Scrambling the Rim of the Gap

One of the definitions of the word fellowship in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is a company of equals or friends. There are those whose fellowship is found in their draw to dive deep, wrestling to taste the air of colored forests and breathe the waters of satisfaction. Off into the Mountain Bridge Wilderness three such men went.
Erich, Jeremy, and I would begin our day together driving westward on South Carolina’s beautiful Highway 11 towards Ceasar’s Head State Park. Right before the junction with 276, we passed what is normally Lower Wildcat Falls, visible from the road. This day, it was Lower Wildcat Rock, as no water was cascading over it. I had some plans in mind to see a few South Carolina waterfalls that I hadn’t visited yet, but the water flow from Wildcat Creek wasn’t feeling too promising. Nevertheless, we pressed on, for there was more to see than waterfalls.
Very low flow at Rock Cliff Falls today
We parked just past Caesar’s Head at the parking area that also allows access for Raven Cliff Falls, though we wouldn’t be poking around there today. It’s be down the orange blaze for us – Coldspring Branch was our first trail. It was easy warmup hiking as we started out and took our turn to the Coldspring Connector towards our priority goal of the day – Rim of the Gap. First, though, we diverted to the Frank Coggins Trail and took one half of the lollipop over to Naturaland Trust Trail. We crossed 276, where Naturaland Trust goes through a landowners driveway and front yard, and less than a quarter of a mile from there came down to a cracked rock face that was normally Rock Cliff Falls. It was not dry, but it was a trickle. Beyond the Falls is an excellent rock face the we would have loved to follow further, but we had a full day ahead of us.
Talking scars on natives at the totally dry Firewater Falls
Retracing our steps back to the Frank Coggins Trail, we took the other side of the lollipop loop past Firewater Falls, which was only a dry faced overhang this day. No water whatsoever was trickling over. The conversation had turned to snakes just prior to this, and Erich was telling the story of one of the tribesman he treated in Indonesia that had a terrifyingly close encounter with an anaconda. I’ve probably heard that story over a dozen times in the six years I’ve known Erich and it never gets old.
Our next turn brought us to the Rim of the Gap Trail. Erich and I had been talking about hiking this trail for the last four years, and we’ve always diverted elsewhere. With what might be the last time we would be able to hike together for a while, we decided today would be the day. It starts out at the bridge (which was built as an Eagle Scout project by my friend Darrin’s son) over Cliff Falls, and there is a small side path where people have obviously been walking to get a view of the base of the Falls. The flow was low, but still enough to be called a waterfall. There was a sure tropical feel to that little alcove. Warning though, this was the one spot where I slipped on the slickrock. It is very slippery down there, even as low as the water volume was and without any spray from the falls. On normal flow, it would be way worse. If you do follow that worn path down, please stay off the rocks.

Cliff Falls with low flow and a tropical feel

Any fall on Rim of the Gap could be fatal. Why fatal? Well, you’re on the very edge rim of the ridge that rises to the south of Jones Gap. There is water that has to be crossed, bare rock, slick rock, roots, and shrubs that all require some technical maneuvers to pass. A casual stumble or slip could potentially have you careening off the Rim of the Gap down the mountain to be slammed into the trees and bare rock below. Is the trail dangerous? The trail is good, and fairly easy to follow. Like I said, though, it is technical. There are sections you’ll have to scramble on all fours up rock faces and navigate through boulders. Also, to watch out for is snakes. There had been a report of timber rattlesnakes spotted on Rim of the Gap the week prior on The South Carolina Project group on Facebook. OK, enough of the public service announcement.

On on of the Hamlin boy bridges above Cliff Falls
I’m happy to announce that neither myself, Jeremy, or Erich went careening off the Rim of the Gap. On the contrary, we had a great, safe time. There are awesome rock walls, flowing water cascades (which felt strange in the dryness we had already witnessed), and huge boulders to scramble through. We came upon a cave where my aforementioned friend Darrin had something growl at him from within. There is also a trip report floating around in the internet about witnessing a cougar on this trail. Whether or not there are legit cougars in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness, I don’t have much insight. I can only say that I have never seen one, but it’s fun to insert cougar lore comments into most outdoor conversations. Granted, I’ve never been stalked, either. At least… not to my knowledge.

