Jones Gap State Park sits on the Blue Ridge Escarpment in northwestern South Carolina very near the state line with its neighbor to the north. Along with Caesars Head State Park, these two share an area known as Mountain Bridge Wilderness. The Jones Gap Trail follows the Saluda River along an old interstate road built by Solomon Jones in the 1850s. In this backcountry the river is quite wild with many waterfalls and rapids that add exciting sights and sounds to a dense hardwood and laurel forest. Near the eastern terminus of Jones Gap Trail are two remarkable waterfalls, named Jones Gap and Rainbow. The wilderness area contains more than 50 miles of diverse trails offering a variety of challenges and options. This hike occurred on Thursday, January 12, 2012 from 11:15am to 3:35pm. The plan was to start at the Raven Cliff parking along Hwy 276, take the Tom Miller connector trail to Jones Gap Trail and proceed to Jones Gap Falls. We would make a loop of the return by climbing up Coldspring Branch Trail.
Hike Length: 9.1 miles Hike Duration: 4.4 hours
Hike Rating: Difficult, strenuous Blaze: Blue, orange
Elevation Gain: 2110 feet Elevation Change: 1360 feet
Hike Configuration: Lasso, down then back up
Trail Condition: Excellent on Jones Gap, dangerous creek crossings on Coldspring Branch.
Starting Point: Trailhead is at the Raven Cliff Falls parking on Hwy 276.
Trail Traffic: We encountered no other hikers on the trails.
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.
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 Tom Miller Trail is a short 3/4 mile connector from the Raven Cliff parking area to the Jones Gap Trail. I was surprised when it began climbing uphill, thinking it was supposed to go significantly downward. Well, it does, but not before it crosses a little rise that provides a fabulous view of the gorge that is Jones Gap. In fact, all of us kinda looked at each other upon reaching the top, “Well, there’s Jones Gap.” It’s that obvious. The down part on the backside of the mountain is very steep, so watch your step. It was a bit slick for us from the heavy rain the day before. That rain would end up making this hike even more exceptional, and dangerous, than usual.
The Middle Saluda River headwaters are in Jones Gap and it flows through, or more appropriately plunges, through the gap. The Jones Gap Trail follows the river. The day after a major rainstorm (more than 2″ in 24 hours) the river was roaring. That is what we were treated to. The rapids made great visuals, but also made crossing difficult and treacherous. Fortunately some of the crossings have bridges
— some permanent, some logs
— but others were dicey boulder jumps. In summer I would take off my shoes and socks and wade through. On a cold winter day though, not my idea of fun hiking. So we jumped… and stumbled, and stretched and leaned, but never panicked. There are also any number of feeder streams and brooks running down the escarpment that must be negotiated as well.
The trail itself is beautiful. The state has done a yeoman’s job maintaining it. It is quite wide, and smooth, with few loose rocks and few exposed roots to snag your toes. The blaze color is blue. I know there is debate about leaving the woods the way we found them, but the SC State Park system deploys a feature I find quite helpful and useful. At every trail junction they put a trail map of the area so you know where you are, and the options available for exploration. It would be hard to get lost.
About a mile down Jones Gap Trail you begin to see the trail below you. Then, shortly after you enter a series of switchbacks known as “The Winds.” This is a particularly scenic area with imposing cliffs high above on each side of the gorge, and the rushing sounds of the Saluda down below. At the bottom of “The Winds” is a series of small slide falls in the river known as Dargans Cascade. I suspect this is a popular area for summer water fun.
For the next three miles the trail is either right on the river bank, or just 10-20 feet above. The river is one long continuous series of rapids as it drops into the gap. The trail is a steady decline, though not harshly steep at all.
Another mile and a half past Dargans Cascade we came to the junction with the Coldspring Branch Trail. That would be our return ticket to the top of the gorge.
But first we wanted to see Jones Gap Falls. Along the way we passed rapids in the river with names like Toll Road Falls and Ben’s Sluice. The river truly is wild through the gorge, and on this day following the large rainstorm we were treated to whitewater at its best. You can’t hear much else. There are campsites along the river every 1/2 mile or so. We were thinking if you like to sleep with white noise, you surely wouldn’t have any problem sleeping by the river. It would probably be a good idea to put out some cowbells attached to trip wire in case you’re visited by a black bear at night.
