Mixing It Up In The Blue Grass
21-October 2012 to 27-October 2012:
Eventually, the trail started to hug some interesting cliff walls. But it was somewhere at this point that we spotted a deer carcass right next to the hiking trail. The carcass looked like it was a new kill.
This freaked Julie out as she treated the dead deer as if it was like spotting a dead human body next to the trail. And not long after accepting that the deer was there and we'd have to go by it, there were a couple of guys in camouflage further up the trail. We suspected that they probably shot the deer, and now Julie was concerned that these folks might be up to no good (i.e. that we might be their next targets).
In fact, it could very well be that this deer might have been related to the two deer that we saw cross the road in front of us as we tried to get to the trailhead...
Day 9: NIAGARA OF THE SOUTH
It was 5:30am when I awoke, but Julie got up a little later so she could take a shower that she managed to miss last night due to fatigue. So a good chunk of time was used to ensure we were fully packed. I had to turn off the fan because it was on all last night to drown out banter and TV sounds coming from adjacent motel rooms through the paper-thin walls here.
At 6:40am, we finally left the Red Roof Inn and embarked on a long drive into Southeastern Kentucky. It was essentially the end of the first half of the trip as this second half we were about to embark on would take on a different flavor than the first.
You see, the first half was dominated by waterfall hunting as there were limited opportunities to mix it up thanks to the quantity of major waterfalls to check out. But in this second half, there were more caves and arches in addition to waterfalls so for sure, we were mixing it up in the Blue Grass country of Southern Kentucky and Tennessee.
Before we drove off, I went into the BP gas station adjacent to the Shell station. I thought Shell was dishonest when it touted $3.69 per gallon for gas but then tricked you into coming there when it became apparent that the signed rate was cash only (it was $3.79 per gallon for credit card). But in the BP station next door, it stated $3.69 per gallon and it remained that way at the pump.
Well, regardless of haggling over 10 cents per gallon (which in grand scheme of things was probably about $1 total difference on a whole tank of gas), just about all the gas rates in these states were easily $1 per gallon less than whatever we were paying in California. And the prices we were paying in the name of pollution control probably didn't do anything (or made it worse if you objectively quantify net pollution emissions from cradle to grave of the entire life cycle of the fuel extraction, processing, and consumption).
So the drive going west on the I-40 was in the dark and in between fog and hazy dawn. The outside temperature was in the high 30s and low 40s, which was probably why the fog was there. Aside from my worries of deer jumping out onto the high speed highway, it was uneventful and we made it to our accommodation at the Cumberland Inn and Museum at 9:40am.
Since it was too early to check in, we dropped off our luggage and only kept the necessities for our excursions of the day in the car. And about 10 minutes later, we were back on the road.
Our accommodation was as close as we could get to the Cumberland Falls, which was what we were looking forward to do on this morning. And after some local driving on some Kentucky highways, where speed limit signs seemed to be very rare, we finally made it to the main car park area for Cumberland Falls at 10:20am.
By this time, it was still relatively low key at the falls area though there were plenty of people out and about. The sun was starting to warm up the temperature into the 50s, which was warm enough to allow me to leave my jacket in the car.
Anyways, we hastily made our way over to the many overlooks of Cumberland Falls along the river. Greeting us immediately near the brink of the wide 68ft tall, 125ft wide falls was a full arcing rainbow.
Moreover, there were beautiful fall colors across the river benefitting from the morning sun. Indeed, it looked like we had arrived right at the peak of Autumn colors in this part of Kentucky. Most of the waterfall itself was in shadow due to the falls facing north while the sun was positioned behind the falls towards the south.
As we were taking photos and going from overlook to overlook, we couldn't help but notice that Cumberland Falls didn't charge an admission fee. For an attraction like this, that was quite amazing since we had seen far lesser attractions on this trip (e.g. Biltmore Estate, US Forest Service fee areas, etc.) that costed quite a bit of money.
Anyways, there were signs here indicating that this was one of the few places where you could see a lunar rainbow or "moonbow." Actually, I swore I saw some of those signs say this was the only place in North America where you could get to see one.
However, these claims seemed to be a bit boastfully inaccurate since we knew it was possible to see moonbows in Yosemite Falls, and I was certain just about any other waterfall kicking up mist under enough enough moonlight could do it. Nonetheless, we happened to be here a week too early for the full moon so there wouldn't be a moonbow for us. However, the big bright sun rainbows of this morning did the job just fine.
We lingered here at Cumberland Falls for quite awhile as there were many ways to take photos and movies of it. It wasn't until about 11:45am when we returned to the car following a hasty lunch where we took a few bites of our food then retreated towards the car with food in hand when the yellow jacket wasps were swarming about and bothering us.
After the Cumberland Falls experience, we could totally envision this waterfall shaking up our US Top 10 list
. That also got us to reconsider our current list and to start figuring out which waterfalls should go and which ones should get on our list.
Next, we drove towards the Natural Arch of Kentucky, which was west of Cumberland Falls. We'd eventually reach the well-signposted and developed car park area at 12:15pm (EST). We paid the $3 fee to park here though in truth, it seemed like no one was really checking on this day. Nonetheless, we did the honest thing to help out this park.
From there, we walked to a couple of overlooks where we could get distant views of the arch amidst Autumn colors. We couldn't get the sky-through-the-span shot given our position, so we had already thought about taking the mile-long (return) trail leading to the base of the impressive arch.
After having our fill of reading the interpretive signs at this overlook, we walked back towards the car park, and then followed some paved pathways within the main picnic and car park area before we had finally found the correct trail leading to the arch's base.
We'd eventually get there after descending a few steps then climbing up towards the span. The midday light was perfect for the front side of the arch.
However, there was a trail lined by wooden fences going through the span of the arch then providing an angled view of the backside of the span. It turned out that this backside of the arch was where I had seen many brochures and web literature take photos from.
When we were done with this attractive arch, we hiked uphill back to our car. Julie said that while I was busy taking photos of the backside of the arch, she conversed with some folks with that Kentucky-Southern accent proclaiming that they were lost doing a long loop that led from the arch and ended right back at the arch. They were gone when I was finally done with my business behind the arch, but that prompted Julie to say to me that sometimes you just have to go back the way you came if you think you're lost.
Anyways, we were back at the car at 1:20pm (EST). The next stop was Yahoo Falls and Arch, where the turnoff for the scenic area was off the KY 700. We were briefly stopped by a long cargo train at 1:35pm (EST), but when that passed, we took the highway and then the last 1.5 miles of unpaved road towards the Yahoo Falls Scenic Area unpaved car park, and arrived at trailhead at 1:45pm (EST).
The signs at the trailhead made it seem like it was only 1/4-mile from the trailhead to the Yahoo Falls. But I had anticipated a much longer hike than that for both the waterfall and the arch (something like over a mile hike to the falls and then the anticipated 1.6 miles return for Yahoo Arch). I guess the unpaved road leading to the scenic area was something new.
When Julie and I were at one of the overlooks of the falls, we were dismayed to see how light-flowing Yahoo Falls was. So we continued to go past the falls, over the falls' stream upstream from the falls itself, and towards the Yahoo Arch, which was 1.6 miles return from the Yahoo Falls trail loop.
That spur trail was pretty moderate because somewhere along the way, I nearly lost the trail where fallen leaves conspired to obscure what would probably be a well known and easy-to-follow path. Plus, it was mostly uphill and narrow on this spur trail.
But as it was, I happened to find the continuation of the trail past some misleading fallen logs (which ordinarily would suggest that the path behind the logs was false).
After confirming with a family who was just coming back from the Yahoo Arch that I was indeed on the right path, I continued my haste on the gradually uphill and narrow path. Ultiamtely at around 2:45pm (EST), I made it to the Yahoo Arch, which was really composed of a sink hole merged with an alcove.
I was able to climb through the back opening of the arch, but what really stood out about this arch (at least to me) was that there were trees growing on top of the span of the arch!
When I had my fill of Yahoo Arch, I returned back to the trail junction where I had previously punted the path to the base of the falls for later. Well now that I was back, I descended the trail and eventually got into a very tall alcove over which the Yahoo Falls free falls across the front of the alcove.
It turned out that the Yahoo Falls was definitely much better looking (despite its low volume) from its base than from the overlooks.
It wasn't easy to get satisfactory photos of the falls because it was very light flowing. Well, at least we could walk underneath the falls as well as see it from different angles beneath the alcove.
I wondered whether this was more of an ephemeral waterfall or if it had reliable (albeit light) flow and only grew in width and volume during significant storms. Or perhaps this waterfall was a victim of the severe drought of 2012, which plagued the majority of the country.
Regardless, I took several phots and movies from as many vantage points and compositions that I could think of before I headed back to rejoin Julie at the car.
