March 2, 2019

Appalachian Trail ~ Chestoa/Mine Branch/Red Fork Falls

  • 4.04 /.45 /.81 miles = 5.30 miles total
  • 2:19/:20 duration/:54 duration
  • 534 foot/32 foot/269 foot elevation gain = 835 total
  • 46° F average
  • 5 geocaches found
  • 1 geocache visited (previously found)
  • 8 creek crossings, 1 fall

LakeBum (Rob) and I planned an adventure today of short hikes in order to clear up some areas of Unicoi County where we were lacking caches. I needed to be home fairly early to get cleaned up for a dinner engagement. We each downloaded several caches to our phones, but the plans for the day were somewhat flexible depending on how things went.

We started out by parking in the Chestoa area outside of Erwin, next to the Nolichuckey River. The Appalachian Trail crosses the river at this point along a vehicle bridge. We have hiked the trail south from this point in the past, journeying up to Temple Hill in December 2017. This time, we were planning to hike northbound for about two miles in order to log two caches in that direction.

Sitting in the truck looking at the map, it looked as if we would have a fairly easy hike. I deduced that it would be somewhat level along the river, and then when we turned away from the river we would gain some elevation before reaching the second cache. When we climbed out of the truck to start our hike, it was 9:20 and the temperature was a moderate 45°.

Within a few hundred feet of the trailhead, we crossed the railroad tracks leading out of Erwin and up the Nolichuckey Gorge. These tracks used to be very active when CSX had a rail yard in Erwin. Nowadays, only a couple of trains travel them each day. We saw several piles of brand new ties next to the tracks, and the smell of fresh creosote was strong. It appears that some track maintenance will be happening soon.

Lonely railroad tracks

Our first cache of the day was just a short distance into our hike. It was hidden about 170 feet off the trail, but was not hard to reach. Unfortunately, someone has been cleaning up the area around ground zero, cutting brush and trees. They must have stumbled across the ammo can that was hidden there, and taken it. We knew we had found the right spot based on the coordinates and photos that other cachers had posted of the cache, but it was missing. Rob had a small tin in his backpack that we used to replace the cache. It is not the best container for a hide in the woods, but will serve to keep this cache alive until it can be replaced with something more appropriate.

We made our way back to the trail and continued to follow it toward the second cache. I soon learned that my deduction about the trail conditions was very wrong. Rather than a nice, level trek along the river, we began to climb, with an elevation gain of about 200 feet in the next half mile. We had impressive views of the river and railroad trestle below us.

Train trestle over the Nolichuckey


At about the one mile mark, we started to descend again. There were several very rocky areas which we had to carefully make our way down. I was envisioning another steep climb ahead when we left the river to hike toward the second cache, and fussed at Rob for leading us downhill, only to climb again. He protested that he couldn’t help it. He was just going where the trail took him.

As we neared the campground area along the river, we passed a trail marker pointing toward the trailhead near it, and indicating the north and south  directions of the Appalachian Trail. This reminded me of a blog post that I recently read. The writer’s wife had dropped him and his daughter off at a trailhead so that they hike a section of the trail. She was to pick them up at another trailhead a couple of days later. They had happily hiked about six miles when the realized they were hiking in the wrong direction! They had to turn around and retrace their steps, adding 12 miles to their already long hike.

North or South?

I was pleasantly surprised as we turned toward the cache, that the trail remained fairly level. It wound through a cove and along Jones Branch. We did not have a steep climb toward the cache as I had expected, but rather a pleasant walk with a gentle altitude gain of about 100 feet over seven tenths of a mile.

As we hiked along, we came to a nicely constructed bridge. It had a sign saying that it was built as an Eagle Scout project in 1994. This prompted a discussion about Rob’s Eagle Scout project: installing tree markers at Holston Presbytery Camp.

Eagle Scout Project from 1994

At 2.16 miles we reached the second cache. It was hidden under another nice footbridge. I traded travel bugs here, and Signal posed for photos. The last “found it” log posted for this cache was in May 2016 making this a nearly three year cache resurrection. vhasler (Vic), who had found it back in 2007, has re-visited it several times since then to check on the cache and trade trackable items. He helps to maintain this trail, so passes this way often.

Signal with the cache
Jones Branch

We then turned and headed back the way we had come. When we reached the intersection near the camp, we discussed our options for returning to the truck. We could continue on the trail, climbing back up and over the ridge line, or we could follow the road back along the river. We decided that the road route would be less climbing and would be quicker, leaving us more time for finding other caches.

We did have a few hills to climb along the road, but it was not nearly the elevation gain that the trail had. We enjoyed views of the river along the way, and marveled at how clean the banks along the river looked after be scrubbed by recent flood waters. I discovered a smiley face on a tree trunk, and paused to take a photo of it.

Scrubbed clean by the flood waters

We arrived back at the truck at about 11:45. I was hungry and ate my sandwich as I drove us toward our next target for the day. I crossed the Nolichuckey and turned left along Unaka Springs Road. This took us past the parking area where we had begun and ended our previous hikes to Lost Cove.

