Day 2 of our Memorial Weekend Getaway | Friday, May 27, 2016 | Hiking in Caesars Head State Park on the Dismal Trail to Raven Cliff Falls; visiting the Caesar Head Overlook; Bald Rock; Poinsett Bridge; Campbell’s Covered Bridge
Every morning on our trip started the same: alarm goes off at 6:30, and we lie in bed lazily trying to think of any possible way we can sleep more but still get an early start on the hike. Eventually we all emerge from the bedroom and have breakfast, pack lunch, gather our things, and are on the road around 7:30. Charlotte follows our moves, always guessing at what’s going on, but she gets so excited when she sees us put our hiking clothes on because she knows then that something is going to happen. Then we use those magic words she always waits to hear: “Do you want to go somewhere?!” It’s one thing that she got so excited the first day, what’s really amazing is that even after we completely wore her out two days in a row, she was still just as eager to jump in the car and go wherever her crazy humans were taking her.
For our first day of hiking, we drove up to Caesar’s Head State Park. The park headquarters and trailheads are all at the top of the mountain, so up, up, up we drove. I had seen so many pictures of the vista from this mountain, and now I understood why – there is no hike to get to the vista, it’s just a short walk on paved ground from the visitor’s center. That was a little disappointing, to know that we wouldn’t have a reward like that on our hike, but at least that wasn’t the only reason why we were hiking. We parked in the trailhead parking lot just a ways North from the visitor’s center and were delighted that there were only 2 other cars there. Knowing that it was a holiday weekend, we were expecting the area to be rather busy this weekend, which is why getting up early was so important. It was especially important today, because the trailhead parking lot was relatively small. We loaded up on bug spray and set off on our hike.
One thing that makes planning hikes around here difficult is that the state park websites leave a lot to be desired in terms of trail maps or descriptions. We were pretty hard pressed to get any information from them and had to use other sources to try to plan our routes before coming on this trip. It doesn’t help that the visitor’s center didn’t open until 9 and we were starting our hike at 8. At the trailhead they have maps of the trails, but that doesn’t help when you live 4 hours away and are trying to plan out your trip. I found that the best way to get information was by reading blogs by people who live and hike frequently in this area (Golden Corner Hikes was one of my favorites). Thankfully there was a big map at the trailhead, so we studied that carefully before beginning to know which trails we’d be taking. The trails themselves are pretty well marked with blazes on trees, you just don’t always know the exact mileage or what to expect.
Left: Charlotte at Raven Cliff lookout // Center: what most of the hike looked like // Right: Raven Cliff Falls in the distance – this is the best view you’ll get from the lookout
We began on the Raven Cliff Falls trail, which started out fairly easy as it mostly stayed on the ridge of the mountain. This one is pretty popular so the trail conditions were good. For a lot of this part, we knew that if only there weren’t so many trees to our left, we’d have a great view, but there was never even a small break in the trees.
I found that I took way less pictures than I normally would on a hike because it honestly all looked the same: dirt trail with trees and plants on either side. When you get used to being surrounded by plants, you actually start to notice and appreciate the changes in flora as the trail goes through different sections. I also realized that when you hike out here, sometimes you really have to do it just for the sake of hiking and not expecting a “reward” at the end. We’re so used to hiking to peaks and enjoying the reward in the form of a view at the end that it can be difficult to accept this new mindset. Instead of always looking forward to something, I tried to be completely present with where I was at that moment and enjoy the whole experience of the hike. I mean, we keep talking about how much we miss hiking, and no matter what we see this sure beats hiking in a swamp!
We made it to the overlook that has a far-away view from Raven Cliff Falls. Curtis searched for a box that was missing (the story of our trip…and of our entire boxing experience in SC basically) and I surprised Charlotte with new treats that I had bought for her just for this trip. She was thrilled. Even from this far away, Raven Cliff Falls looked majestic, and I couldn’t wait to get to the falls to get a better look. I wish I had known at this point that this was actually the only view we’d be getting of the falls. This is the tallest waterfall in South Carolina, and while some sites I’ve seen say that it has greater than a 400 ft drop, maps suggest that it’s between 320-350.
After that, we set off on a loop trail that would take us down into the ravine and would end up at the falls on the suspension bridge before taking us back to the main trail back to the parking lot. If the name of the trail – the Dismal Trail – wasn’t enough to scare us, then the warning sign at the beginning did the trick. It basically stated that if you were to hike it all, expect to add 4 hours to your hike, bring plenty of food and water, and have a map. We were good on all of those except the map…thanks SC park service. (Even if the visitor’s center had been open, the small simple maps cost $3. We “splurged” later and got a nice topo map that covers a lot more territory.)
There was always one way to tell how little or often a trail was used while we hiked: by how many spider webs we walked through on the trail. We were completely alone for the entirety of the Dismal Trail, and I don’t blame anyone for not taking it. It was steep, narrow, hard to follow, and abundant in poison ivy on either side. (I suddenly became very grateful for the washer/dryer at our dome – I was so glad to wash all of that off my only hiking pants after that day!) The whole descent was a little frustrating. Charlotte kept going off trail (into the poison ivy), it was hot and sticky, and we couldn’t find any boxes. Down, down, down into the ravine we went – and even though it was so steep and hard to walk, turning around was the last thing on my mind because I didn’t want to see this trail again. Sure, we’d have to go up the other side, but at least we didn’t know how bad that one was yet!
