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Raven Cliff Falls
Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, South Carolina

     Raven Cliff Falls, located in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area/Caesar’s Head State Park, offers the hiker a number of trails on which to enjoy the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. This area was to be the site of our first hike in South Carolina, and it turned out to be an amazing adventure filled with surprises.

     We arrived at the Raven Cliff Falls parking area at 2:00 pm on July 28, 2006 ready to set foot on the trail, what we were not ready for was all of the amazing choices that the park had to offer hikers. Our trip to South Carolina came upon us rather suddenly, and the only information we had on the trail prior to our arrival was instructions on how to get to the overlook and the bridge—the longest hike being to the bridge at 6.6 miles roundtrip. We were completely satisfied with that option, until we discovered that it was possible to combine several trails into a 9-mile loop that would give us the opportunity to see a great majority of the area. Our hike now just got even longer and that much more fun—surprise number one.

     The trailhead is across the highway from the parking lot and there is a register that you must sign before setting out on the trail. After signing, follow the Raven Cliff Falls Trail (Red Blazes, #11) as it descends via an old gravel road into the forest. The trail then levels off and follows the ridgeline with fantastic views over the Blue Ridge Escarpment. After a mile or so, the trail descends down three flights of wooden steps amid rhododendron and mountain laurel. It was just past this section that we spotted a deer and her fawn walking on the hillside above us—yet another nice surprise.

     Continuing on the trail, we soon came to the intersection with the Gum Gap Trail (Blue Blazes, #13) at about the 2-mile mark. It was just past this intersection that we encountered our third, and definitely our most shocking surprise of the day. It played out something like this: Pick was walking on the trail a few feet in front of me when we came to a post/trail marker where the Gum Gap Trail makes a left and heads down a rocky old road, she had stopped and was making her way over to the post when I noticed something dark and ominous at the base of the marker, by the time this large blackish object registered in my mind, Pick was about 2 feet away from the post—I said, “You need to stop where you are,” which of course freaked her out, but as soon as she was standing still I pointed out the large timber rattlesnake coiled at the bottom of the post! We were both stunned, in our twenty years of hiking thus far; this was the first poisonous snake, let alone the first rattlesnake we had ever seen—including countless hikes in the desert southwest. It was shocking, intimidating, and exciting all at the same time! We watched the snake for several minutes, from afar of course, but it never moved, never even rattled its rattle; it was an amazing animal to observe.

     We left the rattlesnake in peace and continued hiking, in a state of high alert I might add—we were now sure that rattlesnakes were lurking in every shadow! Finally, after several minutes we calmed down a little and were able to refocus on enjoying the trail instead of patrolling for deadly reptiles. The Gum Gap Trail eventually intersects with the Naturaland Trust Trail (Pink Blazes, #14) after about 3 miles of hiking. The Naturaland Trail descends about 400 feet in 0.3 miles as it leads towards Matthews Creek where a few small waterfalls and cascades can be seen before reaching the suspension bridge. We explored the boulder-strewn area around the cascade before climbing the wooden ladder that leads up to the bridge, which sits directly above the first drop of Raven Cliff Falls. The views from the bridge are fantastic, and it makes for a nice place to sit and enjoy the solitude—we had the entire place all to ourselves.

     Once you leave the bridge, the trail makes its way down into the gorge via switchbacks and ladders. Keep watching for the pink blazes, and for a spectacular opening in the forest where a rocky prominence affords breath-taking views of the gorge—be careful here, as the drop is straight down. From here the trail continues its descent to the bottom of the gorge, nearly 1,000 feet down. At about the halfway point of the descent, you will be awed by an impressive rock wall nearly 150 feet tall—this is The Cathedral. Green foliage thrives at the base of this rock outcropping, thanks to a steady trickle of water that sprays from the face of The Cathedral. This is a nice place to cool off, especially when it is 100 degrees with 100 % humidity—you gotta love the south!

     As you follow Matthews Creek downstream, be sure to admire the oak-hickory forest that you are now hiking through. Eventually, you reach a creek crossing where a pair of cables are strung across the water—our fourth fun surprise. The cables are anchored to trees on either side of the stream, and are one on top of the other approximately 4 feet apart. If you are coordinated, or of the water is high, use the bottom cable for your feet and the top cable to hold onto as your make your way across the creek. If you are not confident in your ability to keep your balance and if the water level is low you can wade across the stream using the bottom cable for support—both Pick and I opted for this method of crossing. In addition to the awesome creek crossing, the creek itself is absolutely beautiful—several large moss-covered boulders dot the creek, bringing to mind the Great Smoky Mountains.

     The creek crossing is a great place to rest, because from here on out things are about to get interesting. It is time to leave the roaring sounds of Matthew Creek behind and begin climbing out of the gorge. The Naturaland Trail soon intersects with the Dismal Trail (Purple Blazes, #12) so named for the stifling heat and the fact that it climbs almost 1500 feet in 1.5 miles! This is one crazy, hot, sweaty, miserable slog out of a gorge, but we made it with smiles on our faces. As you continue your climb (if you can see through the sweat and tears in your eyes) watch for the large boulders near the top of the trail as they offer a distant view of the falls—when you reach this point you know you are almost done with the climb. When we finally reached the top of the Dismal Trail, we still needed to hike to the overlook, so we turned left onto the Raven Cliff Falls Trail and made our way to the scenic view.

     The view of Raven Cliff Falls from the overlook leaves a little to be desired, especially in the summer when tree foliage obscures a lot of the view, but the falls themselves are still quite an attraction. Matthews Creek drops 420 feet over the course of Raven Cliff Falls, forming one of the highest waterfalls in the east. In fact, if you include all of the tiers of the waterfall, the height is nearly 1,000 feet.

     After viewing the falls from the overlook, we returned to the intersection with the Dismal Trail, continuing on along the Raven Cliff Falls Trail to the parking lot. What was intended to be a short hike to an overlook had turned into a daylong adventure full of amazement, and for us, Raven Cliff Falls and South Carolina will hold a special place in our memory.

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