A short distance later, there was a gravel forest road that forked off the paved road. We couldn’t tell from looking at the map whether we should follow it or continue on the paved road. We decided to try the paved road first, and followed it until  it ended. We turned around and went back to the forest road, and then followed it for about two miles.

This was a very rough, bumpy road, with some deep ruts and mud puddles big enough to lose a Volkswagen in, but my truck handled it well. I never even had to use the 4-wheel drive.

When we were within .15 mile of the cache, I could see a creek crossing ahead of me. On the other side of it, the road seemed to be steep, rocky and much more narrow than what we had already traveled. I decided to park here and we would continue on foot. We sat in the truck for a bit to eat lunch, and eventually climbed out to trek toward the cache.

First creek crossing of the day

The creek was shallow, and we were able to cross it easily without getting our boots too wet. After crossing, I realized that what I had seen from the truck was actually a side trail – possibly for ATVs, and that the actual road veered off to the left. It would have been easily passable in the truck, but we decided to continue on foot since we were so close to the cache.

The cache description had read, “The cache is in the forest. No trail. No dense underbrush.” The “no dense underbrush” part may have been true when the cache was hidden 13 1/2 years ago. That is no longer the case. We walked back and forth on the road a bit looking for a path into the forest before just picking a spot and forcing our way through.

No dense underbrush?

I was the lucky one to spot the geocache, hiding at the base of three trees grouped tightly together. This is a very lonely cache, having been found only 14 times in the past 13 1/2 years. The last find was just over a year ago making this our second resurrection of the day. The hike to it and back was more of a stroll of just a little over half a mile.

Signal and the cache

Once back at the truck, we bumped our way back out to the paved road. I then drove through Erwin to Unicoi, and took Highway 107 toward Buladean, NC. This was the route we had taken the previous week when we hiked the Appalachian Trail starting at Iron Mountain Gap.

Today, we did not drive quite as far as last week. Instead, after passing through Limestone Cove I turned onto Red Fork Falls Road. I have hiked to Red Fork Falls several times in the past, including a couple of trips before I started geocaching. I had already found the geocache there. It is a tough one to find. I did not find it the first time I looked in April 2014, but was able to avenge my DNF a few months later. This would be Rob’s first visit.

We parked and headed down the trail at 1:30 pm. Knowing that this is a very short hike, we did not carry our packs, but did take our hiking sticks with us. I also took Signal the Frog with me, trying to make up for leaving him in the truck last week. I also took the Tempe device off of my backpack and clipped it to my pants pocket. It pairs with my Garmin Forerunner watch so that I can record the temperature during activities. The day had not warmed up much. It was 45° when we embarked on this journey.

The first .10 mile of this hike is a wide path that may have once been a road. A tree had fallen across the path and we had to skirt around it. At the bottom of the hill was our first creek crossing.

Rob had expressed concern about the creek crossings when I told him there would be two in each direction. With the amount of rain we have had in the last two months, he wondered if we would be able to cross without getting too wet. When we arrived at the creek, we could see that it was definitely going to be possible to rock hop across. The creek was fairly wide, but it was shallow.

Rob headed across first. He said he was going slowly and choosing his route carefully. I said I was choosing the same route he took, and said that if he fell, I would “…be sure to go a different way.” As I finished my sentence, he said, “…be sure to laugh at me.”

He made it across easily, and I was close behind. I was within two steps of the other side when my foot suddenly slid on a slick rock. I landed in the creek on my hands and knees. Rob ran back to check on me, but I was able to get myself up and out of the creek without too much effort.

My SingBring water-resistant pants had diverted most of the water from the outside, but some had managed to flow up inside my pants when I was on my knees. A little water had also gotten inside my left boot, but not too much. The first couple of inches of my right sleeve was wet where my hand had landed in the water. My left knee was a little sore where I had landed on it, but seemed to be working okay. I had a good chuckle about the fact that I had mentioned the possibility of him falling, yet it was me who fell.

Once I had assessed the well-being of all my extremities and my clothing, we continued on our way. There is nothing at this point in the hike to indicate the way to the falls, but having been here before, I knew the way. I steered Rob to the right and we crossed the second creek and began following it downstream.

When we came to the first small drop of about five feet, I said, “There’s the falls.” Rob said, “That’s it?” I quickly assured him there was more to come. We paused here to take a few pictures, and continued on.

Rob at the “falls”


From here, the route becomes much more rugged. There are several places where you have to navigate down nearly vertical rock faces, which are even more tricky when the rock is wet. This is a journey made for mountain goats, but it is doable if you take your time.

I enjoyed watching Rob’s excitement as he experienced Red Fork Falls for the first time. The main part of the falls is about 60 feet tall, and it is a truly spectacular sight. Below this is a curving flume that feeds into a smaller cascade at the bottom. However, on this trip we stopped at the bottom of the main falls since we were limited on time. We both took some photos, and then went to find the geocache.

