Deep into Gorges State Park
By Ed Kelley
Tiptoeing quickly across the Toxaway River, my ankle gaiters did the job and kept the cold water out of my boots. With higher water, fording the river could be dicey. I had chosen the Auger Hole trail in Gorges State Park because I thought it would give me a nice overview of the park and get me deep into the gorges. The trail is a well-maintained road that is driven regularly by Park Rangers.
For the public, it is open to horses, bicycles, and foot travel. Slowly winding through convoluted topography, it is a pleasant but not a highly scenic trail and there are no spectacular views. The most notable features on the trail are the water crossings and a small waterfall above the ford at Bear Wallow Creek.
Gorges State Park is the newest in North Carolina, established in 1999 after purchasing the land from Duke Energy. It is part of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, a place of waterfalls, steep slopes and corrugated coves. It is the rim of rock where the mountains fall off dramatically to the Piedmont. At 7,100 acres, Gorges is a large chunk of wildness, though signs of past human activity are evident throughout the park. Once even owned by Singer Sewing Machine Company, the area was extensively logged. The failure of the Lake Toxaway dam 90 years ago left debris piles that remain to this day. Numerous, grown-over roadbeds cut off frequently along the trails and scraps of old machinery hide in the undergrowth.
My original plan was to check out the Auger Hole trail and backtrack, as no other trails intersect to make an easy loop trip. I was expecting to see lots of water and exposed rock as I descended into the heart of the park. Later I found that most of the views and water features are located on trails in the northwestern section. I decided to continue to Turkey Pen Gap at six miles. Once there, I followed the park boundary a bit farther along the ridge, seeking a panoramic view of the park. The only view was where high-tension power lines cut through the park. I could see a good deal of the land surrounding the park, but not much of the park itself.
After lunch and a check of the map, I decided to explore a bit more. The official printed park map is a bit confusing. It is not a topo map, and the mileages are inconsistent. Some of the actual trail distances are doubled and others are not. There is no annotation of the reasoning behind this, but I figure the lack of interconnecting trails mean that most trips are out and back via the same trail. It is odd, however, that the map from the park’s Web site lists one-way distances for all trails. I could backtrack, but somehow just couldn’t get excited about it. My other option was to connect with the Foothills Trail that leads down to Lake Jocassee. That would be almost 7 more miles, and then I would have to follow the Canebrake Trail back out of the gorge for a total of over 18 miles. Whew! Could I do it? I had plenty of daylight left and felt pretty good. I took the challenge.
White slashes were the blaze for the Foothills Trail, but I saw no white slashes. I had been following orange squares and they were gone now, too. But I was on a trail and the park boundary was well-marked on my left. The map showed the power lines crossing the boundary again near the turnoff for the Foothills Trail. I came to the power lines and a bit further, the white slashes. The Foothills Trail skirts 82 miles of the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment in North and South Carolina, and 6.7 miles of it runs through Gorges State Park.
The escarpment is known for its biodiversity. Gorges State Park has 125 rare and 12 endangered species. I knew that Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia) grows in Gorges, but after 7 miles, I had seen none. I was on the Foothills Trail a short time when I noticed a shiny-leaved ground cover in a small ravine. It was my first encounter with Shortia in its natural habitat. My excitement was doubled because on this mid-March day, the frilly bell-like flowers were blooming. Although endangered, I found plenty of the flowering plants along the trail, some in very large patches. The extra mileage was worth it just for this display of the Bells.
As the trail wound through the myriad coves along the flanks of Grindstone Mountain, I thought how “Gorges” was an appropriate name for this park. Not only are there deep, steep-walled gorges sculpted by the five major streams in the park, there are countless ravines that equate to mini-gorges. The erosional history that created them can be explained by the abundant rainfall along the Escarpment. Not only do 80 annual inches of rainfall contribute to the topography, it is a result of it. As moisture from the Gulf collides with the Appalachians, it is wrung out over the Escarpment. All this water also explains the complex biodiversity of this temperate rainforest.
Despite the lack of striking vistas, it was still a nice day to be afoot. Vireos and pileated woodpeckers called from high in the pines, a hidden towhee serenaded me. I was more than happy to have an open, graded trail. The steep slopes and thick tangle of laurel and rhododendron would make for difficult travel cross-country. There were turkey scratchings and predator droppings full of hair along the trail, but no tracks or wildlife sightings. I kept my eyes peeled for reptiles basking in the sunlit trail. Yellow and blue violets were flowering, so was the Trailing Arbutus with its waxy blossoms. My hiking partner Tula enjoyed the day by dipping herself into every pool of water she could find. Through the trees a view of the blue-green waters of Lake Jocassee teased me into thinking I was getting close to the Toxaway River crossing, but the trail veered up and away again for a few more miles.
My knees and feet were really complaining on the final descent to the lake shore. I almost always use a hiking staff, but had left it to keep my hands free for photography and Tula’s leash. Fortunately, walking sticks are readily available in the woods and upon acquiring one I felt immediate relief in my joints. I resolved to carry one from now on.
After fording the Toxaway River earlier in the day, I was somewhat concerned about the next crossing. Surely the river would be much larger after merging with all the other streams in the park. I was prepared to take off my boots and wade across if necessary. At the lake shore, Tula got a good swim and we startled a great blue heron. Rounding a bend, I spied the incredible suspension bridge that was my ticket across the Toxaway. A steep staircase leads from the bluffs down to the bridge. Crossing the swinging bridge was a treat as it swayed high above the water. Even though I was seeking the solitude of wilderness, this man-made structure was more than welcome after nearly 14 miles of walking.
The last leg of the trek, the Canebrake Trail, starts near the end of the bridge and climbs 1,800 feet in about 4 miles. My hiking became mind over matter, one foot in front of the other. I considered the cultures where walking is the norm and the plight of refugees who are forced on long walks for survival. As I counted my blessings, I set a pace I could sustain but one that would get me out of the gorge as quickly as possible, and hopefully before the effects of the ibuprofen and energy bar wore off. The views I hoped for were not on this trail either, but it was just as well. The sunlight took on early evening hues, the air cooled a bit. No time to tarry.
The Gorges route was one of the longest day hikes I’ve taken. It is amazing and fortuitous that such a large tract of land was spared development late in the 20th century. The solitude I found there more than made up for the lack of scenic overlooks. Except for one person, Tula and I had the park to ourselves. Sighting the Oconee Bells was the worth the trek. At some point, there are sure to be more trails routed through this section of the park, making for friendlier loop trips and likely leading past more exciting natural features. Until that time, I will probably seek out higher trails — and shorter ones.