Jones Gap Falls is 4.2 miles from the western end of Jones Gap Trail and 1.1 miles from the eastern end. When you reach the trail sign for the falls, head uphill away from the river. It isn’t far, perhaps 70 yards. Once you clear the first rise you will know you’re there. This is a large waterfall
— 50 feet in height, probably 20 feet wide. Because of the previous day rainstorm, it was flowing pretty good. Both sides of the falls are surrounded by extremely thick rhododendron. I suspect this area is a chromatic delight during bloom season.
There are some flat rocks at the base of the falls that are perfect for lunch. They were just far enough away from the falls that we didn’t get mist in the face as we put on the feed bags. When I’m hiking my lunch usually consists of a turkey sandwich for protein, some pretzels and wheat crackers for salt, and some kind of fruit. Apples are my favorite, but occasionally I’ll bring craisins and dried cherries. One of my hiking buddies likes apricots. Those work well too. We usually pass around some of what we brought so we all can get a taste of everything. We spent about half an hour sitting, munching, taking pictures and enjoying a beautiful waterfall.
Following lunch, we turned around and headed back west up Jones Gap. It’s about 1.7 miles to the junction with Coldspring Branch that we passed on the way down. It was fun getting another look at all the rapids in the river, now to our left and in front of us.
The Coldspring Branch Trail is one of a few alternatives to get back to the hike origin at Raven Cliff parking. The trail is marked with orange blaze, crosses Coldspring Branch 10 times, and climbs nearly 1400 fatiguing feet. But first you have to get to the south side of Saluda River. Not long past the trailhead they’ve built a very nice wooden and steel foot bridge over the river. Remember how nice this bridge is… because it will be the last one you will see.
Just past the bridge is a trail junction. The pink blazed Bill Kimball Trail goes to the right and the Coldspring Branch Trail bears left. Either will get you to the same place, and both combined would make a nice loop hike. We chose to stick with Coldspring Branch. At first the Coldspring Branch creek is nice to look at. That was about to change.
See above where I just kind of casually mentioned that the trail crosses Coldspring Branch 10 times? That’s probably not a problem in summer when you can put on your water shoes and wade through. That’s probably not a problem under normal circumstances when the water level is customary. Notice how I keep mentioning it rained two inches the day before? Well, that rain was seemingly all running off the escarpment in Coldspring Branch. The crossings were dicey at best, treacherous and downright dangerous is more like it. I have taken two falls in creeks over the years on past hikes. It isn’t fun. So I am quite leery now in conditions like we had. Poles were a must… for stabilization. The rocks were moss covered and extremely slippery.
Just when you think there can’t be anymore, the trail crosses the creek again. Whoever designed this trail is laughing from on high. I just know it. Back and forth, forth and back, with each crossing the tension and nerves mounting even more. And in between? Climbing, then climbing some more. This was a very hard trail for me. My companions didn’t seem to have as much trouble as I did, but some days our bodies just aren’t working as well as other days. Perhaps my biorhythms were down. Perhaps I’m just an old, whiney Meanderthal. Regardless, this trail wore me out. The hike we did last week was higher and steeper and I did just fine.
By the time we got near the top of the elevation gain my lungs were burning and my hips were complaining. I stopped more frequently that usual for 30 second breathers. Once I even plopped down on a log to catch my breath. Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do. In the end, I made it back safe and sound.
As the Coldspring Branch Trail approaches Hwy 276, it reaches the road about .2 mile above the Raven Cliff parking area. You have two options. You can either take the road down to the parking, or continue on the orange blazed trail that cuts through the woods to reach the parking. Problem is, the trail goes down about 100 feet and then climbs back up. If you’re tired like I was I recommend simply going back to the parking on the road. I’ll know next time.
We were extremely lucky. It started raining about 30 seconds before we got back to the car. If I had taken one less rest stop we wouldn’t have gotten rained on at all. Our timing was impeccable. Despite my fatigue, this was a very nice hike that I would do again. There are several options in Jones Gap and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness for covering this territory on different trails. I definitely recommend stopping at the Caesars Head Visitor Center and picking up a trail map of the wilderness. I’m already planning many future hikes there, and I know you will too.
