Sunday, January 18, 2015

Benton Falls, The First Hike of 2015!

Benton Falls Running Full
     For the past four years, a hike to Benton Falls in the Cherokee National Forest has been our first hike of the year.  I have been hiking there so much, that I can practically hike the trail in my sleep.  To prove that to myself, I did hike about a mile of the trail while reading a book one time.  But I digress back to the trip.  Yesterday, 1/17/15, we went for the first hike.  I purchased one of the annual passes for the Cherokee Forest and it was our first use of it.
Looking down from the top of the falls
     There were several cars in the parking lot so I expected the trail to be busy, but we hardly saw anyone.  The trail heads from the parking lot and goes across the dam holding back McKamy Lake.  Then it turns left and beings to descend the mountain heading towards the falls.  Overall, the trail is 1.5 miles long.  Hikes and Mountain Bikers share the trail,  I was super surprised that there were no mountain bikers.  We did not see anyone till we were almost to the waterfall.  The trail is mostly packed sand, but there are rocks that need to be watched for.  Going to the waterfall, it is downhill all the way so it takes no time to reach the stairs that lead to the base of the falls.  From the research that I have done, you loose about 300 feet from the parking lot to the base of the falls and you make it all back up going to the car.
     The trail starts off in a hardwood forest, then passes through a clear cut for power lines and then goes into a mixed forest with some pine trees.  The Pine Beetle has made its presence felt here, but I believe the Forest Service has it under control or the pest has moved on.  Once the trail comes close to Rock Creek, which is the creek that makes Benton, Rattlesnake, and Scenic Falls, Magnolia trees begin to become prominent.  From the main trail down to the top of the falls, there are steps, but going down to the bottom, there are rock steps that have been there for as long as I can remember.
     I do not want to give this trail short shift, but it is like an old friend; someone that you have known forever and have gotten used to the little details and nuances that make others stand out and appear spectacular.  Jackie and I use this trail now to take us to other trails in the area.  The Benton Falls Trail links up with the McKamy Lake Trail, Elderberry Trial, the Slick Rock Naked Widow Loop, Redleaf Trail, and the Clemmer Trail.  This one little 1.5 mile trail allows you to hook together trails that can run in length from 3 miles to just about as long as you want to walk.  We have used this trail to go to the Clemmer Trail and then the Rim Rock trail across to the Clear Creek Trail and back up to the Beach Trail for a hike that ran 7.5 miles.  Needless to say I forgot how to add and told Jackie it would be about 4 miles total and she went for a 2 mile run that morning.  She wasn't real happy with me, but I got the Trangia 25 Stove system due to that hike!
     I always like to try and end our Benton Falls hike with a trip around McKamy Lake.  I look for fish or anything else I might see.  The last time we hiked the lake, from the Gazebo Trail, we saw 3 Water Moccasins.  This trip there was ice still on the lake from our colder temps earlier in the week.  As we were making the turn past the Campground Loop A area, I spotted this turtle sunning itself.  I pointed it out to Jackie, snapped a quick pick and moved on.  It was a good way to end the hike.
Turtle trying to get warm in the sun 

