Day 3 of our Memorial Weekend Getaway | Saturday, May 28, 2016 | Hiking in Jones Gap State Park on Jones Gap Trail to Jones Gap Falls; Bill Kimble Trail to El Lieutenant, Mills Creek Trail, and the Rainbow Falls Trail
The most wonderful feeling ever was waking up after a day of hiking and realizing that we were not sore at all, despite being “out of shape.” We’re both healthy young adults, but having not hiked like this in so long made us concerned that we may not be up for as much hiking as we hoped to do. Right now, age is still on our side, so I guess we’d better take advantage of this more. 😉 Our state park for today was Jones Gap, which is down the mountain and to the East of Caesar’s Head State Park (where we were the day before). Thanks to Curtis’ talk with the ranger, we had an 8 mile loop planned and were more confident in our plans this morning. We started on the trail around 8, and as we walked past the visitor’s center, the ranger outside told us we were the first hikers of the day. (Again, it was very beneficial to arrive early because parking spots for hikers are limited, and since it was a holiday weekend, we just assumed it would be busier!)
We started on Jones Gap Trail, which is rocky but well used and runs alongside a river. The first main intersection you come to gives you the choice to take a different trail up to Rainbow Falls, which we weren’t planning on doing but decided that if we felt like it later we’d hike that one too. We started heading further on Jones Gap, then noticed three other hiking groups in a short amount of time all take the Rainbow Falls trail, and were instantly glad that we chose “the path less traveled.”
Jones Gap Trail had a very gradual incline, and we really enjoyed walking in the quiet morning. However, hiking with Charlotte can be a little frustrating when we first get started. She has a specific pattern she follows throughout the hike where she’ll go through different stages of energy, and it’s always very obvious which stage we’re in. Once we get started, she has plenty of energy and she’ll use it to wander off the trail and follow her nose. This makes our pace much slower, and today that meant that 3 other hikers soon passed us. When Curtis and I are hiking alone, we’re usually the ones passing others, so this really tests our pride. 😉 The next “stage” in Charlotte’s hiking patterns is when she starts to wear out a little, and that comes after an hour or so on the trail, or once the trail starts getting steeper and more strenuous. During that time, her tail will be down, but she’ll still keep up a good pace and stay on the trail. With enough snack and water breaks, we’ll be able to keep her energized enough to keep up a good pace without much wandering, AND her tail will be up and wagging as she trots along. Once we get to that stage, the hike becomes easier and more enjoyable for all three of us. When we hike, we keep her leash on, but as long as we’re all alone, we won’t hold onto the leash and let her go at her own pace. We pick up the leash when we see other hikers, dogs, or feel that it’s necessary.
Left: our adorable hiking pup poses in front of a waterfall // Center: Jones Gap Falls // Right: one of those odd trees you come to appreciate when all you see along the trail are trees and plants!
The first little diversion that we took was to see Jones Gap Falls. With all the small cascading falls we’d been seeing, we weren’t sure what to expect in terms of how big it would be, but it was definitely worth getting side tracked. We weren’t here for long, but we enjoyed standing at the base and taking it all in, all by ourselves. Curtis attempted to scale the rock face to see it from another perspective, but failed as it was much more slick than he thought. Charlotte wasted no time running up there and showing who’s the real pro. 😉
Eventually, we left the easy path of Jones Gap Trail and took the Bill Kimble Trail in search of a letterbox by El Lieutenant – the “Yosemite of South Carolina” as they called it. This trail started off rather wet and muddy, but we managed to avoid getting too wet (Curtis and I did that is…staying dry wasn’t really on Charlotte’s agenda) and soon the trail started a very steep ascent up to El Lieutenant. VERY steep. Usually, our goal is to push through any steep section on the trail and rest at the end, but I was feeling very winded and had us stop a couple times on the way. Oh, and we were sweating like never before. The temps weren’t even that high, but the humidity was killer. The only breeze to speak of was that which we created by walking fast, and as you can imagine, we weren’t going so fast at this point. However, we managed to pass 2 of the hikers that passed us earlier, and we considered that a win!
At the beginning of this very steep section, there were no switchbacks – it just went straight up the slope. You never know how necessary switchbacks are until there aren’t any! Eventually, the trail started switchbacking steeply up the slope, for which we were so thankful. There were some rocky parts with high and steep rock faces which Charlotte jumped up with no problem. She also hurdled fallen logs and rocks in the way like a pro, and was excellent at crossing rivers whether on a narrow bridge, jumping from rock to rock, walking across a log, or just going straight through the water. Who knew that a basset hound could be such a great hiking dog?!
Anyway, back to the climb – we finally made it to El Lieutenant, and while I’m sure it doesn’t compare to Yosemite’s Half Dome, it was pretty amazing. Unfortunately there was no way to get a good picture of it because there were still trees in the way no matter where we were. It’s really one of those things that you have to hike a long way to really appreciate. Once you come out of hiking a steep trail through a forest surrounded by trees, any big granite rock face that stretches much bigger than you can see seems so grand! We stopped here and found a letterbox and had a snack. The other hikers passed us and we chatted a little before they moved on. We waited an appropriate amount of time to let them get a good head start before continuing on ourselves. The trail followed the base of El Lieutenant for a ways before it started going steeply up the slope again. Ultimately, I think we ended up around the same height as the top of the rock, but it didn’t feel as cool because we were still in a forest and not standing on a cool big bald rock. It’s too bad they can’t have chains that go up the side of the rock like at Yosemite, but let’s be real, if they did then EVERYONE would be out here trying to hike it, and people would die because they’d come unprepared, then they would implement a permit system in which everyone applies a year in advance and only a small handful get chosen to climb the rock each day. So maybe it’s better that we enjoy it just the way it is for now.
