|The Horsepasture Drop-Off|
|House-sized boulder in the upper sections of Windy Falls|
|Don’t slip on the upper terrace|
|The Badger enters the Windy Falls keyhole|
|Kitty, Stephanie, and Luke exit the cave|
|Darrin goes for one of many slides on the slick rock, with Spencer on the balcony above.|
|Team Waterfall loving Windy Falls with abandon|
|Group shot at Lower New Millenium Falls|
This is a hike I have been wanting to do for a long time. How it came together started with me visiting Sweet Thing on Slickum a couple years ago. I was talking to my friend Jeff Raubaud about it, and he was telling me about a huge bald rock area just above it (not Bald Rock Heritage Preserve, but a nearby unnamed bald). As I read more about the area, I found there were quite a few waterfalls concentrated nearby, all of this within relatively short hiking distance from the corner of highways 11 and 276 towards Caesar’s Head. I had originally planned this hike in December of 2013, and we had to cancel because of freezing rain. I don’t hike in that. Fourteen months and several conversations and discoveries later, we made the agenda bigger and were able to see what is just off the beaten path only 30 minutes from downtown Greenville, South Carolina.
|Lower and Middle Wildcat Falls|
|Upper Wildcat Falls|
|The remains of a very intact moonshine still.|
|The view from atop Slickum/Heritage Falls|
|Poking around Spider Tunnel Falls|
|Sweet Thing on Slickum|
|Mashbox Falls as seen from The Photographer’s Perch|
|Raven Cliff Falls from the base|
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.
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|
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|
|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.
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.
It had been raining Saturday night, and looked cold and wet still on Sunday morning. I got the call before church to find out if the hike was still on. “The precip is supposed to drop to 30% after noon, and I think it’ll clear up. So if TJ’s still up for it, we’re still going.” He was up to it, so after church TJ and I headed up to the South Carolina mountains. We had been planning this trip together for several months, and I considered several locations. Finally, I settled on Moonshine Falls located in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of South Carolina. Getting there via the Naturaland Trust Trail would be more than I was willing to take on today, so we went in via the Asbury Hills Methodist Camp. It’d still be 2.6 miles one way to the falls, but by looking at the topography it looked pretty moderate, which is exactly what it was.
In my research of Moonshine Falls, I found out that you have to get permission to hike through Asbury Hills. In fact, the camp is gated. You have to have the gate access code (which you can get by calling 864-836-3711). I wasn’t sure of the exact route to take to get to the trailhead, but we stayed on the main drive and found ourselves at the parking area in not too long. Asbury Hills looks like a sweet camp, nestled in the Dismal Forest at the base of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness. Four different blazes start here, but we stayed on the main red blaze, which is the Asbury Trail. Along the way, and I have no idea how he spotted it, TJ caught glimpse of a salamander on the trail. At best, it was 5/8″ long. I looked for several seconds as he pointed toward it and I still didn’t see it until it started moving. Eventually the other blazes left the trees and we crossed over a few creeks until we finally got to the cable bridge crossing at Matthews Creek.
There used to be a cable bridge crossing Matthews Creek further upstream where the Dismal Trail meets Naturaland Trust on the (difficult) lollipop loop to the Cathedral and suspension bridge over Raven Cliff Falls. Last I heard, the trees holding that bridge had fallen. As we were leaving Asbury Hills, the tree on the eastern bank for this cable bridge has definitely seen better days. The west side tree didn’t look too bad. I love a cable bridge crossing. Lots of fun! There’s an element of insecurity to it, especially as the cable can be slippery from water spray. But hold on to the top cable and you’ll be fine. Check it out: Matthews Creek cable bridge crossing
We came out at the intersection to the Naturaland Trust Trail, which indicated Raven Cliff Falls was 1.7 miles to the left, and 276 was 2.9 miles to the right. The trail got considerably more rough once we left Asbury Hills, but was still easy to follow. At one point, the trail became a creek, thanks to our evening rain. There was an obvious side trail to avoid the new creek, which we took. On this side path, we found a red eft (juvenile newt) and took a few pictures of it.
