. I lean back on the boulder and look up at the falls. From here I can see the water draining from the upper pool and falling down the twenty foot rock face and into the back of the lower pool. This is about thirty feet long, fifteen feet wide and four feet deep. Above, the upper falls can be seen as well. Later, Chef and I hike up the short side trail to see them.

These pour down the side of an 80 foot nearly vertical smooth rock cliff. It spreads out like a fan down the cliff face until reaching the bottom where it falls eight feet into the upper pool. The final cascade is twenty feet wide, we swim across to it. The falls here are like a curtain. We push through the falling water into the hollowed out cave behind. I sit on top of fallen rock watching the glimmering curtain of water covering the entrance. I push my hand through it to the other side. Then my feet. They seem to disappear.

“The first time I hiked up here I swam back here, and after a while heard voices.” Chef said. “I pushed through the water to see a young couple taking pictures of the falls.” Chef laughed. “They jumped like they saw a ghost!” I laughed, “More like the swamp thing!”

Later, back at the campsite I look around me. It is large, about an acre and a half. The site is used just enough to keep the under growth knocked back. Not overused, the ground is covered by a lush green carpet of short leaf plants and grass. Puffs of air flowing off the nearby falls cool the summer heat. I turn, I can see the falls through openings in the forest. It’s hard to describe but when I was a kid, this is what I imagined Sherwood Forest looked like. This is a place that transports me into a different world. I can come here and float in space under the stars and disappear behind a curtain of water. And, just for a moment, the years fall away and I am a young boy again imagining Robin Hood running through the woods. Silly isn’t it... But, you see, magic lives here.

Miles to Go…