On the mountain road that winds its way up to Caesars Head we saw evidence of the approach of fall; it was in the first red maple and tupelo leaves to turn bright orange and red, and in the smell of the cool air rolling in through the windows. Down in Greenville it is still summer, with 90˚ days despite the chill in the nights. We gambled that the majority of the Upstate might be at one of the dozen of events this weekend and therefore the parking lot at Caesars Head might not be so full, but as we joined the caravan of cars driving up the steep road full of switch-backs, it became obvious we weren’t the only ones with fall fever looking to get outdoors and away from the busy weekday craziness.
Our destination was the Raven Cliff Falls overlook, a 1 hour drive from Greenville followed by a 2.2 mile hike. The parking area for the Raven Cliff Falls Trail also serves as the western terminus of the 2.3 mile Coldspring Branch Trail and 0.7 mile connector to the west end of the Jones Gap Trail. A daily use fee of $2/adult and a card with our hiking information deposited in the day-use hiking logbox and we were off, headed south towards and then along the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
The hike is rated ‘moderate,’ but in reality it is stretching the limits of our 3 and 5-year-old’s little legs. Lacking the really steep sections of trail that earned the ‘Dismal Trail’ its name (which along with Gum Gap/Foothills Trail and a portion of the Naturaland Trust Trail connect the Raven Cliff Falls trail to the swinging suspension bridge just over the falls), the Raven Cliff Trail is do-able with kids, but still a challenging hike with one child in the carrier and two on foot.
There were too many leaves on the trees to be able to see the falls clearly, although the evergreens blocking the upper portion will not change as the season progresses. The next time I hike this trail it will be with the intention of completing the loop that passes right over the falls via the bridge: Raven Cliff Falls Trail (2 miles) to Dismal Trail (1.5 miles) then west on Naturaland Trust Trail (about 2 miles) over the suspension bridge to Gum Gap Trail (1.5 miles) and backtracking on Raven Cliff Falls Trail (1.5 miles) for a total of 8.5 miles. As Dismal Trail is currently closed, another option is to take the Gum Gap Trail to Naturaland Trust Trail, for an in-and-out total of 7 miles. This option skips the 1,200 foot descent into Matthews Creek gorge and out.
From our vantage point we looked out across the gorge where Matthews Creek falls 420 feet into the cove below. The boys didn’t mind the shabby view of the falls; in fact, Mikus kept repeating “I wish we could have stayed longer” on the trip out. Although the trail was relatively crowded (as should be expected on a fall weekend), we never felt overwhelmed by crowds, even at the shelter at the overlook. Temperatures this time of year were perfect, the breeze on the escarpment cooling the sweat we worked up on the hike without feeling a chill, but the heat which can make even a 4-mile hike unbearable, absent.
Big picture: The Raven Cliff Falls trail is one of dozens crisscrossing the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Raven Cliff Mountain marks the western border of the area, and is part of Caesars Head State Park. Jones Gap SP is on the east end of the area, the two state parks connected with several trails including the Palmetto Trail – the planned 425-mile-long foot, mountain bike and equestrian trail that will cross the entire state from Oconee SP to Charleston County. The Gum Gap Trail (via the Raven Cliff Falls Trail) is also an access point to the Foothills National Recreation Trail, which covers some of the most scenic portions of the Blue Ridge Mountains: Table Rock to Whitewater Falls to the Chattooga River and Oconee State Park. All in all I’ve got a lot of miles ahead of me here in the Upstate!
Directions: One mile north from Caesars Head State Park on US 276 you will find a large, paved parking lot. Pay the daily use fee for a permit to hang in your window, and then cross the road to reach the trailhead. After registering at the trail box you’ll follow the red blazes. Happy hiking!