First thing is, this is an all day hike. Probably, 6 hours for the young and quick (I don’t advise quick), and a lot more if you’re a photographer who takes their time, or old like me. You should hit the trail by 0900 at the latest and the best time of year is when there are not leaves on the trees, so you don’t have to fight the foliage along the way. Also, a good time of year for no snakes. This is wild country. Additionally, make sure to wear heavy boots, bring a walking stick to test ground and brace yourself in places (I guarantee you’ll thank me for that on the cliff wall trail), and make sure you’re wearing long clothes.
I met my new friends, Amanda and Darian, and, along with my long time friend, Jim, we set out to hike the cliff wall to Craig Branch Falls in the New River Gorge. I had this falls on my bucket list for several years and had tried the cliffs the previous year and determined (incorrectly), that I had gone the wrong way. Maybe I just wasn’t up to dealing with this dangerous trail, and it is dangerous and isolated. The cliff trail is best hiked during the late fall to early spring so that the foliage is at a minimum and less to fight. If you break a leg on this trail, and it’s not at all a hard thing to do, you will be in some deep do-do. Any rescuers will have to find you the same way you found yourself in this place. Don’t go alone. Tell someone where you are going. JUST IN CASE. Oh yeah! No cell phone coverage! DUH!
The hike begins at the trailhead for the Kaymoor Miner’s Trail. The previous year, Jim and I hiked the trail all the way down to the river, which included the 863 step wooden staircase that descends from the Kaymoor Mine Site (about halfway down) to the river level. We then hiked up river for about a mile, along the many rows of abandoned coke ovens, to the confluence of Craig Branch and the New River. This is certainly not the way to go to see all the falls, although, there are a couple of minor falls down here, and the historic site is quite interesting along the way. However, this creek is shouldered by house size boulders and terrain that would deter all but the best of bushwhackers and mountain climbers from attempting this ascent. This is not the way up.
The journey begins by hiking downhill from the parking area, which is pretty well designated and will take you on a gentle downhill slope on the Kaymoor Miner’s Trail. At about 1/4 mile along this trail, you will come to a set of wooden steps. At the bottom of the steps is where you need to make a decision. Just in front of you are two trails.
- JEEP TRAIL – Following the obvious and well traveled downhill trail before you, will take you to the Kaymoor Miner’s Site. You’ll know it when you get there, as you will have gone down another set of wooden stairs and the land will have leveled. Before you, at the bottom, and to the left is the Kaymoor Mine entrance and other ruins. Directly in front of you will be the absolutely awesome 863 step staircase that will take you to river level. If you go to the bottom and hike off to the right (upriver), you will find the coke ovens and eventually the lower section of Craig Branch, which I mentioned earlier. To your right is the inviting, wide open, flat and level, “jeep trail”, and the way to Craig Branch. You can access 3 of the lower falls from here, without getting in too much trouble or having to work too much. However, if you want to see the big guy at the top, it might be more productive to follow the cliff wall directions.
- CLIFF WALL – As you get to the bottom of the first set of stairs from the parking area, early in the hike, go straight ahead instead of downhill. You won’t see a trail straight ahead, and the trail to the falls does not really exist in the normal sense. What you have to do is follow the cliff base for about a mile. There is a lot of freshly fallen rock as you start. So, grab the root of the tree and haul yourself up the cliff wall in front of you. You will notice that it’s been used before but it doesn’t look like the beginning of a trail at all. Once up, just hike along the cliff wall. You may have to go down hill on occasion to get around some boulders, but don’t go far and then come back up. Mostly, it’s not too hard to follow the cliff line, but you might find yourself at a perceived dead end on occasion, but there’s a way. We had to do about a 10′-12′ drop at one point like this, and, without looking down, we never would have seen that others have been down here and that it was the way. I think this was where I turned around the year before. We also had to dodge some really big boulders, bushwhack a rhododendron grove, and slide between some cracks in the rock. You will wonder, at some point, if you had taken a wrong turn or if you really wanted to do this in the first place. It’s a long walk – short distance – hard work – and every step should be tested before putting your weight down. Lots of loose rock and rotten ground cover hiding gaps and holes. Eventually, you will hear the falls around a corner and think, finally, “I’m there”. However, the trip to the bottom is just as, if not more, challenging as the trip in. I can’t tell you how to get to the bottom of the run. There is no trail and the way we went, there were two creek crossings involved and at times I had to hike way wide of the creek, just to get downhill, but once you do two creek crossings up top, just below #1, you follow down the left side as you can.
Photographing these falls is a challenge. We were there at a low flow, but my friend Amanda told me about her previous trip and how they couldn’t really get close to the upper falls because of the flow. That would make the creek crossing we did, undoable.
There are at least five falls on this run. The main falls, and the “big guy” is about 70′ or 80′. It’s hard to judge from such close proximity, and you will be close. It might well be close to 100′. Footing and photo locations around the falls will be a challenge. But I’m sure you will manage.
Below the main falls, above, is where we had to make the first creek crossing. I suppose we could have swung “way” wide of the creek to descend, but this creek crossing saved a lot of navigating. We ended up walking across a big pine that had fallen across the creek on the second crossing and avoided swinging out wide. None of it is easy and there is no trail. You really need to have a hiking stick to poke places in front of you and test stepping places. It’s really dodgy and never fast moving. Lots of loose rock under fallen leaves and rotten limbs and sticks.
You’ll find two more falls on the way down. The second one is not really obvious and you should keep your ears open. We had to hike out wide and come back in and then crawl under some rodo thickets and down some rocks to get to the second falls. It was not easy.
The third falls is a lot more obvious and you won’t have trouble finding it along the creek. It’s not as hard to get to as #2, but still a bit of a challenge.
When you get to the bottom at the jeep trail, there is another fall trail side. I did not photograph here, as it was covered in many fallen trees. It’s a small fall, and might be pretty if exposed. Below the road, there is one more fall that I could see. You can see the top of the falls, as the creek disappears over a ledge. I have not been down there, and I’m sure you can probably get there, but I can’t tell you how. We didn’t go down due to time of day. It shouldn’t be too hard.
Walking out from here is the easiest part, until you get to the Kaymoor Mine site and you have to start uphill. I haven’t measured it, but I’m guessing it’s at least 1/2 mile uphill and it’s steep. It will give you a workout, and this was one of the reasons given for going in on the cliff wall trail, because, basically, the cliff wall trail is fairly level, though it requires you to have your wits, as does the entire hike to the bottom. Anyway, you only have to hike up the gorge wall once if you take the cliff wall, and it doesn’t require checking your footing on the way out as it’s a well worn trail. Good luck and have fun.