At 3:40pm (EST), I was back at the car. While Yahoo Falls itself was a bit of a dud, at least we docuented and could write about it from a first-person perspective.
Next, we drove back towards Cumberland Falls, but this time we were about to do the trail rated #1 in Kentucky - the Eagle Falls Trail. We'd get there at about 4:20pm.
The 1.5-mile (3 miles round trip) Eagle Falls Trail had very limited parking, but since we showed up late, parking was nowhere near the problem it was when we drove past this area earlier this morning.
By now, the trail was mostly shaded though the afternoon sun was still painting the foliage with soft light to bring out the colors of the leaves.
It became painfully apparent that this trail had the profile of an upside down V (i.e. climbing initially, then descending sharply towards Eagle Falls and getting all that elevation change on the way back). Most of the people we encountered seemed to be heading back to the trailhead, but given that all types of people were doing this trail (including a big Amish family), that was an indication to us that this trail shouldn't be too bad despite our tired bodies.
A short distance beyond the trail loop junction on the Eagle Falls Trail, the path passed beneath many alcoves and overhanging cliffs. It was in one of these streches that we were able to see Cumberland Falls from the opposite side of the river than we were at this morning. Clearly this side was best seen in the afternoon since the sun's morning rays would've caused us to look directly right at the falls with the sun in our line-of-sight.
Eventually, the trail descended several flights of steps before ending off at a slight boulder scramble. I had read that parts of the trail would be submerged in high water, and I supposed that was why the last short stretch of trail wasn't really a trail at all (more like the aforementioned boulder scramble with some of the boulders painted red as trail markers).
Eagle Falls was pretty short as it was maybe 30ft or 40ft, but that was it. There were stagnant pools at its base so I would imagine that it wasn't exactly the safest place to go swimming.
Anyways, when we had our fill of this waterfall, we now had to go uphill and then downhill before returning to the trailhead. Indeed, we did this hike as a simple out-and-back hike, and a Kentucky family who were catching their breaths while we were about to descend the stairs warned us not to do the entire loop. I guess that was reinforcement of our decision not to do the whole loop, especially since we were short on time.
At 5:40pm, we were back at the car. Both Julie and I were hungry and now it was time to finally get to our accommodation to check in and get our belongings into the room.
At 6:15pm, we finally returned to the Cumberland Inn where we not only checked-in, but we also finally had a substantial meal (i.e. dinner) at the Inn's internal steak house called "Patriot."
And so ended this rather eventful day to kick off the second half of our trip. It was a long day so even though we looked forward to talking to our daughter via Skype, I was personally out of it for a bit thanks to fatigue from all that driving and hiking from today (and the cumulative effects of consecutive days of such exertion on this trip)...
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Day 10: ALL ABOUT THE ARCHES
It was 6:45am when both Julie and I awoke. This time, we slept through our alarms and woke up past REM sleep.
So today was shaping up to be a pretty light day activity-wise. Thus, we really didn't have much sense of urgency getting out the door as soon as possible. The delay was even more pronounced when we learned that the Cumberland Inn also served breakfast that was included in our room rate. Who knew that we would be getting such a good value in this accommodation?
Thus, we loaded up on yogurt, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, sausages, toast, and even waffles. And when all was said and done, we eventually left the Cumberland Inn to begin the day's activities at 8:30am.
I had anticipated a long drive to get towards the hiking that we were planning on doing today in the Big South Fork National Recreation Area. It turned out that these attractions were in Tennessee, so this was really more like our Tennessee teaser before we visit the state in earnest starting tomorrow afternoon when we should be arriving in Nashville.
The drive started on Hwy 92 going southwest of Williamsburg (where we were staying) on what looked like a newly built or improved highway. Thus, the drive went surprisingly quickly along this 20-mile stretch until we junctioned with the Hwy 27. We'd take this highway south towards a surprisingly fair-sized town on the Tennessee side called Oneida.
From there, we took a smaller highway 297 west out of town and towards some rural country scenery. When we got into the Big South Fork area, the road narrowed and wound even more with 10mph hairpins and steep inclines/declines. This section of road went down then up before flattening out and joining up with the Hwy 154, which we took north.
Next, we then turned right onto Divide Rd, which immediately started off unpaved. We took Divide Rd towards Fork Ridge Rd, which veered to the right and got narrower as signs indicated we were sharing this road with carriages, horseback riders, bikers, and hikers. It wasn't long on this road when we eventually arrived at the Sawmill Trailhead, where we would start our hike for Slave Falls and Needle Arch. It was about 9:45am (EST) when we arrived at the trailhead.
It turned out from looking at the map sign at the trailhead that there was a seemingly shorter (though not by much) and more direct path to Slave Falls further down the road. However, when we took a few minutes to investigate (by briefly driving) the alternate start for Slave Falls, we learned that there were no "legal" parking spots besides the gravel road. So we returned to the Sawmill Trailhead and finally began hiking at 10:05am (EST).
One thing that was unusual about today's hike was that this was the very first time all trip long that we had to put on bug repellant. That was because we had gnats or little mosquitoes persistently hovering about our faces at the trailhead.
Anyways, we went ahead with the hike past the sign indicating that it was 1.3 miles from here to Slave Falls. The hike was on a pretty easy-to-follow path despite fallen leaves covering the trail. Speaking of which, there seemed to be a little more green on this trail than we had seen since the beginning of the trip though there were plenty of Autumn colors to be seen as well.
After going left at a Y intersection where was 0.2 miles to the left for Slave Falls and 0.2 miles to the right for Needle Arch, the path descended into a wet alcove area. At first we thought it was Slave Falls that had gone dry, but we knew 0.2 miles was a lot longer than what we had just walked.
So Julie kept going when we found the trail hugging overhanging rocks and cliffs to our left. And eventually after a few more minutes of hiking, we reached a dead-end where we could see Slave Falls trickling as it fell freely from the lip of its alcove opening.
The trickle of water was very much like our Yahoo Falls experience yesterday afternoon, and I started to wonder if we had started to hit those areas where last year's drought was affecting this area.
So we took our obligatory photos and movies of this trickle, but we didn't want to linger here long given the crappy photos but also the presence of mosquitos.
We hastily hiked back towards the Y intersection (passing by a couple of women headed to the falls whom we suspected would probably be just as disappointed as we were) then hung a left to go the 0.2 miles to Needle Arch.
In a few minutes we got to the signposted diminutive arch which had a longer span than it was tall. There were lots of trees growing around the arch so it was not easy to photograph in the same way that Utah's sandstone arches in wide open scenery were more attractive.
So this hike didn't exactly put Julie in a good mood thinking that I chose a dud, but sometimes all the research in the world can't prepare you to decide whether to skip an attraction or not since we hadn't known how rainfall patterns had occurred here this year. After all, up to this point, we had seen very good flows throughout the eastern side of the Appalachians. But it appeared that two of the three waterfall excursions we had been to on the western side of the Appalachians were on the disappointing side.
Anyways, made haste to get back to the trailhead. There was a fair-sized spider that seemed to be on the hairy side that we noticed on the trail. But aside from that diversion, we finally made it back to the trailhead at 11:50am (EST) to complete the 2.8 miles of round trip hiking.
Next, we continued driving the unpaved roads back towards Divide Rd, and then took Divide Rd towards the Twin Arches Rd, which got a little narrower and rougher in much the same manner that Ridge Fork Rd was. There were a couple of small sections of rough potholed and rutted areas, but it still posed no real problems for our low clearance Chevy Malibu rental vehicle.
And by 12:10pm (EST), we were at the much busier car park for the Twin Arches, where we saw at least a half-dozen other vehicles and some folks chillin' out at the picnic table at the trailhead.
The signs here indicated that it was only 0.7 miles to the Twin Arches so that gave us some relief in the sense that we wouldn't have to do more strenuous hiking than we desired (after having done such hiking for several days in a row now).
So we did the loop trail to the arches and back in a clockwise manner. There were some steep stairs leading further down into the colorful forest (thanks to the Fall colors) before we ultimately reached the North Arch. During the hike, I had noticed a mozzie bite on my left elbow so certainly there were stil skeeters in the area.
Once again, it wasn't easy to photograph this impressive arch, which must've been at least 100ft wide and somewhere close to that in height. Even though we could get somewhat distant views of this arch for better photographs, there were many trees conspiring to reveal a clean look of the arch that we were used to enjoying for the Utah ones (which we hadn't seen in years).
We did what we could to exploit as many angles and vantage points at this arch, and then we continued further south on the trail to check out the adjacent South Arch, which was the other half of the Twin Arches.
Like the North Arch, the South Arch looked pretty similar in shape. However, the trail got real close to this one so it was difficult to get decent photos of the arch without a wide angle lens (which my DSLR could somewhat accommodate except for the built-in zoom for EOS cameras).
