Saturday, June 4, 2011

Laurel Snow Pocket Wilderness: Laurel Falls

Laurel Falls: N35 32.837 W85 01.462
Trail Head:  N35 11.853 W85 03.030
Approximate temperature today: 96-degrees F

This trip had everything - talk about a fun hike!  I'll admit, there was some drama built in, but I don't want to spoil the fun by telling everything up front.  Today's hikers: Jess, LeiLui (the trusty K9), and yours truly.  To give a little bit of the layout of the area, there is a main trail that splits twice: once to go to Old Dayton Reservoir and once to go either to Laurel Falls or Snow Falls.  From the trail head to the Reservoir split is about 1.2 miles (one way) and is a very well groomed trail that follows Richland Creek.  It's worthy to note that for the first 3/4-1 mile you will generally see lots of people taking advantage of the creeks numerous "swimming holes".  

Nicotye standing on a rock ledge by the creek
In addition to the splendid views proffered by the very boulder-infested creek, one also has views offered by the sheer bluffs on the side of the trail, old mining ‘establishment’ foundations, and one brick-arched mine shaft.  Of note, the last time that I was at this location – about 13 years ago – the mine shaft was purposefully caved in.  Over a decade plus, the mine is now open (though I’m not sure how far).  My emergency flashlight didn’t have the robust beam to penetrate the darkness that fell at the end of a very precarious, slippery hill that enters the mine shaft itself.  However, the mine entrance is about 10-degrees (or more) cooler than the outside temperature, so it offers a welcome rest on the way out.

A nifty hole you have to climb through...
At 1.2 miles down the nice little nature walk you come to the first split: Old Dayton Reservoir/Main Trail.  This is almost exactly the point where the ‘nature walk’ turns into a legitimate hike.  The main trail forks to the right and begins and immediate uphill on a very narrow path.  This path leads you to the “T” fork where you can then opt for either Laurel Falls or Snow Falls.  The “actual distance” between the reservoir split to the "T" split is about 0.4 miles but, in that time, you climb around 200 vertical feet.  In addition to the relatively steep and narrow trails, the overall terrain went from usual forest trail to very large rocks and boulders.  At one point, the trail literally takes you through a hole between two large rocks where the off-strewn rocks offer footing.  The hole, pictured here, is large enough (3' tall by 5' wide)  for a person to easily go through, but expect your pack to skim on the way up.  Then, more uphill and across a metal bridge that is the sign of the relatively close “T” split.  Of course, our trip was to Laurel Falls, so we took a right.
The next mile – and that’s literally about how far it is from the bridge to the falls – has some moderate terrain, a lot more uphill, and when you approach the falls, the rocks are precarious at best.  Jess had a couple minor tumbles and I witnessed a woman with a different party that was leaving the falls take a pretty decent fall.  More than once I would have to lift LeiLui up onto a large boulder and then hoist myself onto it.  At one point, when I jumped down (maybe 3 feet) and was preparing to get LeiLui to put her from one boulder top to the next, Lui decided she didn’t need my help.  She tried to jump from one boulder top to another and, not realizing how sloped her landing was going to be, she fell and tumbled from the rock onto her side.  (We have begun referring to this incent as either “she blew a tire” or “her 4-wheel drive went out"… in case I slip up and 
call it that later!) 

Luckily, we were almost to the falls, which was our planned lunch stop.  After another 10 minutes of boulder traversing, we were nestled in the shadow of the precipice that creates Laurel Falls.
Laurel Falls, a view from behind the falls
The falls aren’t impressive in flow but are in height and, I’d assume that if we weren’t in the middle of a dry spell, it would be more impressive.  We settled in for some canned beef-a-roni, smoked salmon, snack crackers, and jerky.  We rested in the shade of the overhang for about 30 minutes and then began the trek back.  Somewhere after the metal bridge/”T” split LeiLui was showing a very marked slowing of pace.  Over the next half mile we had to stop at least 5 times for her to catch up.  Thinking she needed a rest, I promised Jess we’d stop at an awesome swimming hole I had spotted on the way in.
We made it to the swimming hole, though I’ll admit that the pace was achingly slow.  Here, Jess and I took a cool dip and I even managed to persuade LeiLui to come in (ok, fine… I pulled her).  We then sun-dried on a boulder, loaded up, and started the 1.2 back.  We weren’t far… maybe 200 feet?... when it was clear that LeiLui wasn’t going to be walking back.  It wasn’t like she was walking slow… she wouldn’t walk at all.  I prompted her to take a few more steps and it was clear that she was favoring her left shoulder. 

We still had a decent trek back to the car and it was clear she wasn’t going to make it.  I picked her up in my arms and carried her but after not even ¼ of a mile my arms were giving out.  So, I handed Jess my trekking poles, squatted down as far as I could, pulled Lui over the my head and, with some assistance from Jess, stood up with the dog hoisted around my neck and shoulders.  We walked at a steady pace and made the last mile finally, slowly, and painfully disappear.  When we were nearing the parking area, I had Jess take my keys and go ahead to start the car and open Lui’s door.  We settled her into the car and drove the 45 minutes to home.  I was secretly amazed that I managed to carry my pack and a dog that weighs 1/3 my body weight for that distance.  (Woot, me!)

Nicotye snagging water to rinse out a salmon package
I dropped Lui and Jess off at home (I still had a 4.5 mile hike to do at the Bay to finish my 10 miles planned for the day) and Jess had to carry Lui into the house.  Luckily, by the time I got home 1.5 hours later from the Bay nature walk, Lui is again walking around (not much, but not with a pronounced limp anymore).  Yes, I’ll keep a close eye on her and take her to vet if she doesn’t show marked improvement in the next couple of days.
All-in-all, I rate the Laurel Falls trek as follows:

  • Terrain: 60% easy, 40% rugged.  If you aren’t a good hiker, the serious uphills and boulders may prove to be more challenge than you bargained for, but with a good pace, lots of water (the three of us used 4.5 liters), and perseverance I would highly recommend this trip. 
  • Wildlife: lizards, a humongous wolf spider that I was in awe over, and the usual chipmunks and squirrels.  Oh, I also saw the biggest effing bullfrog I've seen in awhile and lots of fish in the crystal-clear swimming hole.
  • Time-to-Distance: the entire hike was 4.5 miles (note: the snow pocket is about 2 miles further if you opt for that route) and took 4.5 hours – this includes the lunch, the short swim, and the exceptionally slow pace on the last 1.2 miles.  If I had done the trek alone and stopped only to eat, I would estimate it would take about 3 hours.  

Personal note: I’m very, very proud of my daughter, Jess.  She’s not done any serious hikes with me (this was her first) and she did a stellar job that I highly commend her for!  She’s proven to me that she can handle some rugged terrain and, if she ever wants to test it further, we can do the Snow Falls leg.  

DAY LATER FOLLOW-UP LEILUI REPORT:  She's getting around better and even taking the stairs again today (albeit slowly!).  My guess is she bruised her shoulder and ribs, but I think she'll be OK.  (added 06.05.2011)

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