Monday, October 3, 2016

On the Dismal Trail to Raven Cliff Mountain

You’ve probably been to the Raven Cliff Falls overlook, which in the winter (when the trees have dropped their leaves thereby increasing visibility) provides a stunning view of Matthews Creek plunging 400+ feet over the side of Raven Cliff Mountain. This 4.4 mile hike (there and back) is one of the most popular in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and on a clear, cool autumn day will host a lot of traffic; I encountered 24 people on the hike in and another 49 on the way out! I was in search of a little bit more of a challenge (and solitude!) on this particular day, and so decided to hike the Raven Cliff Falls Loop to the suspension bridge over the falls.

When I inquired at the Caesars Head SP Visitor Center, the ranger guessed the loop to total 7.6 miles; however, my estimates put it just under 9 miles, and I’ve seen hike reports that bring the total closer to 10. That being said, I was able to complete the loop in 4 hours, allowing for some time at the bridge and frequent breaks in the steeper sections.

I covered the 2.2 miles Raven Cliff Falls Trail in this previous post. The trailhead parking lot fills up quickly and so it’s best to get an early start; just remember to fill out a hiker registration form and pay the $2/person access fee before hitting the trail. The initial descent into the forest and the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment is on a gravel road, and once you’ve turned to follow the ridge line there are a few scenic vistas to the south.

Gum Gap veers off from Raven Cliff Falls trail

At about 1.5 miles you’ll reach the intersection with the Gum Gap trail, a spur of the Foothills Trail that also follows this route (and continues on to Sassafras Mountain). I chose to continue on to the overlook and hike the loop clockwise, starting on Dismal Trail, therefore I would be returning via the Gum Gap Trail. There were several reasons for this decision, the first being I had heard the Dismal Trail climb was easier to cope with going downhill, and the second – I was sure I would chicken out and do a there-and-back on Gum Gap if I started with the easy section!

Raven Cliff Falls from the overlook

After a quick stop at the Raven Cliff Falls Overlook I retraced my steps ¼ of a mile to the intersection with Dismal Trail. It’s easy to miss the trail (especially as most of the signs are missing and there are a few trees down across the trail), but you’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the purple blazes and this dire warning!

Doesn't look so Dismal...

The Dismal Trail steeply descends approximately 1,200 feet in elevation over 1.5 miles. It’s precipitous enough to warrant caution on your descent, but soon you’ll hear the roar of Matthews Creek in the distance and know you’ve almost reached the lowest elevation of your hike. The trail was littered with hickory nuts and acorns, and the poison ivy was close to acquiring its fall foliage. Following the purple blazes was easy, and only at one point was there a side trail that gave me a moment’s pause. The trail followed the creek downstream a short distance before ending at the Naturaland Trust Trail. Here I turned right to continue the loop, starting the uphill portion of the hike.

The Naturaland Trail also had these "Mountain Bridge Trail" markers

This trail is named for a land conservancy operating in North and South Carolina, and the pink blazes head back west right along the creek bank. Soon the trail cut straight to the creek and I crossed on a handsome wooden footbridge. There was a cable bridge here as recently as 2015, but this new bridge was installed and Dismal Trail was reopened after the trail was rehabilitated sometime in the last year.  

I only saw four people on the entire Dismal/Naturaland Trust section of the hike, and the tranquility was welcome, especially as I concentrated on my footing. The ascent was eased by switchbacks, and once the leaves drop, the views of the gorge will be stunning.

Cathedral Rock

About halfway up the 1,000 foot elevation gain is Cathedral Rock, a 150 foot tall sheer cliff rising from the trail. Having skirted it, the trail continued its switchbacks up the side of Raven Cliff Mountain.

the cascade above Raven Cliff falls

In a few places the trail seemed to be crumbling off into nothingness, and it was clear that even a minor misstep could have dire consequences. However, if you follow the pink blazes and take your time, you’ll soon reach a short (but incredibly steep!) slide that signals your approach to the suspension bridge.

a view over the gorge as the water drops off

While the bridge doesn’t offer an up-close look at the falls themselves (as it is located directly above the 1st drop), it does give a grand view of the gorge. It is possible to see the overlook on the opposite side, providing some perspective on the last 3-4 miles traveled. The large boulders and smaller cascades above the falls offer a nice spot for a snack and some quiet reflection before starting the return trip, but you might encounter a few folks also out on a day hike; upon my arrival I counted 11 people hanging out at the bridge, and continuing on Naturaland I passed several more.

under the suspension bridge

From this point Naturaland Trust Trail follows Matthews Creek upstream until it ends at Gum Gap Trail. Turning left (west) here puts you on the Foothills Trail spur to Sassafras Mountain, while a right turn closes the loop, ending at red-blazed Raven Cliff Falls Trail. The wide dirt road is an easy hike compared to Dismal and Naturaland, and the oak-hickory forest shades the way with an occasional laurel/rhododendron tunnel before hitting the intersection.

soapwort gentian, or harvest bells

Here’s a rundown of the mileage of this lollipop-loop (my estimates marked with a *):
2.2 miles - Raven Cliff Falls Trail (#11) from Raven Cliff Falls parking area to the Overlook
0.2 miles* - backtrack to Dismal Trail
1.5 miles - Dismal Trail (#12)
1.8 miles* - Naturaland Trust Trail (#14)
1.5 miles* - Gum Gap Trail (#13)
1.5 miles* - Raven Cliff Falls Trail (#11) to parking area
Total miles = 8.7 miles

A portion of this hike is on the Foothills Trail spur

While there are obvious benefits to hiking in certain seasons, here are my notes:
- foliage obscured the view of the gorge for most of the way, with the exception of a few points, meaning a hike once the leaves have dropped would have its benefits
- there were a few places where fallen leaves obscuring the trail might lead to a wrong turn, so keep your eye on the blazes in fall and winter!
- freezing temperatures might make a few spots tricky, but nowhere near as difficult with the new bridge on the DIsmal end of Naturaland
- there is abundant poison ivy in several stretches, even encroaching on the trail… this will be worse in summer and fall
- the descent into and following ascent out of the gorge can be likened to the steep section of Brissy Ridge on Paris Mountain combined with the scramble to get to the Narrows on Estatoe Creek... except it's at least 3 miles long!
- no matter the season, you will need a telephoto lens to photograph the falls from the overlook!


  1. Ha-ha, reading the post title I thought your experience was dismal, not the name of the trail! And I thought - what rare negativity from you regarding a hike! And, the joke was on me...


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