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Gragg’s Prong – North Carolina

~3.3 miles, in and back

Rocky, creek crossings

Waterfalls, swimming, foliage

This place was magnificent. My husband, Shawn, had mentioned it a few times in the past, but we never made the trek out – it was an hour and a half or better drive down some super sketchy gravel mountain roads – I am lucky to live in a place where driving an hour to a great hiking trail seems like way too far. Some of the area’s most popular and epic trails, Hawksbill and Table Rock for instance, are right up the road by comparison. So driving a couple hours to get to a creek seemed pointless.

However.

However, it’s now September. We have been busy in one of those strange ways where various things just keep happening that require attention and they build up so that putting off a hike for a day turns into putting off going into the woods at all for weeks in the blink of an eye. So we finally had a free weekend and decided to plan an overnight trip, take some pictures, get out to the Middle of Nowhere. It was feeling good to be packing packs and planning fireside meals. We were just starting to gather everything when Shawn’s friend suddenly stopped by. A friend that he hadn’t seen in 5 years, an old hiking companion, a friend that wrote a very popular guide to the Linville Gorge. So naturally we sat on the porch and caught up, extending our departure time, but warmed by the welcome surprise of visitors.

We finally bid farewell and get the packs and dog in the car, head down the road – gah! Five minutes in we realize we should probably detour to the gas station, it is quite a journey to the trail and my trusty Honda Pilot Whip Whittaker can get a little thirsty crawling these mountain roads. Okay, it’s only a few miles out of the way to the gas station in Collettesville. But, double gah! Ten minutes in I realize I left my phone at home. Okay, so we’re taking a little longer to get there. My anxiety is building, I’m getting a little snippy. We get gas, double back to the house and get my phone, then finally hit the gravel road. There’s a decent amount of traffic (for the Middle of Nowhere), being Labor Day weekend, which means compromising with tourists for space on winding gravel roads not built for two vehicles to pass without a fight.

As we make our way down Roseboro Road, it gets rough. Really rough, nearly off-roading rough, 2 foot deep cracks in the gravel running down a hill, on a curve, barely avoidable only through skill and luck. Bouncey, fun, and pretty stressful driving. So by the time we get to the trailhead, it’s dark. There are lots of cars in the parking area, and headlamps flashing on top of silhouettes in the trees across the creek. Quite a few people here on this holiday weekend. I’m at very low morale, and Shawn can feel it. We wrangle dog and packs and head on to the trail.

Ugh, people are camped at the first campsite and they’ve got their tarp lines stretched across the trail! Inconsiderate. Even arguably dangerous. We manage to get past without Duke ripping off his leash to meet any new friends, down the hill to the first creek crossing – wait, what, I have to cross the creek? Okay, here we go, in the dark, man this is pretty rocky, I need better shoes… Make it across, start to climb the other side and realize, good lord I’ve left my camera bag in the car. Stupid! Stupid, stupid. Shawn offers to run back and get it. Well, no I can’t make him do that, we’ll figure it out, maybe in the morning, or maybe there won’t be anything to take pictures of anyway, maybe it will be boring and pointless. (Clearly my anxiety is getting the best of me at this point.) Batteries in headlamp seem to be dying, it’s getting dimmer quickly. This is ridiculous. Why did we come here? It’s all rocky and rooty and there’s people here, yuck, and oh my God is that a yappy little dog barking at us from across the creek? Shut that little ankle-biter up, this is the wilderness for chrissake.

My sanity is only hanging on by the straps of my sandals when we get to the second river crossing. Still in a cactus-like state of touchy, I manage across reluctantly and drag my sorry self up to a turn with a trail marker sprayed on a tree trunk. It’s a Mountains-To-Sea blaze, the softball-sized white circle that marks the MST for hundreds of miles from here to the coast. And this one has a smiley face in it!

It cheers me up a little, enough to pull out my phone and snap a picture. The hike starts to get a little easier for me. The trail is still rough in parts but my mood is getting brighter by the minute. By the third water crossing I’m cracking jokes. Shortly after we cross we come to the great campsite Shawn had stayed at a few years ago when he had last been here, but it’s taken. Looks like we just missed it too, they’re still setting up. Oh well, we’ll head a bit further and see what we find. A little ways down the trail we find a worn path forking off towards the creek and we walk a few feet down it. Even though it’s completely dark at this point, we can tell the trees open up onto a large, slanted rock that slopes down to the creek. I can hear a lot of rushing water nearby. We drop pack and Shawn heads down the rock to see if there’s a place to hang hammocks. I shine my headlamp around and find the source of the roaring water, a bend in the river at the top of this sloping rock we’re on, where the water is forced 90 degrees suddenly and the whitewater rolls quickly down the outside edge of the huge sloped boulder I’m standing on. Shawn runs back up and says there’s a nice fire ring and hammock trees, it’s really rocky but it can work. We grab our packs and light up the camp.

