Tuesday, September 24, 2013

DuPont State Forest: Lake Imaging-High Falls Loop (Blog Hike #442)

Trails: (numerous)
Hike Location: DuPont State Forest
Geographic Location: southeast of Brevard, NC
Length: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2013
Overview: A loop hike that includes 4 major waterfalls.

Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Brevard, drive US 276 south 10.9 miles to Cascade Lake Road, the intersection of which is located 1.6 miles north of the South Carolina state line.  A brown DuPont State Forest highway sign marks this intersection.  Turn left (east) on Cascade Lake Rd.  Drive Cascade Lake Rd. 2.5 miles to Station Rd. and turn right on Station Rd.  Drive Station Rd. 2.8 miles, passing the falls area en route, to the parking lot for the signed Lake Imaging Access.  Park in the large gravel parking area; there will be space to park here even if the other parking areas are full.

The hike: Surprisingly popular given its remote location, DuPont State Forest comprises 10,400 acres on the Transylvania/Henderson County line.  The forest’s name comes from the fact that 7600 acres of this land used to be owned and operated by the DuPont Corporation as an industrial area and as a park for its employees.  In 1996, the chemical company sold the land for a bargain amount to the State of North Carolina to create the forest.
            Surprisingly, the waterfall area, the forest’s centerpiece today, was not included in the original purchase because it belonged to a private developer from the Cliffs Communities.  The developer intended to turn the area into a gated housing development, but in October 2000 the state invoked imminent domain to add the 2200 acre tract of land to the state forest, thus preserving it in its natural state.  The remaining 600 acres were also added in 2000.
            With 84 trails totaling over 82 miles, the forest today offers an almost inexhaustible number of routes for hikers, mountain bikers, and horse riders.  The main attraction remains the waterfalls, so any visit to DuPont should include a trip to the falls area.  Because the falls area also contains the largest crowds, this hike starts elsewhere, visits some other locations of interest, and includes a tour of the major waterfalls to get the best of all worlds.
Beginning of Holly Road
            The trail leaving the front of the parking area at the information board is Lake Imaging Road; it will be our return route.  This hike starts on Holly Road, and you will need to cross the paved park road and walk north (right) about 100 feet to find the signed beginning of Holly Road on the west (left) side of the paved park road.  Note that at DuPont State Forest the term “road” refers to a closed and gated forest road that now serves as a trail.  Henceforth I will use the term “road” that way unless otherwise noted.
            Holly Road climbs moderately as a single-track dirt trail to reach an old landing.  Because this land is a state forest and not a state park, logging is allowed in most of the forest, and you will see the logging’s scars throughout this hike.  In a logging operation, a landing is a flat area used to store logs and load them onto trucks.  There are no longer any logs stored here, and this landing does not appear to have been used for some time.
            From the landing, Holly Road picks up a two-track dirt trail that appears to be an old logging road.  The next 1.2 miles are an easy flat to slightly downhill glide on this old road.  The young forest has a dense understory of ferns, and only a few wet areas impede your progress.  Informative interpretive signs guide you through forestry BMP’s (best management practices) practice after practice. Many of these practices are demonstrated on this trail, including some black plastic mesh buried under the trail to stabilize the trail surface.
Hiking along Holly Road
            At 1.3 miles, you come out at a landing that is still used occasionally today.  On my visit, stacks of logs ready for transport had been placed on either side of the landing.  Angle left here to remain on Holly Road.  After following the wider logging road for 200 feet, you reach the signed spur trail to the Moore/Hooker Cemetery.  Turn right to hike the short spur.
            The single-track dirt trail climbs gradually for 0.2 miles to reach the Moore/Hooker Cemetery near the height of land.  Enclosed by a wooden fence, the pioneer cemetery today sits in the middle of the woods.  Many of the headstones are illegible, but some of the decipherable ones date to the late 1800’s.  Take a few minutes and look around the cemetery to see what you can learn.
Moore/Hooker Cemetery
            The spur trail ends at the cemetery, so you next must retrace your steps to Holly Road, which quickly ends at a congested waterfall-area parking lot that was expanded in 2013.  To continue, walk across the parking lot toward a new iron/wood bridge over Little River also built in 2013.  We will eventually walk across this bridge to continue our loop, but for now turn right and hike the spur trail to Hooker Falls.
            Hooker Falls Road is another old logging road that heads downstream on the north bank of Little River.  2.1 miles into the hike, you reach the side view of Hooker Falls.  Continue another 0.1 miles downhill via one switchback to reach the base view.  Though only 12 feet high, the ledge-type waterfall spans the entire width of Little River. The large water volume makes an impressive sight, and the large plunge pool beckons you to have a dip in season.
Hooker Falls
            After viewing Hooker Falls, backtrack to the main parking area and turn right to cross Little River on the new trail bridge built in July 2013.  Now on the gravel Triple Falls Trail, you curve left, pass under the main park road’s bridge over Little River, and begin heading upstream through a dense thicket of rhododendron and mountain laurel.  The understory is so thick that you usually cannot see Little River even though it is but feet to your left.
