Milton Bradley, Marilou Bradley, Bradley Cooper, & Cavern Falls (5-5-18)
The Green River Game Lands encompass over 14,000-acres of thickly forested land along the Blue Ridge Escarpment of southwestern North Carolina. It's a remarkable place which draws outdoor enthusiasts of all types...from hunters and anglers, to canoeists and kayakers, and of course hikers. Tucked into its boundaries are numerous wild streams, rugged gorges, and numerous waterfalls. The waterfalls of the Game Lands have, primarily, been the draw for me over the years. Two of its most popular cascades, namely Big Bradley and Little Bradley Falls on Cove Creek, are fantastic places to return to again and again...which I have done. Not far away from the famous Bradley's though are a handful of other waterfalls that as yet I had not visited. Strung along a mile long stretch of Little Cove Creek (and two of its tributaries) are the colorfully named Milton Bradley, Bradley Cooper, Marilou Bradley, and Cavern Falls. Unlike their relatively busy neighbors, these four cascades are all but unknown and very rarely seen. This is in large part due to the fact that no established trail system leads to them so anyone wanting to attempt a visit needs to be comfortable with bushwhacking, route-finding, creek walking, and rock scrambling. Needless to say this isn't a waterfall hike for beginners. If you do have the determination and ability to go, however, the secluded beauty of these four unique cascades will more than make up for the difficulties in getting there. Trust me, this is a good one...
My hike would begin from the familiar trailhead off Green River Cove Road which I had used many times prior for hikes to the base of Big Bradley Falls. It's just under 4 miles down Green River Cove Road from Interstate 26 to a point just before the road crosses over Cove Creek. Turn right here into Wilderness Cove Campground then make an immediately make a left down a narrow dirt road which soon dead ends at the trailhead parking area. Starting from the parking area I'd follow the old two-track which continues past a steel gate into the woods beyond. For the first mile the route follows this two-track, winding its way through the forest and alongside some extensive fields before arriving at a fork where an old cabin can be seen to the right. An old barn used to be located here as well (you'll probably still see it referred to as a landmark in other directions you may find) but on this visit I found that at some point in the recent past it has been torn down. At the fork I'd make a left to continue along the fields (a right takes you to Big Bradley Falls), bearing right at two other forks shortly thereafter, before arriving at a ford of Cove Creek. This is a wet crossing. I've read that it can be rock-hopped at times but this would only be during periods of extremely dry weather. On my visit, with average flow, the creek was about shin deep. On the other side of the stream the two track crests a small rise and emerges into yet another large fields where it abruptly ends. I continued heading straight into the field for perhaps a quarter-mile before reaching a point about two-thirds of the way across where a solitary tree with sprawling limbs sits conspicuously alone among the grasses. From this tree I began to angle to the right across the rest of the field, aiming for the forest edge at its southeast corner. Upon reaching the woods there is no "best route" to follow per se, but I'll just relay the directions I went and you can decide upon your visit if they're best for you. The bushwhack officially begins here.
Entering the forest I found the going fairly easy, despite the lack of a trail. I knew Little Cove Creek to be located a short distance further east so I simply kept my southeastward track going until I reached it. Before long I was standing along its rushing waters. After reaching the creek I started upstream, generally following the creek bank..sometimes right alongside the water and sometimes ducking back into the forest to avoid a steep bank or thick rhododendron grove. Eventually, about three-tenths of a mile upstream from where I reached the river, the land ahead on the bank I was following got steep enough that I was forced to make a crossing. A convenient fallen log helped keep my feet dry and I was soon on my way again. Another tenth of a mile of fairly easy bushwhacking and I arrived at the base of Milton Bradley Falls. Around 40-feet in height, Milton Bradley is a beauty. Little Cove Creek here cascades down numerous ledges large and small to create a wonderful broken veil of cascading water. On its own it would make this trek worthwhile...but I still had three more waterfalls to go, and the going would only get tougher from here.
