Sunday, May 10, 2015

Karst-astic! Virgin Falls Hiking Trip

I've been eyeing a hike to Virgin Falls for a while now, and after hearing some local geocachers talk about how incredible the hike is, I decided it was going to be the location for my next solo day hike. I got an early start, hitting the road before sun-up and pulled into the trailhead while it was still early and cool. There were a couple other cars parked there, from weekend backpackers, but I was the first dayhiker. Off we went (the dog and I) down the trail. The trail towards Virgin Falls has quite a few geocaches to find along the way, most of them regular sized traditional, but a few earthcaches and virtuals thrown in as well.
I found the first two caches easily, then struck out on the third one which was placed after a stream crossing. I then reached a fork in the trail and opted for going up to the Caney Overlook.  Going up to the overlook used to be a loop trail that connected back with the main trail near Big Laurel Falls, but is now only an out-and-back since the second half of the loop is not maintained. I wanted to make it a loop hike anyways, I hate backtracking, so I searched for the old trail, and followed some kind of trail for a while, passing an exquisite campsite before starting a steep descent back into the gorge below. I lost the trail quickly and ended up just cross-country traveling. Luckily, I didn't cliff out and managed to get into a streambed that would take me down to the falls.

While rock hopping down the streambed and chanced upon a tall cairn marking the entrance to a cave. Actually two entrances. I only had a tiny LED flashlight with me, but that was enough for me to poke my head in and get a little look. I bet the cave exploration here is amazing, and wet. A stream was flowing down through one of the cave entrances and I'm sure any exploration would get you totally soaked. In the other entrance, I crawled under a low passage and into a large chamber that had a skylight window on one end and a drizzling waterfall on the other. In here I spotted a cave salamander, which made my day, since they are just about the coolest salamanders I've ever seen.

Only a short distance further and I was at Big Laurel Falls, which was pretty amazing. The water flew out over a giant sandstone rock house. The shelter behind the waterfall was large enough to camp several groups, and had a large flat sandy area that looks perfect for it. Camping underneath the waterfall would be especially novel and cool, but I bet it would also be kind of loud and damp, not to mention dark. I hung out here for a while, gathering info for the earthcache and looking for a traditional that was really hard to find. Not only was the signal poor near the waterfall, but the area was festooned with stinging nettle and poison ivy, and I was in shorts and a tee-shirt. Eventually I gave up looking for the geocache and continued on my hike.
The next feature along my hike was the Sheep Cave, another karstic feature. First I came upon the gigantic sinkhole near the cave. I spotted a faint path leading into the sinkhole and decided to check it out. It was steep, muddy and treacherous. A few tattered hand-lines helped me get down (and back up) and once at the bottom I took out my flashlight and entered a cave. ONce again I wandered only a short distance down the passageway. This time no salamanders. This cave had a much cooler feel to it though, being positioned at the bottom of a sinkhole.
After climbing my way up and out I hiked up to the "actual" sheep cave, a nice horizontal tunnel leading directly into the hillside, and flowing almost wall to wall with a small stream. Nature's drainage tunnel! The water, after exiting the cave, went over a series of cliffs and down into the sinkhole where I had just been. I explored into the tunnel a bit, but again, not very far. After the Sheep's cave it was only a short ways over to the prime attraction, Virgin Falls, and it was there I ran into some other people for the first time all day. Two groups of backpackers had camped at the falls and were packing up as I arrived. I stayed out of there way and found a good place to eat lunch while gazing out over the waterfall. The waterfall is quite large, with a 100+ foot drop. What makes it special is that at the top, it comes out of a cave similar to the Sheep's Cave, and at the bottom it disappears into a sink. There is no stream to follow above or below the waterfall, it just is there, a massive flow of water coming out of the ground and then plunging back under again.
The traditional geocache here is an older one (2001) and has been visited by some notable geocachers, including Jeremy Irish (one of the founders of and Moun10Bike (creator of the geocoin). I got a special thrill out of seeing there names on a logbook.
After a nice break, I started my return trip, which is mostly on the trail you come out on. However, I quickly found a detour that led me down to the Caney River, and a superb campsite and swimming hole. I couldn't resist the siren call of the rope swing and soon I was swinging and plunging in the water repeatedly. Sasha even joined in for a bit.

