Saturday, May 5, 2018

Caesars Head State Park: Raven Cliff Falls Trail (Blog Hike #679)

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.

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.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Chimney Rock State Park: Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Falls (Blog Hike #678)

Trails: Outcroppings, Exclamation Point, Skyline, and Hickory Nut Falls Trails
Hike Location: Chimney Rock State Park
Geographic Location: east of Hendersonville, NC
Length: 4.6 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: March 2018
Overview: A view-filled hike with lots of stairs exploring a major tourist destination.

Directions to the trailhead: Near Hendersonville, take I-26 to US 64 (exit 49A).  Exit and go east on US 64.  Drive US 64 east 15 miles to the town of Chimney Rock and the signed state park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, pay the very large park entrance fee, and drive the steep winding road 3 miles to its end and the main parking lot at the base of Chimney Rock.  Park here.

The hike: Consisting of over 7000 acres on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Chimney Rock State Park looks more like a theme park than the usual state park, but there is good reason for that.  The park dates to 1902 when the Morse family from Missouri purchased the site’s 1000 acre core that includes Chimney Rock and Hickory Nut Falls.  They developed the site as a tourist attraction and operated it as such for more than 100 years.  In 2007, the Morse family sold the site to the State of North Carolina, which has added another 6000 adjoining acres for future development. 
I have come here twice, once as a tourist in 2002 and again as a hiker in 2018.  Make no mistake: Chimney Rock still has its touristy side.  A 26-story elevator carries visitors almost to the top of Chimney Rock, and gift shops and refreshment stands eager to take your money lie at both the top and bottom of the elevator.  The $15 entrance fee, tied with Kent Falls State Park in Connecticut for the highest state park entrance fee I have ever paid, also screams tourist attraction.  Nevertheless, the State’s development of several trails through some undeveloped areas has put a refreshing natural veneer on the otherwise touristy setting.
The hike described here explores both this park’s touristy and natural sides, and it involves climbing and descending about 1000 stairs.  When I came here in 2018 to write this trail description, the elevator was out-of-service, so my experience was less touristy than yours might be.  If the elevator is back in service when you visit, you could take the elevator to Chimney Rock, thereby cutting your stair count roughly in half and thus cutting this hike’s difficulty roughly in half.  In that case, you would join this hike near the top of Chimney Rock at the 0.2 mile mark.  Without the aid of the elevator, it took me over 4 hours to do this hike (including some time to take in the views), so plan your visit accordingly.
Bottom of Outcroppings Trail
Assuming you forgo the elevator, your tour of Chimney Rock begins on the Outcroppings Trail, which starts at the rear of the large wooden deck behind the Cliff Dwellers Gift Shop.  Immediately you begin to climb the first of many sets of stairs, and the Outcroppings Trail gains 315 feet of elevation in only 0.2 miles.  The trail passes a couple of nice viewpoints named Vista Rock and Pulpit Rock, but Chimney Rock towers high behind both of these rock outcrops.
Just past the first set of stairs, the trail splits with the left option taking a higher route past more vistas and the right option taking a lower route through a grotto and a low clearance rock overhang called the Subway.  The two options come back together in a few hundred feet, so you could choose either option.  Maybe choose one option going up and the other coming back down.
More stairs bring you to the top of the Outcroppings Trail and the Sky Lounge outdoor dining area.  Turn left and climb the last two flights of stairs to reach an elevation of 2280 feet and Chimney Rock, this park’s signature viewpoint.  A large gneiss spire set off from the main cliff line, Chimney Rock offers broad views of Lake Lure and lower hills to the east as well as limited views up the Rocky Broad River valley to the west.  A large flagpole vibrates noisily in even a little wind, and the fact that this overlook is the centerpiece of the park ensures that you will not be alone here.
View east from Chimney Rock
About half of the people who have accompanied you to this point will stop at Chimney Rock.  To visit some viewpoints at higher elevations, continue climbing by hiking the signed Exclamation Point Trail, which starts opposite the final stairs that lead to Chimney Rock at the Outcropping Trail’s top end.  In general the stairs on the Exclamation Point Trail are older and rougher than the ones on the Outcroppings Trail, but they still get you up the steep rocky terrain.
Chimney Rock, as seen from the Opera Box
After climbing another 3 flights of stairs, you reach the Opera Box, which offers a postcard view with Chimney Rock in the foreground and the rolling Piedmont beyond.  The next flight of stairs brings you to Devil’s Head, which offers a north-facing view that features the town of Chimney Rock and the cliff-lined mountains to the north.  More climbing up more stairs lifts you to Exclamation Point, a wide and flat rock outcrop with elevation 2480 feet.  Exclamation Point is the end of the Exclamation Point Trail, and it offers excellent views both east over Lake Lure and west up the Rocky Broad River valley.  Some ice lingered atop Exclamation Point even though it was a warm and sunny 70 degrees on my mid-March visit.
View north from Devil's Head

