Raven Fork, North Carolina, US
|Usual Difficulty||IV-V (for normal flows)|
|Avg. Gradient||218 fpm|
|Max Gradient||270 fpm|
|OCONALUFTEE RIVER AT BIRDTOWN, NC|
|usgs-03512000||2000 - 4000 cfs||IV-V||01h04m||447 cfs (too low)|
Three Forks is the highest extent of boatable waters for all reasonable purposes. This is 4 miles above the river at the Enloe Creek trail crossing. Much of the forest in this upper reach is virgin timber, with large hemlocks and other firs towering over the more typical smokies vegetation. The rock is of the utmost quality and after the first mile and a half of low gradient scrabble, bedrock dominates the river corridor for the rest of the plunge to Big Cove. This two and a half mile stretch to the iron bridge has enchanting scenery, frequent class 3-4+ rapids of high quality, and an isolated feel not often found in the southeast. Though the gorges in the Jocassee watershed, Linville Gorge in NC, and the Shining Rock region have equally impressive character, none have such low visitation, and the Raven Fork must have the best water quality in the southeast. This is due to the fact that there are absolutely no roads in or above the watershed, and excepting the AT at the top of the ridge, no impact by man whatsoever. All this leads to one of the truest wilderness experiences available in the region. Bring a lunch and a camera!
However, you will also need good shoes and a strong will, for the path into the Three Forks region is very difficult. There are two routes into Three Forks and neither are easy. Both start at the same trailhead in Round Bottom. Drive into the park on Straight Fork Road and continue past the Hyatt Ridge trailhead another mile and a half to the crossing of the creek. Park just shy of the bridge and begin here. It is 3.7 long miles to campsite 44 at McGee Spring, from whence the decision is to be made. In the first 3 miles exists the bulk of difficulty. The trail gains 2000 feet in this stretch, so eat breakfast. Once on the top of Hyatt Ridge, there will be an intersection with the Hyatt Ridge trail. Go right(North) and continue on a much mellower trail all the way to campsite 44.
Now you face two options. The first option and the preferred one is the bushwack 4/10 mile and 500 ft down McGee Spring branch to the Right Fork of the Raven Fork. This is not as bad as it could be, as the creekbed is actually quite open with respect to gorwth and understory. Then begins the low water scrape down a mile to Three Forks. There are 4 logjams in this stretch that we portaged. All in all the scrape down to Three Forks is a memorable experience, and the beauty of this microcreek is unsurpassable. There are a few class 4 bedrock rapids too, which make it interesting.
Possibly even more unappealing is to travel the breakneck ridge trail, which was been abandoned years ago. It is 2 miles to Three Forks. It is hell without a kayak. The first mile is thick with blackberry bushes, thorns, and little to no signs of a trail. The second mile is through the rhododendron hells up and down over technical features and is very exhausting. I recommend the bushwack and then scrapefest on the Right Fork.
Once at the river, the hard part is over. Well, one of the hard parts. You are now in there. Way in there. Don't get hurt. It would be wise to bring some food, matches, a map, first aid kit, headlamp, emergency blanket, and perhaps something to fish with. There are no trails untill Enloe Creek trail crossing 4 miles down. There used to be old horse trails mainly on the river left side all the way down, but when the park formed, Raven Fork was designated wilderness and the trails were reclaimed by the dense forest around them.
Heading downstream, take the time in the first mile and a half to soak in the scenery and untouched vibe of the valley. It is relatively open, and the surrounding ridges and forest are spectacular.
After a stream contributes flow on river right, there is another few hundred yards before the rapids begin. On a broad left bend sharply dog legging back right is the first class 3, which is currently full of wood. A tight line against the right wall will prevent a portage. Further turning to the right is a nice bedrock slide with 3 small drops. Now the stream has and will retain a beautiful canopy of trees with limbs that snake all the way across the river, sometimes criss crossing themselves from one side to the other. This combined with the lush environs and smooth bedrock give the place a very different feel than other streams in the area. Think Shining rock creeks but larger and more defined.
The river will continue for 3/4 mile in this fashion, with plenty of relatively open class 3-4 action and exquisite atmosphere. After a brief calm, the river turns to the left tightly into the first drop of size, which is about a 16 foot slide. This one is best run driving right, since there are some obstructions and potholes on the left. This is the entrance to one of the prettiest spots in the gorge. The precambrian bedrock encloses and channelizes the creek over two pleasant ledges before slamming into the wall on river left and turning 90 degrees into a powerfull and commiting class 4-4+ rapid. A slide on the left drops ten feet and then funnels down into the depths of the microgorge. Then a narrow channel 20 feet long is negotiated before the third and final drive left to avoid a sieve on the inside of the turn. There is time to catch one's breath here, and look back up at the picturesque scene above.
From the straightaway below, the river bends left and continues through some stout class 4 boogie. Watch for wood. Then a big jumble of house sized boulders signals another big class 4. The line on the far right works, but watch the wood stuck in the left side of the hole. From here it opens up into a bedrock slide stretch with a handfull of 6-10 foot bedrock slides spaced apart over the next stretch. The view eastward of the west face of Hyatt Ridge is humbling.
After a sticky hole and a side creek on river left, the river turns right and enters the bouldergarden stretch that lasts for roughly a mile all the way to Enloe Creek trail crossing. Here, boulders of various geology have fallen into the river onto the underlying bedrock, creating some nice slalom rapids with pretty s-turns and shoulders. Some spots are highly obstructed and moderately steep. There are pools below most rapids, which rate class 4-4+.
When the obstruction increases significantly and you get the feeling you want to stop running things blind, you have reached the last 1/3 mile above Enloe Creek trail crossing. There is a juicy class 4+ boulder choke best run on the left wall, and then 2 or 3 more class 4 jumbles with demanding lines. The last drop is a 17 foot waterfall that goes into a sieve on most of the right side and has possibly a tight line boofing left but not too hard left. This drop hasn't been run and is likely a portage. Portage on the right, and don't miss the eddy. Exercise caution in this region. After portaging right, you are at the Enloe Creek campsite, and the iron bridge across the river is 20 feet down the path to your left.
Now for that other hard part. The hike out to Straight Fork road is 3 miles. 1 mile up with 800 feet of gain and 2 miles 1500 feet down. It is not easy, but if you don't want to run 2.5 miles of class 5-5+ whitewater then the decision is simple. For those who have the skills for the hardest whitewater in the southeast, continuing down stream yields a total trip of 7.5 miles of wilderness whitewater. The option of overnighting and camping at Enloe Creek campsite is possible, but a full day with good food and an early start also makes a daytrip doable. Keep in mind that the lower gorges will be on the high to very high side when doing this run.
Allot 2.5-4 hours for the hike in, and 2.5 hours for the paddle down this stretch. Then another 6 hours is neccessary to negotiate the lower gorges, or 1-2 hours to hike out to Straight Fork road. Either way, start with 10 hours of daylight minimum. This isn't an easy trip at all. Its class 5+ effort for class 3-4. Though there is little to no real class 5 at optimum levels, the isolation, access, and committment make this a class 4-5 run suitable for advanced boaters in extremely fit condition. The run is slightly harder than Tallulah and Watauga, but slightly easier than Upper Big Creek and West Fork of the Pigeon. Bring a headlamp, iodine tablets, and firestarting materials just in case. Respect this place. Keep it pristine. There won't be any lines, fees, rangers, beer bottles, manmade sounds, or any other signs of man for that matter, and for that reason, this trip is worthwhile. The work is only consistent with the reward for few people.