Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jones Gap State Park: Jones Gap Trail to Jones Gap Falls and Beyond (Blog Hike #606)

Trail: Jones Gap Trail
Hike Location: Jones Gap State Park
Geographic Location: north of Cleveland, SC
Length: 5 miles
Difficulty: 5/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A slightly rocky but never steep out-and-back passing Jones Gap Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From the east intersection of SR 11 and US 276 in Cleveland, drive US 276/SR 11 west 1.4 miles to River Falls Road.  There is a brown road sign for Jones Gap State Park at this intersection.  Turn right on River Falls Rd.  After driving 3.7 miles on narrow and winding River Falls Rd., the name changes to Jones Gap Road.  The road ends at the state park entrance 5.7 miles from US 276/SR 11.  Park in the signed day-use parking area on the right after entering the park.

The hike: Tucked in a deep and tight east-west valley at the foot of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, 3946 acre Jones Gap State Park lies directly east of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, one of South Carolina’s top hiking destinations.  The park’s location places it on the southern edge of the Eastern Continental Divide.  Rainfall in most of the park drains into the Middle Saluda River and heads southeast directly to the Atlantic Ocean, while rainfall in the extreme western part of the park drains north into the Tennessee River watershed and (eventually) the Gulf of Mexico.  The park’s land was acquired through a series of purchases between 1976 and 1986, thus making the park rather young despite its remote and rustic feel.  Indeed, hiking at Jones Gap State Park feels like hiking at nearby Table Rock or Paris Mountain State Park, but the latter two parks are much older.
            In terms of amenities, Jones Gap State Park offers only a small gift shop and some backcountry tent camping sites, so hiking takes center stage here.  The park has over 30 miles of trails including the Middle Saluda Passage of the statewide Palmetto Trail.  Trails vary greatly in length and difficulty, but the main artery of the park’s trail system is the 5.3 mile one-way Jones Gap Trail, the easternmost 2.1 miles of which are described here.
            A short hike is required to get from the day-use parking area to the trailhead for the Jones Gap Trail.  From the west end of the day-use parking area, pick up the mulch entrance trail that is signed as heading to the Visitor Center.  The westbound trail dips through a rocky area before crossing the Middle Saluda River on a wood/iron bridge and rising to reach an old trout hatchery pond.  This pond is a remnant of the Cleveland Fish Hatchery, which operated from 1931 to 1963 and was South Carolina’s first state-owned fish hatchery.
Historic trout hatching pond
            Past the hatching pond, you quickly pass a restroom building and the park’s Learning Center/Gift Shop on the right.  Turn left to cross the Middle Saluda River on another wood/iron bridge to reach the handicapped parking area and the signed trailhead for the Jones Gap Trail at 0.3 miles.  Turn right to begin heading up the Jones Gap Trail, which is marked with blue paint blazes.
Jones Gap Trail trailhead
            For most of its distance the Jones Gap Trail follows an old dirt turnpike built in the 1850’s by Solomon Jones, the man for whom this gap is named.  According to local legend, Jones chose the road’s route by turning loose a razorback at the top of the gap and following it down to the valley, knowing the hog would take the shortest feasible route down.  The road was commonly used by farmers going to and from markets in Greenville, and it remained open until 1950, when it was rendered obsolete by US 276.  All turnpike users including walkers had to pay a toll.  The $0.25 toll exacted for a horse-drawn carriage in 1858 translates to $6.91 today, making the current $5 per vehicle state park entrance fee seem like a bargain.
            Almost immediately the steep and difficult yellow-blazed Rim of the Gap Trail exits left at a signed intersection.  Continue straight to remain on the Jones Gap Trail.  The slightly rocky Jones Gap Trail heads almost due west as it climbs gradually.  The cascading Middle Saluda River stays in sight and sound for most of this hike, thus adding to the scenic appeal.
Middle Saluda River
            0.8 miles from the day-use lot, the red-blazed Rainbow Falls Trail exits right.  The Rainbow Falls Trail leads 0.5 steep and rocky miles to its namesake waterfall, which at 80-100 feet tall is one of the park’s tallest waterfalls.  Rainbow Falls makes a nice side trip if you have the time and energy, but this hike angles left to stay on the Jones Gap Trail.
Climbing on the Jones Gap Trail
            After a brief rocky climb through a dense understory of rhododendron, the trail levels out for awhile.  Numerous backcountry tent campsites sit beside the trail, and most of them were occupied when I hiked here on a Saturday afternoon in mid-September.  Just shy of 1.4 miles, another wood/iron bridge carries you across the river for the final time on the outward portion of this hike.  After crossing the bridge, you reach another backcountry campsite, where a left turn is required to stay on the Jones Gap Trail.  Watch for the blazes to stay on the trail here.
            1.5 miles from the day-use parking area (or 1.1 miles from the Jones Gap Trail trailhead), the signed spur trail to Jones Gap Falls exits right.  Turn right to begin the 200-foot long trail that ends at the base of Jones Gap Falls.  The 40-foot cascade-type waterfall was low on water when I visited during a minor drought, but the bare rock ledges surrounded by rhododendron still made an attractive setting.
Jones Gap Falls
            Jones Gap Falls makes a nice turn-around point for a round-trip hike of 3 miles, but I wanted to do a little more hiking to conclude my afternoon.  Thus, I continued up the Jones Gap Trail.  There are no more major waterfalls in this direction, but some interesting cascades appear in the river, which now lies downhill to the left.  The grade remains gradual, so the riverside hiking is very pleasant.
Junction with Coldspring Branch Trail
            2.5 miles from the day-use parking area, the orange-blazed Coldspring Branch Trail exits left.  I chose to turn around here and retrace my steps to the trailhead, but several other hiking options present themselves.  The Jones Gap Trail continues west on a moderate grade for another 3 miles to its western (upper) terminus at US 276 near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line.  The Coldspring Branch Trail can be combined with either the Bill Kimball Trail or the Tom Miller Trail to form long and difficult lollipop loops of 8 or 10 miles, respectively.  You could also add on the Rainbow Falls Trail, but that trail is significantly steeper and rockier than any trail described in this blog entry.  Consider your time and ability to decide how to conclude your day at Jones Gap State Park.


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