We finally made it to the same level as the river, and enjoyed seeing the smaller cascading falls. As I mentioned before, if you like waterfalls, hiking out here is great because lots of trails will either follow rivers or cross over them often, and while there are great big falls to enjoy, you can also see the smaller cascading ones wherever you go. One great benefit to all this for us was that Charlotte was able to easily drink from the flowing streams whenever she needed. After a bit of easy walking along the river, we began climbing back up the other side of the ravine, and this trail was just as steep and difficult as before. Around here we ended our time on the Dismal trail and picked up the Naturaland Trust Trail.
Left: looking towards Raven Cliff Falls from the suspension bridge // Center: the best part of our hike- the cliff wall which we named Rainy Rock // Charlotte walking across the suspension bridge
Another thing we learned about hiking out here: since we’re in the thick forest, there isn’t much of a breeze and so it feels so much more hot and stuffy. It honestly wasn’t the climb that was getting to me, it was the heat and humidity. Maybe it was just a bad weekend for it, but for today there were highs in the 70’s with 60% humidity. I started to wonder what people up here consider to be “hiking season.” It seems like it could be year round if you can brave the elements, but maybe the locals know when the optimal time is. I can tell you for sure that I’d love to be here in the fall, when not only is it cooler but the trees are so much more colorful! For today, we enjoyed the lush green look of the forest and whatever wildflowers were in bloom at this time.
The highlight of this hike came somewhere along this part of the Naturaland Trust trail – we suddenly walked into a clearing and to our left was this huge, sheer cliff wall. It was so hard to capture in a picture because it was both breathtakingly awesome, but at the same time just a big odd wall that stood out from its forest surroundings. The best part about it was the water that drizzled down, like a light rain shower. We put all our gear to the side and just stood under the drops of water, letting it cool us off. I thanked God over and over for this wall. It was amazing. We called it Rainy Rock.
After some more steep climbing and lots of anticipation, we finally made it to the suspension bridge. This is when I discovered that you can’t actually see the falls from the bridge…the bridge goes over them. That was maybe the biggest disappointment of the day. And since we hadn’t found the boxes that were on the Dismal Trail, we had to wonder if it was actually worth it. But as I mentioned before, this trip was about appreciating hiking just for what it is – getting away from society to learn more about God, the world, and ourselves. I definitely wouldn’t say that hiking the trail was all for nothing. Being all alone out there in the wilderness was definitely a treat for us.
We ate lunch sitting on the suspension bridge, and Charlotte almost took a nap. She laid down, all ready to sleep, when we pulled out the cookies and just like that, she was miraculously full of energy again. 😉 I don’t always feel super hungry while hiking, but those pulled pork sandwiches were exactly what we needed today!
After that, we started to make our way back to the main trail to finish up the loop. The trail was so much easier, and we started to see a lot more people. (It was kind of amazing that we had the suspension bridge all to ourself for so long after seeing all these people!) You know that you’re getting close to the end when you start seeing people in flip flops and without water strolling down the trail. Hopefully we didn’t scare them too much with our worn out looks and sweaty, smelly bodies.
Left: the devil’s kitchen near the visitor’s center // Right: Charlotte smiles because she knows she’s almost done with the hike!
We finished up the hike around 2. Curtis’ phone died and we lost our Map My Hike app data, but this loop was around 8-10 miles, and we’d absolutely say the Dismal Trail is strenuous and not for hikers with flip flops and no water. We made it back to our car (in the now-full parking lot) and headed over to the visitor’s center. Curtis went to get a map and talk to a ranger about other trails we could do the next day, and Charlotte and I walked over to the overlook to take in the view. While I messed around with my camera, Charlotte found herself a comfy spot and took a nap. Other people around us laughed at her, and I was quick to let them know she had just walked 10 miles. 3 other guys maybe around my age were standing there and said “Oh I think we’re going to go for a hike too” and were pointing in some direction saying “I think it’s like a quarter mile there, should we do it?” and finally decided to go for it. Where they were going was the Devil’s Kitchen, which is about 50 feet away from the overlook and on a paved path. Sorry friends…that is NOT a hike. That is a walk. Barely. 🙂
Curtis returned and after spending time here, we made our way back down the mountain, stopping at Bald Rock on the way. We loved the views we got from this spot, and loved wandering around the granite rock face, but what broke our hearts is how people come here to spray paint on the rock. After being away from beautiful spots from this for so long, it’s so sad to see how people treat it. It’s also a problem because there are endangered species around here.
The top 2 pictures are from the Caesar’s Head Overlook, the bottom two are from Bald Rock
At that point, it was getting to be later in the afternoon, so we decided to visit a couple scenic spots before heading back to our dome. Our first stop was Poinsett Bridge, the oldest bridge in South Carolina (built in 1820). I had seen pictures of this one before and was expecting to see just a pretty stone bridge, but the size of this one took my breath away. It was HUGE! (see the top picture for this post – Curtis is 6’3″ for reference!) Even from looking at it from the top didn’t seem too spectacular, but once we walked down by the side we realized how big it actually was. Charlotte wasted no time walking into the stream of water and getting wet and dirty for the rest of the car ride. This bridge is off of Callahan Mountain Road in Landrum and definitely worth a stop.
Next, we drove another 15 minutes to see Campbell’s Covered Bridge, also in Landrum. This one was constructed in 1909 and is the last remaining covered bridge in the area. It’s pretty well preserved and the city of Greenville has a nice little set up for it along with history plaques, benches, and a short trail. We really enjoyed seeing both of these bridges, and they just made a nice half-hour diversion from our drive back.
And that’s all for today – come back tomorrow to read about day 2, hiking in Jones Gap State Park!