Trail: Raven Cliff Falls Trail
Hike Location: Caesars Head State Park
Geographic Location: northwest of Cleveland, SC
Length: 4 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: May 2018
Overview: An out-and-back to a nice view of impressive Raven Cliff Falls.
Park Information: https://southcarolinaparks.com/caesars-head
Google Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=685227
Directions to the trailhead: From Cleveland, take US 276 north 13.6 winding miles to the signed Raven Cliff Falls parking area on the right. You will pass the Visitor Center for Caesars Head State Park about 1 mile before reaching the trailhead parking area. This parking area had plenty of space when I hiked here on a Tuesday morning, but it can overflow on warm-weather weekends.
The hike: If you drive to this trailhead by taking US 276 north out of Greenville, you will see the unusually shaped granitic gneiss rock outcrop that gives Caesars Head its name miles before you start the serpentine drive up the mountain to reach it. With an elevation of 3208 feet, Caesars Head stands nearly 2000 vertical feet above Greenville, so the temperature usually remains several degrees cooler. When I hiked here in early May, I had mowed the grass 4 times at my house down in Anderson, but the trees up at Caesars Head were just starting to put out leaves.
Established only in 1986, Caesars Head State Park is the western anchor for the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, one of the top hiking destinations in South Carolina. The state park Visitor Center you drive past on your way to the trailhead is worth a stop for two reasons. First, the Visitor Center contains an interpretive museum that features a relief diorama of the entire Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Second, adjacent to the Visitor Center sits a fantastic overlook at the edge of Caesars Head. You can see Greenville from here on a clear day, and from September through November hawks migrating through the park soar beside you on the thermals created by the rocky outcrop.
For hikers, Caesars Head State Park offers more than 60 miles of trails, but the park’s most popular and scenic hike is the out-and-back on the Raven Cliff Falls Trail that leads to 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls. The Raven Cliff Falls Trail follows the edge of a ridge for its entire distance, so the trail offers some up-and-down without the extreme difficulty found on some of the park’s other trails. Of course, Raven Cliff Falls is the main attraction of this hike. Also, note that although the park lists this hike at 4.4 miles in length, the distance I gave at the outset is more accurate based on my calculations.
|Trailhead: Raven Cliff Falls Trail|
Start by walking out to US 276 and crossing it via a marked crosswalk. On the far side of the road lies the information kiosk and self-registration station that comprise the Raven Cliff Falls Trail’s trailhead. Registration and payment of the park entrance fee are mandatory. The Raven Cliff Falls Trail starts as a two-track gravel road that heads downhill on a moderate to steep grade.
The road you are following at the outset is used to access a water utility building, and at 0.25 miles you reach said building and a sign for the Middle Saluda Passage of the Palmetto Trail. South Carolina’s two best backpacking trails, the Palmetto Trail and the Foothills Trail, also use this route even though the Raven Cliff Falls Trail’s red paint blazes are the only markings. Past the utility building, the hike follows a wide single-track dirt treadway for the rest of its course to Raven Cliff Falls.
|Single track sidehill trail|
Although the difference between maximum and minimum elevations on this hike is only about 200 feet, several short but steep ups and downs will need to be negotiated starting with a short climb away from the utility building. The trail next clings to the side of the hill, which rises to your right and falls to your left. Some partially obstructed views of the Piedmont nearly 2000 feet below open up along this section, and I saw a pileated woodpecker fly into the air from a tree below me. Large numbers of purple violets grew beside the trail.
At 0.8 miles, you reach the first of three abrupt turns that are marked with double red paint blazes. Some old logging roads in this area might look like trails, but watching for the copious red blazes will keep you on the real trail. Next comes a short quick descent via some wooden stairs through an area with rock outcrops. A thick understory of mountain laurel grows in this area, which is noteworthy because most of the understory is quite sparse.
|Descending past rock outcrops|
Soon the trail rejoins an old logging road, and at 1.5 miles you reach a trail intersection. The blue-blazed Foothills and Gum Gap Trails exit right and lead to a top-down view of Raven Cliff Falls from a suspension bridge. Our hike turns left to stay on the Raven Cliff Falls Trail and head for the best waterfall view. Intersections have trail maps posted, so it is hard to get lost if you just follow the red blazes.
|Deep rut in treadway|
The treadway gets a little rutted and rough as a moderate descent ensues. At 1.9 miles, you reach another trail intersection. The narrow and steep purple-blazed Dismal Trail continues straight, so you need to angle right to stay on the wider Raven Cliff Falls Trail. 0.1 fairly flat miles later, you reach the trail shelter that gives the award-winning view of Raven Cliff Falls. Although you are more than 0.5 miles from the falls, the waterfall’s size and the overlook’s perfect near-frontal angle ensure that you get a good view. Several smaller drops precede the main drop in this aquatic feast for the eyes and ears. Benches provide nice places to sit, rest, have a snack, and enjoy the scenery.
|Raven Cliff Falls|
The Raven Cliff Falls Trail ends at this overlook, so now you have to choose how you want to finish this hike. The simplest and easiest option is to retrace your steps 2 miles along the red-blazed Raven Cliff Falls Trail. To increase the distance but not the difficulty, you could take the blue-blazed Foothills and Gum Gap Trails to the pink-blazed Naturaland Trust Trail, which quickly leads to the aforementioned suspension bridge perched just above Raven Cliff Falls. Turning around at the bridge produces a hike of just over 6 miles. For the fit and energetic hiker, an 8 mile lollipop loop can be formed by taking the purple-blazed Dismal Trail into the ravine below the falls and then connecting with the Naturaland Trust and Gum Gap Trails. This trek is steep and rocky with roughly 1500 feet of elevation change, and it should only be undertaken with adequate supplies and preparation. Choose your own adventure to finish your visit to Raven Cliff Falls.