Saturday, May 13, 2017

Chattahoochee National Forest: Dukes Creek Falls (Blog Hike #630)

Trail: Dukes Creek Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Dukes Creek Falls Recreation Area
Geographic Location: west of Helen, GA
Length: 2.2 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: An out-and-back down to the base of scenic Dukes Creek Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Helen, take SR 17 north 1.3 miles to SR 75A and turn left on SR 75A.  Drive SR 75A southwest 2.3 miles to SR 348 and turn right on SR 348.  Drive winding SR 348 west 1.7 miles to the national forest’s signed Dukes Creek Falls Recreation Area on the left.  Turn left to enter the recreation area.  Drive up the short entrance road, pay the small day-use fee, and park in the paved trailhead parking area.  The hike starts at the vault toilet building near the rear of the parking area.

The hike: Often overlooked in favor of its more famous cousin Raven Cliff Falls some 3 miles to the west, the much higher Dukes Creek Falls lies at the confluence of Dukes Creek and Davis Creek down-watershed from Raven Cliff Falls.  Dukes Creek gains historical notoriety from some gold discovered in its waters in 1828.  This discovery led to the Georgia gold rush, a precursor to the more famous California gold rush some 20 years later.  Interestingly, Dukes Creek Falls is a misnomer, because the highest fall is actually located on Davis Creek, not on Dukes Creek.
            Dukes Creek Falls can only be accessed by foot, and two trailheads serve as possible starting points for hikers seeking to reach the falls.  The lower trailhead is located to the south in the cottage area of Smithgall Woods State Park, while the upper trailhead is located in the small Dukes Creek Recreation Area, which is owned and maintained by Chattahoochee National Forest.  This hike gets to the waterfall from the upper national forest trailhead because it is easier to find and offers better parking than the lower state park trailhead.
ADA-accessible trail leaving vault toilet area
            From the vault toilets beside the parking lot at Dukes Creek Recreation Area, start on the ADA-accessible asphalt trail that heads gradually downhill and curves gradually to the right to parallel the parking lot.  A few picnic tables are passed before you leave the developed part of the recreation area.  At 0.1 miles, the ADA-accessible part of the trail ends at an observation platform.  The platform offers a partially obstructed view to the west, and Dukes Creek Falls can be heard but not seen in the ravine below you.
View from ADA-accessible platform
            Past the platform, the asphalt trail surface turns to gravel as you begin the 350 vertical foot descent in earnest.  The trail parallels SR 348, which sits above you to your right, as it descends some steep wooden steps to reach another platform with some benches.  This platform offers no view.
After descending another short set of steep wooden steps, you reach an unmarked T-intersection at 0.3 miles with options going right and left.  The trail going right is an old entrance trail that used to connect to the Raven Cliffs Trailhead but now deadends at the bank of Dukes Creek.  Thus, you want to turn left to continue descending on what appears to be an old road.
Descending on wide gravel trail
            The wide gravel trail heads south as it gradually descends.  Dukes Creek tumbles over some scenic cascades downhill to your right.  The creek starts rather close to the trail, but it descends away from the trail as you continue south.  Some nice hemlock trees live in the forest here.
            At 0.75 miles, you reach another unmarked trail intersection with the wide gravel trail continuing straight and a steeper dirt trail exiting at a sharp angle to the right.  The trail going straight leads to the lower state park trailhead, so you need to turn right to keep heading for the waterfall.  The grade intensifies and the trail surface becomes a little rougher for this last segment to the falls.
            1.1 miles into the hike, you reach this hike’s lowest elevation at the base of Dukes Creek Falls.  Two observation decks sit here: a lower deck near the very bottom of the cascade and an upper deck that provides a frontal view of the main fall.  When I came here in early May 2017, the upper deck was closed because it had sustained damage from a fallen tree, and repair was not expected for at least a year.  Thus, the pictures I present below do not do this 150 foot waterfall justice because I could not get to the best view.
Right side of falls (in Dukes Creek)

Main falls (through trees in Davis Creek)
The water volume is moderate, and this waterfall impresses mainly with its sheer height.  Some benches at the observation deck allow you to sit, observe the waterfall, and enjoy the cool creekside environment on a warm day.  The trail ends at the observation deck, so the only option is to retrace your steps 1.1 miles and 350 vertical feet uphill to the parking area to complete the hike.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Chattahoochee National Forest: Raven Cliff Falls (Blog Hike #629)

Trail: Raven Cliffs Trail
Hike Location: Chattahoochee National Forest, Raven Cliffs Trailhead
Geographic Location: west of Helen, GA
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2017
Overview: A scenic out-and-back to unique Raven Cliff Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Helen, take SR 17 north 1.3 miles to SR 75A and turn left on SR 75A.  Drive SR 75A southwest 2.3 miles to SR 348 and turn right on SR 348.  Drive winding SR 348 west 2.7 miles to the national forest’s signed Raven Cliffs Trailhead on the left.  Turn left, drive down the short entrance road, and park in the gravel trailhead parking area.  The parking area is large enough to hold about 25 cars, but it can fill quickly on weekends and holidays.

