Bushwhacking the South Mountain Game Lands in Search of a Rumored Waterfall
Andy Kunkle and Jack Thyen did all of the work of plotting out a course for our bushwhack into the South Mountains Game Lands. What we wanted to do was find a rumored waterfall that is located somewhere in the Game Lands on a stream called Sally Queen Creek. What we were pretty sure about was that the falls existed, but not exactly where it was or whether it was even worth the labor of finding it. But, every good hike is worth doing, even if you don't achieve your main goal.
I'm glad that Andy has had a fair amount of experience in orienteering.
I'm not that good at it and just know the basics. One thing that I do know is that when traveling off trail you should stop relatively often to take compass readings, observe landmarks, and double-check to make sure that you're on the right bearing. After a while we were so comfortable moving along and enjoying the forest that we neglected to check our maps as often as we should. Thus, we ended up several degrees off target and came out onto Sally Queen Creek a good chunk of distance south of where we should have been.
That's okay, though, because if not for that slight miscalculation we would have missed seeing several small stands of impressive trees, and an abandoned whiskey still. On the bad side, we wandered off of the Game Lands and onto a dirt road that was definitely on private property. Here in the South, private property is a serious business, and if it's posted "no trespassing", then it means what it says. But we were kind of stuck out in the track for a bit and decided to just push ahead until we veered back into the Game Lands. I, of course, being the only native Southerner in the trio, pushed on at some speed to get my ass the hell off of the posted property and back onto public land. This we did in quick order, following the meandering rush of Sally Queen Creek.
The watershed of the South Mountains is considered one of the cleanest in the eastern USA. And I believe it. There is no development at all in this watershed, beside some clear cutting in some parts of the forest outside of the South Mountains State Park boundary. Other than that, there's nothing at all to foul the watershed. It's just a huge area devoid of any kind of industry or permanent human habitation.
We continued to make pretty good time and were soon within what I can only call a small gorge. The slopes on both sides of Sally Queen Creek became very precipitous, with small cliff faces on both shores. The major tree species along this part of the forest were white pines, eastern and carolina hemlocks, oaks, and beeches. We actually saw quite a number of beech trees. Sadly, the hemlocks are all dead or dying and all of the really big hemlocks have given up the ghost. Hemlock wooly adelgid has dealt a mortal blow on South Mountains' hemlock groves. Some really big old hemlocks in here are no more.
We kept our eyes peeled for the falls that we were expecting to see. But we didn't know what they'd look like. Would it be merely a small set of cascades? Would it be a single drop of ten feet or so? Would the volume of the falls be small or heavy? We just didn't have any information at all about such details. But we kept looking ahead, sometimes dropping down from the old narrow gauge railway bed that was our trail to see if the falls were on the creek below.
And then, suddenly, on the waterway ahead of us, we saw them: Sally Queen Falls. And we realized at once that seeing them was worth every bit of the effort involved in getting there. The water flow was very good, despite the fact that we're in a minor drought just now. The falls drops about twenty-five to thirty feet in two main levels. There's a sharper and shorter initial drop into a pool, and then a slanting falls higher and of greater distance than the first just below. We were all very impressed. We'd located a North Carolina waterfall that few others know about and which are very difficult to access. This place will certainly never be a crowded location.
We spent about an hour here. We opened our packs and ate lunch, drank water, and took dozens of photographs between us. Eventually, though, we decided that it was time to head back. We knew that we'd have to alter our return route so that we wouldn't veer off onto any more private property. Jack and Andy consulted the maps again and we crossed Sally Queen Creek at an old narrow gauge railroad bed that we'd spotted about a quarter of a mile back down the quasi-trail that we'd used. Taking that, we began to climb up the slopes of Richland Mountain, heading back in a direction that we hoped would slab us along the steep slopes, taking us over a high gap and then down the mountain to a spot on the road that we hoped would be near Andy's car.
Sally Queen Creek
The going was pretty tough. You can say what you want about the South Mountains not being particularly high, but they are certainly steep and rugged. The hillsides are also packed with good forest cover, but the toughest thing we did was hike about half a mile directly through a rhododendron thicket. The mountaineers called these thickets "hells", and there's a good reason for that. Trying to hike through them is like trying to negotiate through a hellish maze. I don't recommend it.
Looking for a View.
Eventually, we made the gap near the top of Richland Mountain and took another good break, taking time to rest and to drink water and just take it easy for a bit. But soon it was time to head out again, this time directly downhill. In a while we came to the bottom of the mountain and found ourselves at the edge of a very large field of broom sedge. We crossed this and came out on the road. Looking to our right, we found that we'd hit the road no more than a hundred yards or so from the car! Andy and Jack couldn't have done a better job of orienteering! My hat's off to the both of them!