Feeling refreshed I decided to pick up some camp trash that was there before resuming my walk. I am always ashamed of people that would leave camp trash in such wonderful areas, but usuaklly I don't have a trash bag to carry out. This time I did. I began to see more day hikers on my way out, and told anyone that would listen to go down to the Caney and take a swim. I don't think anyone did, Virgin Falls makes for a much nicer destination. I had several more geocaches to find on my way back, so I marched along happily, trying to find them all. I found the one by Big Laurel Falls, which seemed almost like a miracle. Then I found an easy one and was on my way to the enxt when a rain storm started up all of a sudden. I happened to be near a rock shelter so I decided to wait it out. The shelter also happenned to be <100 ft from a geocache, but my GPSr was pointing me to the top of the cliff and uphill. I searched in the rock shelter while waiting, thinking it might be down there, but never found anything. After the rain let up, I went to the top and searched some more, but had to finally give up and call this one a DNF. I found out alter when I got home that it was indeed in the rock shelter and I jsut hadn't been looking in the right spot. GPS signal bounce can be a real pain on cliff-hides. After giving up and hiking for a bit, I realized I had left my bag of trash back at the rock shelter, so I quickly returned to get it. This would not be the last time I did that. The next and last cache of my hike,w as the one at the stream crossing that I had failed to find in the morning. I put down my gear and made another thorough search, but failed to find it again. And once again, after giving up and hiking on, I realized I had left the trashbag behind. I briefly contemplated leaving it, since it was at least further out of the natural area, and someone would surely carry it out. BUt that just seemed lame, why carry out a bag of trash for miles only to elave it a few miles from the parking area. So I went back to get the trash, and the funny thing is, after picking up the trash, I found the geocache there. It only took 3 tries!

The rest of the hike was uneventful, and I was back at the car around 4pm. Total mileage was a bit over 12 miles, I had poked my head into several caves, swam in the Caney River, scrambled around 3 waterfalls, found several salamanders.. all in all a good day out. Oh right, I also found 2 virtuals, 2 earthcaches and a handful of nice old traditional caches. And I still had time for a few bonus caches on the drive home, like the notable Sunset Rock Earthcache at cliffy rock overlooking the Cumberland Plateau out to the west.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Exploring Fall Creek Falls State Park with a little help from geocaching

Rock house Cr Falls and Cane Cr Falls

Our first family camping trip of the year was to Fall Creek Falls State Park, an absolutely gorgeous area of deep river gorges and tall waterfalls. There are only a handful of geocaches in the park so it was feasible for us to visit them all: a couple earthcaches, one rather well liked traditional, and a virtual cache at a fire tower. On our first day we parked at the busiest area, the Nature Center, and hiked to 3 different waterfalls and multiple gorge overlooks. I was navigating us towards an earthcache at Fall Creek Falls itself, but by the time we got close to it, the kids were too tired to tackle a steep descent into the gorge. After we got back to the car, we drove around the scenic drive at the park and stopped for one of the earthcaches overlooking the gorge, a nice little lesson in how the gorge is formed.
"Gorge"ous overlook

We got an early start the next day to tackle the hike down to the base of Fall Creek Falls, and the earthcache there. Getting an early morning start was an excellent idea, since we managed to have the overlooks and trail nearly to ourselves. The earthcache requires visiting both the top and bottom of the falls, which is a steep hike, but well worth it. However, I can see how we might have skipped the hike down if it weren't for the geocache enticing us. On our way back up from the bottom, we ran into a group of geocachers that I recognized from a CITO I held at Potters Falls last year. I called out, "You look familiar, are you Lost_Sole", and he looked surprised before replying he was. He, Geofairy and a few other cachers were also spending a weekend in the area, hiking to waterfalls. It is really rare for me to run into geocachers I know (or geocachers period) so this was pretty neat for me. We chatted for a little and they shared some beta on a nearby cave cache where they found salamanders, alerted us to a pair of mating copperheads a bit further up the trail (which we saw) and mentioned a geocache nearby involving rappelling into a giant sinkhole that they thought we could meet up to tackle later in the year. I'm all game!
Fall Cr Falls