A steep scramble path, on the right side of the falls, allowed me to get most of the way to the top. The last few feet are the most dangerous as I had to make the last few feet of climbing up the bare rocks at the crest of the falls. In wet conditions this would be extremely foolhardy. As it was I made it to the top without incident and set about continuing upstream. It's about a quarter-mile up the creek to the next two cascades, Bradley Cooper and Marilou Bradley Falls. Initially I was able to follow a faint trail leading upstream from the top of Milton Bradley Falls but soon it pretty much petered out and I was left rock-hopping along the edge, and sometimes, up the middle of the creek. Since water levels were not very high I was able to keep my feet dry for the most part. Passing numerous smaller cascades and navigating an occasional tangle of deadfall along the way I soon arrived at a point where two small tributaries join to form the creek I had been ascending thus far. The stream on the left (north) here contains Marilou Bradley and Cavern Falls while the right-hand (south) stream is home to Bradley Cooper Falls. I crossed the south tributary just above this stream junction where a noticeable path tunnels through the rhododendron. Heading up this path a few dozen feet I then turned through the right, fighting my way through the thick brush, to the base of Bradley Cooper Falls itself. Of the four falls I visited this day Bradley Cooper was probably the least impressive as the tributary waters are compressed to the right side of a wide, mossy rock wall forming a single narrow drop directly behind a fallen log. It was pretty but just didn't compare with what had come before. After getting the shots I wanted I returned to the nearby path and retraced my steps back to where I had crossed the stream earlier. I then struck out through the rhododendron up the north tributary where, within a hundred yards, I emerged atop a large rock overlooking the wonderful Marilou Bradley Falls. Surrounded by dark, moss-covered cliffs, Marilou Bradley was a gorgeous sight and a great place to rest up for the remaining, most-difficult, quarter-mile portion of my approach hike.
The ascent past Marilou Bradley Falls is most certainly the "crux" of this hike, both ascending and descending. Luckily, on my visit, fresh ropes had been strung up the more dicey pitches making things much safer. There's no guarantee you'll find any on potential future visits, however, so be warned. To get above Marilou I once again returned to the path above my earlier crossing and followed it upwards towards the cliffs visible above. The trail turns into a steep scramble path as it ascends to the base of the cliffs and I found myself using roots as well as the rope to gain purchase on the steep hillside. At the top of this pitch the path turns left to follow the base of the cliffs via a narrow ledge towards the crest of Marilou. The final ten feet of climbing is the trickiest. Here, I had to make a tricky scramble up the ledges alongside the upper drop of the falls. Without the rope I found hung at the top this would have been a very risky and potentially deadly place to climb. Thankfully, with the help of said rope, the scramble was made much less difficult and I soon found myself standing atop Marilou Bradley Falls. Cavern Falls, my final quarry of the day, lay another quarter-mile upstream. From this point my bushwhack became a good old-fashioned creek-walk. The terrain alongside the tributary was far too steep and rugged top travel so the relative openness of the stream bed was my best option for advance. Carefully picking my way upstream there were a handful of small cascades to ascend, made easier once again by numerous well-placed ropes. Though swift the stream was quite easy to walk and I found it pleasantly refreshing on this warm day. The sense of remoteness is wonderful on this stretch of water. A quarter-mile above Marilou Bradley I once again arrived at a joining of tributaries. Cavern Falls is close at this point, just a bit higher up the right-hand tributary from here. Scrambling up the sliding cascade above the junction and another narrow ten-foot cascade just above it I emerged at the wild and unique Cavern Falls itself soon thereafter. Cavern Falls is a wonder to behold. Though not huge, perhaps 20-feet in height, its a waterfall in two parts. In the foreground is a beautiful veil of water springing forth from a ledge above while another portion is tucked behind, cascading in the background through a dark crack in the massive adjoining cliff face. I've never seen another waterfall quite like it. Naturally I spent a good deal of time at Cavern, even making it into the dark cavern where the back half of the cascade is located. Like I said earlier, all the effort to get here was quickly forgotten as I sat and admired this wild and all-but-unknown wonder.
It was hard to tear myself away from Cavern Falls but my trek was only half over. I now had to retrace my steps back out. I found heading downstream for the most part easier. It helped to know what was ahead and where my best route of advance was located from my experience earlier in the day. The descent of Marilou Bradley Falls was, once again, the most difficult ten feet of the hike but the rope once again offered an invaluable assist. The bushwhack up Little Cove Creek that took me about two hours to ascend took only a bit over an hour to descend. Of course, a few less photos helped my time as well. Soon thereafter I was back crossing the open fields from earlier and then was back on the old two-track which would take me back to my car. As you might be able to tell by now this was an incredible hike and one I would highly recommend to anyone with the skills to safely overcome the various hazards it entails to visit all four falls. I can almost guarantee that, for the foreseeable future, these waterfalls will remain all but untouched and therein lies all the more reason to visit. Just heed the warnings I've highlighted, arm yourself with a good map and a little determination, and this will likely be one of the premier waterfall bushwhack hikes you'll experience. So, without further adieu, I present to you the waterfalls of Little Cove Creek in the Green River Game Lands of North Carolina. This is another fun one...ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.28328, -82.28256
Route Type: Out-and-back Difficulty: EXTREME (due to lengthy bushwhack & cliff scrambles)
Mileage Hiked: 5.2 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 70'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 1,000' Max. Elevation: 1,460'
Total Vertical Gain: 600' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 115'
Trails Used (blaze color): Game Land Field Path (unblazed/unofficial), Game Land Trail Road (unblazed), Little Cove Creek Route (unblazed/bushwhack)