That’s all she wrote! Autumn is running out of leaves to paint, and her artwork is finally dropping from the trees here in the Upstate after a long and unseasonably warm October. We love visiting the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area this time of year, Caesars Head State Park and Bald Rock Heritage Area providing scenic views of the vibrant fall foliage, and this weekend headed up for one more adventure before the branches are once more bare. While the boys explored their favorite spots (and stopped for lunch off Highway 11), I hit the Rim of the Gap Trail.
Rim of the Gap is the perfect challenge this time of year. While there are still plenty of colorful leaves on the hardwoods in the gap to provide a patchwork of color for your viewing pleasure, enough leaves have dropped so that you can see the gap through the canopy. Temperatures are cool enough to dry off the sweat from what is a strenuous hike, but most likely it is not cold enough for the trail to be closed (freezing temperatures make for dangerous sections and make for seasonal trail closures, usually December through February). And while leaves on the trail can result in a slower, more deliberate hike, they also provide an intense show of color on the ground, one that makes for some spectacular leaf finds while your eyes are down on the trail. The only drawback to hiking this time of year was that between it being the dry season and our summer-long drought, the waterfalls were mere trickles. However, it was amazing at how much water was still seeping from the rock walls along the way, the dozens of species of mosses a testament to the moisture on this trail even during an extremely dry period.
|"Sluice of the Rim"|
Rim of the Gap (#6, yellow blaze) stretches 4.3 miles from Caesars Head State Park to Jones Gap State Park, is rated very strenuous, and has an estimated travel time of 4-5 hours. To complete the distance to Caesars Head, one must also hike a portion of the Frank Coggins Trail (#15, purple blaze), an easy lollipop loop that adds about ¾ of a mile to the hike. I chose to start on Frank Coggins at Caesars Head, as this meant a descent from 2,800’ to 1,400’ in elevation. To reach the trailhead from the ranger station, hikers must cross US 276, sign in at the trailhead & pay the State Park fee, and proceed north.
|The Frank Coggins Trail|
The first branch off the wide gravel road is the Coldspring Connector Trail (#7, blue blaze) which cuts down to the drainage and Coldspring Branch Trail. Keeping right at this junction to stay on Frank Coggins Trail, another ¼ of a mile or so later you’ll reach the loop portion of the hike. I went left to reach the Rim of the Gap Trail, but you can always go right and add a few tenths of a mile to your hike. The Naturaland Trust Trail also departs from the Coggins Loop, taking you 5.8 miles to the bridge over Raven Cliff Falls and the Foothills Trail.
|Galax has a pecuilar odor where it grows in large colonies - some describe it as wet socks, others as a faint, sickly smell. However, it is fairly common on the shady slopes of the Southern Appalachians.|
Just past Cliff Falls I turned left on the Rim of the Gap Trail. Immediately the trail narrowed, started a zigzag and switchback-full route along the gap, and steepened in its descent. After several different view of the Falls the trail turns east to parallel the Middle Saluda River.
It isn’t just the climb in elevation that rates this trail as strenuous, although this will triple the challenge if you are headed east to west. For sure there are some steep sections, but most don’t last more than a hundred feet or so; instead it is the sheer difficulty of the trail that gets the adrenaline flowing. Scrambling up and down boulders, crossing bridges, inching along what can be a very narrow trail (with sheer drops on one side) and even crawling through a tunnel made by a fallen boulder at one point, the 2-mile section of trail between Coggins and John Sloan Trail are exciting and rather demanding.
|Known as Weight Watchers Rock, this narrow passage required me to remove my pack to squeeze through; do you see the hole just above the yellow blaze?|
Throughout this section of the hike there was almost always a view of Jones Gap to the north, but it wasn’t a panoramic view; instead it was bits and pieces through the trees & different perspectives around each corner, with longer views up and down the Gap visible from some small spur-trails or rocky perches.
To the south was often a wall of solid rock, with a few small waterfalls here and there crossing drainages. There is a huge chunk of private property dividing the trail from US 276, and you might catch a glimpse of a home or tree stand in this portion if you pay attention.
It took me 2.5 hours to travel this two-mile section, while I completed the trail in a total of 3.5. Up until this point I had been hiking in the shade of the ridge, the autumn sun low in the sky throwing its light on the colorful display of the opposite side of the Gap. At the point where the trail was finally close enough to the ridgetop for the sun to shine through was where the trail shifted up to follow the ridgeline. As it shadowed an old road bed there were some views toward the Oil Camp Creek drainage, and the beautiful hardwood forest was just radiant in the afternoon light.
After passing the two spur trails that cut across to Pinnacle Pass Trail – the #21 John Sloan Trail (pink blaze) and the #22 6&20 Connector Trail (purple blaze) – the trail once more narrows as it begins its steep descent into the Gap, down to the Middle Saluda and the Jones Gap Ranger Station. One final intersection announces the approach of the end of the hike; Pinnacle Pass Trail (#20, white blaze), the 10-miler that loops around to climb Little Pinnacle Mountain before descending to Oil Camp Creek and then climbing back up to hook into Naturaland Trust Trail. Soon a black ribbon of road is visible, and rather abruptly the trail ends on the Jones Gap Trail (#1, blue blaze). A left will take you to past Jones Gap Falls to the Raven Cliff Falls trailhead (5.3 miles), while a right will take you to the Ranger Station, the parking lot and Hospital Rock Trail.
While all the trails are clearly blazed, several of the intersections could possibly be easily missed as they rather suddenly cut off; make sure to keep an eye on the blazes. While the infamous cable crossings have been replaced with bridges, the extremely narrow trail and steep scrambles up, down and around boulders mean I will not be bringing the boys with on this hike anytime soon. Reports of a cougar in the area, although not substantiated (nor acknowledged by SC Park Service Rangers), should still be taken into consideration; meanwhile, black bears, bobcat and coyotes definitely inhabit the area. Finally, to make a loop out of what is essentially a one-way route, hikers could utilize the Jones Gap Trail to Coldspring Branch Trail (and the Coldspring Connector to Frank Coggins) for a total of about 9 miles. Plan to be off the trail well before dark (during my visit trails close at 6pm) and be aware of seasonal closures.
For a very short look at one of the narrow sections of trail, here is a video of a typical section of trail…
This is the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area map that I use. In addition to the corresponding blaze colors and mileages to each numbered trail, it also features difficulty ratings and estimated travel times. The map, current information, camping permits and guidelines can be obtained from the Caesars Head or Jones Gap State Park ranger stations.