Still, this arch was impressive and it seemed to have lightened up our moods given the disappointment at Slave Falls. And just as we were about to leave, we spoke to some folks who had just arrived, who seemed to exhibit a distinctly different Southern accent than what we were used to in the Carolinas. Anyways, after talking about how we needed the ability to stitch photos to take in these arches, we headed up some steps in between the Twin Arches.
And at the top of the stairs, we could immediately see that we could walk over the arches. Well, we only walked over the North Arch en route to get back to the trailhead. Of course up here, there weren't any real photo ops since it just looked like we were walking on a ridge. But it wasn't often that we could say we could set foot on an arch (though I did walk over the Yahoo Arch yesterday).
After going up a few more steep stairs, there were some opportunities to get views of the colorful forest below the trail. And after some more walking uphill towards the car park, we chatted with a couple of fellows resting besides the trail with backpacking gear on.
In a similar Western Appalachian Southern accent that our ears were starting to pick up, they said "hi" to us and we said "hi" back. Then, we talked a bit about the Twin Arches before one of the backpackers (seemed like a senior father and son combo) talked with us about the history of this place.
He mentioned that the Charit Creek Lodge further down the trail used to be private hunter's lodge. And that previous owner used to introduce species for hunting, which included Russian wild boar. Well, now those boars were apparently pests, and they were essentially like natural roto tillers to the vegetation there. So he mentioned that it was open hunting season to eliminate them though I doubt there could be enough hunting to get rid of them.
As for other species, he said it depended on the time of the season whether you could hunt with bow-and-arrows, guns, or full on rifles.
Anyways, he also told us that much of this area in the 18th century used to be settled and inhabited. Places like Jake's Place showed evidence of past clearing. It was amazing to think how pioneers back in the day had to blaze their own trails and tried to figure out the path of least resistance to get through the mountains or find places to make a new life.
After the history lesson and pleasantries were over with, we let the backpackers head back to the trailhead much faster than we could despite them carrying easily 50lbs or so of gear.
At 1:30pm (EST), we were finally back at the car. Since I had brought a laptop, Julie and I took a look at our research notes to see if it was worth checking out Split Bow Arch and/or Natural Bridges State Park, which was far away to the southeast of Lexington, KY (home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats).
It turned out that after an unsuccessful half-hearted attempt at checking out Split Bow Arch (we pretty much gave up when the roads got worse and there didn't seem to be signs indicating where to find this arch), we continued back on the Hwy 92 towards Williamsburg.
At 3:30pm, we made it to the Wal-mart in Williamburg where we picked up some fruits and even a late Subway lunch. And at 4:25pm, we were back at the Cumberland Inn where we called it a day. Indeed, this was one of the shorter days of activities on this trip, but we could certainly use the rest knowing that tomorrow would be a very long day of driving to the Mammoth Caves National Park before heading south to Nashville, Tennessee...
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Day 11: CLOCKS
It was 6am when we awoke. We knew that for today we would have a long drive ahead of us. So to power up for the day, we had ourselves one last complimentary breakfast at the Cumberland Inn before we would head further west in Kentucky.
At 7:20am, we left the inn. Though it was still mostly dark at this time of day, it was starting to get light as the sun was close to breaching the horizon.
The drive went pretty uneventfully and smoothly along a combination of the Hwy 92 and the Hwy 90. The nearest interstates were too far away from these highways so we stuck with them with average speeds of around 55mph.
Eventually we'd get through the town of Monticello and head west of there. Then, we'd turn right onto the Hwy 3062. And immediately after making a right, we made another right onto Hwy 754. Our GPS said this was Seventy Six Falls Road, but there was no signage indicating as such so we were concerned about whether we were going the right way or not.
At 8:55am (EST), we made it to an empty car park (more like a paved pullout besides the 754). There were no signs indicating there was a waterfall here, but we did see there was a picnic area and some sounds of moving water nearby. So that was a good sign.
So after parking the car, I went ahead and crossed the bridge then approached the picnic area. From there, I could see immediately that there were two shrines at an overlook. And when I peered over the overlook, I could see downstream of what appeared to be the brink of a waterfall. Unfortunately, the falls wasn't visible here.
But I did notice some faint trails going past the end of the fence for an angled (albeit precarious) view of the falls. I (foolishly) went on that path and even went past a fence with a sign that said "restricted area." But the severe drop-off hazard next to the narrow ledge covered with fallen leaves and hovering mosquitoes made me wonder if I was wise to even attempt this.
In any case, I just took some quick photos and movies, but I wasn't at all comfortable with where I was. So I quickly returned back to the sanctioned picnic area. I wasn't terribly happy with the views of the falls from where I was at anyways.
But given the precariousness of the views of the falls from this dangerous spot next to the picnic area, I began to put two and two together and realized that perhaps some people died here trying to improve their views of Seventy Six Falls. Maybe those two shrines that I saw at the overlook might have been related to my foolish attempt to improve my view of Seventy Six Falls.
When I had enough of the view of the falls and the picnic area from this side, I then noticed that there was a trail and stairs heading uphill on the opposite of the stream with the falls. So I pursued that trail and eventually got to a more distant overlook with a different but similar view of Seventy Six Falls. There was still some overgrowth conspiring to obstruct the views of part of the falls, but at least most of the waterfall was visible.
By the way, the falls did have decent flow considering it was in Autumn. Plus, further downstream, I could see that there was a lake (possibly Lake Cumberland). I thought I had heard some motor sounds in the background, and that was when I realized that it might have been a houseboat on the lake.
Julie eventually was done reading her book when I returned to the car. And so we both went to the official overlook on the right side of the stream. So we took what photos we could before we got back to the car at 9:50am (EST). Just as we were about to get into the car, I saw yet another shrine across the highway from the car park.
Apparently, that must've been at least the third victim at this waterfall!
All the shrines here definitely made this place feel somewhat ominous. Now I was starting to see why there weren't obvious signs for Seventy Six Falls. Maybe some people didn't want this place to be that well known given the apparent tragic history here.
Anyways, it was now time to continue our long drive. Next up, we were headed to the Mammoth Caves National Park. This would be the first caving of this trip to mix things up a bit. And we were going out of our way to get to this series of caves.
Eventually after driving through more rural roads along highway 90 (noticing many religious signs saying "pray to end abortion," "marriage is between a man and a woman," and "Jesus is coming, are you prepared?" among others), we eventually made it to the Mammoth Caves Visitor Center area at 11:25am (EST).
We were trying to figure out which cave tour to do (it was between the Historic Cave Tour and the Frozen Niagara Tour or New Entrance Tour), and we'd eventually settle on the Historic Cave Tour since it was the most general and popular one ($12 per person for 2 miles and 2 hours of touring). So we mind as well do what this cave was most known for, especially since we were already familiar with cave formations from visiting several other caves in our travels. It was a good thing another ranger helped us out by showing the context of the tours on a relief map of the cave network here.
Anyways, the next tour wasn't until 12:15pm.
So we had some time to kill before our cave tour and we used this time checking out the museum area. Within the educational museum area, there was a very interesting display showing how the climate of North America changed in over 380 million years. In that display, we could see the conditions that gave rise to the Mammoth Cave system, but we could also see why the climate during the time of dinosaurs was more tropical (because North America was by the equator back then), and we could even see how the last Ice Age gave rise to the Great Lakes!
But while I was wrapping my head around all the educational stuff regarding the caves, Julie started to notice the times on the clocks at the visitor center.
And they were all an hour behind!
That was when it dawned on me that we must be on Central Time!
So all that time that we thought the GPS was screwed up, it was really us that was screwed up! Some folks overheard our conversation and reinforced to us that indeed this part of Kentucky was on Central Time and so was Tennessee. I found it strange that parts of Kentucky were on a different time zone than other parts of the state (e.g. Cumberland Inn was on Eastern Time). I had to believe that other visitors must have also had similar confusions with time zones.
Thus, we had a lot of time on our hands and we decided to have ourselves a lunch at the diner by the visitor center. A charming waitress in her Kentucky accent waited us and added the word "Hon" after every sentence she said. It was kind of reminiscent of waitresses in roadside diners you might see in the movies or in the sitcom "Alice," and this was the first time I genuinely saw it live and not contrived.
Finally at 12:15pm (central time), a pair of rangers came to greet us awaiting our tour. We had a pretty sizable group so clearly it wasn't one of the more intimate tours we've done.
We walked from the visitor center and downhill towards a pretty large cave entrance at the base of some stairs. We could feel cool air (probably in the 50s or 60s) rushing out of the cave entrance, which totally contrasted the warm midday air (must be in the 80s) on the outside.
All of us filed into the long entrance of the cave walking by a trickling weeping waterfall at the mouth of the cave itself. Then, the bright daylight quickly gave way into sporadic darkness broken only by strategically placed lights throughout the cave so we could at least see where we were going without flashlights.
