Jones Gap State Park sits on the Blue Ridge Escarpment in upstate 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 Middle Saluda River along an old roadway built by Solomon Jones in the 1850s. In this cove backcountry the river is quite wild with many waterfalls and rapids that add exciting sights and sounds to a pristine mountain woodland. Near the eastern end of Jones Gap Trail are two remarkable waterfalls. Ken and I visited Jones Gap and Rainbow Falls on January 19, 2012, then again on December 31, 2015. This report combines information and photos from both visits. The plan was to take Jones Gap Trail up the Middle Saluda River to Rainbow Falls Trail, climb to the falls, then return to Jones Gap Trail for the further reach to Jones Gap Falls.
Hike Length: 8 miles Hike Duration: 4 hours
Hike Configuration: Wishbone, up then back Blaze: Blue and red
Hike Rating: Difficult. Significant strenuous climbing to reach Rainbow Falls.
Elevation Change: 1,190 feet Elevation Start: 1,300 feet
Trail Condition: Fair. Jones Gap Trail is extremely rocky and quite muddy after hard rain. Rainbow Falls Trail is better, but only moderately so. Both of these trails used to be in a lot better condition, but heavy rain over the years has taken a significant toll.
Starting Point: Visitor Center parking area at Jones Gap State Park, SC.
Trail Traffic: We encountered about a dozen other hikers on this New Years’ Eve.
How to Get There: From SC take Hwy 11 (Camp Creek Road) to River Falls Road and follow the signs to Jones Gap State Park. From NC take Hwy 25 to Camp Creek Road. It’s 6 miles to River Falls Road, then follow the signs to Jones Gap.
South Carolina State Parks have a voluntary $2 hiking fee, so be sure to register either at the Visitor Center or at the sign box at the parking area. It really helps with trail maintenance, something that has become an issue at Jones Gap because of incessant rain for years now.
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 trail is also known as the Middle Saluda Passage of the Palmetto Trail (learn more about the Palmetto Trail here and here).
This area of Jones Gap is also an Audobon bird sanctuary and you may be fortunate enough to see a few Great Blue Herons. They tend to hang out along the river near the Visitor Center. On our earlier visit we stopped at the Learning Center and spent nearly a half hour with the park ranger talking about the history and geology of the Jones Gap area. Ranger Lee was extremely informative, and a very nice guy to boot.
Beyond the Learning Center, a foot bridge takes you across the river, past a signboard detailing all the trails in Mountain Bridge Wilderness, and onto the Jones Gap Trail. The blue-blazed trail is slightly uphill as it follows the whitewater of the wild river. When we were here a few years ago, this major trail artery up the gap was in excellent condition, perhaps a little rocky, but otherwise well taken care of. That is not the case now. Rain, year after year, has turned this trail into a sub-drainage of the river, and with it all the mud and erosion that would be expected. Unfortunately, it will be very expensive to repair the drainage problem.
There are 4-5 campsites alongside the trail and the river that make excellent vantage points for views upstream. During the green and warmer months, these sites are usually occupied, so you don’t want to infringe on their privacy. But off season, they’re good for photos of the river like the one above, and perhaps for a snack break.
A little less than a mile upriver, look for red blazes bearing right onto the Rainbow Falls Trail. The Jones Gap Trail continues to the left at the junction and Rainbow Falls bears to the right. Within a couple hundred yards this trail will cross the river on a steel and wood foot bridge and begin the ascent to the north rim of the gorge.
There are two more crossings over Cox Camp Creek, the first across a footlog and the 2nd over a wooden bridge, then the only challenge remaining is the steepness of the terrain. It’s right at about 1,200 feet elevation change from the river to the base of the falls
— in only 1.2 miles.
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 as well. Keep your eyes open on your left for views of Cox Camp Creek cascading down the steep hillside. It makes quite the descent.
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. After heavy rain you will notice streams of water hugging the face of 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 be very, very careful, especially in winter when the surrounding rocks can be quite icy.
The Rainbow Falls amphitheater 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 to Jones Gap Falls on our first trip. It seems 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 is a very nice waterfall too, but perhaps just a bit underwhelming after visiting Rainbow Falls.
From this upper falls, the return to the Visitor Center is just a straight shot back down Jones Gap.
On the later trip here, I became ill while climbing the Rainbow Falls Trail. I got to a point just below Cleveland Cliffs and began experiencing vertigo-like symptoms including dizziness and queasy stomach. After spending 20 minutes sitting on a large outcrop trying to hydrate and collect myself, I decided it best to turn around. I knew from previous visits to Rainbow Falls that there was exposure to falling up there, so I thought it in both Ken’s and my best interest to not proceed any further. Why take chances?
As we descended, Ken was a great help keeping an eye on my condition. When we reached river level, it was a big relief for me, and I already felt better. We found one of the campsites for lunch and discussed the experience. Had we never been to Rainbow Falls before, perhaps I would have considered continuing, but after previous visits I knew what to expect. I hated to miss it at this very high flow rate, but safety far outweighs photographs anytime.
Summarizing, the climb up the north face of the gorge to Rainbow Falls is very difficult. You are gaining nearly 1,200 feet in just over a mile. Believe me, that is steep… but it is relatively short. Unfortunately, the condition of the Jones Gap Trail has really deteriorated since my initial visit in 2012. It’s a shame too. The SC State Parks folks had done a wonderful job building it. It is certainly still passable. Just plan on getting your hiking boots muddy. Rainbow Falls is a stunning sight, well worth your effort.