photograph by James Bernardin

Everything ahead of us looked like a promise — a vernal, wild, cross-my-heart covenant that deep in the canyon below was a hidden waterfall, tucked so far out of the way that it didn’t even register in the various waterfall guide books I’d consulted. Two steep ridges fell away to form a deep cleft valley. Somewhere below lay a creek. That’s where we were headed. Julie, my wife, and Markie, my daughter at Appalachian State University, led the way, hiking under towering yellow poplars that rose 40 feet before the first branch. They chatted away, mother and daughter, and their laughter made a father’s heart soar. The morning was still cool, the dappled sunlight still early-morning golden. 

We’d been looking for a waterfall hike and we didn’t mind a pretty serious jaunt. We had most of a day to burn, and we had experience in the woods, so something a bit off the beaten path was right in our wheelhouse. In fact, I take a bit of fatherly pride in finding the offbeat and off-the-chart for my family. There are plenty of well-known waterfalls in the Boone area — Linville Falls, Trash Can Falls, Elk River Falls. But practically everyone hikes to those waterfalls. What’s the fun in jostling for position at the end of a trail?

And so it began. This very approach, be it related to waterfall hikes or back-road shortcuts, is where the trouble starts. Or, as Julie says: You just can’t stand doing what everybody else does. I have no idea what she’s talking about.

I just knew there had to be a lesser-known waterfall somewhere in all those mountains, a place where getting there involved some mystery, a sense of discovery, perhaps, and only a slim chance of deprivation and pain. I did some deep searching on the World Wide InterWeb of All Knowledge, a known source of complete and reliable information, and found a description of a little-known waterfall at the end of a little-traveled path that led down a little-explored canyon. In other words: Perfection.

• • •

There’s no denying the wow factor of a thundering, mist-shrouded, tumbling-from-the-sky waterfall. They are at once violent and sublime, a tactile expression of the relationship between landscape and deep time. We were stoked by the idea of finding a tucked-away cataract that the hordes had overlooked. 

The trailhead was across from a local park, but I’m not going to say where, exactly, because, for reasons that will become clear, some places are just too special to widely share.

We pulled into a meager clearing by the road. The parking area was barely large enough for three normal-size cars, so my 4×4 pickup flopped across the space like a busted burrito. The old trail marker was sheathed in moss. There seemed to be some sort of footpath leading into the woods, but it was overgrown and tangled, and looked as if it might have been made by a small herd of opossums, not waterfall seekers. “Are you sure this is right?” Julie asked. I peered into the woods. Looked like no one had been there since, perhaps, Sequoyah. I beamed.

The trail opened up a bit as it switchbacked down the mountain, with views of the steep ridge wall on the far side of the gorge. Stinging nettles raked our legs, a sure sign that few people had recently passed. Markie stepped in a yellow jacket nest and got stung a half-dozen times in the calf. She’s not one for complaining. She soldiered on. My heart swelled with pride.

When we finally made it to the creek, a piddling little stream, we began to realize that our dream of discovering a breathtaking cascade might have been a bit ambitious. Now we were just hoping for a decent drop over boulders, a cool pool for soaking trail-worn feet. But trails ran in three directions. The looping route back to the truck wasn’t very clear. My hiking companions were getting antsy. I remembered that, when asked if he had ever been lost, Daniel Boone replied that he had been bewildered once for three straight days. But never lost. I adopted his perspective, but I didn’t share my confusion. I bet Daniel kept his mouth shut around Rebecca, too.

• • •

Soon we’d been on the trail for three hours, we’d run out of water and trail snacks, and Markie was worried about being late for work. The trail forked, and forked again, crossing the creek a half-dozen times. It was a stunning little valley, but at some point, we simply had to turn uphill and leave the main stream behind. Still, I hadn’t given up all hope. The creeks that drop through side canyons and off steep ridges can create some dramatic flumes. Maybe that’s what we were looking for, after all.

After a hard hour’s uphill hiking, a clearing winked through the trees, but our lifted spirits were dashed with an ominous line of posted signs warning us to Keep Out. “We are not going back,” Julie declared. She knows I have a thing about trespassing. But we could hear road traffic. Salvation was at hand. We found a little side trail that veered off to the right, toward the sound of cars. Parting briars with our knees, we finally made landfall on the highway, exhausted, sweaty — and on the far side of the gorge from the truck. Let me say that there was a remarkable lack of love and gratitude displayed for my having brought the family this far, this safely.

I wound up hitchhiking back to the truck, leaving Julie and Markie safely perched on a picnic table at a roadside rest stop. I rode in the open bed of a pickup truck, chatting amiably through the sliding window with the Good Samaritan couple. They lived nearby. They’d never heard of our mythic waterfall. I didn’t mention that to my family. 

After we made it home, Markie had to ice her leg for three days. I limped around the house a bit myself, but the swelling in my knee ultimately subsided about the time that Julie started talking to me again. I believe that was the following Thursday.

We’ll always remember that waterfall hike. Julie and Markie bring it up quite regularly. I just nod and smile to myself and think: Good job, Dad. Making memories.

This story was published on

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.

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