The tour was a mix of long stretches of walking with some stoppage so the head ranger could give talks about some relevant history concerning the spots we were stopped at.
In particular, we saw remnants of saltpeter mining apparatus in the beginning where we learned that the water from that weeping waterfall at the mouth was used to help dissolve and extract saltpeter so gunpowder could be made. Saltpeter was very valuable when the War of 1812 happened, which was just a year after the mining operation started.
Continuing further in the cave (which was like walking through a subway as the tubular passages were very tall and long), we could see evidence of graffiti all over the cave. From looking at some of that graffiti, we saw some dated 1839 and 1855 among others.
The tour kept descending gradually until we were roughly 310ft below the surface after a long "fat mans misery" section between very narrow passageways all while ducking our heads throughout the section. After that, we had to climb up several steps eventually getting to the bottomless pit.
The ranger mentioned that Stephen Bishop (one of the slaves who gave guided tours of the cave in pre-Civil War times) left his own graffiti which gave glimpses into how these caves might have offered some momentary freedom from the life of slavery above ground.
Somewhere along this ascending stretch, we could hear the soft sounds of falling water. Clearly, there was a waterfall here, but it wasn't very photographable (the falling water was too much of a trickle). But I did take a movie to prove it existed.
Then, we ascended the bottomless pit up a long tower of stairs. And it was during this ascent that we had perhaps our most interesting photos of cave formations here.
At the end of the climb, the path looped back towards the large subway-like area near the start of the Discovery Cave Tour entrance (which we weren't going to do), and then exited the cave through the same way we came in.
And when we left the cave and went up the stairs, we left the cool air of the cave and were reacquainted with the warm 85F temperatures of the overworld.
At 2:30pm (central time), we were back in the car. Now, it was time to make the long drive to Nashville where we were spending this night. We'd eventually get to our accommodation (Best Western Music Row) at 4:15pm. And once we got settled, we made it a point to have dinner and then walk around Broadway and 5th where it was suggested would be a good place to check out the bars where lots of live country-style musical acts would be playing.
After a pretty expensive Happy Hour dinner at Sambucas, we then found parking near Broadway and 5th at around 7pm.
We could see there was some bit of atmosphere in this stretch of downtown Nashville where loud neon signs lined Broadway in a way that was reminiscent of Vegas. However, each of the bars here had live bands playing.
We could see there were lots of independent and unsigned acts looking for their big break. Some places asked for cover charge while others were free. Many of these bands were playing to empty audiences (were we too early to arrive for the night?) while a handful of them played to packed houses. There was even one bar where there was some fun-looking line dancing going on. That was kinda cool.
Then it also crossed my mind that maybe some groovy up-and-coming indy acts from the South like the Alabama Shakes might have played here. Even though country music and blue-grass roots music wasn't our type of genre, the Alabama Shakes was growing on me after hearing them getting some air time while streaming Australia's Triple J Radio (I still find it amazing that I "discover" American acts from Australia through this radio station).
Indeed, downtown Nashville was definitely a unique experience in our travels to go from one bar to the next hearing loud country-style music being played. The only thing that kind of kept our experience in this part of Music City were the homeless people loitering about. It seemed like some claimed they were war veterans, which would be real tragic. However, we couldn't be sure if they were genuine with these stories or if it was an act to trick unknowing tourists into charity.
Whatever the case, Julie and I got the general flavor of this place and decided to head back to our hotel a little after 8pm.
And so that brought an end to today's rather diverse series of activities mixed in with long drives. Tomorrow, we would go back to waterfalling in Eastern Tennessee...
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Day 12: DEAD DEER
For some reason, I was aroused and woke up at 4:50am. It turned out that Julie had slept early last night and must've woken up earlier on then couldn't go back to sleep. So she was looking at her iPhone and that was when I must've caught a glimpse of some kind of light from her iPhone screen that caused me to wake up (I'm a light sleeper).
So with the inadvertent wake-up, we spent much of the next hour or so getting packed and loading up the car. At 6:30am, we had another one of those complimentary breakfasts of eggs, sausage, and even self-made waffles. We also got some yogurt, oatmeal, and toast.
At 7:15am, we left the Best Western Music Row, and quickly got onto the I-40 due east towards Knoxville. Since we were headed east, we were looking against the morning sun almost the entire time we were west of Cookeville.
It would be roughly 8:10am when we arrived at Cookeville, which was where we were going to stay this night. However, it was way too early to check in so we just kept going east on the I-40 in search of two waterfalls in Cumberland County not far from Knoxville.
Eventually, the smooth and monotonous interstate driving came to an end when we arrived at the Ozone Falls car park at 9:20am. We probably could have been there ten minutes earlier had we obeyed the GPS, which told us to exit the I-40 at some ramp that would've taken us to the Hwy 70. But for some reason we were under the impression that the trailhead for Ozone Falls would be right off the interstate so we incorrectly thought we had outsmarted the GPS.
Truth was that we had to first get on the Hwy 70 and then park the car at the Ozone Falls.
We had researched that this was going to be a short excursion so we didn't wear hiking boots. And when we immediately walked towards the falls, we were right on top of Ozone Falls. And while the vertigo-inducing views were interesting, we still didn't get a very satisfactory view of the falls itself from up here.
So we continued following the trail leading to the base of the falls. The trail actually rejoined the Hwy 70 (though from a different spot than the official car park).
But then from there, the trail descended steeply towards the base of the falls. Neither of us didn't feel like going back to the car to change into hiking boots so Julie headed back to the car (not wanting to hike in her street shoes) while I was still able to do some hiking in the Chacos I brought with me on this trip.
The descent towards the base hugged some overhanging cliffs and alcoves. They were interesting to check out, but knowing we had a full day today, I continued on with the somewhat steep descent until I was able to get a pretty clean look of the falls. However, my view was hindered by the fact that the sun was practically against my line of sight so I tried to use the trees around the area to screen it out.
I probably could have continued further on to the shadowy and misty base of Ozone Falls, but I was happy enough with my view most of the way down. I had heard that this waterfall was in a Disney work called "Jungle Book." Since I hadn't seen it, I can't say for sure. But if it was the case, then I'd say this falls was a pretty scenic choice given its height and somewhat satisfactory flow. I thought Julie missed out on this one.
At 9:50am, I was back at the car. Next up was the Upper and Lower Piney Falls, which we knew wasn't far from Ozone Falls. However, the GPS claimed that we wouldn't get there until around 11:20am, which led me to believe that the vicinity of the Piney Waterfalls must be back on Eastern time. And so once again, we were in a situation where there was a time zone change in the same state. How confusing is that?!?
So after driving on the Hwy 70 towards Cox Valley Rd, and then using that to connect with Hwy 68, we'd eventually turn right onto Firetower Rd, which started off with some fairly deep potholes, but then rejoined a smoother gravel road (it turned out that this gravel road also connected with Hwy 68).
While continuing along Firetower Road, we saw one deer run across the road and another deer already waiting on the other side of the road before it ran off, too. I believe that was the first time we saw a deer on this trip since the Bad Creek Rd by the Duke Energy facility en route to Lower Whitewater Falls in South Carolina.
It was about 10:25am (central time) when we arrived at a small little car park with a camouflaged truck already parked there. A small sign pointing towards the trail saying "Piney Waterfalls" gave us the confidence that we indeed stopped at the right place.
Julie was concerned about the camouflaged truck since her instincts told her that someone might be on this trail with weapons.
The trail descended from the car park towards a bend where there was a board but no sign. A lot of etchings were on that board indicating some peoples' past experiences with this falls (namely one warning others about dangerous paths "on the right"). That didn't exactly give us confidence about this hike, but we pushed forward anyways beneath the now-standard colorful trees dropping orange and yellow leaves as if they were snowflakes.
After crossing some kind of rope across the trail (we had no idea why that was there, but it planted seeds of doubt as to whether we were on the right track), we hit a trail junction with some reassuring signs. To the left, it said "to the bottom of Upper Falls" while the right said "to the top of Upper Falls."
Since we were short on time and not interested in going to the top of the falls, we didn't hesitate to take the left path.
The trail continued to descend some more with some more signs and markings to help with some trouble spots.
Eventually, the trail started to hug some interesting cliff walls. But it was somewhere at this point that we spotted a deer carcass right next to the hiking trail. The carcass looked like it was a new kill.
This freaked Julie out as she treated the dead deer as if it was like spotting a dead human body next to the trail. And not long after accepting that the deer was there and we'd have to go by it, there were a couple of guys in camouflage gear further up the trail. We suspected that they probably shot the deer, and now Julie was concerned that these folks might be up to no good (i.e. that we might be their next targets).
In fact, it could very well be that this deer might have been related to the two deer that we saw across the road to get to the trailhead.