For a good section of the trail, we could hear home construction going on in the neighborhood just at the top of the ridge, which didn’t spoil the day by any means, but did take some of the wildness out of it. Fortunately the terrain made up for a lot of that! We climbed up ledges, behind huge rock formations, behind boulders, and on trail that skirts vicariously close to the edge. We climbed beneath Weight Watchers Rock, which is a massive boulder supported by a smaller boulder and provides a just human sized gap beneath them to squeeze through. There is a walk around, which takes you closer to the edge of the gap. Hiking is slow going through the western section of the trail because even though the trail is straightforward, the terrain is not. I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves.
Jeremy inspecting the cougar cave. There were no cougars inside today.
Erich loving this scramble. 

The eastern section is much more mellow and easy to follow. So easy in fact that we didn’t even see a four-point buck standing at the trail right before we walked up on it. He took off like a shot back into the forest, but only far enough in for him to be disguised while he kept an eye on us. As we got closer to the Jones Gap Trail and Middle Saluda River, the ground began to have more soggy sections. Rim of the Gap ended, and we made for the river to cool off, soak our shirts and hats, snack, and refill on water. 

It really is the Rim of the Gap
Now for the climb back up to the parking lot. Fortunately, it’s a gradual climb (for the most part) over 5 miles. Jones Gap Trail has a lot of rocks on it which increase the difficulty due to trip factor, but overall it’s not that bad. It meanders fairly close to the river for much of it, which we took advantage of. At one point, visible from the trail, was a smaller waterfall on the river with a pool beneath it and dry rock on one side. The day was hot, probably over 90°F, and we’d been hiking for several hours. Sweaty and dirty, the cool water of the Middle Saluda was too tempting to resist. The waterfall had a large rock at the base of it, so sliding down it wasn’t much of an option. A few feet downstream, however, was a sandy-bottomed pool wallowed out into the bedrock. Accompanied by tiny fish, we took turns submersing ourselves beneath the water of a natural bathtub formation in the river. Life giving water, dropping heat-exhausting body temperatures, and revitalizing sore limbs. Good stuff. I had wanted to get a glimpse of Jones Gap Falls, but we completely blew past it. For another day.
The bathtub in the Middle Saluda River
We made the turn onto Coldspring Branch Trail and decided to take it to the top of the ridge instead of climbing up Bill Kimball and the face of El Lieutenant. The last time I had been on Coldspring Branch was last November on the snowy day, so it looked plenty different yet familiar on this tropical August weekend as it bubbled and rushed down the Valley to the Middle Saluda River below. Hiking out felt like a grunt especially at the end of the day, and though we had seen and hiked through a lot of incredible places, it was a welcome relaxing moment to end our 13.5 mile hike. I also need to report that we didn’t see one rattlesnake.
We had eaten lunch a few hours earlier and were ready for a little something extra, so we stopped at the F-Mart for one of “the best hot dogs in town.” Now with a little sustenance in our bellies, we stopped off the day with a trip to the Swamp Rabbit Brewery & Taproom for a glass of Red Whitey. Their Raspberry White Ale is an award winner, and it did not disappoint. 
Swamp Rabbit Brewery’s Red Whitey
It’s easy to retrace our steps here on a blog post, but our conversation is not so easy to retrace. While it feels like we were all over the map over the course of 13.5 miles, we were even more all over in our discussion. This is the bedrock of the fellowship: to know God as Father and the pleasure that results from that relationship. To dive into the depths of what it means to be reconciled to the Father through the Son who bought these brothers with His blood is an amazing thing. Out of that, should we be talking less and doing more? Perhaps not. Without understanding the ramifications of the relationship with Father, what is anything we would set our hands and feet to do? We would burn out. His love is satisfying, motivating, and sustaining, and what a good gift He has given to create fellowships of His own. Fellowships who delight in Him.

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