Tyler and I went hiking at Long Creek Falls the Sunday before last, and I’m actually writing about it less than a month later. That’s unheard of! Tyler and I woke up early on Sunday, packed up some snacks, and hit the road. The early morning start was necessary to beat the heat and the crowds of afternoon visitors. The trail is only about 2 miles long, so summer afternoons can be busy, especially because the waterfall is a rewarding place to play and cool off.
For the first half of the trip, I drove while Tyler slept peacefully. I was a bit surprised when we turned onto a gravel road and the GPS told me we still had 45 minutes left of driving. I knew the trailhead was off of a forest service road, but just how long was it to the trailhead? It turns out, about 8 miles on a dirt/gravel road.
Since we were coming up from south of the Three Forks area, the GPS had us drive up Winding Stair Gap Road. Just as the name suggests, it is quite winding and climbs up a mountain. It was a mostly dirt road. At some point I’m sure gravel must have been laid down, but the gravel was pretty sparse compared to forest service roads. The Georgia red clay showed through clearly. To my surprise, the road was never as rutted out as I would expect despite it being quite steep in some areas. With Georgia red clay, steep sections of trails and roads often get washed out.
The road got steeper and twistier as we climbed up the mountain. I kept expecting to come around a bend to see a section of the road that we could not handle in my little Honda Fit. Even though my car has very low clearance, we were able to make it through fine. We just had to creep along very slowly. It was a bit harrowing and I was happy to make it to the top where FS 58 and FS 42 (the forest service road which the parking lot for Springer Mountain is off) intersect, as well as a few other unidentifiable roads.
It was a bit of a challenge to figure out which road we were supposed to take because the signs were lacking. Eventually, we found the correct road and continued down to the Three Forks valley. This too was a dirt road, but it was far better maintained. Still, we went slowly. There was one section with a giant mud puddle. We were just barely able to squeeze by on the side. I wasn’t sure how deep the puddle was, and I was not keen to find out if my car could ford it. Although the roads were doable, I would definitely suggest taking a car with higher clearance. We were quite envious when trucks and jeeps passed by us; compared to our snail pace, they were flying!
Three Forks Creek Valley is home to the convergence of Chester, Stover, and Long Creeks as well as the Appalachian and the Benton MacKaye Trails. There is not really a parking lot, but the road is wide enough to accommodate parking along the sides. Three Forks is popular for car camping. On our trip Tyler and I spied several campsites in which we would be interested in camping on a return visit.
The trail to the waterfall is short, about a mile. From the forest service road you can see where the long distance trails crossover. There are signs pointing the way to Long Creek Falls. We hiked along the combined Appalachian and Benton MacKaye trails. It was mostly flat with a bit of uphill here and there. Just when Tyler and I wondered if we had missed the turnoff to the falls, we came to a very obvious intersection. The Benton MacKaye and Appalachian trails split, and we followed the blue-blazed side trail to Long Creek Falls.
When we arrived at the waterfall there was a family with two young children. It looked like they had been playing in the water. Just before they left, the father told us that there were salamanders near the sandy section to the left of the waterfall. Of course, Tyler and I pretty much immediately took off our shoes and made our way to the other side of the waterfall pool. Sure enough, we found some salamander friends!
Tyler and I had fun playing around in the creek. The cooling mist from the waterfall felt great, as did the smooth wet rocks. The water itself was cold, but refreshing on our feet. Gauss was a little timid. He loves water, but is not so fond rocky creeks with slippery stones. Still, he seemed to have a good time and had no trouble bounding up the hill when we decided to explore upstream a bit.
Tyler and I were very glad we decided to hike early. There were several small groups that came and went as we played. We had plenty of time with the waterfall all to ourselves. After we had our fill of snacks and exploring, we gathered our things and headed back down the trail. Good timing on our part; we passed many, many groups on their way to the waterfall as we were hiking out. It was just past noon.
On our way back to the car, we passed by a side trail not too far from the intersection. This was the point of the trail when we wondered if we had passed the waterfall, because from the main trail we could hear rushing water. We were in no hurry and opted to climb down the steep slope to find the source of the rushing water.
What we found was a beautiful secluded waterfall. We only stayed for a few short minutes. This waterfall had very little room for standing at the base and thick stands of rhododendrons coupled with snarls of downed trees made exploring difficult. Still, I think this waterfall is just a beautiful, if not more, than Long Creek Falls.
Soon enough we reached the car. As usual, no matter the length of the hike or how hot of a day, Gauss flopped into the back of the car. While he whined the whole time we driving the gravel road on the way to the trail, Gauss was blissfully quiet on the long drive out. This time when we reached the intersection of all the different roads, I opted to drive the forest service road that took us past the Springer Mountain Parking lot. I guessed that the drive wouldn’t be any shorter, since I remembered that driving to Springer Mountain takes a long time and we were even farther down the road. However, I also knew that at least the forest service road was better maintained than Winding Stair Gap.
I think distance wise, taking FS 42 was a little longer, but we spent the same amount of time traveling by dirt road coming up Winding Stair Gap as we did going FS 42. The forest service road was indeed better maintained. Thus driving was easier, and I could go a little faster without damaging my car.
The downside to my decision is that we ended up north of the trails, rather than south. I knew that would happen since we popped out near my old stomping grounds. Growing up my parents had a cabin in Blue Ridge. It was kind of surreal to drive down Doublehead Gap, Roy, and Rackley just like I used to. Choosing to take FS 42 added another hour to our drive home. However, we made up for it by stopping at BJ Reece Apple House off of GA 52 near Rackley Road. I remember they have the best apple cider donuts. (Tyler and I love apple cider donuts!)
In addition to the donuts, we bought a half peck of the best peaches I’ve had all summer. Naturally, we devoured the apple cider donuts in a matter of days. The peaches took a bit longer. We ate the last one just last night. In my opinion, taking the longer route was worth it!