Getting to it is not an easy drive or hike, but it’s worth it
Note: This is the fourth installment from “The Hillbilly Highway, Volume 2: Seeds, Songs and Streams.” Learn more here.
By Michael M. Barrick
MORTIMER, N.C. – Wilson Creek is misnamed. Part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, it starts out small near the top of Grandfather Mountain, but after tumbling thousands of feet through an ever-widening gorge in the Pisgah National Forest, it has the power of a river.
It has been known to wipe out towns and isolate communities for days. Indeed, Wilson Creek has destroyed this and nearby communities twice – in 1916 and 1940. In fact, the second flood forever wiped out the logging industry which drove the region’s commerce so successfully, that despite its isolation in the rugged hills of the northwest section of Caldwell County, it could have become the center of government and commerce in the county.
The 1940 flood, though, took out homes, churches, sawmills, roads and sections of the narrow-gauge railroad that led in and out of this remote, heavily-forested sloped village on the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Now, its 27-mile drop to the Johns River is through remote – rather, inaccessible – areas of the thick and dark Appalachian forest. Only the experienced hiker should venture its steep, rock slopes. Swimmers should beware of deceptively deep, but teasingly appealing pools. Kayakers are common sites in any season. Like me, they seem to prefer weekdays in the spring and fall, though the water is generally higher in the spring.
Wilson Creek earned its designation as a National Wild and Scenic River in August 2000 after community leaders convinced elected officials at the local and federal level to work together – across party lines – to protect and preserve it. It can be viewed by driving along the narrow and dusty Brown Mountain Beach Road, which runs from Adako Road to Rt. 90 in Mortimer. Here, once on Rt. 90, the traveler will be on the only state road in North Carolina not completely paved. There are parking spots along Brown Mountain Beach Road, but the hike down to the creek is strenuous at time, but certainly worth it, especially where the gorge empties into a large pool where the creek abruptly levels out.
There is plenty to see and lots of kind folk to meet in nearby Edgemont and Collettsville. In Edgemont, at the old train depot, decades after the last trail rails were taken up, one can still see the circle of earth made bare where the Roundabout was. With that as a clue, one can venture into the nearby forest and see evidence of the railroad bed. The old station is large with many benches.
Early in the 20th Century, Edgemont was the last stop listed on train schedules in the local newspaper. Beginning in Newton in Catawba County, the train would stop in Hickory, Granite Falls, Lenoir, Mortimer, Edgemont and other small towns, perhaps with only the train station. It clung harrowingly to the steep cliffs into which the rail path had been carved, though it would have been worth it, just for the view of Wilson Creek.
There is a visitor center on Brown Mountain Beach Road and for the adventurous, one can hike along the headwaters. One can access it – and the Appalachian Trail – from a small parking area below the Linn Cove Viaduct of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
I have spent hundreds of hours over the past 44 years sitting on my favorite relatively gently sloping cliff of Wilson Creek. In every season. I’ve hiked it at its headwaters and I’ve sloshed through it near its mouth where it empties into the Johns River. I have meditated and never ceased pondering what is around the next rock, over the next log, or just under my next step as I hike it.
For me, it represents what I love about Appalachia, about traveling along the Hillbilly Highway. It is adventure. It’s fun. It’s risky. It is a place to take visitors, whether to look out a car window or put on hiking boots. It is stunningly beautiful and essential for preserving for future generations.
In short, it is rightfully a National Wild and Scenic River. It is also a must stop along the Hillbilly Highway.
© Michael M. Barrick, 2018