Matthews Creek plunges more than 1,000 feet over Raven Cliff Falls into the gorge it has carved below Raven Cliff Mountain. One of a myriad of landmarks along the Blue Ridge Escarpment in Caesars Head State Park, this gorge offers a very challenging yet rewarding hike. Part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area that also includes Jones Gap State Park, this is the most extensive trail system in South Carolina. More like western North Carolina than the coastal and central regions, the South Carolina Upcountry has similar elevation and forest as its neighbor to the north. There’s a bit of something for everyone on this hike with mountain vistas, aromatic hardwood forest, a creek and waterfalls, plus the massive cliffs that form the edge of the escarpment. This hike occurred on Friday, December 2, 2011 from 9:20am to 3:05pm. The plan was to take the Raven Cliff Falls Trail to the falls overlook, then drop down into the gorge on the Dismal trail. We would follow Matthews Creek on the Naturaland Trust Trail back up out of the gorge and across the suspension bridge over the falls where we would join the Gum Gap/Foothills Trail to complete the loop.
Hike Length: 9.7 miles Hike Duration: 5.75 hours
Hike Rating: Strenuous, rocky Blaze: Red, Purple, Pink, Blue
Elevation Change: 1900 feet Hike Configuration: Loop, down then back up
Trail Condition: Very good, rocky in the gorge
Starting Point: Trailhead is at the Raven Cliff Falls parking on Hwy 276.
Trail Traffic: We encountered four other hikers on this day.
How to Get There: From Greenville, SC follow Hwy 276 north 23 miles to reach Caesars Head State Park. Raven Cliff Falls parking is an additional 1.2 miles past Caesars Head State Park Visitor Center. From Brevard, NC take Hwy 276 south 14 miles to the Raven Cliff Falls parking in the state park.
View Raven Cliff Falls Trail, Caesars Head State Park, South Carolina in a larger map
I had the pleasure of hiking with two new companions on this day. I had never met either until the morning of the hike. They turned out to be two of the friendliest trail buddies, and we all hit it off right away. I will definitely be hiking with them again.
This is one of those great hikes where you can see where you are going from where you are, and then look back and see where you were once you get there. Wait, what? Well, the hike spans both sides of Matthews Creek Gorge, so when you are on the north ridge overlooking Raven Cliff Falls, you can see the ridge on the south side of the gorge where you will be later. Then, once you traverse the gorge there is a suspension bridge over Raven Cliff Falls, so you can look back to the north rim and see where you started. Especially with the leaves off the trees, we could pretty much follow our exact path from the top to the bottom and then back up again. Hikes like that are rare.
South Carolina State Parks have a voluntary $2 hiking fee, so be sure to register either at the Visitors Center or at the sign box at the parking area. It really helps keep all the trails in great shape.
The Raven Cliff Falls trailhead is across Hwy 276 from the parking area. You may get a little confused at first though, because the trail sign says Foothills Trail, Caesars Head Access. Don’t worry, you’re on the right trail. It is designated trail #11 on the parks map and has a red blaze. It starts out as a downhill gravel road for the first few hundred yards before turning west along the ridge. About a mile in we encountered a couple levels of wooden steps that helped with navigating a small steep stretch. Another 1/2 mile later, the Gum Gap/Foothills Trail comes in from the north. This is where our loop would return us later, and this is also the Foothills Trail access that was mentioned on the trailhead sign.
We continued on the Raven Cliff Falls Trail for another half mile to the junction with Dismal Trail, #12 on the parks map. More about that later, but first we took the spur trail to the Raven Cliff Falls Overlook. It’s a very short little up and over of perhaps 300 yards to a nice treated lumber shelter. There we found an excellent view across the gorge at the full 420 foot drop of Matthews Creek over Raven Cliff Falls. I am generally a firm believer in the tenets of ‘Leave No Trace’ but this overlook shelter is well done. It’s a good resting spot for the casual hiker who may not be in the best shape, and just wants to view the falls. It’s a great place to get protection from quick moving bad weather. Oh, and did I mention it has an excellent view across the gorge at the full 420 foot drop of Matthews Creek over Raven Cliff Falls. We could even see the suspension bridge across the falls that we would be crossing later in the day.
Back to the junction with Dismal Trail, we headed down, down, down about 1500 feet in 1.5 miles into the Matthews Creek Gorge on this trail with a blaze color I’ve never seen before: purple. Lots of people do this loop counterclockwise and end up climbing Dismal Trail. My new hiking friend (who had been here before) suggested we might like it better going down Dismal. After seeing the steep, rocky terrain I agreed wholeheartedly. There’s nothing subtle about Dismal Trail. There are very few switchbacks. The trail is really in pretty good shape for the rugged contour it has to cover
— perhaps unfairly named in my mind.
There’s an oddity in several places along this trail. There are short stalks of bamboo in small groves scattered here and there. Maybe they know something we don’t. Hey! Are the SC State Parks getting a panda? Otherwise, the forest is typical oak and hickory that are so common to this region. It was our good fortune to catch this trail in late autumn when the leaves were all off the trees. Heading east now, we had a clear view of Caesars Head and other cliffs of the Blue Ridge Escarpment directly in front of us. All the while we could hear the rush of Matthews Creek getting closer and closer. We could also feel the air beginning to chill
— perhaps an 8-10 degree drop since we left the overlook
— usually a good indicator that you’re approaching a creek.