Savage Day Loop 10/25/2014

     About five years ago, Jackie and I made our first trip to Savage Gulf State Natural Area.  We fell in love with the place.  We love it so much, that I proposed to Jackie at the Stone Door.  Last year was an interesting year for us, with so much going on.  I regret to say that we only made one trip, yes just ONE trip to Savage Gulf, but it was an interesting trip none the less!
     We decided to do the Savage Day Loop Trail.  We unfortunately did not have a ton of time to do a backpacking trip and my knee was still giving me fits from the Rainbow Falls hike in September.  It was a good thing that we did not plan on doing an overnighter anyway because all of the back country campgrounds were full.  We arrived a little after lunch to find the parking lots completely full.  Outside of a handicapped space, I grabbed the last spot in the open lot.  There was another parking lot, but it was closed due to being the off season.  With great anticipation, I got my pack out of the trunk and helped Jackie into hers and we were off!
     The trail beings just to the right of the Ranger Station.  For those interested, there are a couple of restrooms at the Ranger Station.  I did not use them so I cannot comment on size and cleanliness.  There was a group of about 7 people at the trail register when we arrived getting ready to head out.  They all had 60-80 liter packs and grunted under the weight of lifting them up.  They asked me to take a group picture for them, which I gladly did and asked how long they were going to be out.  A guy sheepishly said, "One night."  I laughed and said, "At least you all will eat pretty well."  We signed the register and the group told us to head out before them, but they were out pacing us, so we let them by.
Trail Register at the Savage Gulf Ranger Station
     The trail was fairly level.  It just meandered its way through the woods and was well graded.  We met several people heading back to their cars.  About .4-.5 tenths of a mile from the trailhead, we came into and area with substantial blowdown damage.  I was a little depressed to see all the trees down along and around the trail.  The trail goes through the damaged area and twists and turns its way past cut trees.  The damaged area of the trail is maybe 2 tenths of a mile in length. 
Part of the trail with downed trees.
      After the damaged area, there was a suspension bridge over a creek.  I always enjoy suspension bridges, and this one had the customary 2 people only sign.  The trail then came to a split.  We could go straight and then turn right to go to Save Falls and Rattlesnake Point overlook or we could go right and see the sights in reverse.  We chose to go right and hike the loop counterclockwise.  Going against the flow is something that we do.  By going right, we were on the path to connect with the North Rim Trail.  As an aside, I have heard that the North Rim Trail has some of the best overlooks in the Park, but I do not know for sure since I have not hiked any of it.  We set out on this route heading towards Rattlesnake Point 1.2 miles away.  This part of the trail follows an old narrow gauge logging railroad that went through the area in the 1920's.  That translates to easy grades and no real sharp turns.  The trail goes through forest, weaving its way through stands of trees and along the sides of hill.  When the trail reaches about 3 tenths of a mile from the point, it begins to drop down towards the edge of the Gulf.  It is a gradual decent, but I would not want to climb it on the way out after hiking about 2.5 miles and going back to the car.
Then there it is, Rattlesnake Point.  It is not a developed lookout like Laurel Point or the Stone Door, but the view is nice.  There are some rocks that you can step out on to get a better view, but do not expect wide open views.  I was please that we started with the overlook.  We had a few snacks and read the plaque.  The plaque commemorates the husband and wife who bought the land to help found the park in the 1930's.  There is not a lot of room at the overlook; so if you have little ones, keep a close eye on them.  Also, do not plan on being able to cook lunch at the point, as there is not really enough room, especially if there are other people there.  The trail comes out of the trees just to the left of the picture and runs at the base of the rock bearing the plaque in the picture.  Coming from Savage Falls, Rattlesnake Point could take you by surprise.    
     We continued our counterclockwise route.  The trail follows along the edge of the gulf for a little ways before climbing up and down some of the drainage routes that go to the edge.  After half a mile, the trail goes to the Savage Falls Overlook.  It is a fairly steep tenth of a mile down to the overview.  There is a small platform built to look at the
View of Savage Falls from the Overlook
falls.  Jackie and I were both barely able to stand on the platform and I had to hold Mia.  Jackie took several pictures of the falls and used her longer zoom lenses to get super close up pictures.  The picture to the right is the best that my Pentax WG-1 camera could do.  We could hear the roar of the falls from where we were standing.  The Park had set up signs saying that the trail ended and to not go any further.  I saw where people had gone past the stand to get a closer look.  If you want to go to the base of the falls, it is only .5 miles on the South Rim Trail to reach the overlook and the stairs leading to the base of the falls.  I had brought my film camera but was unable to take any pictures of the falls due to a family coming down the trail and trying to fit their 5 people onto the stand with us on it and there was just not room.  I just put my camera away and began to climb back up the trail.  It is times like that, that reminds me why I like to hike, to get away from everyone and spend time in the outdoors. 
Trangia 25 cooking my lunch
     After climbing back up to the trail, we continued on to the intersection with the South Rim Trail, and then the sign where we turned right.  We were a mile away from Ranger Station at this point.  We met a lot of people coming down to see the falls.  Even with the camp grounds full and closes, we passed several groups going in with packs on their backs.  I hope that they had a way to reserve a spot ahead of time.  Going back to the car either seems to take forever or flys by.  Today it sped by.  We made it back to the car in what felt like rapid time.  I got out my Trangia 25 and cooked us some grilled cheese sandwiches on the grills in the park.  I have not cooked much on the Trangia, but it can hold its own cooking grilled cheese and fried bologna!  I generally take it to work and cook a quick sandwich or two for lunch.  
     Overall, the trip was very enjoyable.  I felt like the Savage Gulf Ranger Station was out of the way compared to the other entrances of the park, but after spending time there, I think that it is well worth the effort.  If you go there and arrive too late to hike to one of the camping areas further in the park, there is a campground about a tenth of a mile past the Ranger Station.  It is not as developed as the Stone Door Entrance, but not as spare as the Collins Gulf and Greeter Falls Entrances either.  If you are only interested in seeing waterfalls, and get up early enough in the day, it is possible to hit Savage Gulf and then drive 19 miles on Hwy 111 to Fall Creek Falls State Park as well.

Directions: The Savage Gulf entrance and ranger station is located halfway along Highway 399 between Cagle and Gruetli-Laager. (from the State Website.  Oh so super helpful I know.)