Raven Cliff Falls and Gum Gap Trails, Mountain Bridge Wilderness

The air is nearly always cool at Caesars Head State Park in upstate South Carolina. It sits right on the edge of the Blue Ridge escarpment where refreshing breezes from the piedmont waft up and over the massive walls of rock. This hike is a casual stroll through hardwood forest on a sand and clay pathway to the Matthews Creek gorge and a suspension bridge over the precipice of Raven Cliff Falls. Expect something different, and enjoyable, in each season. I hiked this route to Matthews Creek on Monday, August 28, 2017 beginning at 9:45AM and ending about 1:15PM. My plan was to take Raven Cliff Falls Trail to Gum Gap Trail, then on to Naturaland Trust Trail and its meeting with Matthews Creek, turning around at the foot bridge over Raven Cliff Falls.

Hike Length: 6.7 miles Hike Duration: 3.5 hours

Hike Rating: Easy. Mostly level. One short, semi-steep climb from Matthews Creek.

Hike Configuration: Out and back Blaze: Red, blue, pink

Elevation Change: 440 feet Elevation Start: 2,996 feet

Trail Condition: Very good. Some rocky and rooty areas, but this is mostly packed sand and clay. Beware slippery rocks near Matthews Creek.

Starting Point: Trailhead is at the Raven Cliff Falls parking on Hwy 276.

Trail Traffic: I encountered 10 other hikers on this late August Monday.

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.

 

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One note about the maps above before I get started on the trail report. I forgot to turn on my GPS tracker when I started the hike, remembering only when I was a good two miles into it. So… the track above is only from the suspension bridge back to the trailhead. In other words, it only tracks one direction. Sorry about that.

This hike is part of a longer loop that drops down into Matthews Creek gorge, then steeply climbs the escarpment to the suspension bridge over the creek. This one takes half the time, and a lot less exertion.

The trails used on this hike in Mountain Bridge Wilderness are also part of the much longer Foothills Trail and Palmetto Trail. You will see trail blaze signs identifying each throughout. The first trail, Raven Cliff Falls, starts out with red blaze tree markings. From the parking area you head down a gravel road to meet the single track trail at a water pump house.

It is 1.6 miles from this point to the junction with Gum Gap Trail. Along the way, the sandy path winds through mixed forest. Evidenced by the freshly fallen acorns, hickory nuts and black walnuts on the ground, this is prime habitat for critters who enjoy the mast of the nut trees in late summer and fall. Look too for the occasional long leaf pine.

From experience, I know in winter you can see through the trees to the cliffs and flats that surround Caesars Head State Park. In summer, it is bright green and makes a whishing sound from the perpetual breeze that blows here. The birds too fill the air with sound.

When you reach a series of wooden steps navigating a rocky hillside, you are about 2/3 of the way to the Gum Gap Trail junction. From there you will walk through laurel and rhododendron tunnels and pass outcrops of car-sized rock that make a great place to sit for a snack. When you reach the junction you have a decision.

You can take the left fork, continuing on Raven Cliff Falls Trail another half mile to the viewing platform on the north side of the gorge. For this hike, though, you want to turn right onto blue blazed Gum Gap Trail. It is a half mile over a small hill to another junction where you will turn left staying on Gum Gap Trail. This junction meets the Foothills Trail and the two combine for several miles into the wilderness.

This new path is a former roadway. It is wider here, and there is occasional gravel denoting that vehicles traveled here at one time. Otherwise, look for stretches of sandy trail mixed with a red clay common to South Carolina and Georgia.

 

Gum Gap Trail is a mostly easy walk that seems to invite you to explore.

 

From the left turn it is 1.2 miles to the next junction, this time with Naturaland Trust Trail, blazed in pink. This is your path to Matthews Creek. Turn left onto Naturaland, otherwise you will end up miles away from anything at Gum Gap on the Foothills Trail. Almost immediately you begin the descent to the creek. It isn’t overly steep, but is decidedly downhill.

For the next 0.4 mile the trail descends through the forest while the sounds of the rushing creek below become ever louder. About half way down you’ll make a hard switchback with the creek sounds now on your right. A few minutes later you reach the creek, and the only somewhat dangerous part of this hike.

You’re now hiking over wet granite, and we all know what that means. SLIPPING HAZARD! And believe me, this is a place you don’t want to slip and fall into the creek, because you won’t stop until you are 400 feet below at the base of Raven Cliff Falls. So make sure each step is well planted.

There is a series of cascades on the creek above the major waterfall that are nice for pictures and to splash your face. Be especially careful during the spring runoff period when the water flow will be considerably higher than it is the rest of the year. A visit here in late June-early July will also highlight the stunning rhododendron bloom that lines both sides of Matthews Creek.

This hike ends at the wooden plank and cable suspension bridge that crosses the creek. I found a seat on the bridge to enjoy lunch and look at the vast vista across the gorge. The bridge even swings a little bit in the breeze, and bounces when you walk. Hold on tight. 🙂

You can continue beyond the bridge on Naturaland Trust. It dives all the way to the depths of Matthews Creek gorge and comes back up on the other side, forming a large loop with Raven Cliff Falls Trail.

After renourishing, and getting plenty of photos, it was time for the climb back up Naturaland Trust Trail. If you take your time, you won’t get too tired, and it will be over before you know it. That’s what I told myself. It’s less than half a mile. You can do it.

As I wandered back the way I had come, I started seeing other hikers who got a later start than me. There were four couples and two solo hikers. Also, there were more flowers out along the trail now as the air warmed and the sun tried to peek through the forest canopy.

I saw plenty of Joe Pye weed, wild hydrangea, coneflowers and one that was new to me… the asiatic dayflower. Known as commelina communis, this is interesting because it is edible, and because the blooms only last one day. Hence the name, dayflower. No wonder I’d never seen one before.

When I got back to the trailhead I thought to myself how this hike was just right. The weather was perfect with temps in the high sixties, even in August… a cool breeze, and a nice cloud cover. The trails are not difficult by any means, making this 6.7 mile round trip seem somewhat easy. Still, it’s a great way to get some exercise.

The forest along the way is pleasant, full of sights, birds singing, and aromas. The reward at the end the cascades along Matthews Creek are definitely worth the time and effort expended. Consider making this hike one of your regular stops. It’s a good one in every season.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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  • I love making this into a loop by taking Dismal down into the gorge and then Naturaland TT to the suspension bridge and Gum Gap back. It’s a nice one in the fall!