In May of 2017, my wife Denita and I started our first section hike of the Appalachian Trail. We decided to hike the approach trail starting at Amicalola Falls State Park. At the time, we talked about how much we wanted to bring the kids back with us to see the waterfall there. So, we decided to go back in July with the kids to visit Amicalola, a couple of other falls in the area, and hike another section of the AT. We had taken the kids to see the tall waterfall at Chimney Rock in North Carolina a couple years ago, but Amicalola waterfall was unique enough that we thought it was worth seeing again with the girls. The drive there was a bit long, but the scenery was pleasant. When we first got to the park, we toured the visitor center. Then we drove to the parking lot at the bottom of the falls. The girls were still sore from hiking 23 miles on the AT earlier in the week so we assured them that it wasn’t all that far from the parking lot. The path and stairs leading to the falls were a little wet with drizzle. From the fishing pool at the bottom the girls looked up and saw how high the falls were. They were more motivated to climb the stairs up to the viewing platform once they took in the sheer size of the waterfall. We progressed slowly up the path and heard how the sound of the rushing water became progressively louder.
Once we reached the stairs going up the right-hand side of the water, we talked about how difficult it would have been to construct the path and stairway. Mary Anne who is a bit afraid of heights asked if we were sure the stairs were safe. We reassured her that the metal and wood were well constructed and well maintained. She still hung on to the rails pretty tightly, though. The weather was cool because of the drizzle and it was a much easier climb without our backpacks. When we reached the main platform that acts as a bridge in front of the falls, we just stood there silently watching the water. Denita told us to focus on a single droplet of water and follow it all the way down until it hit a rock in the cascade. The effect was like watching a slow-motion video. Then, when you focused back on the overall picture, the water seemed so fast. Lydia and Mary Anne took some pictures although she was under strict instructions to keep the phone over the bridge. No need to feed the gaping jaws of the waterfall with a cell phone.
The steep climb to the top of the waterfall was a bit harder for sore little legs. We stopped occasionally. The shade was nice as the drizzle gave way to sunlight filtering through the canopy of leaves. We kept laughing at the graffiti people had written or carved on the railing and trees. One even said, “Will you marry me?” What a way to propose. Vandalism certainly wouldn’t have made my wife more likely to say, “Yes!” The setting might have worked since she loves nature, though. Some of the other graffiti was funny or annoying: “So-and-so was here!” or “Eat frogs” or “D*** Stairs!” We were at least entertained as we sweated our way to the top.
Finally, the last stair was reached. We staggered to the top and were rewarded with a breathtaking view of the valley with the blue misty mountains behind stretching to the skyline. The rain had completely stopped and the sky was clear and fresh. We took a selfie, of course. I was thankful that we had come to share that moment as a family. The climb back down the waterfall was breezy and shaded. We took the side path that lead to a different parking lot out of curiosity. We found an inch worm on one of the signs. Mary Anne adopted it temporarily and named it “Bob.” We also found a baby bird that had fallen out its nest. The mother bird was pitching a fit trying to keep all of us scary monsters away. The girls were sad that they couldn’t save it. My wife and I had both tried to rescue baby birds as children. The whole shoe-box-and-earthworm routine had never worked for us. We ended up retracing our steps and walking back down the waterfall path the way we had come. By that time we were all hungry. Lydia must have been extra anxious for our picnic because she flew down the path and face planted. She didn’t cry very long, but her knee was scraped along with the palms of her hands. We had sandwiches by the creek in the shade of a large birch tree. The girls wanted to play on the playground despite the lingering puddles at the bottom of the slide. Hey, what would childhood be like without the joy of mud puddles and damp swings? Everyone was getting tired by this time. We loaded back into the car for the winding road that lead to our next destination – Helton Creek Falls.
Helton Creek Falls
After visiting Amicalola Falls, we returned to Blairsville, GA so that we could pay a visit to Helton Creek Falls. What a pleasant surprise. Nestled down a dirt road lined with private cabins, Helton Creek Falls is perfect for a splash. We found a parking spot and followed a path down a hill with earthen stairs to the creek bottom. The lower falls form a sloping wall of water that lands in a wide shallow pool. The bottom of the pool is solid rock in places and sandy in others. The water is knee deep in a few areas, but most of the water is less than 2 ft. deep. My oldest and youngest daughters took off their shoes immediately and waded all around while my wife and I took pictures. Mary Anne was still feeling the lingering effects of motion sickness and wanted to sit on the stump of what must have been a huge tree. There were other people there playing, and one man shouted down to his friends from the top of the lower falls where he was sitting a little too close to the edge for comfort. It looked like you should have been able to slide down the falls, but it would have been a seriously dangerous, bumpy ride. The man scooted back once he had captured his friends’ attention and waved. I guess he wasn’t entirely lacking a since of self-preservation after all. Lydia said the water was cold when she first got in and flashed us her amazed smile. Of course, she was soaked up to her thighs within just a few minutes, the cold forgotten. Emma wandered down stream a while and circled back to the falls. My wife still had her shoes on, but she jumped rocks like the mountain girl she is without getting her feet wet. Mary Anne took a couple slow motion videos of the waterfall.
