Hickory Nut Falls, Chimney Rock State Park, North Carolina

What A Difference A Rain Makes

Although rain never puts a damper on my travels, sunny skies are usually preferable when I am on the road. There is, however, one exception; rain is a bonus when hunting waterfalls. Since I was in southwestern North Carolina for my annual real estate continuing education classes, I decided to hike to Hickory Nut Falls, located at the base of the 315-foot high granite monolith in Chimney Rock State Park.

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Entrance to Chimney Rock State Park. Note the “chimney” on the left side of the mountain peak.

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An elevator leads from the visitor’s center to the top of Chimney Rock

I have always been intrigued by this solitary rock column protruding from the canyon floor. I wondered about the geologic forces that had formed it and the family that had painstakingly built a wooden walkway to the top. But it was reading about the elevator that had been blasted through 258 feet of solid rock in the center of the pinnacle that finally made me get in the car and drive to Chimney Rock Park back in 2006.

My reticence was unusual; normally I am up for a road trip on the spur of the moment. In this case, however, I had been avoiding Chimney Rock because once there, I would have no choice but to climb to the top. I am afraid of few things, but because I once fell down a 25 foot cliff, I am shaky about climbing rocks, especially where there are no guard rails or precipitous drops. The elevator changed things, though.

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Stairs hug granite cliffs and wind through crevices on the way to the top

The rock was shrouded in fog when I arrived. “That doesn’t look so intimidating,” I thought. White mist swirling around the towering monolith fooled me into thinking the climb would be less intimidating than I had imagined, so I opted for the stairs rather than the cowardly elevator. Initially the path was easy. Wide steps at the bottom of the valley led up a gentle slope through thick green forest. When I reached bare rock the going got rougher. Wooden walkways spanned chasms and stairways hung precariously from vertical rock faces. I clutched the handrails and kept climbing.

Leveling out, the trail followed a long arc around a giant granite dome and then seemed to end. What on earth? Just then, I noticed a narrow crack in the rock that was barely wide enough for a person to squeeze through. Rough wooden planks had been crammed between the rock walls, leading up through the crevice. There was not a handrail in sight. I started to hyperventilate. “Calm down, you can do this,” I told myself. I tightened the straps of my backpack and started up, placing my palms flat against the rock walls on either side to maintain my balance. Halfway up, the crevice narrowed and curved at the precise spot where an overhead boulder jutted downward. To get through, I would have to let go of the rock walls while simultaneously twisting to the left and ducking under the boulder.

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Steps in this narrow crevice require a near vertical ascent, with no handrails

Taking a deep breath, I crouched down and tried to get through, but my backpack was in the way. Terrified, I steadied myself and tried again. And again. Until I was shaking like a leaf. “I’ll just go back and take the elevator,” I thought. Carefully, I braced myself against the rock walls and turned around.

Until that moment, I was unaware that my ascent had been nearly vertical. But now, looking backward, the steps beneath my feet were not visible and the sensation was one of hanging in mid-air. I froze. There was absolutely no way I could go back down; I would have to find a way past the boulder. Turning again, I removed my backpack and shoved it around the boulder, balancing it on an upper step. Slowly I ducked and crawled, stopping every couple of steps to push the backpack ahead of me. Finally, I felt the earth under my feet and breathed a sign of relief. After that, the rest of the trail was a breeze. At the top, as If rewarding me for my tenacity, the fog parted to reveal amazing views of the valley. I was gratified and immensely proud of my accomplishment. But I took the elevator down.

On this visit I had no intention of climbing the rock. My plan was to revisit Hickory Nut Falls to see if nine straight days of rain had changed the cataract. Three years ago, the gentle Broad River slipped over the granite lip and splashed into a pool at the base of the cliff. People waded in the water and picked their way over boulders to have their photos taken in front of the falls. This time a torrent spewed over the clifftop and crashed to the valley floor. The path to the once placid pool was barricaded; no one was wading today. As I snapped photos, ominous gray clouds gathered above. Thunder rumbled, lightning crackled, and the heavens hurled more rain on an already soaked landscape.

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Hickory Nut Falls in 2006, during a dry spell

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Hickory Nut Falls today, followng ten days of heavy rain

For more than an hour, I huddled under rocky outcrops and beneath tree roots protruding from overhead cliffs, trying to at least keep my camera equipment dry. Every so often, the rain would abate, allowing me to dash down the trail until the deluge resumed. Along the path, every overhang spawned a temporary waterfall, providing amazing photographs.

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Opportunistic waterfalls sprout from cliff faces during rainstorms

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A feathery, rain-spawned waterfall seeps through overhanging tree roots

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The town of Chimney Rock in southwestern North Carolina nestles in a verdant valley, surrounded by mountains

By the time I got back to the car I was drenched but I’d captured some spectacular photos! Back down in the town of Chimney Rock I had a late lunch and dried off while I planned my route for the next few days. The continuing rain made the decision easy – tomorrow I’m bound for Transylvania County and the town of Brevard, otherwise known as the “Land of Waterfalls.” No doubt it will be muddy, and the weather report calls for more rain, but the waterfalls are sure to be spectacular.

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