But we trusted these folks were just out doing their own business and don't have a malicious agenda towards non-locals so we eventually pushed forward and said "good morning" to the camouflaged guys as we passed by them.
Not long afterwards, we finally made it to the base of Upper Piney Falls. Like Ozone Falls, it was tall though not as tall Ozone. However, we were able to walk behind this waterfall and try to take as many photos as we could despite the non-optimal lighting conditions thanks to the harsh light against dark shadows. In fact, when I positioned my self on the other side to look back at the front of the falls, the sun was directly in my line of sight.
The overhanging cliffs here looked like there might have been hints of some kind of basaltic rock, but it was hard to tell since the hexagonal columns weren't nearly as obvious (if indeed they do exist here). Plus, some of these cliff walls were also dropping water.
When we had our fill of this waterfall, we headed back to the trailhead. However, the thought did cross our minds that we might have to see the camouflaged guys again.
Just when we arrived at a signed trail junction with the Lower Falls spur, I went ahead and took a very steep descent towards it. Even though the signs suggested this was a trail, it was really more like a steep scramble.
Anyways, right at the base of this scramble, I was near the top of Lower Piney Falls. It was clear that there was no way to the bottom of this waterfall (at least no obvious one), and the bright and hot sun was right against my line of sight while also yielding terrible light and dark zones in my photos.
So there was no reason to linger here longer than needed while Julie was waiting back at the trail junction. So I made the steep climb (steep enough in a couple of instances for me to use my hands as well) and rejoined Julie.
As we walked back on the trail, we noticed one couple that was headed to the falls. At least that gave us some reassurance from our fear that we wouldn't be victimized by those camouflaged folks whose intentions might not be good (whether true or not).
At 12pm (central time), we were back at the car. The camouflaged folks were also back at their truck. We didn't exchange any more words. I think we just wanted to put our stuff in the car and drive off, which we promptly did.
Now, we were headed back towards Cookeville.
By 1:05pm, we arrived at La Quinta Inn in Cookeville, where we were able to check-in and drop off our stuff. The day was quite warm today (about 80F), especially in town.
After getting settled, we left La Quinta Inn at 1:50pm. After a quick Quiznos sandwich, we then followed the GPS instructions to go through a rather busy and surprisingly big town of Cookeville, before rejoining the Hwy 290, which wound towards Cummins Mill Road. Making a right on Cummins Mill Road, we then followed some signs until we were directed to turn left and then another left past some wooden fence and into an unpaved car park.
Cummins Falls State Park was said to be Tennessee's newest state park in 2011. I had read stories about how this waterfall almost fell into the hands of developers. However, locals banded together so raise enough money for the state to buy the private property and thus eventually save this falls from succumbing to development at its expense.
We were at the car park at 2:35pm. There were a handful of vehicles already parked here, suggesting that a place like this could see a lot more people if it wasn't dead smack in the middle of the workweek today.
Anyways, I came prepared to get wet in an attempt to see the falls from the base, but only after seeing the falls from the overlook. Apparently Travel & Leisure rating this watefall as one of America's top swimming holes so surely it must be worth getting to the base of the falls, right?
The nearly half-mile down-and-up walk crossed a couple of what seemed to be roads, but we doubted they were accessible to private vehicles from the public. And not much later, we'd eventually arrive at the overlook of Cummins Falls. Unfortunately, there was really only one good spot from which to see and take photos of the main section of the falls. And that spot was only good for one photographer at a time.
So after waiting turns to take photos of the Cummins Falls (which was in shadow and juxtaposed against very bright cliffs), I decided to scout out the quick descent towards the base of Cummins Falls. But it was clear that the authorities here had put signs pointing you towards the Downstream Trail in order to access the base of Cummins Falls. There must have been a reason why.
Nonetheless, I followed some little pink and yellow flags before I saw the steep descent towards the base of the falls. After investigating this route, I saw a pretty nasty vertical drop that just didn't seem like it was very safe to do without some kind of climbing gear or rope. So I went back up and decided not this falls wasn't worth it. Plus, I wasn't about to hike an additional 3.2 miles round trip where half of this would be wading and bouldering the stream towards Cummins Falls' base.
I was wondering why Travel & Leisure chose this waterfall as one of the best swimming holes in the US when accessing the base of the falls wasn't easy. It started to make me wonder whether the writer of that article did his/her research, or did he/she just look at a bunch of photos and some blurbs in the literature about whether it was possible to swim there or not, and then base the decisions off these "sources." If you ask me, that was either lazy travel writing or maybe the difficulty in accessing the base of the falls might have been a plus since few people would do it and overwhelm the place.
So that was the end of our Cummins Falls visit. We were back at the car park at 3:30pm. Next up was the long-awaited Burgess Falls.
This time we took the Hwy 56 south to the I-40, then took that interstate east for a mile before going south on a rather busy Hwy 135. After about 8 miles or so, we'd eventually reach the turnoff for Burgess Falls. And not long after getting onto this road, we saw a ranger closing the gate to the office.
At first I thought he was closing the park to the public, which I thought would be strange since it was pretty early in the afternoon (the sun still had another couple of hours to set). But we talked to him and he said that he was about to close the gates in another hour and 15 minutes.
At 4:15pm, we finally made it to the Burgess Falls car park. There were still quite a few cars parked in this fair-sized lot, but we knew that we didn't have a whole lot of time to visit Burgess Falls before the ranger closed the gate. So we hauled ass as fast as we could.
We still had some time to hastily take photos and movies of the Upper Falls and the Middle Falls. Both of these falls were very wide and photogenic. It helped that the afternoon sun was low enough to keep the waterfalls in shadow to facilitate long exposure shots.
When we got to the overlook of the Big Falls, we could see that Burgess Falls was half in shadow. Moreover, while its waterflow was adequately satisfying, it didn't have enough volume to cover the entire pyramidal rock face with water.
Had it done that, it would've made me consider this waterfall as a poor man's Union Falls in Yellowstone National Park (a waterfall that would be very high on my wish list if only I could find the right circumstance to do extended hiking in the Bechler Backcountry).
It was about 4:40pm when I had my fill of taking photos and movies at the main overlook. And that was when I bolted my way down the steep trail to the base of Burgess Falls.
The path was fairly straightforward in the beginning. Then, there were stairs with a caged canopy (my guess was that it prevented rocks from pelting the stairway) that began right at the same level as the brink of Burgess Falls.
Once the stairs were done, the trail then entered a wet and misty zone where the rocks were very slippery and the trail was very conducive towards taking a spill if not careful with the footing. But I eventually made it to the bottom where I took photos of the falls in as wide an angle as I could possibly due.
Even though only half the waterfall was in the warm afternoon light, there was a faint rainbow.
When it got to near 5pm, I ran my way back up the path to rejoin Julie. Sweating profusely, we both hastily made our way back up the same trail that we went down. Now we did see a handful of people go in the opposite direction, which made us wonder if they'd get locked in by the ranger or not. We were certain these folks wouldn't make it out if they tried to go the 3/4-mile all the way to the overlook of the main waterfall.
At 5:20pm, we were finally back at the car park. So we still had around 10 minutes left to spare. But given how rushed today's visit was, we decided we'd come back here first when it first opens at 8am so we could enjoy this waterfall with a bit of a more relaxed pace.
We were back in Cookeville at 5:45pm, but we spent the next couple of hours picking up some more water at the local Wal-mart, and then dinner at Crawdaddy's, which was better than what we expected.
At 7:30pm, we were finally back at our room and called it a day... and another long one at that!
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Day 13: TAKE ME TO ANOTHER PLACE, TAKE ME TO ANOTHER LAND...
It was 6:45am when I awoke, but Julie slept in another half-hour or so. It was another sunny and warm day, which was apparent when I took our belongings to our parked car. And ever since we left North Carolina, we swore that the air on this side of the Appalachians was generally warmer. Thus, more sweat and we couldn't really let stuff sit in our car and let it act as a refrigerator overnight.
After a lengthy bit of packing and having another complimentary continental breakfast, we finally left the motel at 8:25am.
We headed back towards Burgess Falls hoping that perhaps we could have a more relaxed experience there while hoping the shadows of the morning would help make Burgess Falls more photo friendly than yesterday.
So at 8:40am, we returned to the Burgess Falls car park. It was nice and quiet as only one other vehicle was parked here.
Instead of the riverside trail that we took yesterday afternoon, we took the maintenance road this time. The walk wasn't any shorter than the path we took yesterday, but it was a lot flatter and wider. Julie and I were constantly mesmerized by the leaves gently falling to the ground like snowflakes. It helped pass the time as we were hiking the 0.75 miles to the main waterfall.
