"Backyard" Backpacking, a Rare Privilege of Life in Transyvlania
Lots of people can camp in their backyards. In Transylvania, our figurative backyards cover thousands of acres. We can backpack.
CAESARS HEAD STATE PARK, S.C. — Three miles into my weekend backpacking trip and a few steps past the bridge over Raven Cliff Falls, I encountered a big, red-lettered “WARNING” that, as always, struck me as excessively ominous.
Doesn’t every hiker carry a map, food and water, which the sign states are necessary “for your safety?”
Aren’t steep pitches standard in the Appalachians, which are, after all, mountains? Do we need to be alerted that they are “very strenuous?”
But I’m coming around. For one thing, the message — posted on either end of the trails leading down to Matthews Creek in South Carolina’s Caesars Head State Park — really does need to be hammered home.
I recently encountered what appeared to be a dad leading his three young, sneaker-clad daughters down the steep 1,200-foot descent on Dismal Trail. With shadows already lengthening, he asked how long it would take to climb down and then back up to the bridge over Raven Cliff.
Pretty long, I said, in a gently discouraging tone. What I wanted to say was: “Dude, did you see the sign?”
The other benefit of the warnings? It thins the crowds.
Hikers march in columns from the trailhead on US 276 to the Raven Cliff Falls overlook. Very few of them venture down to the creek, meaning I often have its crystalline pools, its deep channels rushing between house-sized boulders, its bankside displays of wildflowers, all to myself.
In other words, those warnings work like “no trespassing” signs protecting the privacy of what feels like my own backyard wilderness, one that offers varying degrees of solitude for miles in either direction along the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
I can walk west from my neighborhood in Cedar Mountain through Headwaters State Park to Sassafras Mountain or, if I was feeling ambitious, could proceed all the way to Oconee State Park in Georgia on the Foothills Trail. To the east I can choose any number of stunning paths to the visitors’ center at South Carolina’s Jones Gap State Park.
In between, to name just a partial list, are Gorges State Park, Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area and chunks of the Nantahala National Forest. Expand the definition of the escarpment slightly and you can include the DuPont State Recreational Forest.
I don’t meant to gloat about my circumstances and wouldn’t write about this if it wasn’t part of a broader reality about our community, maybe the broadest reality, the defining quality of Transylvania County. Everybody can easily find their own private space in a nearby public playground. Think of Brevard residents, for example, who can explore any corner of Pisgah National Forest from the Bracken Preserve a few blocks from downtown.
Also, consider this. Would that downtown bustle the way it does without the surrounding forest? Would the Brevard Music Center attract world-class violinists and clarinetists if it wasn’t so wonderfully situated? Would we have so many secondary attractions that make up this great community without the headliners — the mountains and woods? Nope.
Maybe this is just restating the obvious, but I often hear about the downsides of our plentiful public land, that it consumes developable property, depresses the tax base and burdens local emergency personnel who must rescue unprepared adventurers.
True enough, but it also provides vital habitat for diminished wildlife species, protects watersheds, removes vast amounts of carbon from the air — and lets us take overnight hiking trips pretty much on a whim.
So, think of this as a celebration of the local version of “America’s best idea,” as they say about National Parks, a shout-out to the farsighted people who worked to preserve the escarpment and other natural areas, a fond look back at a time when such efforts attracted bipartisan support.
For example, when my former neighbor, Bill Thomas, helped secure designation of the Horsepasture River as a federal Wild and Scenic River in 1986, his allies in the U.S. Senate included two of its most conservative members, Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.
The only real preparation needed for my weekend trip was a reservation for a backcountry camping permit. Otherwise, I did not fully commit to this hike until noon on Saturday and, after assembling my equipment and a few meals, was on the trail by 2 p.m.
It’s familiar territory, too familiar for my more adventurous hiking neighbors. But rather than drive to hikes, I like to walk, which is, after all the whole point, and to find variety in the seasons — long views in winter, colorful leaves in the fall, and, in the summer, the rain-drenched lushness of a forest peppered with wild hydrangea and rhododendron blossoms.
This weekend, I got a couple of seasons rolled into one. My neighborhood is still mostly gray, and from the ridges on the high northern edge of the state park, I could see distant outlines of mountains through bare trees.
Down along Matthews Creek, green buds sprouted from tree limbs and the trail was flanked with ground-hugging dwarf irises and halberd-leaved violets. Dogwoods are everywhere in the southern Appalachians, which I realize anew every year when they start to bloom, as they are doing in profusion along the lowest and southernmost points of the Naturaland Trust Trail.
I also took it easy, another variation from my usual haste to make miles. I spent a minute on the bridge over Raven Cliff, the highest falls in South Carolina, marveling at the dizzying drop and the rush of water.
How many times have I passed the 120-foot high cliff near the falls called The Cathedral? Dozens. How often have I paused to look up at and photograph the disorienting intersection of rock, sky and treetops? Almost never.
I meandered up trails to the small waterfalls at the Asbury Hills Camp and Retreat Center, which, a friendly guy who answered the phone there told me, generously welcomes visiting hikers from the adjacent state park.
I wasn’t far from US 276 when I made camp on the creek, but any noise of traffic was drowned out by the sound of flowing water. The stars were on display at night and a morning rain tested my minimalist shelter, which worked like a champ, thank you very much, and allowed me to enjoy a cozy breakfast before setting out on the return trip.
By early afternoon I was back at my house, which is in the woods, so I don’t even have a lawn. But I do have an amazing backyard.
thank you for an excellant article. we have been living here for 25 years and this is one of the very best
that explains what our environment is. also, if i may say, it is most refreshing to be reminded of what we
have here and not be destracted by our daily small town politics.
We discussed this article when I volunteered at Sharing House today. It was wonderful to join you on this hike. We thank you for all of the articles that you write!!