Thursday, July 12, 2018

Gorges State Park: Visitor Center to Bearwallow Falls (Blog Hike #698)

Trails: Visitor Center, Bearwallow Valley, and Bearwallow Falls Trails
Hike Location: Gorges State Park
Geographic Location: east of Cashiers, NC
Length: 1.9 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: June 2018
Overview: An out-and-back featuring Bearwallow Valley Overlook and Bearwallow Falls.

Directions to the trailhead: From Cashiers, take US 64 east 10 miles to SR 281 and turn right on SR 281.  Drive SR 281 south 0.9 miles to the park entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park.  Drive the main park road to the Visitor Center, and park in the large paved lot in front of the Visitor Center.

The hike: For my general comments on Gorges State Park, see the previous hike.  While many of the trails at Gorges State Park explore the Jocassee Gorge’s rugged backcountry, this short hike connects two of the park’s frontcountry sites: the Visitor Center and Bearwallow Falls.  As such, this hike is probably the park’s easiest hike.  Nevertheless, this hike does not skimp too much on scenery: it passes a scenic valley overlook and leads to an overlook of Bearwallow Falls, a 50-foot moderate-volume cascading waterfall.
Visitor Center trailhead
            Start at the Visitor Center trailhead, which is located on the southeast corner of the parking lot or just north of the Visitor Center.  An information kiosk with trail map, bench, and sign mark this trailhead.  The gravel trail enters the woods and in less than 200 feet reaches a signed trail intersection.  The option going right ends at the park’s amphitheater, so you need to turn sharply left to head for the overlooks and Bearwallow Falls.
            Marked with orange plastic triangles, the trail crosses the park road before passing through a relatively low area where short wooden boardwalks carry you over seasonally wet soil.  Next the trail climbs slightly to pass under some high-voltage power lines, a reminder of the Duke Energy operations nearby.  For no obvious reason the trail’s name changes from the Visitor Center Connector to the Bearwallow Valley Trail here, and the blazes change from orange plastic triangles to red plastic triangles.
Entering the power line corridor
            At 0.25 miles, you reach the wooden platform that is the Bearwallow Valley Overlook.  While the power lines considerably mar the south-facing view, there is quite a bit to see from here.  Chestnut Mountain looms in the foreground below you, and both Lake Keowee and Lake Jocassee can be seen well below you beyond the mountain.
Bearwallow Valley Overlook
            Past the overlook, the trail treads over a brief level section with a knob rising to your left before beginning the descent toward Bearwallow Falls.  A trail reroute takes you down a set of moderately steep switchbacks to reach a signed intersection with the Picnic Connector Trail, which is marked with white plastic triangles.  Turn right to keep heading for Bearwallow Falls.
            At 0.6 miles, you reach the Bearwallow Picnic Shelter, which features a nice stone and wood structure, an information kiosk, a restroom building, and a drinking fountain.  Walk northeast across the blacktop parking lot to find the signed Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead where the Bearwallow Falls Trail begins.  Note that you can reach this parking lot by driving the park’s loop road clockwise from the Visitor Center if you wanted to shorten this hike.
Upper Bearwallow Falls Trailhead
            Marked with blue plastic triangles, the Bearwallow Falls Trail comprises the last leg in our hike to Bearwallow Falls.  After crossing the park road, the steep descending switchbacks begin.  Benches placed at strategic points beside the trail make attractive places to sit and catch your breath on your way back up.
Bearwallow Falls
            Just shy of 1 mile, the Bearwallow Falls Trail ends at the overlook for Bearwallow Falls.  Bearwallow Falls is a 50-foot cascade waterfall in Bearwallow Creek, but only the lower portion of the cascade is visible from this overlook.  An interesting interpretive sign describes the area’s geology, and a partially obstructed view down the mountain opens up to the southeast.  The trail ends at this overlook, so after admiring the waterfall you have to retrace your steps to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.  While you are here, the Visitor Center is worth a few minutes of your time: it contains interesting exhibits about rainfall and its effects on the Jocassee Gorges.

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