Hiking: Waterfalls are welcome during tournament time

March 7, 2002 — Sometimes you need to get away.

I spent the better part of last week covering the first three rounds of the state basketball tournament in Rome.

I am now on a first-name basis with the staffs of the Days Inn and Applebee’s there. I know well the roads that link the gymnasiums at Floyd College, Shorter College and The Forum.

I covered 11 games in five days in Rome. But that was just the beginning.

As I write this column, I am seated on press row, midcourt at the Macon Coliseum for the state final four — and the girls from Paideia are currently piled up before me celebrating their last-second win.

This is hoops heaven I’ve been living in these past several days. But even for the most diehard of basketball fanatics, such a schedule can be taxing. The body craves some fresh air and an atmosphere that doesn’t include parents screaming at referees.

So last Friday, before my slate of games tipped off, I left the Days Inn and headed 40 miles north to Walker County — a place in dire need of some positive publicity, thanks to a creepy crematorium that makes HBO’s “Six Feet Under” play like “Happy Days.”

My destination was the Keown Falls Scenic Area in the Chattahoochee National Forest, although I didn’t know it at the time.

My original goal was to hike the 6.3-mile Chickamauga Creek Trail. But I slept in too late for that thanks to some latenight helpings of the television vacuum known as “elimiDATE.” It just sucks you in, doesn’t it?

My second, and shorter, choice was the 3.1-mile Johns Mountain Trail, located in the same general vicinity. But the access road to that trail was blocked off by the U.S. Forest Service.

keown2.jpgI was left with the Keown Falls Loop Trail, found just another mile down Pocket Road. It turned out to be not such a bad alternative, after all.

The Keown Falls Scenic Area, named after land surveyor Gordon Keown, is a 218-acre plot in the Ridge and Valley section of Georgia’s topography. It is the only scenic area in the western portion — or Armuchee Ranger District — of the Chattahoochee National Forest, which lies separate from the part of the forest most Northeast Georgians enjoy.

The centerpiece of the scenic area, not surprisingly, is Keown Falls, which is rather finicky as far as falls go. It only flows after wet weather. Luckily, I was met by a sign that read “WATERFALL IS FLOWING” at the trailhead.

The loop trail is short (1.7 miles) and rather easy, but perfect for hikers who have little time and little desire to show up for their first basketball game of the afternoon stinking of sweat.

keown3.jpgThe trail begins at the Keown Falls Recreation Area and, through a series of gradual switchbacks, climbs Johns Mountain roughly 500 feet in elevation to an observation deck overlooking the falls.

Johns Mountain Trail shares the observation deck and can be found just a few yards away.

The deck offers a nice view of the falls, which cascade over a moss-covered — and on this day, ice-covered — ledge and soak the red rock 60 feet below. Look to the left and you see Furnace Valley. Beyond that, Horn Mountain.

But the best view of the falls, I suggest, is from underneath. That’s right, the trail actually travels beneath and behind the wall of water. If the wind is right, the mist sprays your face as you make the approach.

I imagine, on a warmer day, it would be nice to stand on the rock and let the waterfall fall right on your head.

keown4.jpgBut temperatures barely left the 30s last Friday, and some of the long, sharp icicles that hung from the outcrop like temporary stalactites looked like they could cause a great deal of pain.

Instead, I sat for a while just a few feet away and listened. The only sound I could hear was water hitting rock.

The trail continues with a tall ridge of rock on the right until it comes upon a smaller waterfall, which during my visit was frozen instead of flowing.

The path then passes through a thick forest of tall trees — during winter, brown and leafless — and travels past tiny tributaries that eventually flow into Johns Creek.

Last week, the only color was provided by the blue sky, a few ferns and the moss that covered fallen trees.

I arrived back at my car refreshed, ready to return to the gym and confident that once the ragging of the refs returned, I could turn to the sound of Keown Falls, which was still flowing through my head.

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