The Best Hike Ever
By Jay Young, photos by Angela Sundstrom and Jay Young
At its heart, hiking is exploring. Even when we’re hiking the same old trail we’ve done a million times, we often hope to see some aspect of it that we haven’t seen previously. To me, hiking is also best when there’s an element of adventure to it—when the outcome is not 100% certain.
I have a few go-to local hikes, and of them, this is my favorite. The trailhead is only a 5 minute drive from Adventures On the Gorge, and while it’s a short hike—probably less than a mile—it packs more adventure than a runaway trainload of pirates and dinosaurs.
It's so adventurous, in fact, that I probably need to offer up a disclaimer... This hike entails exceptionally rugged terrain. There exists potential for falls from cliffs in excess of 60 feet. It has ladders, boulders, slippery rocks, sections of off-trail walking, caves you have to hike through, caves you have to climb through, and in the summertime, there will be Copperheads. In addition to your standard hiking equipment for the season, you’ll need a headlamp-style flash light, which allows you to see while leaving your hands free for climbing. If you go on this hike, you might get very seriously hurt. You might even die. That said, if you have an adventurous spirit and are reasonably physically fit, you might want to give this a try, because it also has amazing scenery and one of the oddest waterfalls you'll ever see!
If I haven’t scared you off, let’s do this. I recommend you print this post and all it’s photos for directions. I’ve presented them in order.
1. From AOTG, drive straight across Route 19 onto Lansing-Edmond Rd. Follow it for about 1.5 miles, until you see a gravel parking area on the right labeled Fern Creek. This is the trailhead in the parking lot.
2. Walk straight from the trailhead until you hit this bridge. This is Fern Creek, and if there’s any water in it, you can probably hear the Falls. It’s maybe 75 meters downstream.
3. If you turn right onto a faint trail at the creek (before crossing the aforementioned bridge), it will take you to the top of Fern Creek Falls. It’s tricky to get where I am in this pic. I opted to walk down the creek, instead of scrambling down the small cliff where the photographer is standing. At this level, all the water disappears into the rock.
Okay, let’s head to the bottom. From here, walk back to the bridge, cross it and continue uphill on the trail.
4. Once you get to the rim of the New River Gorge, you’ll see this sign. Follow the arrow for Climbing Access. It’s going to put you at the edge of Endless Wall, where you’ll get good views of the Gorge and the Bridge. Somewhere out there near the edge, you’ll also see a ladder leading down into the first cave.
5. The ladder looks like this. It’s actually only about 10 feet tall. Go ahead on down.
6. Follow the cave to the light, where you’ll find...
7. Another ladder. There’s one more short ladder below this one. Together, the three of them deposit you at the bottom of the cliff.
8. I hope you brought a camera! There’s a ton to shoot here.
9. From the bottom of the ladders, turn right (toward the Bridge) and follow a faint trail that parallels the bottom of the cliff. We’re now heading back toward the falls. Keep the cliff on your right. The terrain for the next 200 meters or so will be rugged. You’ll have to scramble up and down blocks of stone, but you should never be in a position where a fall might do real damage. In other words, stay between the boulders—like in this picture—rather than trying to go over them. In the summertime, there will probably be Copperheads in this section. Watch where you place your hands and step.
10. Eventually, you’ll make it to the falls! The interesting thing is that once the water disappears into the rock, it separates into several different channels, which are actually nothing more than big cracks in the cliff. This is one of the smaller ones.
11. Corridors and caverns abound down here!
12. Here’s one of the bigger waterfall corridors. From where I am in this pic, I can see the cascade.
14. Another corridor.
15. Okay, once you’ve had your fill of waterfalls and caverns, it’s time to hike back. You have two options here. One, you can go back the way you came, keeping the cliff on your left until you get back to the ladder. That’s the easiest route. Or, if you’re really adventurous, you can take the cave! The cave is actually one of the waterfall channels, but it's always dry. In this pic, Angela is standing in front of the cave entrance. Scramble up onto the boulder directly behind her pointing hand (technically, the most difficult part of the whole hike), and then continue straight up vertically inside of the cave. It’s a little tight in there, but it’s not as difficult as it may at first seem. There are huge things to grab and step on, and you can always just lean back to rest against whatever rock is behind you.
16. The cave climb will deposit you on a ledge. In this picture, I’m on it. Now you need that headlamp you brought. Head straight back into the cliff. You’ll see the exit before you even start, but it’s still a little tricky to get out. There will be one more climbing section, about 10 feet tall, to surmount—it’s about 20 feet back into the dark from where I’m sitting.
17. Here’s the exit from the cave! Congratulations! You made it! Of course, you’re still not quite done. You have yet to make it back to the main trail, and even though it’s only about 100 feet from where you’re standing, you’re probably looking around thinking, “What now?” Coming out of the cave, turn right and follow along the rock for about 40 feet, until you top a 2-foot-tall flat boulder. Turn hard left here to find a faint trail. That will take you to the main trail. Even if you totally botch this part, just bushwhack straight uphill. You’ll get there.
Turn left on the main trail. You’ll soon be at the foot bridge and headed back to your car!