By the time I crossed over into northeast Georgia from the mountains of North Carolina, I was tired. For days, I’d been hiking back country trails, shimmying down river embankments, and clambering over rocky cliff faces in search of waterfalls. But when I rolled into Tallulah Falls, Georgia, I realized there would be no rest on this particular day, as this town’s claim to fame is Tallulah Gorge State Park, home to five major waterfalls.
I stood at the rim and gazed out over the gorge. For thousands of years the Tallulah River has eroded the hard, quartzite rock into a two-mile long, 1,000-foot deep chasm. The river drops nearly 600 feet as it rages through the canyon, forming L’Eau d’Or, Tempesta, Hurricane, Oceana, and Bridal Veil Falls before joining the Chattooga River. Having arrived late in the afternoon, it was too late to get a permit to trek into the very bottom of the gorge, but I could hike the very strenuous Hurricane Falls Loop, descending from one side of the rim and climbing up the opposite side via a series of wooden staircases and a suspension bridge that hovers directly over Hurricane Falls. I considered it for a nanosecond before deciding to stick to the north and south rim trails, shown on my map as easy to moderately strenuous.
At the far end of the North Rim trail an enormous, rusting steel tower rested on its side next to the canyon lip. In 1970, tightrope walker Karl Wallenda (of the famous “Flying Wallendas”) used this tower to walk across the gorge, performing two headstands in midair along the way. I couldn’t even imagine balancing on a thin rope over the sheer canyon, much less doing a headstand! I followed the trail to the west, stopping at each overlook to gaze down on the falls. From this height they looked like whitewater rapids rather than waterfalls, although my guide indicated the tallest is 96 feet high.
At the upper gorge I continued beyond the dam to check out the Tallulah Falls Lake. This lovely mountain lake, a jewel floating among the pines, has a nice man-made beach, picnic areas, restrooms and changing facilities. Retracing my steps, I crossed over to the south rim and followed the 3/4 mile trail to the end. At the midpoint I passed the stairway to the suspension bridge. Should I tackle it, I wondered? I was too tired – I passed. The end of the trail provided good views of Hawthorne Pool and Tempesta Falls, looking toward Hurricane Falls, but I was still so high up it was hard to make out details.
On the return trip I again hesitated at the stairway. I knew the suspension bridge below hovered just 80 feet over the falls; at the bottom I was sure to have an excellent view of the tempestuous waters. My trail guide warned that this was a “very strenuous” 1.5 mile trail. But I’d been hiking tough trails for several days – how much worse could this be? It was only 645 steps, after all. Heck, if I can climb to the top of the Sistine Chapel, I should be able to tackle this gorge. And so, down I went. And down. And down some more. Counting steps all the way – all 345 of them. Well that was a breeze, I thought, as I stepped onto the shaky suspension bridge.
From the center of the narrow wooden span I looked directly down on Hurricane Falls. My every step set the bridge to swaying and vibrating. Visions of cables snapping, sending me plunging into churning whitewater, flitted through my brain. Hurrying across, I craned my neck up at the 310 steps switching back and forth up the face of the gorge. Might as well get it over with, I thought. Tightening the straps of my backpack, I began the strenuous climb. Half an hour later, sweating profusely in 90-degree heat and exhausted from the ascent, I dragged my body up the last few steps and headed for the car.
At the top I asked myself why I did it. My answer was the same as always; because it was there, of course. Was it worth the effort? Absolutely. Unequivocally. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.