Virginia Hawkins Falls – Upstate S.C.
“Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Blue Ridge Parkway is that rare stretch of amazing motorway along the spine of the southern Appalachians that allows someone like me to do exactly what I enjoy most. Namely motorcycle riding, hiking, exploring & photography all in one shot. It’s an uninterrupted 469 mile long, black top, shock & awe campaign that can touch your soul, if you slow down and let it. There are countless pull offs, overlooks, hiking trails, waterfalls and wonders of nature to see both right on and just off the parkway. My motto is “Ride hard & stop often!”. I try to remember Emerson’s words above to remind myself that life is in fact a journey and its that journey or experiences we have along the way that defines us. If we’re in a rush to get to our destination we tend to miss out on so much along the way.
With that being said I took the day off work, got up earlier than I care to even admit to myself and set out on a day ride to the mountains with sights set on 9 or 10 stops I wanted to make. Some included short hikes to majestic overlooks and some others to amazing waterfalls. The air was surprisingly clear, crisp & cool with bright sunshine that felt more like Fall than mid-May. This was not a photography trip, but rather a stop & smell the roses, get off the beaten track, enjoy life, de-stress, screw the weekly routine and see all that I can in one day “trip”, and I just happened to snap a few pictures along the way.
I encourage everyone to ride, bike, drive, walk, hitch hike or run nude (whatever floats your boat) down the Blue Ridge Parkway at some point. But do me a favor and slow down, stop often, take a deep breath and enjoy all that it has to offer. There is so much to see & explore!
After riding in the early morning darkness for 2-1/2 hours I made my way up hwy 276 from below Ceasar’s Head in South Carolina and stopped at the popular Looking Glass Falls right on the side of the road. With good waterfall this Spring the flow was quite nice.
(Click on images to double their size)
After enjoying the falls and talking to three other people who had camera’s and tri-pods in action I began climbing up in elevation on my way up the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP). Heading west on the parkway from the hwy 276 junction you only go a short distance to milepost 417 and park at the overlook. Across the street from the overlook there is a small ground level trail marker (there is no sign for the falls). It is a rugged 1/2 mile hike to the falls & of course a 1/2 mile hike back up to the overlook. Along the way the side of the trail was very green with vegetation.
I could hear the roar of the falls getting louder and soon enough I came down the stairs and saw the bridge going over it. I had it all to myself to enjoy as no other soul was around.
It’s called skinny dip falls because in the summer people will hike down here and swim. The upper falls creates a deep swimming pool and people jump off the boulders into the water here to cool off. Plus at over 5,000′ elevation and with the cold mountain water I can only imagine that a couple of dips in these chilly temps would do the trick! Just below the main falls the stream turns 90 degrees and runs under the walk bridge and there is a second clear emerald-green pool as well.
Just a couple of miles down from here is Graveyard fields. I’ve stopped here many times in the past and I really like the lower falls especially. I didn’t stop at these falls today because I’ve photographed it many times before, however I would encourage all who hasn’t seen it to stop and do so. The trail is on the far east end of the parking facility. It’s about a 15-20 minute hike down to the falls. Once you cross the bridge take a right and you’ll shortly descend stairs & the falls will be on your right. Here is a pic from last November when I took a bike trip with my wife. It was fogged in at the time & it gave off an eerie feeling.
Just past Graveyard fields at milepost 420 I took a right on the spur road called “Black Balsam Knob Rd”. You ride up about a 1/2 mile and you’ll see a trailhead parking area on your right. Park here & take the “Art Loeb” hiking trail east for .8 mile all the way to the top of the aforementioned Black Balsam knob for spectacular 360 degree views overlooking the BRP down in the distance. The trail starts in the trees but you quickly climb above treeline and go straight up to your first bald with terrific views. Continue up farther to reach the second taller summit of Black Balsam.
After returning down to my parked bike I rode just another short 2 miles on the BRP and parked on the left at mile marker 422 for “The Devil’s Courthouse”. This is another 1/2 mile hike up pretty steep terrain to an established overlook. The views from this 5,800′ peak were nothing less than spectacular as well!