Red Fork Falls

Rather than make Rob search all of the many rocks here, I went to the one that I remembered the cache being under, and pulled it out. The cache had last been found in September 2017 making this a resurrection for Rob.

The climb back up is actually easier than the descent. I led the way. At the first rock face that I had to climb, I swung my left foot high and prepared to pull myself up. As I did this, my right hip brushed the rocks, and the Tempe device popped loose from pocket. From my precarious position with one foot down and one foot up, I couldn’t reach it. I asked Rob to pick it up for me on his way up.

I pulled myself up, and as Rob picked up my Tempe I realized that Signal was not in my pocket! Rob went back down to the cache location, and found him lying on the ground. Silly frog! Rob tossed him up to me and I brushed off as much of the mud and wet leaf debris as I could. He’s going to need a bath after this journey.

Bad frog. Dirty frog.

I pushed him as far down in my pocket as possible, and continue to climb. At the next sheer rock face, as I stretched my leg up to find a foot-hold, my iPhone popped out of my pocket! It clattered down the rocks and landed at Rob’s feet. He picked it up, looking at it as if he expected it to be shattered, but once again my Lifeproof case had saved my bacon. The phone was intact and still functioning. When he handed it back to me, I put it in my pants pocket and zipped it closed. I did mention to Rob that I wish someone would invent pants like my Singbring winter pants, that also included cargo pockets. THAT would be the perfect pant in my opinion.

Thankfully, we both made it to the top of the falls and through both creek crossings without any more incidents. The walk back up to the truck is very short, but I shared with Rob my memories of a hike I did here with Deban years ago. I was much heavier at the time (at least 50 pounds) and had been suffering from a cold. I pointed out the log next to the trail where I sat, wondering if I could make it up the hill to the car. That day seems laughable now, and I am so glad I am in much better physical condition nowadays.

Once we were back to the truck, we drove further up Red Fork Falls Road to find another cache. This one had been hidden in 2007 and the cache page described a creek crossing and some bushwhacking. We arrived at the parking coordinates and looked across the creek at a seemingly impenetrable forest of rhododendrons on a steep hillside. Oh goody!

It’s a jungle in there!

While driving here, the pants leg rubbing against my knee made me think I had skinned it. When I got out of the truck, I pulled up my pants leg and saw that I had indeed lost some skin from my knee. My poor knees take a lot of abuse, because that is usually where I land when I fall. I guess that’s better than breaking a hip.

Rob had read the hint on the cache page that mentioned a three-trunk tree. He pointed out a grouping of three trees on the hillside. He made it across the creek first, while I was a little further upstream looking for a good place to cross. I heard him say there wasn’t a way up into the forest, but by the time I had come back downstream and crossed where he did, he had made it a few feet into the mess of rhododendrons. I followed, and began battling through the dense vegetation as well.

I pointed at three trees and said, “Do you think that’s it?” He said, “Could be. Or maybe those there,” pointing at a grouping straight uphill from our location. Without discussion, we both started pushing in that direction. There was no using our phone GPS here. The vegetation was too thick to pull out our phones and consult them. We just blindly pushed through wherever we found a fraction of a space. At one point, I was on my hands and knees crawling under branches which put me ahead of Rob up the hill.

As I neared the three trees we were heading toward, I saw it: a beautiful, old ammo can just sitting there. I gave a shout that was probably heard for miles and pushed the rest of the way uphill to it. It had not been hidden or camouflaged in any way. There was really no need for that, considering no one in their right mind would be in the middle of this jungle.

There it is!

Rob caught up to me and we signed the log book. We then had to battle our way back through the rhododendrons to the creek. The steep hillside could have been treacherous, but with such thick vegetation, there was really no way that we could fall.

I can see the truck from here. Getting to it is another matter entirely.

Once we were back across the creek, I looked back to see where we had been, and marveled at the fact that we went straight to the cache. We could have searched that hillside for hours and never found the cache, but somehow made our way right to it.

Time was running short, and we decided to head home so that I could be in time for my evening engagement. There were several more caches in this area that we want to find eventually, but they will have to wait. However, we did stop to log one last cache on the way through Limestone Cove. It was hidden in a cemetery, the burial site of eight civilians who were killed in 1863 by Confederate soldiers. They were Union sympathizers enroute to Kentucky to join the Federal forces. This is one of the many things I love about Geocaching – the little history lessons you often learn along the way.

As I was logging caches at home later that evening, I discovered that it was serendipitous that we had stopped for that last cache. This brought my total of geocaches found to 3,500 – a nice even number to end the day. I had no idea that I was near this milestone.

Today I had the opportunity to look back through photos I had taken in 2013. A friend was looking for a cache I had found back then, so I was hoping to find a photo of it that might give him a better idea of where to find it. I ended up spending several minutes scrolling through photos and remembering those early days of geocaching. What a difference geocaching has made in my life since those days.



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