Once we got to the main falls, we could see that the morning light had already started to breach the very top of Burgess Falls. We knew that it would be prone to wreaking havoc on our photos given its propensity to create highly contrasted light and dark zones that the camera would be unable to resolve. I started to wonder if the lighting would've been better had we arrived at the park right when it opened at 8am.
Nonetheless, we spent some time taking photos at the top in both long exposure and fast exposure. Then, we descended to the base together. And like yesterday, the descent to the very bottom was a bit slippery and wet, but Julie seemed to get down without a problem.
Then, we wasted no time taking what photos we could until the sun's light got even worse than it was now. Equipped with the tripod, I did my best to take in the entire scenery, but it was clear that without wading in the water, there was no way I could get completely frontal views of the falls. Besides, the morning sun would've shone directly in the line of sight from there (it was already washing out the very top of the falls in my photos).
We also took advantage of the tripod to take couple shots in long exposure down here as well. We'd eventually be done with the scene when a few other folks joined us in taking photos of the falls' base.
By 10am, we were back at the car.
Next, we drove further south towards the town of Sparta. And once we passed that town while driving south on the TN-111, we followed the GPS hoping to find Lost Creek Falls somewhere southeast of town.
Our meanderings would eventually lead us to the 287, which we then took to Hickory Valley Rd, then to Big Bottom Rd (which was also White Cave Rd). At some point, we must've overshot the spot for Lost Creek Falls because we kept going north and eventually hit Lost Creek Rd. Turning right on Lost Creek Rd, we eventually reached a dead-end at someone's residence. So in backtracking, I took some time to stop the car, look at our research notes, and then conclude that we had gone the right way before overshooting it.
So we headed back onto the White Caves Rd. now going south.
Eventually, we'd be back where the GPS told us to stop. However, there was a white truck with doors opened parked beneath the elevated unpaved road we were on. I could see that we were probably supposed to be parked where they were, but Julie was spooked by that truck in much the same way she was spooked by the camouflaged truck at Upper Piney Falls.
It was too bad Lost Creek Falls had no signs or anything indicating its whereabouts nor its protection. That would've saved us a heap of uncertainty.
Anyways, not wanting to tempt fate by a possible confrontation with armed people (which was definitely on our minds back at Upper Piney Falls yesterday), we decided against doing Lost Creek Falls and the Lost Creek Cave. So at 11:20am, we continued back towards the TN-111 and continued south towards Falls Creek Falls State Park.
There were actually two ways of getting there (one on the 30 and the other via the 111 we stayed on). So we continued going south of the town of Spencer and through some road work going on here.
Eventually, we'd get to the Hwy 285, which we followed all the way into the main part of the state resort park. It felt like there was a bit of a maze of roads criss-crossing every which way. But we made sure that we stayed on the main road until we saw signs pointing the way to the main waterfall itself.
By 12:10pm, we made it to the car park for the Falls Creek Falls Overlook. The place was quite busy for a weekday. It was also partly cloudy, which was a good thing for blocking out the sun in photographs.
That was because when we walked to the overlook, we could see right away that the sun created really bad lighting conditions for photographing the 256ft waterfall. Not even its companion waterfall was flowing given the pretty low volume of water on the main falls.
I had read that the man-made down further upstream (and that we drove over en route to get here) ensured that Falls Creek Falls would flow year-round. But without this waterfall in full stream, it really wasn't all that impressive (at least compared to something like Burgess Falls).
It was a good thing that the sun was blocked by the clouds from time to time. I tried to capitalize on it when such an event occurred, but the best viewing spot at the overlook (where the foliage below wasn't getting in the way) was almost never vacated.
At 12:40pm, Julie returned to the car. She let me go ahead and take the descending trail to the base of Falls Creek Falls.
The trail was fairly straightforward at first. But soon enough, it followed a rather rocky and uneven path as it continued its steep descent into the cooler depths of the gorge.
Eventually, the trail would traverse a series of rocks, which I was sure came from the cliffs above. In fact, this trail followed most of the cliffs and even beneath overhangs, which I was sure posed a threat to hiker safety as long as we were by the cliffs (the evidene of rockfalls were all around).
There was even a small section on the steps next to the cliffs where I swore I felt some kind of cool draft just as the stairs was turning in a different direction. Given the Mammoth Caves experience a couple of days ago, I reckoned that there must be a cave somewhere near there, but I couldn't say for sure since I wasn't interested in off-trail scrambling to find it.
At the bottom of the falls, there were some folks that were just about to leave. Another couple was also down here, and they actually went closer to the point where the falls smacked to the ground.
Once I had my fill of the falls from this spot, I eventually returned to Julie and the car at 1:30pm. It was roughly 3/4-mile each way (1.5 miles round trip) to get to the bottom of Falls Creek Falls. I'm sure it probably felt a little longer thanks to the uneven surface and the amount of climbing that was necessary.
Next, we drove off and continued the loop road from the Falls Creek Falls Overlook and towards the Piney Gorge (it was a one-way road anyways so it wasn't like we had to go out of our way to see what was in the Piney Gorge area).
At about 1:35pm, we made a brief stop by a "5" marker. That stop revealed a view of fall colors and part of the gorge itself.
Five minutes later, we found Milliken's Overlook, where we could see more fall colors plus a hint of a valley in the background.
The drive continued until we made it to a little cul-de-sac for Piney Falls and Suspension Bridge at 1:45pm. After getting out of the car, we first took the path to the Piney Falls Overlook. And we could see from that distant view that the falls dropped in a thin plunge before hitting a sloping wall nearly half-way down and spreading out like a fan.
After getting our fill of this vantage point, we proceeded back up to the car park.
Next, we walked the other path towards the Suspension Bridge. Somwhere along this route, we saw a yellow fence with perhaps the closest view of Piney Falls. Unfortunately, lots of vegetation blocked the line-of-sight and thus rendered photographing Piney Falls from this trail was not practical.
Continuing on this trail, it would eventually hit the namesake suspension bridge. Unfortunately, there were no views of Piney Falls from here. Plus, the suspension bridge eventually reached some signpost indicating that the Lower Loop continued. Not interested in continuing the hike, Julie and I headed back to the car and got there at around 2:10pm.
Next, we drove out of the Falls Creek Falls and Piney Falls road spur and returned back to the main park road. From there, we followed the main road towards the Nature Center. Once we arrived at the car park at 2:20pm, we followed the signs to the Cane Creek Falls.
But it turned out that the view at this overlook was a dud. We could only see Rockhouse Creek Falls to our right, but Cane Creek Falls down below to our left was practically blocked by vegetation. So we took our obligatory photos and movies from here, but we were left wanting more.
So next, I went to the Cane Creek Cascades further upstream. This waterfall was definitely more swimmer- and bather-friendly as I saw many folks playing in the water here, despite the water being very cold. I was also busy trying to hold my breath as I took long exposure photographs of the falls without the tripod.
When I had my fill of photographing Cane Creek Cascades and the suspension bridge above it, I then opted to continue hiking on the trail that went about 1.2 miles from here to a view of the Falls Creek Falls itself. That trail crossed that suspension bridge just upstream from Cane Creek Cascades.
Thankfully, I didn't have to go all the way to see an overlook for the gorge and quite possibly a view of the front of Cane Creek Falls.
And eventually, I'd make it to the overlook where both Rockhouse Creek Falls and Falls Creek Falls were visible. It ended up being about a mile each way and roughly half-way between Falls Creek and the Nature Center.
The view from this side was much better than the side by the Nature Center. But it was still difficult to take photos of Cane Creek Falls satisfactorily. After talking with the worker inside the Nature Center before going off on my own to do this hike, he mentioned that there was a "cable trail" that descended a vertical cliff with the aid of a cable to hold on to.
It sounded dangerous to me and it was one of those things where I had to evaluate whether a waterfall is really worth that much risk-taking with your own life. And like with Cummins Falls, I opted not to go down to the base for this one either.
In any case, I got my movies and my views (including photos where both Rockhouse Creek and Cane Creek Falls were visible in one go). And at that point, I headed back towards an awaiting Julie by the Nature Center. And by 3:35pm, we were back in the car and ready to head on over to McMinnville.
The drive to leave Falls Creek Falls State Resort Park and onto Hwy 30 going west was a bit slow going because there was a tour bus that held everyone up (easily a line of a dozen cars or so) by now using any of the pullouts (maybe none of them were long enough for such a large vehicle?).
And when all was said and done, we checked into the Best Western Tree City in McMinnville at 4:30pm. We could see that this town was small and there wasn't much going for it in terms of food. Nonetheless, we headed out for an early dinner at 5pm.
We just went with a chain restaurant like Applebee's and ended up with food that we weren't too fond of. I suppose it was either chain food or crap fast food like KFC, Mickie D's, BK, Wendy's, Arby's, etc. So I guess our low expectations were pretty much on par with the reality of the Applebee's food. Not wanting to spend more money than we needed to, we refrained from getting anything more than our mains and a chips and salsa appetizer.