The water that is diverted at the top of the big rock cascades down the rock then widens out into a strong but smooth current. It forms a thirty foot wide pool in front of the camp that gets diverted noisily through a more boulders. The river doesn’t seem to slow down for long as I can hear more waterfalls on that side, we just got lucky to have a calm pool in front of us. We start a fire and have a drink. While the fire warms up, I go for a wade in the stream. Under the water the big rocks are hazardous slick, so I take off my shoes and feel around to find footing. It’s a strong current that wraps firmly around my knees in the deeper parts, but a few steps into the middle and its smoothly flowing around my ankles. I rinse my hair and splash off the North Carolina humidity that’s built up on my skin from the heat, even in the dark.

I walk around and survey what I can. I can tell it’s beautiful here, but since I’ve arrived in the dark with a dim headlamp, it’s just my brain filling in details I can’t possibly have. I dry off, put on some comfy pants and search Shawn’s pack for fresh batteries. With a brighter headlight I see that there’s a huge rock across from us with a densely forested ridge growing from that, and another pile of boulders next to our camp, boxing us in with the pool. The river seems to narrow down again right past us, funneled into loud falls.

The fire has been burning nicely; there was no shortage of firewood from old flood debris and some left from previous campers. My pack mule husband had managed to shove a large saucepan and frying pan into his bag for cooking. Short trail, one night, we can get away with some extra weight. We get a good bed of coals in the pit and make a campfire chicken soup with filtered creek water, bouillon cubes and veggie rotini. Once it’s good and hot, Shawn puts on the frying pan with some butter and cooks up some grilled cheese sandwiches.

The soup is salty and hot, the noodles are perfect, the sandwiches are ridiculously cheesy. Delicious food in my belly, hair wet with fresh wild water, I’m feeling much more at peace. We hang our hammocks, I engineer a little step under mine with a 2×6 Shawn pulls out of the flood debris and two logs. It doubles as a relatively comfortable seat by the fire.

The river is loud and steady, the weather is absolutely perfect. We don’t see or hear another person all night.

🌅

Around dawn, my wonderful, amazing husband speed walks the trail back to the car to get my camera bag. I sleep a while and then suddenly it hits me that I haven’t really seen where I am. I peek my head out and the details flood in. It truly is a beautiful place. All my doubts of finding good photo fodder disappear. I lay in my hammock taking selfies as the river rushes around me.

Shawn returns and we fix scrambled eggs and instant coffee*(Shawn reminded me it wasn’t instant coffee, it was the little sealed packs of regular brewing coffee you get at hotels, boiled in a pot. Pretty good hiking hack. Explains why it was actually good.) I drink it with sweet cream from a plastic water bottle and it is warm and perfect.

I keep picking up my camera and wandering off. It becomes compulsive. Every where I look, it’s perfect and green. By the time the sun is nearing peak, I’ve already deleted dozens and dozens of photos to make room for more. With enough space left on the roll, we explore upstream from the camp. Above the sharp turn in the river, there’s a variety of small waterfalls spilling into the kettles they’ve steadily formed.

It doesn’t get deeper than a few feet in any spot, which makes maneuvering easier, but I’m still clumsily crawling on the slippery rocks, jaw clenched tight around my camera strap, which seemed the most secure way to keep my precious second hand d50 out of the water. I snap, snap, snap, all the way to the campsite above us. We turn back, headed to our spot for a break from the sun. Shawn does some fishing and I ditch the camera to swim and climb the waterfalls, deciding which is my favorite and looking for the most visually satisfying rocks and moss. I stub my toes on a particularly hard rock while being pushed around by the falls and decide I should get out of the current. I let it carry me as far as it will and get out at the turn above the sloped rock. Feeling wonderfully cold and sore, I hobble back down to camp and we start packing up. Shawn says he discovered a better campsite downstream just a little ways. Another set of waterfalls and a nice firepit, and sand instead of big, sharp rocks. Well, I guess we’ll have to come back. The drive back is easier, despite the Labor Day traffic. We stop at Betsey’s Old Country Store and get chili dogs and all is right in the world.

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