The descent trail is not very long, but it got more soggy here. What was forest turned into jungle. There’s a large overhang, with remnants of how the falls got its namesake. Several old 55gallon drums and moonshine stills are rusting away in the overhang. To think of the history that may have happened here, and what those moonshiners might have done to 2 lone hikers that wandered into their operation when it was in action probably wouldn’t have been as pleasant as the time we had. We took a few selfies, and explored around the area getting views and photos from different angles. Moonshine Falls itself falls over the edge of the overhang, so you’re completely behind it while in the overhang. We didn’t climb down to the base here, as it was muddy and the rocks were very slick. There’s a side trail not far from the mouth of the overhang, which takes you to the base of the falls, though you have to do some rock hopping here to get a clear view of it.
We poked around the area a little bit more, looking for a few other things, but we were already past our turnback time so further explorations would have to wait for another day. We went back out the way we came in. The hike back was very enjoyable. We saw a few large snails along the trail, and a finger-sized slug. The palmsized fauna was out today, which was nice for us. None of the rhododendron was blooming. A few teaberries were out, but not too much was blooming. I can imagine what this hike would have looked like not just in it’s brilliant carolina jungle greens, but illuminated with flashes of wildflower colors would really make this a great sight!
Overall, we had a great hike, that was moderate in difficulty. To Moonshine Falls and back was about 5.2 miles, without any extreme elevation changes. TJ and I had a great time, and we discovered one more reason to play in South Carolina!
UPDATE: I finally got the Google Earth overlay of our track off my Garmin, and according to Google Earth the distance was significantly shorter than my Garmin recorded. At any rate, here is our path for this day.
[Todd] Thanks, Josh. The reception to the book has been unbelievable. There have been so many local book stores, hiking clubs, photography groups, outfitters, bloggers, and others that have helped spread the word about the book, it really has been an amazing show of support from the local outdoor community here.
[Todd] Believe it or not, I don’t feel like I faced any significant challenges making this book. It’s almost as if I had been preparing to make this guide for the past twenty years of my career: studying and developing my skills in design, photography, writing, product development, product testing, software development, etc. Once I realized I had the ability to make this book, I jumped at the chance to spend as much time as I could in Panthertown. I’ve been there on the most beautiful days of the year and I’ve been there when everything is frozen solid, but Panthertown Valley always shows me something new and amazing. I have spent many nights above Panthertown Valley on wind swept balds contemplating the mysteries of guidebook design. LOL
[Todd] I actually started as a software developer, so the iPhone guidebooks came first. I had a camera but I was still in the “why doesn’t anything look like I want it to look?” phase of my photography career. If you saw my iPhone guidebook then, it was pretty pathetic. A design that emphasizes photography needs great photography and so I really started delving into the technical aspects of that in order to make my guidebook better. Being a 20 year computer geek, it was natural that I start there. But exposure and histograms really aren’t that hard to understand. I started to consider myself a real photographer when I really became concerned with expressing the character of these amazing backcountry places I was going. The print guidebook is an extension of that, I gave it a focus on photography and a focus on the amazing uniqueness of Panthertown Valley in the hope that others will also fall in love with this special place and it will remain protected in the future.
[Todd] It is easy to walk down some of the wide gravel roads of Panthertown Valley and think of it as a safe, civilized place. I hope my readers have respect for the Valley, both in the sense that it can be a rugged, dangerous, harsh wilderness and in the sense that it is a fragile ecosystem which needs to be protected. How do you show respect to a wilderness area? You slow down to wilderness speed, appreciate the backcountry as it is without altering it, and try to experience as much of it as you can without harming anything.
[Todd] Every day is different. As long as you are prepared for the conditions, and respectful of the dangers nature can inflict, you can see amazing things any day of the year in Panthertown Valley. A sunrise from one of Panthertown’s granite balds, like the appropriately named “Tranquility Point”, is something to remember. A steady rain that makes all the creeks rise will give you a healthy respect for nature. A week of freezing weather which turns the waterfalls into frozen sculptures is a beautiful sight, and rare in the south.
[Todd] I’m not sure what the future holds. I will make more guidebooks, I know that. Whether they are in print or electronic form, or both, I don’t know. The northern half of Panthertown Valley is a rugged, dangerous place and my guidebook is meant to be accessible to all. After much consideration, I decided to leave Bonas Defeat and the entire Rock Bridge rd area out of this guidebook. I have certainly considered making an “Adventurer’s Guide to Panthertown Valley”, but it is just a vague thought at this point. I’ve got a lot of vague thoughts. Some of them turn into real projects that get finished and many others get forgotten when I narrow my focus to finish something.