Waterfalls are a recurring theme for me in this blog. I am drawn to the sound of rushing water: waves crashing on the shore; rivers and streams; fountains in ponds; and waterfalls. I have hiked miles just to hear water running over rocks into a natural pool or to see it cascading over boulders. If possible, I take photographs when I find these bold exhibitions of nature. I often make videos too. Sometimes I will pause for a few minutes, or more, to simply look and listen. There is something about the sight and sound that soothes me and helps me appreciate how much beauty there is on this planet. For this post, I have collected photos of a few of my favorite waterfalls.
When I look at waterfalls, I am reminded how all life on Earth originated in the water, how essential water is in sustaining life, and how much of our bodies are composed of water. I think about how rapidly running water has been a source of power for people for as long as civilization has existed. I am amazed that the same liquid that quenches our thirst and caresses our skin can, over time, wear down and erode some of the hardest substances on the planet.
I have chased waterfalls in so many places in the United States, from coast to coast. I have stood in awe with throngs of other sightseers in national parks gazing at some of the largest falls in the country. I have visited state parks and scenic byways, looking skyward as the spray falls over cliffs to jagged rocks below. As magnificent as the most popular waterfalls are, I am still humbled and even mesmerized by a small stream spilling over a ridge deep in the forest. I can’t help wondering how long water has been flowing at such places. I am often by myself when this happens, which always presents an opportunity to reflect on how lucky I am to be alive and how precious the short time is that I have here.
I had the pleasure of spending a long solo weekend in Mountain Home, Arkansas, earlier this summer. I began taking solo weekends about five years ago, in my mid-fifties, to recalibrate my head, get creative with writing and music, devote large chunks of time to reading, and explore the outdoors hiking. My wife is an incredible partner who not only tolerates these self-indulgent excursions but encourages them. I’m a lucky guy. I have written posts about previous solos, which have taken me to places like Cherokee and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. This trip to Mountain Home was my first solo weekend in Arkansas and my first time doing so in an Airbnb.
My accommodations were perfect. “The Attic” is a recently renovated upstairs apartment over several professional medical offices located a few blocks from the quaint downtown square of Mountain Home. My host was a gracious and extremely attentive woman whose brother had just opened a new location on the square for his business, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company. This modern rustic brewery occupies the Baker Building, the oldest on the square that dates to 1892 according to some sources. Rapp’s Barren was the name of a trading post near this location settled in the early 19th century by a legendary European character named Henry Rapp. White settlers probably considered the land in this region of the Ozarks to be barren because it was composed of tall prairie grass with very few trees. By the time the town was incorporated in 1888, the name had changed to Mountain Home. At any rate, I made more than one stop at Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company during the three days I was in the town – great spot.
In addition to playing my guitar for hours each day and reading a good novel by Ron Rash, I drove outside of town to explore this scenic part of the Ozarks. Mountain Home is positioned between Norfork and Bull Shoals lakes and is flanked by the White and North Fork rivers. Obviously, Mountain Home is a popular destination for anglers and those who enjoy other water-related activities such as boating, skiing, paddle boarding, and floating. Campsites are abundant along the banks of the rivers and lakes.
I was particularly interested in hiking, which on my first day led me to David’s Trail along the shore of Norfolk Lake about nine miles east of town. The trail honors the memory of David Floyd, a local outdoor enthusiast and community activist. I took a four-mile trek in and out from one of the trailheads, which gave me great views of the lake and several of its tributaries, in addition to some lovely plants, a timid snake, a well-camouflaged deer, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers that refused to let me get close enough for a photo. The portion of the trail I hiked had some moderate hills and featured some shady fern banks and moss-covered rock outcroppings that were lush and green. I never saw another human being the whole time I was on the trail. It was a warm morning, but I was in the shade of the tree canopy for most of my hike. I felt invigorated and extremely hungry afterwards.