The hike: Established only in 1986, Chattahoochee National Forest’s Raven Cliffs Wilderness protects 9115 acres west of the forest’s gateway city of Helen.  The wilderness is centered around its 80-foot high namesake cliff, which in turn features Raven Cliff Falls, a most unusual waterfall.  Rather than going over Raven Cliff like any ordinary waterfall would do, Raven Cliff Falls goes through the cliff, and the waterfall can only be seen through a crack in the vertical rock cliff.  Because Raven Cliff Falls is so unique, the 5 mile round-trip hike with 700 feet of elevation gain described here may be the most popular dayhike in the north Georgia mountains.  Thus, I highly recommend a weekday or winter visit to avoid the crowds.
Raven Cliffs Trailhead
            From the parking area, a sign points to the brown carsonite post that marks the beginning of the Raven Cliffs Trail.  Because this trail passes through a federally designated wilderness, this carsonite post will be the last trail marker you will see.  Nevertheless, the high foot traffic volume ensures that the trail is well-worn and easy to follow.
            After passing up and over a small bluff, you cross Dodds Creek for the only time on a nice wooden footbridge.  Contrary to what you would expect for a wilderness, the Raven Cliffs Trail features a few man-made bridges such as this one.  Also, this trail accesses many established campsites along Dodds Creek.  The campsites feature fire rings and nice flat dirt areas that are perfect for tents.
Creekside campsite
            The trail next climbs slightly to join an old logging road that will take you most of the way to the falls.  The logging road’s wide treadway and gradual grades make the going rather easy except for a couple of old washout areas.  Though this ravine was logged in the early 1900’s, the forest today features a nice mix of oaks, tulip poplars, and even some tall pines.  The dense understory features rhododendron in the creekside areas and ferns in the drier areas.
Dodds Creek
            As you continue the gradual climb, the first of Dodds Creek’s many small waterfalls appears downhill to the left.  These waterfalls, a couple of which are around 20-30 feet high, do their part to turn a rather ordinary creekside hike into one that is truly spectacular.  Some of these waterfalls would be destination waterfalls in some other creeks, but in Dodds Creek they are only warm-up acts for the figurative and literal show-stopper that is to come.
Hiking below a rock cliff
            Near 1 mile into the hike, the trail stays close to a rock cliff on the right that appears to have been cut away to make room for the logging road.  As I hiked up this trail on a sunny afternoon in early May, I could not help but think of my friend Freddie Coile.  Now a full-time evangelist and Christian camp director, Freddie led his first person to Christ while hiking up this trail.
            At 1.5 miles, you pass Dodds Creek’s tallest waterfall other than the main one at this trail’s end.  Trees make it hard to get a clear view unless you choose to hike a steep, rocky, unofficial side trail to the waterfall’s base.  Further up the trail, two small tributaries of Dodds Creek are crossed via footlogs (a bridge construction more common to the Great Smoky Mountains than the north Georgia mountains), and a slightly larger one is crossed on a more conventional footbridge just before you go up and over a final steep bluff.
Footlog on Raven Cliffs Trail
            Just shy of 2.5 miles, the trail forks with the left option going down to the creek and the right option going steeply uphill.  If you choose the left option, you will see Raven Cliff towering ahead and above you, but the small cascading waterfall at the end of this fork will leave you disappointed.  If you choose the right option, you will climb to the base of Raven Cliff and see the creek exiting the bottom of the cliff, but again you will see no major waterfall.  To get to the money view, upon reaching the bottom of the cliff, you need to climb the steep and rocky but well-worn treadway to the right. 
Keep watching the creek area to the left to see the crack in the cliff that contains Raven Cliff Falls.  The crack is only a couple of feet wide, so imagine how long it must have taken this waterfall to form.  Also, if you look behind the main waterfall, you can see another waterfall further up Dodds Creek.  This upper waterfall is only accessible by rock climbing, which is illegal in the Raven Cliffs Wilderness due to the crumbly nature of the rock.
Raven Cliff

Raven Cliff Falls
            The trail ends at the falls, so after resting and having a trail snack while admiring the falls you will have to turn around and hike the same trail back to the parking area.  What was a gradual climb coming out is now mostly an easy descent going back.  I completed this hike in about 3 hours, including some time at the falls.  While you are in the area, consider tacking on a trip to Dukes Creek Falls, another major waterfall that is accessed via a trailhead located on SR 348 1 mile east of the Raven Cliffs Trailhead.  The hike to Dukes Creek Falls is only 2.2 miles round-trip, so choosing this option allows you to double your waterfall count for the day without doubling your effort.