Does a canyon – descending close to 400-ft in just under 0.2 miles – choked out with giant boulders and squeezing a creek through terrain consisting of waterfall after swimming hole after waterfall after swimming hole for the entirety of the trek sound appetizing to you? It did to me, as well. Welcome to Gingercake Creek Canyon.
Make no mistake, this one will make you work for it. Located just outside the eastern flank of the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area, NC, our journey lasted 4 hours but only logged about a mile of hiking. In fact, where I parked my car and where we emerged back on the road was less than 450-ft from each other!
The original plan, which far from ended up happening, was to shuttle Gingercake Creek Canyon from FR 496 until we connected to Steels Creek and the MST. Then head south to the parking area for Steels Creek Falls at the end of FR 228. Little did we know that thunderstorms and epic swimming holes turned this shuttle into a beautiful failure.
Inspired from the wake of newly published explorations of this section by Fungi – Andy Kunkle and Jennifer Loow a couple weeks prior, this foray was masterminded by Rock Sprite – Kitty Myers and Badger – Thomas Mabry. Joining us on this trek was Professor – Scott Burns and John Cleeton, which quickly turned this gathering into a league of extraordinary long-haired individuals.
The parking area for Steels Creek Falls is just shy of 4 miles at the end of FR 228, located off of NC -181 about 9.6 miles south of NC- 183 S near Jonas Ridge and North of Linville Gorge. After assembling the team, we all shuttled in my Jeep to the start of our journey – Gingercake Creek, 3.8 miles down FR 496 – which is off of NC 181 about 4.2 miles north of where FR 228 connects to it. Both roads are dirt but in fairly decent condition for most vehicles without worry. As you drive down FR 496, you’ll pass other waterfall destinations like Upper Steels Creek Falls, Newt Falls, and Zig-Zag Falls.
Underestimating the time consuming difficulty of the trek, we decided to start off with a “quick” exploration 0.25 miles upstream Gingercake from FR 496, to a point of interest Rock Sprite had her eyes on. Forest service maps show an old road heading upstream on river right, but we couldn’t find it. There is a fisherman’s campsite at the junction and small spur trail that begins to head upstream on river left. We found remnants of an old grade on that side and it seems to be the best way, but it soon fades out and turns away from the creek. Full fledged creek walking became the next best approach. Our suspicions were correct, as we came to a small but scenic waterfall.
Just upstream from the small falls pictured above is another 15-ft scenic fall. Unfortunately none of us got a photo of it, but the setting is similar and has a downed old growth at the base.
On river right of Upper Gingercake Creek, there’s a big cliff line that is tucked in discreetly by the dense canopy. While the crew decided to check that out, I had another point of interest about 0.25 miles further upstream that I went solo to.
Turns out my hunch was correct, as I came across the biggest waterfall on the upper sections of the creek! This 25-ft fall has a neatly perched overhang rock above it; but more interesting is the sharp direction change the water takes in the middle of the falls and then again at the base. While not an overly impressive or strongly flowing fall, the details made it interesting enough that it was worthwhile to take the quick detour for me.
After ‘schwacking back to FR 496, we decided to start our hike a little bit closer to the top of the canyon, in hopes of saving some time and effort.
Backtracking east on FR 496 for about 0.75 miles, we parked on the road where it curves to the left at (35* 55.6463′ N, 81* 51.9005′ W). There is a fairly wide enough pull out in the grass at the bend for 2 cars. If you look at a topo map, you should be almost directly above where you can see the canyon forms – about 400-ft below.
Heading down the side of the mountain from the parking, you’ll want to bear slightly southwest. Shortly thereafter, you should find a gully/old grade that heads further down the mountainside. It’s fairly easy going but the grade will fade out, leaving the last 200-ft to be a path of least resistance through dense rhodo. The goal is to just keep heading down until you reach the creek.
We aimed our path perfectly and got spit out onto the creek at (35* 55.4728′ N, 81* 51.8254′ W) – the very beginning of the canyon. Immediately downstream of this point is the brink of the first waterfall inside the Gingercake Creek Canyon and immediately upstream is a nice set of entrance cascades.
From here on downstream, the best approach is through the gut of the creek and canyon. The riverbed sides are densely overgrown with rhodo and laurel, making bushwhacking quite difficult in places but the creek itself is very open. Depending on your skill level and abilities, you’ll be crossing the creek several times and down scrambling/climbing precariously stacked boulders that are quite slippery. This is a technical and potentially dangerous creek walk, please prepare accordingly.
Going river left downstream, Gingercake enters a deep and mossy slot with a strikingly distinct boulder spearheaded right into the brink of it! Later dubbed Prelude Falls, this 20-ft waterfall set the tone for what was to come.
Prelude Falls is absolutely stunning with its vibrant setting and ancient feeling.
Various photos of the crew at Prelude Falls. (Click to enlarge)
Moving further downstream, the next fall is only about 250-ft away. Later dubbed Top Hat Falls, this waterfall was the most scenic one of the day to me.