On my second day, I took another short road trip to see the White River. Meandering its way 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri, the White River is ranked as one of the top trout fishing waterways in the country, although white bass, catfish, walleye, and sunfish populate the river too. The river also presents the opportunity for one of the most common pastimes in the Ozarks – floating. Climbing in a canoe, kayak, or johnboat and letting the river carry you downstream at a slow, relaxing pace has been a popular form of recreation in the Ozarks for ages. I visited Buffalo Shoals access area at the little hamlet of Buffalo City where the Buffalo River merges with the White River just south of Mountain Home. Stair Bluff rises 689 feet along the southside of the White River and is a spectacular site. There is a parking area at the river’s edge with access to boat ramps and a sandy bank. I enjoyed watching families wading and fishing in the chilly water while others launched canoes and kayaks and drifted with the current. I found several other walk-in access points for the White River, where I could soak up the tranquil environment all alone.
In an unpublished journal, the famous naturalist John Muir wrote a brief sentence that has become one of his most famous quotes: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” I suspect many people realize that, to get in touch with ourselves in a profound way, we must be reminded occasionally how small we are. We need to take external journeys to probe internal mysteries. We search for our place in the realm of nature. These solo weekends that I am privileged to experience allow me to go out, then go in, and come back home with a new perspective on just about everything.
Missouri is often referred to as the “Show Me” state, a reference to a late 19th century lawmaker’s observation that its citizens as a rule prefer visible proof over blind faith. Given the political climate in Missouri in 2021, I would argue that this moniker is no longer applicable. A much more accurate appellation would be the “Float Me” state. River and stream floating trips are a major source of relaxation in Missouri with a long history and a strong tradition. According to multiple sources, flat-bottom jon boats originated, or were at least made popular, in the late 19th century in the Ozarks because they were perfect for navigating the shallow waterways characteristic of the region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. With an abundance of large lakes, rivers, and streams, water recreation is a huge business in Missouri attracting millions of tourists each year; however, native inhabitants have been enjoying the simple pleasures of just floating downstream for many generations.
Not only is Missouri blessed with plenty of water resources, but the Ozarks comprises one of the nation’s richest concentrations of natural springs. There are well over a thousand of them in the state. The maximum daily discharge from some of these overflowing aquifers can exceed 500 million gallons. On average, more than a billion gallons of water flow from the ten largest springs in Missouri every single day. For many centuries, springs provided drinking water for settlements and towns throughout this region of the country and were later used for powering mills and producing salt. Some springs purportedly had healing qualities. In recent decades, these groundwater flows have predominately functioned as recreational resources centered around fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
One of the largest springs in Missouri is Bennett Spring, located in what is now Bennett Spring State Park in Dallas County. As one of the state’s oldest parks, this spring was the site for several grist and flour mills going back to 1846, the most successful of which was operated by a man named Peter Bennett, the namesake for the spring and park. In 1924-1925, the state purchased the spring and part of the surrounding area to create the park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps contributed much of the present-day character of the park, building cabins, a shelter house, roads, trails, the arched bridge across the spring branch, and the rustic dining lodge.
Bennett Spring State Park features many different ecosystems including rich bottomland and stream habitats associated with the spring valley and oak-hickory woodlands in the upland areas. Many animals native to the Ozarks make their homes here, including numerous pickerel frogs, northern water snakes, pileated woodpeckers, river otters, muskrats, and bobcats. The park’s diverse flora includes dense forests of trees, grasses, and herbaceous plants. Wildflowers such as bluebells and purple coneflowers flourish in the summer.
The park features a series of hiking trails, which is what sparked my interest in the late summer during the COVID pandemic and prompted a day trip to check out the site. Upon arriving at the park mid-morning, I made a quick visit to the Nature Center that serves to introduce visitors to the ecology of springs in general and to the natural resources specific to the park. I then made my way to Whistle Trail, which mostly travels along the east side of the spring’s branch, winding its way over the bluffs rising above the stream. It connects with other trails in the park that lead to the spot where the branch flows into the Niangua River, a tributary of the Osage River of south-central Missouri. According to the park’s website, Whistle Trail is likely prehistoric but was used more frequently by local inhabitants from the 1840s to the present.