By about 6pm, we were back at the Best Western, where we called it a day and looked forward to talking with our daughter via Skype. There were still two full days left on this trip, but our desire to cuddle with our little girl was very strong as we had gone nearly two weeks without her on this trip...
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Day 14: RACING AGAINST THE RUSH
It was 5:30am when I awoke, and Julie got up roughly 15 minutes later. After reading TripAdvisor last night about Ruby Falls, it was clear that we had better be on one of the first tours of the day. Otherwise, it wouldn't be the experience we were looking forward to. Thus, it was decided that we'd skip Foster Falls and head straight for Ruby Falls since we'd also be losing an hour thanks to the time zone shift from central time to eastern time.
So after a quick brekkie, we left McMinnville at 6:15am. Sure it was dark, but the highways had many vehicles (especially big rig trucks) so I wasn't too worried about deer jumping out in front of us. And when we finally got onto the I-24 due east to Chattanooga, it was pretty much 70mph except for a few speed trap zones where the speed limit was down to 55mph (we did see a couple of instances where cops pulled over someone for speeding).
So the drive went by pretty uneventfully and rather smoothly. We'd eventually get into Chattanooga before following the signs towards Lookout Mountain. We'd eventually reach the car park for Ruby Falls at about 8:45am (EST; recall that we had lost an hour so the drive was really 90 minutes).
After buying a double play to see both Ruby Falls and Rock City, we awaited our tour, which eventually started at 9am.
After descending an elevator some 260ft below the surface of Lookout Mountain, we followed a corridor towards a spot where cheezy photos were taken, and then after all eight of our tour group showed up, we started the tour.
I had read about large groups of at least 24 or even 36 people so both Julie and I were quite glad with our eight people. According to our guide Bill, he said we were on a "VIP Tour."
So the tour was pretty much a mix of walking for stretches and then stopping at several spots for some cave geology as well as some weird formations. There was a video at the very start followed by some strategic sound effects and music in the cave.
Indeed, the tour did feel a bit commercialized and quite unlike the let-things-be mentality championed at the Mammoth Caves National Park, but given that our tour was intimate, we didn't feel too rushed to take photos and soak in the subterranean scenery.
A good chunk of the cave tour involved looking at the crawl spaces that the founder (Leo) had to have gone through in order to reach the waterfall. Leo's wife Ruby managed to follow Leo through some six hours of spelunking towards the waterfall, and so it wasn't hard to imagine why the waterfall was named after Leo's wife.
We had lost track of time, but it must have been at least an hour or so before we finally arrived at the waterfall we paid the admission to see. The room started off dark where it was only flanked by some dark red lighting. We could definitely hear the falls, but until the guide turned on the lights (and the music), nothing could be seen (or at least photographed).
But once the theatrics started, we went nuts taking what photos and movies that we could. I could imagine how chaotic the scene would be if there were more people, but the eight people in our group allowed us ample time to enjoy the falls before the guide turned off the lights.
We weren't able to go around the base of the falls like I had seen it done in the past. There were rope barricades preventing us from doing that. Still, the 145ft falls was impressive and every bit as beautiful as we had anticipated.
When we left the waterfall, we walked back in the direction that we came from via some slightly different passages. Some of the old favorite formations and features (e.g. a mirror pool) afforded us additional opportunities to take more photos.
And as we left, we started to see other tour groups heading the other way towards the falls. The guides referred to us (or any other group that was done seeing the waterfall) as "survivors." But given the size of the immediate groups that went after us, we were so glad that we went as early as we did. For the next group after us must have been at least two dozen people. Then the next three groups we saw after that each contained at least 20-30 kids.
I could totally see why visitors complained about the experience if they happened to be caught in one of the rushed mega tours.
Anyways, once we left the cave and tipped Bill, we took a few more minutes to take some photos of Chattanooga from the observation tower directly above the Ruby Falls gift shop. It was a little hazy this morning and there were power lines towards the bottom of our line of sight, but all this was just icing on the cake. For we finally got to see the lovely Ruby Falls in a way that allowed us to appreciate it as well as the cave itself.
We were back at the car at 10:40am After following some signs towards Rock City, we'd eventually reach that car park at about 10:55am. It was interesting how we crossed into the Georgia state line even though we were still driving about on Lookout Mountain.
So we wasted no time using our tickets to get right onto the Enchanted Trail, which mazed its way throughout the combination of botannical garden, vistas, slot canyons, and caverns.
The beginning of the walk felt like a quiet walk in a garden with some added sound effects of bird life. There were also some Christmas lights on some of the surrounding trees.
After a few more minutes of quickly walking along the Enchanted Trail, we'd eventually be on the Stone Bridge above the Lover's Leap. It was here that we saw the waterfall (man-made) that fronted a lovely backdrop of trees and farms below. But it was clear that we had to proceed further in order to get a frontal view of that waterfall.
As we continued on, we'd eventually get to the lookout area with birdseye views away from Lookout Mountain. There was even a sign here claiming that we could see seven states from this area. However, spotting South Carolina, North Carolina, and Kentucky might have been a bit of a stretch.
Beyond this, the trail then descended through some mini-tunnels and cave-like passages with gnome statues becoming even more apparent.
After passing by a deer park, the path then went behind some stained glass windows before finally emerging near a platform providing a frontal view of the High Falls. The problem was that the sun was against us and so we patiently waiting for a cloud patch to hide the sun. Once it did, we took a few more photos and movies before we kept going.
Towards the end of the Enchanted Trail, we got into some caves ("Fairyland Caverns"?). Unfortunately, during this part of the walk, we saw more gnomes, rather contrived cave rocks, and some real cheezy fairy tale displays that were every bit reminiscent of a Disneyland ride than something that brought us back to Nature.
As much as we were put off by the kitschy Disneyland theme park atmosphere of the Rock City experience, we were aware that there were plenty of people who preferred Rock City of Ruby Falls.
Hey, to each their own!
At 12:35pm, we returned to our car. The place seemed much busier now than when we first showed up. I guess it further reinforced my Mom's saying that "the early bird gets the worm."
With the time nearing check-in time for our accommodation in Chattanooga, we decided to drive towards the Residence Inn hoping we could check in and leave our stuff before going back out on the road for a little more waterfalling.
After some traffic on the I-24/I-75 interchange, it became apparent that there was a nasty wreck on the westbound I-24 that essentially stopped traffic on the other side and caused the lookie-loo traffic jam on our side.
One of the cars in the multi-vehicle accident was upside down!
And as we continued driving in the opposite direction of the accident, we could see many of the vehicles caught in the stopped traffic have open doors with people out of their cars (suggesting that they might have been waiting in the traffic jam for a while).
Given this event, I decided that instead of backtracking towards Foster Falls (the one we skipped this morning), we mind as well continue going northeast towards Bald River Falls once we were done checking in. That way, we wouldn't have to go through that nightmarish traffic jam!
Finally at 1:15pm, we arrived at the rather hidden Residence Inn where we blown away by the spaciousness of our room. Actually, there were two main rooms (one bedroom, one living area) plus a full kitchen. It really made me wish we had spent two nights here instead of last night at McMinnville and tonight in Chattanooga. But then again, we couldn't have foreseen that we'd skip Lost Creek Cave and Falls yesterday nor could we have anticipated such a nice accommodation in Chattanooga.
Nonetheless, we did our business of dropping off our luggage and travelling light for the afternoon excursion. So by 1:25pm, we were back in the car and out on the road again.
The drive towards Bald River Falls involved a combination of driving the I-75 interstate plus some local highways (e.g. Mecca Pike) before passing through the town of Tellico Plains and then along the Tellico River itself as we entered the Cherokee National Forest (this time on the Tennessee side instead of the North Carolina side like earlier on this trip).
There were quite a few bikers on this stretch of road as well as a constant supply of slow moving vehicles causing lines on the twisting mountain roads. The last 6 miles were on River Rd, which supported bi-directional traffic, but there were no center dividing lines (ala Norway).
Eventually, we'd arrive at the Bald River Falls at 3:15pm. There were many people standing on the bridge fronting the falls so it was clear that that was the best place to view it. I suppose one wouldn't even have to get out of their car to see the falls.
Nonetheless, we took plenty of photos and movies from the bridge. We even tried to use the railings on the bridge as pseudo-tripods. The fall colors flanking the falls definitely made this waterfall attractive. And even though the sun was getting close to hiding behind the surrounding mountains, we still had to position ourselves towards the far side of the bridge to ensure that we weren't looking against the sun in our photos.
At 3:35pm, we had our fill of the rather busy yet picturesque cascade, but now it was time to head back to Chattanooga to wind down the day. Clearly, we wouldn't be able to fit in Foster Falls on this day, and it would have to be punted for tomorrow morning.
