Raven Cliff Falls Megahike

Raven Cliff Falls from the base
So there I was.. surrounded by a tangle of deadfall, briers, and rhododendron. That wasn’t even the worst part. Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll start at the beginning.

It was my pleasure to join up with some members of Team Waterfall for an exciting and challenging exploration of Raven Cliff Falls and beyond in South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Since I wasn’t planning any of the routes or destination, and it is highly discouraged to leave the trail in South Carolina’s parks (for good reason), I left my GPS at home. I wanted to enjoy the freedom of not messing with a gadget, to give my trust completely to the planner for where we would go, and to not record any route for others to follow. I don’t encourage anyone to try to reproduce what we did as described in this trip report. To have an injury in some of the areas we went would mean a world of hurt, and an extremely difficult search and rescue.

As we drove up 276 towards Caesar’s Head, we caught a few glimpses of the sun as it faithfully emerged over the horizon as a burning ball of neon orange, a color only the sun can so vividly reproduce as contrasted against the fading remnants of night. What a glorious way to start the day.

Darrin, Andy, Van and I pulled into the parking lot for Raven Cliff Falls and left the car to began our hike at 7:20am. The last thermometer reading on the car’s dash display was 20°F. It was gonna be a cold day. Praise God it was only briskly crisp, without any wind.

The most complete view of Raven Cliff Falls

I have hiked Raven Cliff twice before. Once, just to the observation deck, and once the Dismal/Naturaland/Gum Gap loop (clockwise). To my surprise, we left the main trail even before getting to the observation deck. In fact, we never even saw the observation deck on the way in. Rolling hills gave way to steep descents. The trees and scrub cleared briefly to frame our first view of Raven Cliff Falls, which was awesome. You can see so much more of it than from the observation deck or the boulder overlook on Dismal Trail. The suspension bridge, first drop, upper cascades, second drop (the big one), and lower cascades are all visible.

Then we started descending… in earnest.

It was here where I first noticed the leaves. Mid-November, there was some fall color still hanging on, though not abundantly at this elevation. Most of those leaves were now on the ground. On top of being deafening, descending over leaves is super slippery. If you’ve ever hiked down a steep slope over leaves, you know it’s more of a slide than a hike. So the descent to Matthews Creek in some places went really quickly, because I was essentially sitting on the ground and butt sliding, using feet for braking and hands for stabilizing. Yep, leaves are sketchy. They make for really unstable footing, as well as hiding hazards like rocks and roots. When we weren’t sliding, we were scrambling down rock formations, some several feet high. If you’re familiar with Linville Gorge, you might call the descent to the base of Raven Cliff Falls as a rough Cabin Trail.

We came out of a chute in a huge rockpile formation, and Matthews Creek was at our feet. The sun was just beginning to clear the ridges and illuminating the valley. You could hear the roar of the waterfall, but it was completely out of sight. Water poured over rock and ground from several directions, disappearing out of sight downstream over more rock. A wet crossing brought us to mostly dry rock with several completely frozen puddles. It would have been really easy to take a fall here. Walking upstream and then BAM! Raven Cliff Falls in all its glory. The light was perfect. Warming sunlight behind us, with the falls still hidden away in its mountain pocket, and the setting waning moon still visible above the ridge. Absolutely gorgeous. It was at this exact moment that I decided Raven Cliff Falls was my favorite waterfall. Just incredible.

Raven Cliff Falls beneath the waning moon

From here, we would begin our climb out. Our next destination was to the base of the main drop, but it’s impossible to just dead-reckon straight towards it. So here began the real tangle at the beginning of this report, which by the way, is an over-dramatic but sensational way to start a story. Bushwhacking uphill from the base of Raven Cliff Falls is a steep mess of scratchy briers and bushes, with leaves on the ground giving you the “two steps forward one step back” effect, huge jungle vines, fallen trees, rhododendron thickets, and cliff faces that block your progress. When your in a mess like that, you have one of two ways to look at your situation. Option one: You can either feel hopelessly lost with not knowing where you are exactly in an area that is fighting your every movement and will likely hide your remains from ever being found. Option two: You can enjoy the puzzle of having a vague idea where you are, but not knowing exactly, and move with the obstacles instead of against them (even if it means ungracefully doing a head over feet when a vine snags your boot while climbing over a fallen tree) in hopes that it eventually clears out while following a path of least resistance, which likely will still be quite resistant. I suppose we went with option two since we emerged to dive into another tangle on another day. Route finding in the bush is really one of the most challenging aspects of trips like these, but there are rewards.

Raven Cliff Falls on ice
Like standing at the base of the main drop of a huge waterfall. Even cooler, everything was iced over from the spray of the falls and frigid temps the last couple days. Every branch of every bush was encased in ice. The rhododendron leaves were covered with layers of ice so thick that each rhodo plant sounded like a wooden wind chime when the branches were shaken. Totally cool in there! (Check out the short video I recorded of the area) We hung around for a while, took a bazillion pictures, and hauled our way out of the slick ice and mud back to the top, where it was a long walk through deadfall and brush and deafening leaves until we finally emerged onto Gum Gap Trail.

It felt like another long walk, but we eventually made it to the suspension bridge at the top of the falls. We ate lunch at a great open section of bedrock along the bank of Matthews Creek just at the brink of the first drop of Raven Cliff Falls. Darrin and I bushwhacked down to the base of the first drop, and got a cool view of the upper falls with the bridge right above it. We neglected to go any further down, as we had some other goals we wanted to achieve during the rest of our hike. We had a long ways to go to the car. Here, Van had to part ways with us. He headed back to the car, and Darrin, Andy and I continued on.