Soon we became curious of what was higher up the hill. First my wife ventured up the path. She came back excited a couple minutes later saying there was an upper fall. Indeed, there is an upper waterfall with a higher cascade and a deeper pool underneath. There are large boulders and fallen trees to sit or climb on as well as a wooden viewing deck with a bench. The awesome part of this fall is that you can swim under it. The pool is maybe shoulder deep in places, but most of the water is waist deep or less. The current is not overly swift and the creek is wide without being steep. Since Emma and Lydia were already wet, I joined them in the deep pool up to my knees. I just left my shoes on and kept my wallet and phone dry. I didn’t get under the spray, but I saw another dad take his little girl and hold her feet under the falls while she squealed playfully. We were all wishing we had our swim suits on at that point. Denita and Mary Anne took pictures and sat comfortably on the rocks. We stayed at the falls for about an hour, but we were starting to get hungry after our adventure. We took a few more pictures and then headed back to the car.
We debated the best way to leave the falls. The access road feels so narrow that we wondered if it were one way. It is two-way, but we were willing to take the road less traveled. Little did we know that the other exit has two places where your vehicle must cross the creek. No bridge. My wife about had a hissy fit when I decided to ford the creek. She has heard the phrase, “Turn around. Don’t drown,” more than once since moving to the coast. It is true that the flooding where we live in Eastern NC is different. With flat land, sandy soil, and flash floods it is possible for a car to be swept away in as little as 6” of water. During Hurricane Matthew in 2016, several people went out to survey the flooding and never came home alive. Here in the mountains I wasn’t worried about getting stuck or swept away because the creek bed is rocky and fairly level. The water is less than a foot deep, and we have a four-wheel drive SUV. That didn’t keep my wife from closing her eyes and yelling at me to turn around. After we made it across the first crossing, she told me about playing that computer game “Oregon Trail” as a kid. Apparently, her covered wagon in the game always flipped over when she forded rivers instead of paying for the ferry to take her across. Our SUV is, luckily, much sturdier than a covered wagon because we had to cross the creek a second time. Denita didn’t yell this time, but her knuckles were white from holding the door handle. The girls laughed from the back seat.
Wolf Creek Falls
Our first full day at Vogel State Park, before our 23-mile AT hike, was sunny and mild, perfect conditions to make the short hike to Wolf Creek Falls. From the visitor’s center we followed the path that snaked around the right-hand side of the lake. We talked and admired the wildflowers and trees along the way. At the far side of the lake a wooden bridge spans a concrete spill way that feeds the waterfall. The dirt path that took us down the hill to the base of the falls was not all that steep. We could hear the water, but the view was partially blocked by trees. When we reached the nice viewing platform, we gazed up at the curtain of water pouring down the hillside. We took pictures and enjoyed the beauty of the churning waterfall in quiet until my wife started singing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory songs. Apparently, the waterfall reminded her of the chocolate river/waterfall in the 1971 movie starring Gene Wilder. That lead to a discussion of how much we wanted Oompa Loompas of our own to help out with chores at home.
Soon we were splashing around in the creek downstream from the falls. Well, we tried to keep our feet dry, but some of the rocks proved to be slippery. Our daughter, Mary Anne, was inspired by the name Wolf Creek. She spent a good 2 minutes pretending to be a wolf who howled at the sky from the top of a big boulder with all the passion she possessed. No one else was around so the noise wasn’t a problem. She loves the furry creatures and has even created her own character called the “The NightFire Wolf”. After her serenade, we decided it was time to head back up the path. One can only take so much howling. We walked back to our campsite the opposite way we had come so that we made a complete circle of the lake. Sadly, no Oompa Loompas were waiting for us with Wonka Bars when we finished. We settled for starcrunch snacks and S’mores, instead.