And after a pretty long drive, we finally returned to the Residence Inn at 5:15pm.
Julie and I unwound very briefly before we finally settled on a place for dinner tonight. It turned out that Julie Yelped some Italian place (called Alleia) in downtown Chattanooga and so we checked it out (despite the horrendous traffic that nearly caused us to be late for our 6:30pm dinner reservation).
It turned out that our dinner was delicious and on par with LA quality Italian dining. We really enjoyed the pork shoulder main plus the beef carpaccio appetizer. Even the tiramisu for dessert was good. And all that plus a couple of OK dishes that amounted to less than $70 with tax and tip included. Clearly, this was probably half the price of most decent quality California establishments, but the quality here definitely rivaled those we were exposed to back at home.
At about 8:30pm, we finally returned to the Residence Inn to give our daughter a videoconference call before finally winding down and ending the day. Tomorrow would be our last full day in the South, and it would also include our very last waterfall of the trip at Foster Falls...
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Day 15: STONE MOUNTAIN
I awoke at 6:55am after sleeping through the 6:30am alarm. Julie was already up as I noticed that she was busy drying her hair while also reading her Kindle. I guess she had conked out early last night and she couldn't go back to sleep once she woke up early.
We took our time leaving Chattanooga because the Residence Inn had perhaps the best breakfast of the trip. They had buffet style stuff like usual, but instead of the usual selection of scrambled eggs and sausage patties, there was also BK-style French Toast, tater tots, oatmeal, muffins, lots of fruits, etc. It really made me wish we stayed here a second night instead of McMinnville, but hindsight's always 20-20.
At 8:25am, we left the Residence Inn and headed towards Foster Falls. We had missed doing this waterfall yesterday due to the rush to get to Ruby Falls before the crowds really started to show up. Clearly it was the right decision.
The drive was under overcast skies with some slight drizzle and sprinkles. Apparently, the rain that was supposed to come last night and last into this morning didn't really have the kind of bite we were expecting.
In any case, it was 9:20am (EST) when we arrived at the well-signed Foster Falls Small Wild Area. Once again, we were back in Central Time, but we pretty much treated it like we were still on Eastern Time since we'd be back on Eastern Time once we were done with this excursion.
It was bitterly cold when we got out of the car as the skies looked like they were threatening rain. Also, there were some moderate breezes adding a bit of wind chill. Even with our jackets on, our hands were feeling like they were going to go numb if they didn't get put into pockets.
The overlook of Foster Falls was only 125 yards from the picnic area adjacent to the car park. So really quickly, we were able to use the railings as the tripod for taking long exposure photos. There were some fall colors in the foliage dominating the lower part of the open gorge view, and fortunately, the foliage parted just enough for the 60ft waterfall to be seen plunging vertically into the large plunge pool below.
At this point, Julie returned to the car where it was nice and warm. It wasn't clear how long the walk was to get to the base of the falls since neither the trail map nor the signage here explicitly stated it. But I went ahead and ventured down there anyways with tripod in hand.
Following the power lines a short distance, then following the sign indicating where to start the descent, I proceeded carefully down the rather rocky and uneven trail. It was easy to turn and ankle or slip and fall thanks to fallen leaves both hiding rocks beneath them and making the footing slippery when they sit on the ones acting as footsteps.
At the bottom of the descent, there was a swinging bridge over the stream draining the plunge pool. And immediately after the bridge, I was across the plunge pool from the impressive and well-flowing waterfall.
After taking some time taking tripod photos as well as movies, I noticed that it was possible to scramble closer to the overhanging cliffs to perhaps photograph this waterfall at an angle plus possibly getting a view of a taller but thinner second waterfall adjacent to Foster Falls.
I hastily took tripod photos and some movies from this vantage point, but I didn't want to linger given the everpresent danger of rockfalls as evidenced by the piles of large loose rocks fringing the plunge pool on this side.
Even though the car park was nearly full of cars when we got there, it was very quiet at the waterfall. It was only me and one other person at the falls before he gave me the falls to myself for a good 20 minutes or so. It wasn't until I started my ascent back up to the car park where I saw a father and four little girls make their way down to the falls. I guess the rest of the folks were either backpacking, camping, or day hiking a longer trail (e.g. Fiery Gizzard Trail).
At 10:25am (EST), I was back at the car park. Thus, we visited the last waterfall of our two-week trip. Now, it was time for the long drive back to the Jackson-Hartfield Airport in Atlanta with a detour through Stone Mountain.
After a fairly smooth drive south on the I-75 (literally "headin' down the Atlanta Highway" per Love Shack lyrics by the B-52's), we then took the Stone Mountain Parkway into the main entrance, paid the $10 per vehicle fee, and then after some confusion about parking, finally found an improvised parking spot in the busy Memorial Hall parking lot at 1:35pm.
Our main goal for our brief visit to Stone Mountain was to see the giant carving on the giant domed mountain itself that consisted of Confederate figures - one of them being General Robert E Lee. During our visit, we were busy taking photos while reading the signs here. Unfortunately, we were totally looking against the sun so the photos didn't really turn out. Moreover, there were some hideous red stages along with some fake snow that dominated the lawn area between the Memorial Hall and the fountain fronting the carving.
All the Civil War readings we were doing got us thinking about the real reasons why there was a Civil War to begin with. While history is usually told by the victors of war, I was certain there was another side to the story. And the connotations of Confederate heroes we noticed in the signs here seemed to reinforce that notion.
While I recalled that my US history literature seemed to suggest that the Civil War was largely over the abolition of slavery, I was a bit skeptical of it because of the amount of blood that was spilled. Surely, there must be more to the determination of both sides of the war than what the history literature led us to believe. Moreover, a lot of casualty records were destroyed at the end of the war so who knows exactly how many more casualties went unreported? And why were the records destroyed?
In any case, Julie and I discussed this amongst ourselves and came to the conclusion that the real motivator for the war must have been economic. We speculated that it probably had something to do with the Union possessing most of the political decision-making and rule-making power while the Confederacy held most of the agricultural production in which slavery provided much of the productivity at minimal cost.
We started to see parallels between the anti-Union sentiment and the current sentiment against the Federal government. We even started to see how it was like the South resented the North telling them how to live their lives, which almost seemed to parallel the Conservaties vs. Liberals stalemate. Indeed, it was no wonder why several Southern states tried to secede from the Union, and that many locals here proudly wave the Confederate flag instead of the US flag.
Abolish slavery and undermine the profit margins gained by the economic structure of the South? That seemed like a much more likely motivation for the South to go to war and defend their way of life while the North tried to offset that path to power (than it being simply about human rights; especially when you consider that some of the influential figures of the North even owned slaves). Meanwhile, we could see how the economic engine of the South posed a threat to the politics of the North, and perhaps the notion of human rights was a way to rally people to fight against the threat of the stability of the young Nation being undermined.
Well, whatever the case, this was what travel opened our eyes to. We got to see how people more or less live in this part of the country, we saw through the stereotypes, and we could appreciate the opposing point of view even though it may not be consistent with our core values. Without even visiting this part of the country, all that we would know about the South would be through a very biased media and a bunch of stereotypes born out of ignorance and oversimplification of the truth.
And so that was pretty much our takeaway of our visit to Stone Mountain besides the impressive domed mountain with the giant almost Mt-Rushmore-like carving.
We left Stone Mountain at 2:35pm and headed towards our accommodation near the Jackson-Hartfield Airport. But our GPS oddly-enough took us through downtown Atlanta so instead of taking the interstates to get to our destination quickly, we ended up doing a much more time-consuming detour complete with traffic, traffic lights, and speed zones. The traffic was almost like LA traffic, and it was enough to prevent us from wanting to do bit of touring the downtown Atlanta area with possibly a last nice dinner in town.
We finally got to our accommodation at 3:30pm. The Hotel Indigo was definitely noisy as we could hear planes and trains loudly announcing their presence. But I guess there had to be a reason why this place was only $80/night and we could totally understand why.
And so we wound down for the day as we cleared out the rental car and organized our belongings in our room.
At about 6:30pm, we ate at the hotel restaurant called the Blue Goose. Shocking both of us, the appetizers we got (crab cakes and some kind of bruschetta along with freshly-made hummus and pita chips) were surprisingly good. We were glad we didn't have to do any driving this night. In a way, it was fitting that our fooding experience ended like this because we were pleasantly surprised many times over. Either Southern fooding was that good or it exceeded our low expectations or maybe the fooding scene we were used to in LA might be a bit overpriced and overrated.
Who knows? We just savored this last bit of our trip to the South, and now it's back to life, back to reality again. Tomorrow we would be flying out, and we were so looking forward to cuddling with our daughter once again...
Have a waterfall travel story you'd like to share?
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