Andy and Van on the suspension bridge above Raven Cliff Falls

At the opposite sign of the suspension bridge, there are signs saying the Naturaland Trust Trail is closed. We wanted to check out the condition of the trail, since it was closed after the extremely rainy summer of 2013 that caused landslides in the area, so we proceeded against caution. There were several points on the trail where it narrows down and it’d be easy to plummet off the side. Probably a good decision to heed the caution we didn’t. Even if the trail was open, it felt really confusing with lots of twists and turns and steep climbs down rocky terrain that demand attentive and selective foot placement. Add in the leaves, and our hike down the trail was slow. At one point, we took the trail less traveled through more scrub like we’d been through earlier, and emerged on a perfect ledge to overlook the falls. What might have been a couple hundred feet away from us was the frozen point we were standing over two hours prior. It’s a lot of work to get from one side of the falls to the other. What an awesome time at Raven Cliff Falls. We got to see it from several unique and excellent perspectives. This would be our last view of the falls today.

Ledge view of Raven Cliff Falls
What we came to next has been a favorite of mine from the first time I saw it over three years ago. That first visit to The Cathedral was also the last time I had been there, until this hike. Really, there is no way to photograph or describe the Cathedral accurately. It really must be seen to be believed. The best I can tell you is that it’s a huge multifaceted rock wall that dominates the whole area and commands attention. Water had been trickling down the sides and formed several icicles. Darrin even pointed out a hawks next in a giant crack, where he had seen the hawk circle and eventually land on a previous trip.
Ice on the walls of The Cathedral. The hawk nest is about halfway up the crack on the left

The final landmark on Naturaland Trust Trail on our way out was the old cable crossing bridge over Matthews Creek. The cable bridge had been taken down, which I heard reports of but couldn’t give a first hand account of. Indeed, the cable bridge is down. The trees it was attached to are dead, but not fallen over. Other nearby trees are, though. Two big trees have fallen over at the same spot the cable bridge used to be. The trees cross in the middle, making for an awkward climb over, but it wasn’t too bad.

After the creek crossing, the elevation levels out. We passed by the Dismal Trail and loudly sloshed our way through the leaves towards Asbury Hills. Decision time, at the intersection of Naturaland Trust and path to the car, which was just over a mile away. Back to the car? We still had a couple hours of daylight.

We continued on Naturaland Trust, looking for the large rock cairns that stand on the way to Moonshine Falls. I had been there this past May, but visiting there would really add to this trip! The leaves seemed thicker on the ground here than what we had seen prior. It was was deafening, to the point we couldn’t hear each other talk over the sound of the leaves. Though the ground cover of leaves was thick, many trees still had fall colors clinging to their branches. The displays of yellows, oranges, and reds were far better here than they had been at the trail head of Raven Cliff Falls.

One cairn, two cairns, off the ridge at the sound of water and we’re at the overhang that still has old rusted remains of moonshine stills and barrels beneath it and Matthews Creek pouring over the top of it. A pretty impressive collection of remains, really. Moonshine Falls is one of my favorite waterfalls because of the unique “cave” area behind it that isn’t overly common on our Carolina waterfalls. I found myself wondering how long ago this water had fallen over the edge of Raven Cliff Falls, and if it had become part of Moonshine Falls at the same time we were arriving. The pool at the base was full of leaves. This is really my favorite view of the falls.

Andy crafting the shot from behind Moonshine Falls

We still had daylight, still had time. When I had come earlier in the year, TJ and I made an attempt to find Confusion Falls, but abandoned it after we couldn’t follow the trail any longer down the steep slope. Today, we would find it. We dropped our packs and I found the slope down was even steeper than I had previously thought. We took turns sliding down, went too far, and had to backtrack the creek, climbing over deadfall and through rhododendron. Confusion Falls is really cool, as its the conversion of two creeks, plummeting off an overhang to become one creek at the base. It has an almost tropical feel to it, even in the midst of a South Carolina autumn.

Confusion Falls

The climb back up the ridge is a complete grunt. Andy described it as a 50-degree slope covered in acorns and dry leaves. There were several sections I slid back down towards the bottom. Secure footing is a wish and absent dream on that ascent. The best emerging technique for climbing out seemed to be to launch from one tree to another, as the trees became handholds and footholds. It’s a short trip to Confusion Falls from Moonshine Falls, but it’s not without its price.

The day had been full of leg destroying adventures, so we were looking forward to the easy hike out, even if it was still over two miles to the car. There is still an intact cable bridge over Matthews Creek on Asbury Hills property. Darrin and I used the bridge, but being only half and hour from the car, Andy decided to wade across. On the Red Trail closer to the parking area, the leaves were as bad as they’d been, obscuring thick roots and embedded rocks. Thank you, leaves, for giving us a few finals stumbles and falls at the last stretch of the hike. Though we didn’t track it with a GPS, Darrin estimates we covered at least 10 miles. 

Our final photo op over the recreation lake at Asbury Hills

Nearly at the parking lot is a small lake at Asbury Hills. The mountain behind it was lit with the last rays of the evening sun, igniting the fall leaves in a glowing tapestry of color that reflected perfectly against the mirror stillness of the lake. The day opened and closed with majestic paintings of the Lord in the colors of the sun, almost like the front and back covers of a book that told of His glory. Certainly, that was the story my eyes saw this day.

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