Triple Falls Trail along Little River
            At 2.8 miles, the trail curves right to leave the river bank and begin a short but steep climb straight up the hillside.  After gaining about 80 feet of elevation, you reach a trailside overlook of Triple Falls.  As its name suggests, Triple Falls drops in three stages that total 120 vertical feet.  The shroud of hemlock greenery on either side contrasts nicely with the grey rock and white water.  Triple Falls may be the most scenic waterfall in the forest, so take a few minutes to catch your breath from the climb and enjoy the view.
Trailside overlook of Triple Falls
            Past the overlook, the trail passes a picnic shelter and climbs another 40 feet to reach the top of a wooden staircase that exits left.  Built in 2006, this staircase descends roughly 60 wooden steps to reach the base of Triple Falls’ second drop.  The view from the bare rock in the river bed is exhilarating, but be aware that you will have to climb back up these stairs if you choose to descend them.
2nd drop of Triple Falls, viewed from base of stairs
            3.1 miles into the hike, the trail forks with the Triple Falls Trail heading right and the High Falls Trail heading left.  To see the next major waterfall, angle left to start the High Falls Trail.  The trail descends to reach river level above where the river drops over Triple Falls.  Notice how calm and placid the river is here compared to the nearby waterfalls.
            At 3.4 miles, where the dead-end River Bend Trail continues straight, turn right to stay on the High Falls Trail.  After a moderate climb, you arrive at the trailside overlook for High Falls.  Cascading 124 feet, High Falls is the tallest waterfall in the forest, so take some time to view this spectacle.
High Falls
            Past High Falls, the trail continues climbing on a moderate grade while passing a couple of picnic shelters on the left.  At 3.8 miles, the Covered Bridge Trail exits left.  For the shortest route to continue the hike, turn left here and begin the Covered Bridge Trail.
            The Covered Bridge Trail quickly crosses the height-of-land and passes through a natural gas pipeline clearing.  4 miles into the hike, you reach the bridge for which this trail is named.  As you cross Little River on the wide wooden covered bridge, you can look to the left and see calm ripples in the river just before it plunges over High Falls.
Covered bridge over Little River
            At the east end of the bridge, two gravel roads depart.  Take the one to the left, which the forest map labels as Buck Forest Road.  The wide two-track gravel road climbs gently and then descends moderately as it traces around a steep hillside.  Ferns and yellow coneflower line the route. Unlike the waterfall area, mountain bikers vastly outnumber hikers in this part of the forest.
            At 4.6 miles, you cross Grassy Creek on a wide vehicle bridge and reach another two-track gravel road intersection.  Here the Buck Forest Road turns right to head to the Guion Farm Access deep in the forest, but this hike turns left to begin Lake Imaging Road, the route back to our trailhead.  Almost immediately after making the left turn, the spur trail to Grassy Creek Falls exits left.  Turn left on the signed single-track dirt trail to head for Grassy Creek Falls.
            After a short level hike, the trail descends moderately to reach a topside view of Grassy Creek Falls, the last waterfall on this hike.  Grassy Creek Falls more resembles a waterslide than a falls, but the water cascading some 30 feet over bare rock makes a pleasing sight.  I have read about a trail leading to the base of the falls, but I could not find it on my visit.
Top-down view of Grassy Creek Falls
            After backtracking from the waterfall, two options present themselves for continuing.  The Lake Imaging Road provides the shortest route to close the loop, but it consists entirely of two-track gravel road.  For a more scenic but slightly longer route, choose the single-track dirt Hilltop Trail, which exits left at a sharp angle from the Grassy Creek Falls Trail just before it returns to the Lake Imaging Road.  Some rocks here make nice places to sit, rest, and have a snack.
            The Hilltop Trail treads a gently undulating course as it winds around a nameless knob.  The dense forest is some of the nicest on this hike, and Triple Falls can be heard but not seen in the steep gorge to the left.  6 miles into the hike, the Hilltop Trail ends at Lake Imaging Road.  Turn left to continue the final leg of this journey.
            For the next mile Lake Imaging Road descends on a moderate grade as it loses roughly 250 feet of elevation.  Large rocks in the trail form obstacles for mountain bikers, but they can be easily circumvented by hikers.  After crossing a wet area, you pass through a small wildlife opening before entering the woods on the other side to continue the descent.
Rocky Lake Imaging Road
            Just shy of 7 miles, the trail forks.  For the shortest route, turn left to quickly arrive at scenic Lake Imaging.  If you come here late in the evening as I did, the surrounding trees reflecting in the still waters make for a beautiful sight.  I also saw schools of bluegills under the water.  The trail crosses the dam that forms the lake to reach a picnic shelter that sits right on the edge of the lake, making a great place to sit and meditate beside the scenic water.
Lake Imaging
            Past the shelter, leave the lake area by angling left where the other option from the previous trail junction enters from the right.  The trail tops a very low ridge where the Ridgeline Trail exits right.  After treading around one more drainage, you reach the trail board beside the Lake Imaging Access parking area that contains your car, thus closing the loop and completing the hike.

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