Monday, November 12, 2007

Laurel Falls, from a new perspective

I took 10/3 off, hoping to complete the healing of my unhappy tendon. On the 5th I was back on the trail, making an approach to Laurel Falls from the opposite direction. This required traversing a mile or so of access trail between US 321 and the AT in addition to 1.5 miles of AT. I also discovered that the access trail actually has two routes; at one point you come to a fork in the trail, where you can go either up or down. The lower route is more picturesque, and leads you with blazes past Buckled Rock. The upper route is, I believe, a bit shorter and appears to follow an old road bed. Both dump you out at the river's edge, shortly before the access trail hooks up with the AT.

After the two access trails re-merge, there is some scrambling to be done over rocks protruding out over the river, and at first I thought I'd lost the trail, as there were no blazes along that section. This was actually how I discovered the upper route of the access trail; thinking the rocks couldn't possibly be trail (and having this thought heartily reinforced by a turned ankle that hurt like the dickens at first), I turned left on to the upper part of the access trail, and followed it all the way back to where it met up with the blazed trail, thereby adding a bit of excess non-AT hiking to my effort.

Once I returned to my point of confusion, I clambered over the rocks (NOT twisting my ankle this time) and eventually found a trail of the wide and level sort to which I'd become accustomed. I imagine when this was a rail route there had been a trestle over the section that is now little more than a rock ledge. A little while after rejoining the wide trail, it becomes AT rather than access trail. Actually, it can be quite easy to miss the point at which the access trail ends and the AT begins, if you're not paying close attention to the blazes. The place where this occurs is marked by an easily missed side trail (which is actually the AT taking off up a mountainside) and a change in blazes, but the trail is so wide and easy to follow, I noticed neither when I first passed through. I made a point of locating the merge on the way back, though, as it was my intent to come back another day and use the access trail to reach the section of AT that heads away from Laurel Falls.

After a couple of river crossings and some nice damp rhododendron/forest hiking (including the unremarkable Waycaster Spring right at trailside), the trail ascends a section where the rocky substrate is often exposed. Trail bed there ranges from tangly exposed roots to pebbly scrabble to open swaths of rock. Near the high point there is a bit of a view:

though I suspect this view might be a bit more striking in wintertime, given that you might actually be able to see the river bed of the Laurel Fork through leafless trees. Still, it was pretty enough when I was there, while the first hints of autumn color were beginning to assert themselves at random intervals.

After descending over more pebbly and rocky terrain, the trail makes another traverse of rocks overhanging the river, though this one is considerably larger and better marked. Still, be prepared for a bit of four-limbed clambering, especially if you're wearing a heavy pack. After that little rough patch, the trail again becomes easily passable, and it's only another two tenths of a mile or so to the falls. Lovely, aren't they?
Admittedly, the wide-angle view detracts a bit, making it look almost vertiginous, to my eye. The last time I had been here, I had approached from the other direction, and had been there no more than a minute before a huge group of 20 or more high school age boys approached, disrobed, and waded into the scene. This quickly spoiled our enjoyment of the natural beauty, and also put the kibosh on our (Jeff was with me) plans to skinny dip a bit. Instead, we waded upstream a bit, put the noisy crows out of earshot, and got a little sun by ourselves. Here's the view downstream, toward where we finally wound up trying to make the best of our rudely interrupted trip.
Not quite so picturesque, but...c'est la vie. I should note here that that group of boys, and their companion group of girls (who arrived perhaps a half hour later) were actually, technically, operating outside of the law. You see, this falls is located within the Pond Mountain Wilderness, and in said Wilderness area, hiking groups are limited to 10 in number in order to reduce impact. Doesn't seem likely that the noisy youngsters in question would have read that part of the sign, though.

At any rate, although I did not continue further along the AT from this point, I can tell you from previous experience that it next takes a long, steep climb over very tall stone "steps." I was in no mood to repeat that experience, so after nibbling on some snacks and staring at the fall for a bit (and being joined by a small family), I departed back the way I came. I also took the shorter high road of the access trail on my way back, and so unfortunately missed my photo op for Buckled Rock, since I figured, on the way to the falls, that I'd stop for a photo on the way back. Silly me.

Date: 10/5/07
AT Miles covered: 3.0
Other miles covered: 2.?
Altitude gain: roughly 250 from access trail to top of ridge.
Time: no clue. I'm really bad about this :)
Other notes: probably the easier of the two approaches to the falls, though a bit longer.