Left: Rainbow Falls // Center: one of the many bridges we crossed – and one of the more secure ones! //Right: El Lieutenant peeking through the trees
We had debated taking Rim of the Gap trail back to the visitor’s center, but when we got to where that trail splits off we decided instead to hike back down Coldstream Trail, which promised to be a less steep and moderate trail back to the Jones Gap Trail. Then, we’d have the option of hiking to Rainbow Falls near the end. We heard that while Rim of the Gap may have some vistas, it also had a constant steep decline including ladders, and we wanted to save our joints as best we could. Hiking down a steep decline is just as difficult as hiking up a steep mountain – you have to be cautious with every step so that you don’t slip and fall. And if you walk too fast, you risk hurting your joints. We thought this would be best for Charlotte as well. Besides, we still had one more day after this that we hoped to fit in one last long hike, so we didn’t want to wear our legs out too much.
The Coldstream Trail was just as easy and pleasant as we hoped, with a steady decline, a few more river crossings, and an extra letterbox. We made it back to Jones Gap Trail where the Rainbow Falls Trail began, and though we were starting to feel worn out, we decided to go for it because when else would we get the chance to hike here?! We saw on the topo map that this would be more than 3 miles of additional hiking and would include some incline, but we thought that we were ready for that. There were lots of what we might call “unprepared hikers” without water hiking this trail, so why couldn’t we? (Can I just say – it’s one thing to come unprepared for yourself to hike a 4 mile steep trail on a hot afternoon, but it’s another to bring your kids or dogs and have nothing for them either?! Thankfully there are streams along these trails so that their dogs would be able to get a drink, but people need more awareness when it comes to safety and common sense while hiking. Just our thoughts!)
Well as it turns out, hiking this trail after already hiking 8 miles is exhausting, and I wanted to give up and turn back so many times – even when I knew we were ¼ of a mile away. There were so many steps, lots of steep parts, and it was so dang hot by this point. Not to mention we saw 2 snakes while hiking – a long black one that wasn’t harmful and another type of one that was. Thankfully Curtis was in front and caught them before I did and handled each situation calmly, like a fearless leader should. Every time we passed a stream, I kind of-really wanted to get in it to cool myself off. However, we did get a couple small vistas while on this trail which was a pleasant surprise.
We kept saying “these falls had better be worth it!” and I’m happy to report that they were! Rainbow Falls stands about 100 feet tall and is a beautiful sight to take in. There were quite a few people at the end, but the area was big enough that it didn’t feel too crowded. We sat in the shade and enjoyed some snacks while letting the breeze created by the falls cool us off. We didn’t spend too long here though, as we were ready to get back home and be done with hiking for the day. Thankfully, all we had left was hiking downhill and on the flat section of trail back to our car. That went by so much faster and soon enough, we were driving back to the dome, blasting the air conditioning.
Left: Curtis and I in front of Jones Gap Falls // Right: Charlotte sits proudly in front of Rainbow Falls
So we may not always be smart about what we decide to hike or how much hiking we do, but Charlotte is such a good girl and does whatever we need her to. She is also polite and courteous to other hikers and remained calm even when unleashed dogs ran up and invaded her privacy. They say that a busy dog is a happy dog, and I think that this definitely applies to these situations. She LOVES hiking with us, and we love that we can all share these experiences together. I’m going to have to start a scrapbook or something of all the beautiful places that Charlotte has hiked to and visited. She’s a very well-traveled dog, that’s for sure! And she gets so darn cuddly after a long hike, which may be our favorite part of hiking with her. But after just a couple hours of sleep, we had friends come by our dome and the way she was up and running around with their dog, you would have never guessed that she just hiked 12 miles!
Speaking of which, here is what Curtis’ Map My Hike app showed about this trail. The red line shows the elevation gain – see where it picks up on the left at 2085 feet and becomes much straighter going up? That was the steep climb up to El Lieutenant, and you can see the line goes down the other side much more gradually. It hurts to look at and remember that! Then on the right, you can see the up and down trail to Rainbow Falls – future hikers, be prepared because even though it’s a shorter and much more populated trail, it still has a good amount of incline! (by the way, if you’re looking at our speed at the bottom, I don’t believe Curtis ever paused the timer, so it counts when we stopped for lunch, snacks, and to see the waterfall and letterbox at El Lieutenant. Just saying. 😉 )
Top: we learned that we’re on the Eastern Continental Divide! // Second: El Lieutenant, again hiding behind trees // Third: Charlotte licks the sweat off of Curtis – yum yum //Fourth: the one great view we got along the Rainbow Falls Trail!
And that’s it for day 2 – come back tomorrow to read about our final and longest day of hiking. It’s an exciting one! 😉