Mating copperheads
We completed our hike around 11 and the crowds were just starting to show up at Fall Creek Falls. luckily we were headed elsewhere. Our next stop was at a letterbox at a "secret overlook". We pulled over at an inconspicuous gravel spot by the side of the scenic drive, then followed a good trail. The trail had gold and yellow glitter on it which was curious, but we soon found out the reason why. After only a short walk the trail opens up at a nice overlook where there are rows of benches arranged much like a small outdoors chapel. People must hold weddings here (among other events) and the glitter is from decorations for the ceremony. What an amazing place to get married, that we only found because of the letterbox hidden here. 
Our last stop in the park was at Piney Falls where there is a relatively old geocache called Piney Falls Bridge. Besides being a favorite among geocachers, this cache also has a 4.5/4.5 D/T rating and is placed up in a cliff, qualities I usually enjoy. The cache is placed almost underneath a long suspension bridge, and the coordinates take you right up to the cliff's edge. I suppose it would be possible to rappel down the short cliff, but no one bothers with this. Instead we walked across the bridge and then made our way back to the cliff by the stream, which also happened to be a nice spot for our picnic lunch. Sasha and I crossed over and scaled up to the hiding spot, and I made the find quickly, retrieving the cache and bringing it down for the family to open together. It didn't have any trade items of interest, so we added a small Playschool figurine. It then occurred to me that Lost_sole, Geofairy and crew would probably be showing up soon and I better replace the cache in its spot so they could have a proper hunt. I missed a golden opportunity to mess with them a bit, I could have hidden the cache in a different (and harder) spot and really drove them nuts searching, but that didn't occur to me until later, when they indeed showed up and began searching. I stood on a boulder across the stream as they looked, grinning the whole time as the spread out across the cliff face and searched in mostly the wrong places for a few minutes. Geocaching as spectator sport!
Piney Cr

Piney Falls Bridge

Geofairy, Lost_sole and crew at the geocache

Our weekend trip was almost over, and we drove out of the park to pack up our tent and get ready to go home. But we had one more geocache inspired stop for the way home, cave cache called Cave Rat's Nest. When Lost_sole mentioned they had visited it and seen salamanders, the kids eyes lit right up. The description stated that it wasn't very deep into the cave so I thought it would be a fun little adventure for us. We drove over and found out the cave was literally right off the road, without even enough space between the road and the rock face for a car to pull off. We drove a few hundred feet past the entrance of the cave to a pull-off, then Levin and I geared up with flashlights and headlamps for our spelunking adventure (Ada and Liz decided to wait this one out). We walked back down to the cave entrance and I was a little unsure if we were in the right spot since my GPSr was telling me we were a good 80ft off. I have had a bad experience entering the wrong entrance to an underground cache before, so I was a little leery, but we decided to go for it. I had to crawl in through a jagged opening, kind of like squeezing underneath a kids table. Doable but uncomfortable. Levin came in next, having an easier time. We were then in a small antechamber that had another crawl-way leading away from it. Levin began to get a little spooked at this point, hut I coaxed him to follow me and we started making our way down the passage, me crawling and Levin squat-walking. We saw no salamanders, and Levin was getting progressively more wigged out the deeper we got. After a ways the cave appeared to open up and I wriggled my way into the opening only to discover it was a well-like drop straight down for 30+ feet. I definitely did not want Levin getting close to the edge so we turned around there. We didn't find the cache, or any salamanders and Levin wanted out, so out we went. Once we were safe outside, we explored around the cave entrance a bit, trying to get closer to where my GPSr was indicating GZ was, and looking for another cave entrance. I was thinking that perhaps we had gone into the wrong entrance. But we couldn't find any other spot to access the underground cave.
Cave Rat's Nest entrance

My impression of a cave rat

I took Levin back to the car, but wanted to go back for one more look just on my own so I wouldn't have to worry about Levin's well-being while having a good look. I entered the small cave again and this time, I discovered a spot near the beginning of the crawl-way where I could stand up in a narrow crevice, and there was the cache! Woohoo! I took it down and opened it up right there in the cave, making a few trades and signing into the logbook. It was around this time that I noticed the cave salamander on the rock in front of me. A gorgeous slender salamander climbing along the wall. I quickly stashed the cache back in its spot, then found a small ziploc baggie that I could put the salamander in to take it outside and show the kids. There was no way I wasn't going to show them this little beauty. The kids each took a turn holding the salamander, letting it crawl around on their arms. Liz also took a turn, and looked just as excited as the kids. Finding this salamander became one of the highlights of the trip, and I'm so glad we decided to stop here to search for the cache. After taking plenty of pictures, I ran the salamander back to its home. And then we were off to our home as well. Happy from all the adventures we had on our first camping trip of the year.
Cave Salamander!