After this it was time to do more riding. The next 30 miles of the BRP I rode non-stop and being on a Monday wouldn’t you know I didn’t have a single car, truck, bike or motor home in front of me the entire way. I twisted the throttle a little more aggressively, leaned the bike over in the perfect corners and even scrapped a few footpegs as I motored along in 3rd & 4th gear at about 75mph through the countless sweepers. Now that was fun! My next stop was at one of my favorite overlooks at milepost 451 at “Watterrock Knob”. There is a hiking trail from the parking lot up to the top but even from a few feet from my parked motorcycle you can enjoy these views. It was very bright outside and you can see why these mountains are called “The Blue Ridge”.
After 3 straight overlooks it was time to find some more cascading water. Just about 1.5 miles off the BRP on hwy 19 is “Soco Falls”. It has no sign so you have to know what to look for. If you’re traveling from the Parkway there is a gravel roadside pull off on your left. Once you get out you’ll hear the falls. It is a short, but very steep climb down first to a wooden deck overlook spot of the upper falls. However continue down after viewing from here to the mid-point and the very steep descent to the river bottom if you like. The falls look completely different from each vantage point.
Now if you know anything about trying to take photographs of moving white water…in the middle of the day…with a bright overhead sun lighting up the falls…well it’s a major challenge! (ie It sucks!!!). The falls always turn out way too overexposed & washed out. So I don’t typically even try to photograph waterfalls during midday when it’s sunny. It’s almost a complete waste of time because it’s so hard to get a decent picture & exposure. That being said these next two waterfalls I’m not real crazy about my photography but I wanted to post them anyways. It was the best I could do based on the conditions. I stopped down my camera exposure a full -2 stops, and had my variable ND filter cranked all the way up and the slowest shutter speed I could get that even looked somewhat ok was about 1/20 a sec. Again not my best work, but it’s all I could do. I would recommend you seeing them in person however. Here is Soco Falls from the midpoint location. It’s actually two different streams cascading down the same canyon location.
After visiting Soco Falls for a solid 25 minutes I headed back down the BRP and saw three elk grazing on the side of the road and started heading towards Cherokee, NC. I took a side road just a few miles in because I had never been down there before and came upon Mile High Campground by accident. At an elevation of 5,280′ there are primitive drive up campsites you can reserve. I stopped at this campsite to check it out because it had unspoiled views of the Smoky’s from this mountain edge location. Nice spot!
Would be nice to unzip your tent in the morning and see the sun rising over those mountains eh?
I also saw three of these 500+ lbs. Elk in this area!
After checking out the campground some I backtracked and continued down the rest of the BRP to Cherokee and about 4 miles north of its end point on Hwy 441 is Mingo Falls. There is a clear parking lot for the falls with a trailhead sign & stairs. You park, walk up approx. 150 stairs and then the trail levels off and it’s just a short 5 minute walk from this point. At 120′ high Mingo Falls is quite impressive. Again with the bright sun hitting the falls I did the best I could with the camera.
It was now time to start looping my ride back towards my home in Georgia. But I couldn’t resist making one last stop at “Silver Run Falls” just south of Cashiers, NC. It is just a short 5 minute easy level walk to these falls from the roadside gravel trailhead parking spot. You can walk right up to the edge of the falls and I’ve been here in the summer and seen people standing under these 20′ falls and letting the cool water pour over them. Just a real pretty location that many people don’t seem to really know about.
All in all it was a great day out exploring, riding, hiking & taking some pictures. The totals for the day were 630 miles covered on the motorcycle, 4 mountain miles hiked, six waterfalls visited, three overlooks traversed, three elks spotted, countless curves negotiated, a few footpegs scrapped and lots of doing what I enjoy.
With the Blue Ridge Parkway there is so much to see. But 1/2 of it requires you to do a little walking. Not everything in life can be seen from a parking lot inside your air conditioned SUV that requires no effort. If you simply just drive or ride the BRP and never make any stops and never explore the overlooks or waterfalls that are usually anywhere from just 5 min to 30 min walks then I really think your truly missing out. Don’t be afraid to get outside of your comfort zone and try something a little different. And with the information age of the internet it just takes a few minutes to locate & research some new points of interest to check out. I just hope I can inspire of few of you to do just that.
Remember life is not a destination but a journey. I truly hope you’re enjoying you’re journey!
Added Video Content (Looking Glass Falls, Black Balsam Knob, Skinny Dip Falls & The Devil’s Courthouse)