View west from Exclamation Point
Exclamation Point used to be end of the park’s trail system, but recently the State of North Carolina built the Skyline Trail, which starts at Exclamation Point and leads to the top of Hickory Nut Falls.  Provided you have time and energy, head out of this park’s touristy area and into its natural area as the Skyline Trail climbs even higher via three switchbacks.  The wide dirt/gravel Skyline Trail is marked with blue plastic diamonds, and you will be thrilled to know that it contains no stairs to climb or descend.
Near 1 mile into the hike, you reach Peregrine’s Point.  With an elevation of 2640 feet, Peregrine’s Point is the park’s highest overlook, and it offers some picnic tables with a nice north-facing view over the Rocky Broad River valley and well into the mountains beyond.  Past Peregrine’s Point, a gradual climb brings you to the hike’s highest elevation, just over 2700 feet.
View north from Peregrine's Point
Next comes a gradual to moderate descent with one switchback that takes you down to the banks of Falls Creek.  The creek contains only a moderate volume of water, but the water was clear and cold on my visit.  Cross the creek on stepping stones.  Some park workers were building a backcountry picnic area along the creek when I passed through here, so you may be able to stop and have a trail snack when you come here.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the end of the Skyline Trail at an overlook perched just above Falls Creek’s tumble over Hickory Nut Falls.  Surrounding trees and cliffs prohibit any views like those at previous overlooks, but looking down toward Falls Creek will reveal a nice ledge-type waterfall just above the main drop.  This upper waterfall would never be visible without this new trail, so appreciate getting to see something that park visitors for over 100 years never got to see.
Upper waterfall at end of Skyline Trail
The Skyline Trail ends at this overlook, so your only choice is to retrace your steps past Peregrine’s Point, Exclamation Point, and Chimney Rock all the way down to the bottom of the Outcroppings Trail where you began.  If you are getting tired or are running out of daylight, your car is only feet away to your right.  To see Hickory Nut Falls from another and better angle, head down the wooden stairs to reach the Hickory Nut Falls Trail.  Turn left on the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to head for the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls.
The Hickory Nut Falls Trail gains just over 200 feet of elevation on its 0.7 mile journey to the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls, but this wide gravel trail is a breeze compared to all of the stairs you climbed earlier.  The sidehill trail passes through some rock outcroppings with the mountain rising steeply to the left and falling to the right.  Some interpretive signs tell of this area’s rocks, flora, and fauna, and topping the numerous dirt waterbars built into the trail surface might be the toughest challenge you face on this trail.
Hickory Nut Falls
Ignore the Four Seasons Trail that exits downhill to the right and soon pass another backcountry picnic area.  After passing around a small ridge, a gradual climb brings you to the observation deck at the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls.  With a height of 404 feet, this cascade-type waterfall impresses with its sheer size.  Sheer rock cliffs make a stark and intimidating setting, so much so that scenes from movies including The Last of the Mohicans were shot in this area.  After admiring the waterfall, retrace your steps along the Hickory Nut Falls Trail to the parking lot to complete the hike.