The views from Whistle Trail are quite wonderful at times, especially because of its proximity to the water and the path it cuts through the lush surrounding forest. I was lucky enough to encounter a pileated woodpecker, only my third sighting of this magnificent species to date. Typically, I prefer the solitude that hiking trails offer, but in this case, it was quite entertaining to watch people wading in the stream trying their luck at hooking a rainbow trout, which I could easily see swimming all around the anglers in the crystal-clear water. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks the branch daily during the regular fishing season, from March through October, and there is a hatchery located near the spring. The park attracts over a million anglers a year. From what I have heard, there are so many people in the stream fishing when the season first opens that you can barely see the water!
I spent the rest of my time wandering around the buildings, other structures, camping sites, and open grassy areas, just enjoying the beauty of the surroundings. I sat in a swing by the spring branch watching families fish and play in the water. For the last hour or so I explored the spring itself, which creates a gorgeous pool of blue-green water about 50 feet in diameter. Again, the trout are clearly visible swimming just below the surface. The water emerges from a 20-foot-wide seam at a temperature of approximately 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Discharging 100 million gallons per day, the spring creates the trout stream that meanders 1.3 miles through the park before flowing into the Niangua River. Bennett Spring is the principal groundwater outlet for the extensive karst geographical area in south-central Missouri.
Missouri has over 90 state parks, and Bennett Spring is among the most popular. A variety of interpretive programs are offered at the park for all ages. The park’s concession hosts offer fly fishing classes too. Canoes, rafts, and kayaks are available to rent for floating on the Niangua. There are multiple options for lodging including a motel, cabins, and camping sites. With seven hiking trails ranging in distance from 1.3 to almost 12 miles and elevations from 849 to 1,102 feet above sea level, hikers can get their fill of exercise, wildlife gazing, and plenty of fresh air. I found the property to be just what I wanted for a day trip, but a weekend would be lovely too. Bennett Spring State Park represents the best of what the Ozarks has to offer for outdoor enthusiasts. I highly recommend a visit.
When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.
During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.
All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.
A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.
The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.
All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation. Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.
The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.
Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels. The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes. The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron. Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.
In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.
The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.
Ten years is a long time, or way too short, depending on the circumstances. In 2018, my wife and I celebrated our ten-year anniversary. A decade seems like a natural milestone in the course of a lifetime and a marriage, so we decided to do something special to commemorate the occasion. Traveling brings us a great deal of pleasure, so we decided to spend a few days in a place that would offer some of our favorite elements of “getting away:” rest, relaxation, beauty, hiking, sightseeing, and of course, good food. Shortly after we married, we made a trip to Phoenix, rented a car, drove up to the Grand Canyon, and came back through the mystical and magical town of Sedona, Arizona. We told ourselves that someday we would come back and spend more time wandering around and getting a closer look at the iconic red rocks there. This special anniversary turned out to be the perfect time for a return to Sedona.
My wife found the perfect spot for us to stay a couple of nights. The Casa Sedona Inn is a small inn located on the west side of town with luscious gardens, bubbling fountains, comfortable rooms, and stunning views of the red rocks nearby. We had a private balcony overlooking the small pool and the wilderness area just beyond the property boundaries. We were both impressed with the hospitality of the staff, the quaint restaurant, the fine collection of art throughout the building, and the irresistible southwestern charm. Not nearly as exciting to my bride but an added treat for me was the wildlife we could see from our balcony and windows, including a few deer and what I mistook for a wild pig. Having previously lived in the southwest, my wife identified the creature as a javelina. Unlike the European swine most often seen domesticated on farms or in the wild in the eastern United States, these mammals are native to the Americas. Admittedly, this photo of the critter may not exactly exemplify the romantic tone of this post, but how could I resist?!
For our anniversary hike we drove a short distance out of town to Devil’s Bridge Trail. We had grand ideas of actually making it all the way to the often-photographed natural sandstone arch, but the trail turns into more of a climb near the end. We were satisfied with the five-mile out and back trek we made, which afforded some amazing views of the red rocks and distant mountain peaks. I never get tired of turning a corner, coming out into a clearing, or cresting a hill on a hiking trail to be transported by a vista that simply defies description.