The fall is about 25-ft tall, adorned with a vibrant mossy setting, and named for the distinct “hat” rock stacked on the brink of it – which, of course, I had to hit a handstand on top of it to give it the full “top hat” look.
Getting down Top Hat Falls required some rock sliding on river right. At the base, the creek thins out as it widely spreads out over some shoals then empties into a potential swimming hole about 15-ft downstream.
Various leftover pictures of Top Hat Falls. (Click to enlarge.)
Immediately downstream after Top Hat, Gingercake Creek drops over another set of boulders, with another one stacked on the brink. This time the canyon splits the water under the boulder and creates two separate falls, but the river left fall is where most of the water flow is.
Before I even got there, Professor had already slipped over the brink of the fall, under the boulder, and then down the river right side through DENSE overgrowth to the base. This 20-ft waterfall has a phenomenal swimming hole, which is demonstrated by the Professor below.
Leftover photos of this unnamed waterfall. (Click to enlarge.)
By this point, the thunderstorms were beginning to roll in on us. With deep, loud cracks of thunder roaring above and phasing periods of light rain coming down, we decided to put a little pep into our step. We barely made a dent into our planned route, and the threat of potential flash floods in this canyon was starting to unsettle us.
Bushwacking downstream on river left now, the next fall is only just over 100-ft away. Here, the canyon forms another narrow slot, with slick and mossy walls rising above it. The overgrowth is dense and the going is tough. In that slot is a big rock that you can stand on to get a full view of what was later dubbed No Return Falls.
The plunge pool at the base of this beautiful 25-ft falls is very deep. By now, the rain was starting to become more consistent and we knew the sky was going to open up on us at any second. Trying to figure out a way downstream from here, we decided the best route was to take the 5-ft jump off into the slot and swim it out just downstream to where the water gets shallow again. Problem is, if you jump into this slot then there is a high probability you cannot climb out – leaving no choice but to push forward. I’m not going to say it’s impossible to climb out, but for the vast majority it isn’t feasible to them.
John took the first jump after carefully assessing the water depth. He scouted the remaining terrain downstream, as it drops again, and decided it was safe for everyone to negotiate. After throwing all our packs down to John, below the backside of the rock in the creek, we began to take turns jumping.
The Professor taking the no return jump at No Return Falls. (Click to enlarge.)
Badger with the No Return Jump. (Click to enlarge.)
Once the entire crew made it safely to the dry rocks after the swim out, we retrieved our packs and took the infamous “5 went IN” group selfie, as per Badger tradition. (Featured earlier in this report.)
Then, as we predicted, the rain really started coming down. The next down scramble part was over very slick and green rocks on river right. Gingercake enters the steepest part of the canyon here – as it seems that this section was nothing more than massively stacked boulders against each other at odd angles, creating some impressive bluffs.
The entire creek gets squeezed through a 40-ft narrow slot here and then empties out under a huge 40-ft bluff, making this bad boy around 80-ft and the largest waterfall we saw on the creek. Luckily, there is a flat-ish and wide rock at the end of the slot and the top of the bluff for a good vantage point.
Rock Sprite and Badger taking turns checking out the bluff, in rain.
With the rain getting heavier by the moment, we didn’t spend much time on the bluff and found a scramble route down to the base on river right.
As you can see in the above picture, the rain was in full force. We sort of tried to find shelter for a few minutes here, but there was no way to truly get out of the rain. We decided that it was best to keep making as much ground on this creek as possible. Getting out of the canyon before potential flooding was a necessity now.
Yet again, from here to the next fall is only around 150-ft. Gingercake is relentless like that.
We scrambled over there on river right pretty quickly. By this point, Badger and Rock Sprite were in familiar territory as they have been to this waterfall (and the next one down) in a previous trip a couple weeks prior. They dubbed this one Gingerbeer Falls.
Immediately downstream is the brink of the next fall, which has a high and near vertical rock wall on river right. We crossed the base of Gingerbeer Falls and bushwhacked down river left to a small overhang. We were all able to get out of the rain there and decided to re-evaluate our game plan.
We concluded that there would be no way of completing the shuttle before dark. The thunderstorms and heavy rain were not positive signs, either. Ultimately, we decided to just head down to the base of the next waterfall – Gingercake Falls, dubbed by Andy and Jennifer – and then bushwhack straight up the mountainside back to FR 496. According to my map, we weren’t far from my jeep and figured this would be the only way of bailing out safely.
Mustering our last bit of strength, we entered the pouring rain and made our way to the base of Gingercake Falls.
The bushwhack out from here, on river left up to FR 496, was steep. There are a lot of interesting rocks jutting out and small walls, but they are all negotiable by circumventing or scrambling. As stated earlier, when we emerged back onto FR 496, we were less than 450-ft down the road from where our adventure began and only logged about 1 mile of hiking over the course of 4 hours!
Gingercake Creek Canyon is one of the most scenic, yet rugged, short sections of creek I’ve ever seen!