A short time after turning west on South Carolina Highway 11, the field of vision changes. Pleasant rolling farmlands of the western Carolina piedmont—green and brown waves of corn, wheat, and stands of peach trees–run head long into an abrupt wall of rugged peaks looming in the hazy distance. If the Blue Ridge is a rolling sea of mountains, the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment, or “Blue Wall”, is where its waves crash against the piedmont shore.
Heavy rains—this area sees more rainfall than almost everywhere in the U.S. save the Pacific Northwest—and sudden loss of elevation creates the perfect incubator for some of the most dramatic waterfalls east of the Rocky Mountains. At the heart of this boundary between mountain and foothill is the Mountain Bridge Natural Area .
Its location, a group of mountains tucked between two watersheds, gives the area its name. Within its borders are two state parks—Caesars Head to the west and Jones Gap to the east. Although each park has its own entrance and ranger’s office, trails from both intermingle creating a 10,000 acre opportunity for hiking and camping within the dramatic escarpment.
The focal point for most visitors to the area is Raven Cliff Falls. At over 400 feet, Raven Cliff is the highest falls in the state of South Carolina. Unfortunately, the powerful forces that make the falls such a draw for hikers also wreaked havoc on some trails surrounding it. Flood damage has closed several paths in this end of the park, eliminating access to a popular overlook bridge and limiting access to the falls—now accessible only via an out and back on the Gum Gap Trail. There is currently no ETA for repair of the other trails.
Even with this limitation, there are plenty of fantastic highlights to explore in the area. Here are 3 hikes that make the 2-hour drive from Charlotte worthwhile.
1. Five mile loop from Caesars Head Visitor Center
Why hike it: Beginning and ending in fairy tale-like groves of dense hardwoods, the trail cuts through a thick carpet of bright green and sun dappled fern. The loop includes several opportunities to soak tired feet in the Saluda River and, of course, multiple waterfalls of varying sizes.
The hike: Beginning at the hiker parking lot, just beyond the ranger station, start on trail #3, take a left on 5, and finish on trail 2. Yes they have names, but they are numbered on the map so easier to follow this way. Note that trail 2, the Tom Miller Trail, is 0.7 miles straight up so save some strength for the end.
2. Six mile out and back on the Jones Gap Trail
Why hike it: This trail sees a heavy load of foot traffic, for good reason. The wide and, relatively, gently graded trail follows close to the river—providing an almost instant payoff in serene swimming holes.
The hike: Beginning on the Jones Gap side of the MBWA, follow trail #1. At the one mile mark take a sharp right onto a more steep and rocky side trail leading to Rainbow Falls. A perfect spot for lunch complete with waterfall-generated natural air conditioning.
Join back up to the main trail and continue for another mile, reaching Jones Gap Falls. Once you’ve had your fill of relaxing by the falls, head back the way you came on trail #1.
3. Two and a half mile out and back to Falls Creek Falls
Why hike it: The Falls Creek Falls Trail, #31 on your map, requires some of the greatest effort per mile in the area. And then it provides one of the greatest payoffs. Standing at the rocky base of Falls Creek Falls, feeling the cast-off mist generated by a river plunging more than 100 feet, offers an unusual sense of peaceful exhilaration that’s difficult to match.
The hike: The falls can be reached from longer trails in the park, but the most direct way is to drive to the Falls Creek Falls trailhead. On your way out of Jones Gap State park, about a mile or so from the parking lot, turn left onto Duckworth Road. Follow the signs to Palmetto Bible Camp. The trailhead is shortly past the camp.
The trail is marked with a kiosk. Give yourself about twice the amount of time it takes you to complete a typical 2.5 mile hike as the rugged terrain and steep climb will slow even the most experienced hiker.
Large, backcountry campsites dot several trails in the two state parks. All are able to be booked by reservation and require at least a little hiking to reach. One of the best is site 13 along the Jones Gap Trail. Its proximity to the Saluda means an afternoon of cooling off in chilly mountain water and a fantastic night’s sleep filled with the rushing sounds of a rocky river.
The ease of access to so many great sites—some less than a mile from the trailheads—offers the perfect opportunity for a first time backpacking trip or just a mobile home base from which to explore any of the roughly 50 miles of trail in the park.
Post Hike Pub and Grub
Surprising to many is the close proximity of one of Carolina’s premier mountain towns. Brevard, just 12 miles north of Caesars Head on U.S. 276, is home to an eclectic group of restaurants, shops, and a couple great breweries.
Located right downtown, Brevard Brewing Company offers a simple and refreshing menu of ales and pilsners. A little outside of downtown, Oskar Blues creates a wide range of standards and creative brews.
Achieving that rare mix of well-crafted meals in a beautifully restored historic space that is welcoming to a slightly grubby hiker, The Square Root is a perfect stop on the way home from Caesars Head. The challenge is to not cut your hike short knowing you’ll soon be filling up on cedar plank salmon, a half-pound Angus burger, or bacon wrapped filet. Or all three, we’re not here to judge.
- The parking lot at Jones Gap state park fills up often, and is controlled by the rangers. It’s not uncommon to be held up for 20 or 30 minutes at the gate until a spot becomes available. The chance of this happening are 10-fold if someone in your car really needs to use the bathroom. During popular summer months, get there early or start at Caesars Head.
- Speaking of bathrooms, the restrooms at Jones Gap are a quarter mile walk from the parking lot. Making a pit stop before you get to the park is a great strategy.
- Both parks require a fee of $2.00 pp and a completed day hiker registration form. Pay stations and forms are available at most trailheads and parking areas.
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.