As the Upstate heats up, we head into the mountains to cool down. One of our favorite spots to take guests to is Wildcat Wayside State Park; with three waterfalls and a one-mile hike looping into a beautiful oak-hickory-rhododendron forest, this can be made into a day’s excursion or a first stop on a longer tour of the foothills.
When the automobile became popular in the 1920s a whole new kind of roadside culture was born, one of gas stations, motels and diners. In the late 1930s the National Park Service began experimenting with small wayside parks located along major highways, meant to serve as convenient stopping points for the motoring public and to provide picnic areas, hiking trails and fishing spots to travelers. One of six trial parks in South Carolina was the Greenville Wayside Park, built by workers hired under New Deal emergency relief programs. Although the CCC-constructed picnic shelter is long gone, the foundation and chimney stands testament to almost a hundred years of recreation along Wildcat Branch.
Today the area has been incorporated into a larger area known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, which includes Bald Rock Heritage Preserve as well as Jones Gap and Caesars Head State Parks. Wildcat Wayside is located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, and contains a diversity of plant and animal communities adapted to life where the mountains join the Piedmont.
Parking for the trail is just off Geer Highway (scenic Highway 11), close to where 276 cuts north towards Caesars Head. During busier seasons you’ll easily spot it due to the multitude of cars in the pull-off, as well as the boiled peanut vendor that sets up shop there. Lower Wildcat Branch Falls are visible from the road, and the trail heads up alongside the west bank of the creek. Only a few dozen feet past the lower falls are what I call the middle falls, a 10-foot cascade with a nice wading pool at the base and photo opportunity at the top.
The trail crosses over the creek between the lower and middle falls, and then follows the creek north, past the old CCC-built chimney to a fork which marks the beginning of the loop. We often choose to hike this portion clockwise, and cross back over the creek by hopping across stones.
Tunneling through the rhododendron and mountain laurel you’ll soon come to base of the upper falls, featuring a 100-ft drop across a large rock face. This area has been the site of multiple fatal accidents over the years, and it is important to stay on the trail and utilize the designated viewing areas. Depending on rainfall, the falls range from a small trickle to a rushing chute, but the area around the waterfall is always slippery and caution should be exercised to avoid injury. To see how the falls look after a heavy rainfall you can visit Mark’s photo journal here.
Continuing on you’ll come to yet another waterfall (which is more of a slide really) which features a beautiful 30-foot long rush of water just off the trail. On a hot summer’s day we’ve usually worked up a sweat by this point, and are ready to complete the loop and retrace our steps back to the lower falls.
Although the Wildcat Branch Falls hike is perfect in the summer, as the grand finale includes wading in the cool waters below the falls, it really shines during the other seasons as well. While spring brings an abundance of wildflowers and blooming mountain laurel and rhododendron, fall brings a cacophony of color and that crisp mountain air. We’ve hiked in the winter also, the cove somewhat protected from biting wind but exhilarating in the cold air – it’s a year-round paradise only 35 minutes from Greenville!
So pack a picnic and bathing suits, or even just a water bottle and camera, and head to Wildcat Branch. Put the 1-mile trial on your Upstate summer bucket list, and plan a day-long excursion as to fit in a stop at Bald Rock and Caesars Head. Just don’t miss this beautiful attraction, and once you’ve been you’ll want to return again and again!