Sedona is a tourist town in the best and perhaps the worst sense of the phrase. People from around the world come here because of the town’s reputation as a center of cosmic energy that is conducive to healing, meditation, and self-exploration. Somehow the red rocks, with their high concentration of iron-oxide, are thought to create a gravitational field of exceptional force. I have my doubts, but I do know that the force of commerce is quite real in Sedona — there are plenty of retailers. It is a fine vacation spot for families, with plenty to see and do. We especially enjoyed spending time in Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, where we had an exquisite dinner at Rene Restaurant and Wine Bar. We were seated next to a table of twelve — a wedding party that had just finished up in the little village chapel around the corner. They were an entertaining bunch.
On our final day in Sedona, we visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross. One of the guides at the chapel informed us that the giant crucifix had only been installed a few months before we arrived. Regardless of one’s approach to Christian faith in general or the Catholic Church in particular, this is an impressive work of art. We both sat for a brief time on one of the modest wooden bench pews, and I felt a deep appreciation for how the design of this chapel so eloquently compliments its natural surroundings, tucked into the rocks that look almost blood-stained.
On our way out of town, we made a brief stop at Crescent Moon Picnic Area and Ranch, which was an ideal spot to walk along the banks of Oak Creek and stand in awe looking up at the peaks of Cathedral Rock. For those who think that Arizona is limited to dry desert sand and overwhelming heat, the Oak Creek Watershed is like a 50-mile elongated oasis of streams, falls, cascades, and pools in central Arizona that nourishes rich vegetation and wildlife. Somehow a metaphor about refreshing water in the desert and a relationship that continues to run even deeper and stronger after ten years seems an appropriate way to end this post. Suffice it to say, the return to Sedona was an excellent way to celebrate the “mystical” union of two people who are well married and immersed in the inexplicable power of love.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.
We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.
On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.
When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.
To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.
For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service. Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside. Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching. Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country. One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area. The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.
The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area. There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco. Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city. For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.
Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south. The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast. There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east. Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk. The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening. The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!
Looking for a more traditional hiking experience? Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument. Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog. The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible. The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy. Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.
Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast. With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean. The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles. Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay. Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best. My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods. Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable. With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.
Near a place called Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, the Appalachian Trail makes a steep descent south towards a place called Neels Gap. The Trail crosses Highway 19/129 just a few miles south of Vogel State Park at a historic site called Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. The stone façade of the Center has been standing at Neels Gap since 1937. Originally a log structure, the building took its present form when it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was a living quarters for corpsman working to reforest the Chattahoochee National Forest. It later served as a restaurant and inn until 1965, when it was abandoned. By the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Spared from destruction, the building served as an irregular store to hikers and tourists until 1983 when Jeff and Dorothy Hansen took over management of what became known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Although the store has changed hands several times, it still operates as a premiere full service outfitter on the Trail for thru hikers offering gear, large resupply options, lodging, and an array of gifts.
Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center boasts a couple of interesting features. It is the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a man-made structure. It is also the home of what I call the tree of blown-out hiking shoes. For years, hikers have been slinging their badly-worn shoes up into the branches of a tree located just outside the store’s entrance. It caught me by surprise the first time I looked up and noticed what was hanging from the limbs. I’m sure the tree stands as a monument to those who have passed through this section of the Appalachian Trail, whether they started in Georgia, Maine, or a thousand points in between. Having one’s shoes included in the tree must surely be a badge of honor. It almost serves as a footwear mausoleum, and perhaps a warning to those who think hiking the Trail is not so difficult.
My wife loves adventures, and she has had quite a few. My life is all the more richer because of the adventures we have shared in the eight years we have been married. There have been times when I have “caused” adventures for which we didn’t necessarily make plans, but she has usually faced the challenges with enthusiasm and determination. She is a gracious soul. One such occasion happened about five years ago when I decided to search for a hiking trail that terminated at a waterfall — one of my favorite outdoor experiences. I searched through a trail guide and selected one in north central Georgia in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Little Rock Creek Falls looked beautiful in all the photographs I saw, which perhaps encouraged me to be a bit too dismissive about the descriptions of the trail leading to the falls that described it as being difficult and dangerous with thick underbrush.
