Just a little south of Johnson City, the crest of the Southern Appalachians — forming the state line between North Carolina and Tennessee — curves in a great arc, from Devil Fork Gap in Unicoi County to Allen Gap in Greene County. The popular Appalachian Trail travels the state line ridge. Below it, on both sides of the mountain, in North Carolina and Tennessee, run lesser-used trails that present waterfalls flowing down remote hollows, views from wooded ridges and solitude galore, especially in winter.
In Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest, this region is the Bald Mountains Scenic Area. In North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest the area is known as Shelton Laurel Backcountry. Together, the two areas add up to over 20,000 acres of wildland, waiting for you to explore.
John Cox and I started on a rainy, cold Sunday afternoon, typical of December, at the Marguerite Falls trailhead in the Shelton Mission community of Greene County. We headed up the Bullen Hollow Trail, taking a side trip on the redone Marguerite Falls Trail (worth a trip if you haven’t been there lately). Heavy rain made the falls bolder than normal and was our first watery highlight.
Misty drizzle dampened us while hiking past cliffs and into remote Bullen Hollow, shrouded in hemlock and rhododendron. About two miles in, we set up camp and spent a drizzly evening, warming by the fire. I knew we might have difficulty starting a fire, and brought dry newspaper upon which I dripped candle wax. I then found some semi-dry hemlock twigs and started the conflagration. When getting rained on, having a fire somehow makes it more tolerable. So does a quality rain suit. Around 9 we turned in beneath our tarps.
A fog shrouded our campsite the next morning. The rain had moved on, but hopefully put more water in the creeks to make bolder the waterfalls we anticipated seeing. John toasted bagels over the hot coals for breakfast. A climb into the high country took us into a warm and welcoming sun, headed for the state line. John and I separated. I ended up following a faint trail that disintegrated in brush thickets, but ended up on an isolated knob that offered a wonderful view. I fought my way through the laurels to meet John at the Appalachian Trail near Camp Creek Bald, enough brush in my scalp and down my shirt to feed a cow.
We headed southbound on the AT, soon reaching the Pounding Mill Trail.
Our descent into North Carolina led down a narrow, cold and shady gorge cut by Hickey Fork, where waterfalls galore sliced through naked rock. An extremely long water slide was also a highlight. Campsites were nonexistent in the sloped valley. The short December day was closing quick. Eventually, we settled for a lumpy locale, enshrouded by rhododendron. Clouds and rain came that night and a strong wind pushed down the valley from dusk to dawn. It wasn’t the greatest night of backcountry sleep.
Next day, we broke camp quickly and headed northeast, jumping over to the next watershed, Whiteoak Flats Branch. A former homesite still has vestiges of fields in the actual Whiteoak Flats, but below the flats, the stream cuts a steep canyon with more waterfalls. Leafless trees allowed us open views of all the trailside cascades.
Our reward for making it to the lower reaches of Shelton Laurel Backcountry was a lung busting climb up Fork Ridge Trail. We ascended into fog and clouds and rejoined the Appalachian Trail, where a short jaunt brought us to Jerry Cabin Shelter. It is a great place to spend a winter’s eve, as the three sided open fronted shelter has a fireplace within it.
A warm fire at Jerry Cabin Shelter cut the chill on the 20 degree evening. Overnight, the fog dropped a layer of rime ice on the trees, making for a scenic trek on the AT to meet the Phillips Hollow Trail. The seldom-used, often overgrown path took us back into Tennessee.
The stream along Phillips Hollow Trail, a branch of Dry Creek, showed off its own waterfalls. The steep terrain of the Bald Mountains causes all these cataracts. The trail was rough going, with numerous creek crossings. In winter you are always trying to make cross streams dry shod. It adds to the challenge. Our rock hops on sometimes icy boulders were successful, leading back to the trailhead and civilization.