It’s our third day in the Smokies for the long holiday. We take the same approach that we took yesterday–wake up slowly, lay around until hunger kicks in, throw something on and go to breakfast. Then, we return to our room to choose today’s hike. It’s a little cooler today and overcast. Visibility is supposed to be poor. The weather calls for clouds, but no rain. We get out the guide in our room and I ask Pat if he’s up for a 9 mile hike. There is a trail to a waterfalls nearby that’s supposed to be a nice easy walk. Neither one of us is up for a big physical challenge this weekend, still recovering from pulled muscles on the hang gliding training hills.
Much of the drive is alongside a stream that rolls and tumbles over rocks, creating white water. There is trout fishing in this stream, a good sign that the water is clean. I am too busy watching the scenery to be a lot of help navigating, but I interrupt gazing out the side window long enough to check the directions when Pat gets confused about a turn. We manage to make it back to the trailhead with only one wrong turn.
We start up the trail as a light rain blows in, misting my face gently as we walk into the wind. The trail used to be a railroad track, but was converted to a trail long before “rails-to-trails” meant bike trails. As we start out, the climb is gradual, the trail is wide and flat, and we have no troubles finding our way. We take our time. We have 6 hours of daylight and emergency flashlights in our day packs. If we need 6 hours to go 9 miles, we can take 6 hours.
After a short distance, we enter what feels like a maze of Rhododendron. The enormous shrubs on either side of the trail loom large, daring us to go off the path. Pat and I both have flashbacks to our first backpacking trip together at Otter Creek Wilderness in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia. It was early in the spring–so early, it snowed our first night. When it wasn’t snowing it was raining. When we started out, the trail looked more like a stream than a trail. Unfortunately, it rained so hard that after a while, there were hundreds of mini-streams all around us and we couldn’t tell which one was the trail. We ended up bushwacking our way through giant Rhododendrons. Each shrub was like a giant octopus, its twisting arms grabbing hold of our backpacks as we tried to belly crawl underneath. I had visions of us being found weeks later, captured in the arms of giant greenery, suspended above the ground and frozen in postures of horror. I’ve never felt quite the same about Rhododenrons ever since.
Thankfully, today they remain on the side of the trail, clearly demarcating where we are and are not supposed to be. As a side benefit, because they keep their giant waxy leaves, they provide good hiding places when nature calls. That doesn’t make me feel significantly better about them, however.
After about 3 miles of enjoying the view of the stream through the Rhododendrons, which has gotten steadily further below us, we arrive at a stream crossing in front of us. We contemplate the best place to cross. The water is high and moving fast. These are dangerous circumstances for a water crossing; we want to find a safe route to ensure we don’t end up washed downstream.
I pick a route and make my way across. In my hiking boots, I’m nervous about sticking to the wet rocks covered in moss. It’s easy to lose footing and get caught in the current. I make it OK with only one scary moment when I teeter on a rock waving my arms until I leap for the next rock and manage to land with firm footing. Pat follows the route I took, probably figuring that if I can make it safely across, anyone can.
As we finish up our crossing, two dogs suddenly appear on the side of the creek we just left. They are followed shortly by a family with a young daughter and teenage son. They shout across the stream to us asking if this is the way to the falls, wanting to make sure they really needed to cross the stream before they decide whether or not to risk it. As they contemplate, one of their dogs jumps in and is soon headed downstream in the rapids. I run along the stream until I find a place that has an opening in the trees with an easy launch in and out of the water. The dog hears me calling him and is able to swim over to the shore, climbing out and shaking every drop of water in his fur onto me. My face and pants are dripping wet, but the dog is safe. He runs back to his family who is now starting to cross. As Pat and I walk away, we see the dog poised on the bank, about to jump back into the water and the family calling to him frantically to keep him from heading downstream a second time. I imagine him thinking body surfing is great fun.
The next part of the trail gets steeper, narrower, rockier, and more overgrown. We spot a faded sign after about 500 yards and make the turn to Sassafras Falls. It’s supposed to go to the bottom of the falls, so we are surprised that it climbs even more sharply.
Now, the trail is on the edge of a drop off. I do not have such a good track record when it comes to walking alongside cliffs. Pat warns me that he’s not going to be able to catch me today (having grabbed me by the back of the pants in time to prevent me from falling to my death on more than one occasion). Fortunately, this is not really a cliff and, when I look at it, if I were to fall, I would probably break a bone at worst. Having broken quite a few bones and healed eventually, this thought is oddly reassuring. Not worrying about falling helps me stay on the trail and I avoid any incidents.
We make it to the falls and spend some time looking at the water crashing over the rocks with surprising force for a relatively small mountain stream. It’s a beautiful falls, although I’d like to be able to back off from it so I can take in as a whole a little better. We are so on top of it that I almost feel like I need the glasses I wear when I’m at the computer to fully appreciate it.
After I attempt to get some shots, we find a nice grouping of rocks to sit on and eat our lunch. The rocks are moss covered, which makes them padded if slightly damp. We sit facing the falls, enjoying our private table as we unwrap our sandwiches provided by the lodge.
We move at a much faster pace on the way back with most of the trail being downhill. We do lose time trying to find a different place to cross the stream than the way we came over. Our first route looks much more difficult from this direction. It’s hard to explain how that happens–maybe it’s just an optical illusion–or maybe it a matter of stepping up vs stepping down depending on which direction you’re going. In any case, we revisit our buschwacking-through-rhododendrons skills as we make our way along the stream, looking for a safe crossing point.
Pat finds a fallen tree and decides we should cross there. I follow after he makes it safely, but have trouble not worrying about the camera around my neck. If I fall in here, it’s deep and it won’t just be my feet that get wet. I end up sitting on the log about halfway across and scooting forward until there is a branch sticking up that I can hold onto for balance.
We make it across the stream, back to the car, and even back to the lodge safely. When we get out of the car, I stand and wait while Pat gathers some additional gear that he needs to bring into the hotel. As I stand there, I hear the loud call of the Pileated Woodpecker. My camera is around my neck still, although I have only my wide-angle lens with me, having opted to leave my other choices back in our room. I spot the bird on a tree not too far away. I decide to try to sneak up on him in the hope of getting a decent shot. I do manage to sneak up closer, but not close enough to get a good shot before I make him too nervous and he flies away. The brilliant red crest on his head practically looks neon in the light of dusk.
When the woodpeck flies away, he makes a giant arch around the parking lot and then flies over a deck where another guest is sitting. We walk over and ask if she saw where he landed. It turned out she never saw the bird that flew right over her and directly into her line of sight. Given the size of a Pileated woodpecker, we are both (silently) amazed that someone could miss something like that. She, however, seems nonplussed. It makes me wonder how many birds have flown over my head that I never saw.
The sun setting behind the mountains tells us it’s time to go inside, clean up, and go to dinner. We head on in, although we are in no hurry. We have all evening.