Our original plan was to follow the lead of another member of our hiking group and go to Little Glassy Mountain, but after a problem filled week at work I needed something a little more secluded, someplace where problems and a cell phone signal couldn't find me. This little tidbit will come into play later in the story.
I picked up Kevin Adam's Best Wildflower Hikes in NC and flipped through it until I came across Hike #47—Twin Falls in Pisgah National Forest. It sounded perfect. After making sure we had EVERYTHING under the sun except for a jacket because it was warm outside and a manageable map because I had Mr. Adam's book, we left. Unfortunately, that was around noon. That was our first mistake.
FR 477 or Avery Creek Road, the road that leads to Buckhorn Gap Trail (the trail that takes you to Twin Falls) is located just past the Pisgah National Forest’s visitor's center on Highway 276. It's a road I'm sure we've seen in the past, but we totally ignored, so when we turned and saw the sign announcing the road was closed 1.75 miles down near the stables, we decided to explore it anyway. After all, it's in Pisgah. It had to be interesting.
It was. We stopped several times to check out the campsites along the road or the clear water running through Avery creek. We weren't in the mood to leave, so we decided to hike along 477. As we were grabbing packs and walking sticks, two hikers returned from the direction we were about to head in and mentioned the trailhead wasn't very far. It was getting late but a quick glance at our watch told us we had another three and a half hours of daylight left, so we decided to hike to the falls anyway. That was our next mistake.
This was by far the most scenic trail we've been on this winter. It follows Avery Creek for awhile but then branches off and follows another white-water, cascade filled creek.
It had rained the day before, consequently, the trail was drenched and we walked through mud, soggy leaves, and pools of water as we went. There was water everywhere. Part of the trail was washed out in one spot and just impassable in another. We held onto trees as we skirted around the muddy bog. I kept wondering what it looked like when the flowers were blooming.
We reached the falls around four o'clock and spent as much time as we dared enjoying the view. But time was running out so we left. Because I didn't feel like hiking with Mr. Adam's book, I left it in the car. Another mistake. The result of that decision was our getting turned around a bit and heading in the wrong direction after leaving the falls.
I was sure the trail was a loop, so we kept on walking, certain we'd reach 477 soon. We reached a gravel road, which make hiking easier. But about an hour later, night fell. We pulled out our flashlights and when we reached a Y-Junction that had absolutely no markings on it, we decided to back track.
We were at an elevation somewhere in the vicinity of 2,600 feet. It was cold on that mountain and we didn't have a jacket, but as long as we moved, we were okay. It was also dark. We had two flashlights, but the batteries in mine were weak, and soon after, the light faded. I walked behind my husband as close as I dared, but the darkness swallowed the light and I could barely see. Back tracking the remainder of the trail was out: after we left the falls, we'd climbed a hill with an elevation of around 1,400 feet. We'd have to make our way down that hill in the dark, and if we did make it, the trail below it was confusing. If we missed one of those orange blazes, we would be lost in the Pisgah National Forest.
We were obviously lost, but what could we do without a map? We reached the gravel road and stopped at the point where the Black Mountain Trail intersected with Buckhorn Gap to regroup our thoughts and to make a plan. The cold began settling in our bones. We saw a sign for a trailside shelter. Kelley searched for it, but couldn't find it. He rejoined me where I stood in the dark, and finally, the realization that we were in big, big trouble sank in.
Late Afternoon Rays Indicate Trouble Is Ahead
I carried a Cobra hand radio in my pack, so I tried to contact someone to find out how far we were from the trailhead. No answer. I shouted into the darkness. No answer. We both tried using our cell phones. No signal. We were stuck in the dark on a mountain in the cold and we were lost.
Why didn't you build a fire? You might ask. We could have, but keep in mind this is January. The sun set around 5:30 or 6:00. We were facing twelve hours of darkness. It takes a lot of kindling and firewood to keep one warm for that amount of time, and to collect it meant risking a fall down steep slopes hidden in the darkness. We were also in the middle of a drought, and while it had rained, we had no guarantees that it rained there. We were surrounded by trees with nothing but leafy ground cover under our feet.
We finally realized we wouldn't make it through the night. We were about to die.
We had a lot of sweet moments in the time that followed, and we didn't hesitate to say how much we loved each other and how blessed we were to have the other in our lives. Surprisingly, I wasn't scared. I was on the trail with my husband, and I knew where I was going. It was okay.
We didn't give up though. At times I shouted (I have a really big voice), and Kelley still sought solutions. I tried my cell phone again, trying this spot and then another. And with my phone (not Kelley's, for I tried) and while standing on one spot, I was finally able to reach 911. We shared our predicament. They took the info and said they'd call back. An hour later, with my phone and on that spot, I called back. As it turns out, they'd been trying to call me but couldn't get through.
I should take a moment to mention that I have an old Nokia phone. I need a new one, but I refused to give up this particular phone because Nicholas Sparks used it to say Happy Birthday to my daughter during one of his book signings. No way I was going to give it up. Because of that, my old dual-band phone was able to reach 911 in a forest which, according to rescuers, has only 11% cell coverage. God does indeed work in mysterious ways.
Two hours after we called for help, two ATV's and a pickup arrived. We then learned we were three miles from the trailhead. If we'd had a map, we would have known the gravel road we'd stopped on led back to the stables. That may have helped, we don't know. It took a half hour to drive down it, so there's no telling what would have happened to us while walking in the dark.
We arrived at our car at 10:oo PM. The temperature at the stables where the Brevard Rescue squad had set up rescue operations was 43 degrees.
Lesson learned: No hikes over two miles during the winter. We start early, make sure we have flashlights with fresh batteries, proper clothing, and those little silver emergency blankets. Most important, we don't assume we'll be okay just because we hike frequently.
Buckhorn Gap is an attractive trail, and with Twin Falls waiting for you at the end, a hike well worth the effort, but take a map with you and stay aware. Learn from our mistakes and hike smart.