Very near the creek the Dismal Trail meets trail #14, the Naturaland Trust Trail, named for a land conservancy operating in North and South Carolina. This pink blazed (yes, I said pink) trail heads back west right along the creek bank. Not long after entering this trail we came to a creek crossing. This is not just any ol’ creek crossing mind you, but a parallel pair of cables suspended from trees on either side that would be our bridge. But first, a spot of lunch. We made a table out of a huge boulder, took off our packs, and nourished ourselves for the climb back out of the gorge.
It is a rocky area along the creek that was chosen for the cable bridge. Being my first visit to the trail, I can’t judge location. Perhaps it was the easiest place to stretch cables over the rushing water. Despite a few decades of hiking, I actually had never crossed a parallel cable bridge before. So I pulled out the camera to take some shots of the other guys as they showed me how. When it was my turn, it proved to be great fun, and was even easier than I had imagined. I thought it might be difficult to keep the cables from swaying, but they are quite taut. It’s never too late to teach an old Meanderthal new tricks.
Once on the other side of Matthews Creek, the climbing began. The trail follows the creek up the gorge for about half a mile. As the two started to separate, we could see multiple slide-type waterfalls in the creek. Another thing we noticed was very odd trail markers. The South Carolina State Park Service embeds spike-like steel markers (see photo below) in trees. It’s a different concept, but not as different as the pink ‘Hello Kitty’ trail markers that jumped out at us. Every couple hundred yards or so, there was another one. I have no idea if someone was just playing games, or if these were intended to be real markers for the “pink trail.” Live and learn.
As we continued to climb out of the gorge we had changing views of Caesars Head. First we saw it from below, then as we got higher, the sunlight and shadows would change. Around every corner was a new perspective. About half way up we encountered a massive cliff on our side of the gorge. This is Cathedral Rock. It’s about 150 feet straight up, with a constant drizzle of water coming down from above. It would be a nice cool mist in the summer. It was frigid on this December day. The cliff wall is darkened nearly black from the perpetual wetness. There is a bed of thriving ground foliage beneath, galax and fern, slurping up the ever present drink.
The final climb to Raven Cliff Falls is the steepest section on the south side of the gorge. There are a few strategically placed ladders to aid with the climbing, but there are also a few steep downward cuts as well. On one we had to slide on our butts, the only safe way. Fortunately this stretch of the Naturaland Trust Trail makes liberal use of switchbacks, unlike the Dismal Trail on the other side of the gorge. Again, I think my hiking partner was correct. This was a more manageable climb than Dismal Trail would have been.
We rounded a corner and there it was, the suspension bridge. It’s perhaps 70-80 feet long and about 15 feet above Matthews Creek as it plummets over Raven Cliff Falls. The center of the bridge offers quite the view of the falls, and the north side of the gorge. The picture at the top of this post was taken from the bridge. We could easily pick out the overlook shelter where we had been hours before. I don’t know that it would be so visible in the summer when the leaves are out. On the west side of the bridge, there is a very short trail to the rocks beneath the bridge where we had a nice view of the creek in both directions.
From the bridge, the trail continues to follow Matthews Creek
— now in a northerly direction
— and climbs about another 400 feet at a thankfully more gradual pace. Less than 1/2 mile and we reached the junction with the Gum Gap/Foothills Trail, #13 on the parks map. This blue blazed trail is wide and flat, following the ridge above the throat of the gorge. Gum Gap used to be an old road, so it’s a very easy stroll of about 1.5 miles through the forest. We paused several times to admire the views of the gorge, and the interesting rocks and trees along the way. A pileated woodpecker kept us aware of his business above.
The Gum Gap Trail loops around the northwestern end of the gorge and joins back up with the Raven Cliff Falls Trail at the point I mentioned near the beginning of this post. One feature of the South Carolina State Parks trails that I like is the trail junctions. They are well marked on approach with double blaze dots, and each junction has a sign post with the parks map displayed. It makes it very easy to know where you are and where you might like to go. The final 1.5 miles is back out on the same trail we started on.
This was a very enjoyable hike. Thanks to my new friends for taking me there. No doubt the forest is a lot less stark in spring and summer, but I’m not so sure you could see very much from the overlook and along the trails. That’s what makes seasonal hiking so interesting. Any trail is never the same. The Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area has more than 100 miles of trails in Caesars Head and Jones Gap State Parks. Just across the reservoir from Caesars Head is Table Rock State Park. I’ve written a trail report about our experiences there. There is a wealth of hiking just a short drive from the South Carolina Upstate and from western North Carolina. Take advantage. Take a hike.
Update On February 17, 2012 we did a repeat of this fabulous hike. We remain thoroughly impressed with the South Carolina State Parks trail system. I updated this trail report to post the GPS track map of the hike taken with the Trimble Outdoors smartphone app. See below. I’ve also added some more photos to my South Carolina Parks Flickr set.