For young folks or very athletic, experienced hikers, this trail would not be a problem. My wife and I are casual hikers. We are occasional hikers. We are quite often paved-trail hikers. Little Rock Creek trail has no pavement. The length of the trail from the road to the falls is a little less than a mile, and the elevation is consistent; however, the terrain is quite steep and rocky as the trail makes its way along a sharp embankment following the creek. The understory is beautiful and thick with mountain laurel and rhododendron. At this stage of our hiking careers, we were not yet using sticks of any kind (we each have two now). Under normal conditions, we would have considered this to be a moderately difficult hike, but alas, I had the audacity to take my dear wife on this excursion not too long after she had broken her shoulder, which she guarded carefully along the way. I was nervous the whole time, fearing that she would slip and reinjure her shoulder or break something else trying to protect it as she fell.
Although we should have waited until she was in better shape to make this hike, I can state with certainty that neither of us was disappointed with the terminus of this trail. It was one of the most secluded and enchanting waterfalls I have ever seen in Georgia. We did the obligatory selfie shot with the falls behind us, which became profile pictures for both of us on social media for several months. I apologized to her profusely for selecting such a treacherous trail, especially considering that she was still recovering from an injury. As usual, she simply said, “I’m fine.” She is indeed.
I have expressed my appreciation for waterfalls in previous posts, and we are fortunate to live in an area of the country where creeks, lakes, and waterfalls are abundant. Even better, many of these features are freely accessible at state parks, national forests, and recreational areas. One of the most popular waterfalls close to our home is Panther Creek Falls, located a few miles south of Tallulah Gorge in northeast Georgia. This waterfall is located in the Panther Creek Recreation Area at the end of a 3.5-mile moderate walk along Panther Creek. The National Forest parking area is located on old U.S. Highway 441 north of Clarkesville.
Panther Creek Falls Trail is 5.5 miles long and follows Panther Creek through stands of hemlock and white pine along steep, rocky bluffs of the creek. The trails passes a series of cascades as well as Panther Creek Falls. It terminates where Davidson Creek joins Panther Creek. When my younger son and I explored the trail last February, we decided to take the 3.5-mile hike to the falls and return to the parking area for a 7-mile excursion. We had plenty of company on that mild winter day, with other hikers and campers all along the path. The trail is noted for its beautiful variety of wildflowers and ferns. The stream offers excellent opportunities for trout fishermen too. Some rock scrambling is required, and there are some steep sections, but much of the hike is relatively flat. Erosion has caused several trail sections to drop sharply and suddenly to the creek below, demanding extra caution. I was amazed at how many families with small children were there when we hiked the trail — some were even carrying strollers with them!
I was so enamored with the trail that I took my wife back at a later date, and while we only hiked in and out about a mile or so, she could appreciate the beauty of the forest and the creek without seeing the falls. A large, shallow pool forms at the base of the falls, which is a wonderful destination for families and hiking groups. The setting is beautiful, surrounded by hills covered in trees and laurel. For those who like seclusion and privacy when they commune with nature, this recreation area is probably not a good choice. In the warmer parts of the year, I’m sure it gets quite crowded.
The naming of the creek is a source of curiosity for me. I have not read anything official that links the name to animals that may have inhabited the area in the past. According to some sources, a subspecies of the puma, the Florida panther, survives in a small, isolated and precarious population at the rapidly urbanizing southern tip of Florida. However, these animals were once widespread, even inhabiting portions of Georgia. Another subspecies, the eastern puma (also known as cougar or mountain lion) may have once occupied regions of north Georgia. Although in recent years there have been claims of sightings in north Georgia and South Carolina, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has declared the eastern puma extinct and removed it from the list of protected wildlife and plants under the Endangered Species Act. Regardless of nomenclature of the falls, this trail offers a great opportunity to get outside and enjoy the natural resources that are so abundant in the hills and mountains of north Georgia. We will definitely return.