Jones Gap State Park and Caesars Head State Park are part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area in the upper part of South Carolina and the border of North Carolina. The trails in these areas are mostly popular day hikes with designated overnight camping sites. Many come for a day hike to the Rainbow Falls
which is more of a challenging section and Jones Gap Falls
which adds to the Middle Saluda River and is an easier out-and-back hike (often for hikers with dogs).
This loop adds a popular but advanced section with a challenging ridge trail with more waterfall crossings and up and down ladders (you may not want to bring Fido along for this loop, unless they can climb and get down ladders). There are six trails used in this loop of about 13 miles. It took about eight hours which was faster than suggested time at the ranger station to hike the loop. This was my first time in this area, and I met others who live nearby doing this very hike while there.
The majority of day hikers and especially ones with dogs will hike the first section to the falls. Rim Of The Gap Trail is most challenging and even though there are signs of dogs back there, climbing the rocks and ladders along this section of the trail is not easy for them.
When I did this loop, although the rangers have been working hard on the trails and they are mostly clear from Irma, there were trees down and some were with the trail markings. On the Rim Trail this became a little challenging in sections where I finished in the dark taking a little longer than I thought even though overall I was faster than estimated time. I felt this loop was a good hike workout.
The start of the Jones Gap Trail
is located to left of the wooden bridge that crosses to the Ranger Station from the upper parking area. Take a moment to look at the kiosk and fill out the registration info.
Jones Gap Trail
#1 will follow the river for the most part and is kind of wide and rocky with a few larger rocks scattered about. It's still the easiest trail of the loop with a moderate climb. It is 5.3 miles one-way with multiple backcountry campsites along the river and is rated moderately difficulty and estimated to take 3.5 hours based on the park info.
At 0.6 miles, the base of the Rainbow Falls Trail
#4 splits off to the right. Heading up and down this strenuous trail accounts for about 3.0 miles out-and-back to view Rainbow Falls
. There are three bridges to cross (some are more deck-like and another is a log bridge) before the trail starts the incline with steps built into the hillside to a set of slide falls on your left below you.
For miles 1.4 to 2.2, the trail heads away from the falls to continue on a narrowing rocky and steep trail up the mountainside. You'll be passing small stream of water running down the granite wall slab next to or almost on the trail. There is a private trail that leads to the nearby YMCA camp at about 2.15 miles. Continue straight to reach Rainbow Falls
(80 - 100 feet high) which has two sections; you'll have to cross the lower section by rocks to reach the trail that goes up to the upper section where the higher fall is located. Be careful climbing around as wet rocks become very slippery, and it's not an easy place to get help to, although higher up you might get a bar or two of cell phone reception. On the lower part of the trail, there is no phone coverage. After a break visiting the falls, backtrack down to the trailhead to the Jones Gap Trail
Turn right to continue on Jones Gap Trail
, following and crossing the side streams by rock hopping or the river in several locations by foot bridges. Your feet should stay dry for the most part unless you are out after a heavy rainstorm.
About a mile ahead, the trail goes back 150 feet to your right where you'll find the falls cascading into a shallow pool. Backcountry campsites 10-13 are fairly close to the falls and river. To return back to parking at the start of the hike is about 1.5 miles back. Beyond this point, the trail is comparatively less traveled. There will be some stream crossings where feet might get a little wet, trails will be narrow, and sections will have ladders to navigate around steep spots and ridges (hopefully you're not afraid of heights).
Roughly another mile ahead, the Jones Gap Trail
#1 intersects with the Coldspring Branch Trail
#3. Head left at this intersection and at the next one with the Bill Kimball Trail
#14. There will be several water crossings ahead including two foot bridges and some challenging ones. Eventually, you'll reach the Coldspring Connector Trail
#7 where the workout will continue across mountain-side log steps, more water crossings, and a steep downhill followed by a steep uphill.
A half mile later, the connector feeds into the Frank Coggins Trail
#15. Take a left for an easier change of pace to reach the lollipop end of the trail. Head left (as mapped) to climb a bit before descending. At the north end of the loop, turn left on the very strenuous Rim of The Gap Trail
#6. Hikers will encounter a large rock face not far after the start of this trail. Keep left and avoid the game trail that continues straight. The next 1.7 miles are among the most challenging parts of this trail. Expect sections of exposure, punchy ups and downs, and an assortment of log ladders.
Keep left at the next two intersections pass the John Sloan Trail
#21 and Rim of The Gap and Pinnacle Pass Connector Trail
#22. The trail will end on the Jones Gap Trail
#1 where a turn to the right will soon return you to the parking area.
Hardwood trees such as oak and hickory can be found along the trail. Hikers will also find shorter trees like flowering dogwood and rhododendron with ferns, plus flowers and mosses at ground level. Animals in the area include black bears, white-tailed deer, reptiles, amphibians, wild turkey, wood peckers, warbles, eastern blue birds and spring migratory songbird to name a few.
The Middle Saluda River was the state of South Carolina's first designated scenic river which offers some of the best trout fishing in SC. The chilly water in the Jones Gap area provided a great spot for raising trout which were imported from Montana to help restock the local river systems. SC Rep J. Cleveland donated 20 acres here to start the state's first fish hatchery (aka. the Cleveland Fish Hatchery) opened here in 1931 which drew around 2,000 visitors and 2 US senators on opening festivities. The hatchery closed in 1962, but until then, it helped keep the areas stocked for trout fishing.
The park currently is part of an education center that includes a class room and aquatic ecology lab.
This park is also part of the Eastern Continental Divide where water that falls on one side runs to the oceans and the other side runs to the Gulf of Mexico.