Update We liked this hike so much that a week later, on January 19, 2012 we went back to Jones Gap to check out the eastern end of the gorge. We wanted to visit the state park Learning Center and take a hike up the escarpment to Rainbow Falls.
Hike Length: 7.9 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours
Hike Rating: Moderate, strenuous Blaze: Blue, red
Elevation Gain: 2410 feet Elevation Change: 1190 feet
Hike Configuration: Wishbone, up then back down
Trail Condition: Mostly excellent, occasional rocky drainage on Jones Gap Trail.
Starting Point: Trailhead is at the Jones Gap State Park Learning Center.
Trail Traffic: We encountered no other hikers on the trails.
How to Get There: From SC take Hwy 11 (Camp Creek Road) to River Falls Road and follow the signs to Jones Gap. From NC take Hwy 25 to Camp Creek Road. It’s 6 miles to River Falls Road, then follow the signs to Jones Gap.
It’s about a quarter mile stroll from the parking area at Jones Gap State Park
— along the Middle Saluda River, past the Learning Center
— to the eastern Jones Gap Trailhead. This is also an Audobon bird sanctuary and we were fortunate enough to see a few Great Blue Herons. The blue-blazed trail is slightly uphill as it continues to follow the whitewater of the wild river. Less than a mile upriver, look for red blazes bearing right onto the Rainbow Falls Trail. Within a hundred yards this trail will cross the river and begin the ascent to the north rim.
There are two more crossings over Cox Camp Creek, these across logs, then the only challenge remaining is the steepness of the terrain. It’s right at about 1200 feet elevation change from the river to the base of the falls. The state park does a great job at routing the trail to minimize overly steep climbing, but it’s still a strenuous endeavor. Hiking in winter, we were able to enjoy views in every direction through the trees that would not be available during leaf season.
Across the gap on the south side is the sheer cliff of Little Pinnacle Mountain. Due east is a marvelous view down gap as the Blue Ridge Escarpment ends its long and arduous upheaval. The north rim marks the Continental Divide. Unfortunately there has been a problem with erosion on this hillside, so there are a few retaining barriers that distract somewhat from the sheer beauty. There was a fire some years ago.
About half way up, the trail takes a turn to the east along a sharp ridge and offers a nice view of the massive stone wall that is Cleveland Cliffs. The trail then passes directly beneath the cliff as it reverses course back to the west. This area kinda reminded me of the China Wall at Panthertown.
We passed a spot where there was a steady stream of water running down the Cleveland Cliffs, perhaps a hint that Rainbow Falls would be running fast and furious. We were not disappointed. Rainbow Falls is spill from Lake Rotary above at the Greenville YMCA camp. It plunges free-fall 100 feet over a precipice, then bounces another few hundred feet over cataract and slide cascades as it drops toward the river below. You can climb directly beneath the falls, but it was still a cold morning, and we encountered ice on the rocks that we thought it best not to mess with. We are Meanderthals, but not totally daft. The picture at the top of this post is what we saw.
Instead, we dropped our packs, found some flat boulders, and took a break for a snack and pictures. The area is surrounded by cliffs, hardwood forest, rhododendron thickets and rugged terrain… all great pleasures for hiking enthusiasts. You do need to watch your step scrambling among the boulders and water. It’s steep terrain and the slightest misstep could land you hundreds of feet below.
The return to Jones Gap Trail was back the way we came. Since it was still early in the day, we decided to continue in a westerly direction back to Jones Gap Falls where we ended our hike the previous week. It seemed longer than it looks on the trail map, perhaps 3/4 mile. When you cross the river to a campground on the north side, you are almost there. Jones Gap Falls was just as nice as the previous week.
Best Hike At the end of our hike we stopped at the Learning Center and spent nearly a half hour with the park ranger talking about the history and geology of the area. Ranger Lee was extremely informative, and a very nice guy to boot. It was a great finish to a delightful day. This was another very enjoyable hike in Jones Gap State Park. With the one last week and other hikes we’ve done in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness, for me this area qualifies as having some of the best hiking in the region. There are still miles and miles of other trails yet to explore. I can’t wait. I’ve added a few more photos from this update to the end of the gallery below. Enjoy!