South Carolina claims only a small share of the southern Appalachians, but the state makes the best of it with a string of state parks strategically situated where the mountains meet the foothills at a dramatic escarpment known as "The Blue Wall." At the heart of this lush, steep, and rocky region is 10,000-acre Mountain Bridge State Natural Area.
Trails within the wilderness connect with those in two adjoining state parks, Caesars Head and Jones Gap, to create a variety of trip options. A great backpacking loop starts on the busy Raven Cliff Falls Trail in Caesars Head State Park, then leads through the Watson Heritage Preserve to the point where Matthews Creek plunges over Raven Cliff. After the falls, the loop winds past a rock formation called The Cathedral, and eventually reaches superb overlooks on top of Little Pinnacle Mountain.
Another challenging loop starts at Jones Gap State Park. Once on the Jones Gap Trail, you pass a succession of swimming holes in the Middle Saluda River and backcountry campsites, then climb the Bill Kimball Trail through a graveyard of American chestnut trees before skirting the five-tiered cliff called El Lieutenant.
Return via the challenging Rim of the Gap Trail, a gauntlet of steep climbs and slippery descents made easier thanks to choice placements of cables and ladders. As it winds below the south rim of Jones Gap, the trail yields views across the valley and close-ups of overhanging cliffs, cascades, and small waterfalls.
As with most hikes at Mountain Bridge, the scenery on the loops described above changes with every twist in the trail, and there's always the prospect of seeing white-tailed deer and wild turkeys, and even bobcats and black bears.
QUICK TAKE: Mountain Bridge State Natural Area
DRIVE TIME: Mountain Bridge State Natural Area is located in the northwest corner of South Carolina, about 135 miles (21/2 hours) east of Atlanta, Georgia, and 95 miles (2 hours) west of Charlotte, North Carolina.
THE WAY: From Greenville, South Carolina, follow US 276 north for 25 miles to Caesars Head State Park. Park at the visitor center or Raven Cliff Falls trailhead.
TRAILS: The 18 trails offer more than 46 miles of rugged hiking. The 85-mile Foothills Trail courses through the north end of the wilderness.
ELEVATION: The highest point is the overlook at Caesars Head (3,200 feet); the lowest point is Jones Gap trailhead (1,320 feet).
CAN'T MISS: The area is a flyway for raptors such as hawks, osprey, and peregrine falcons. Spring and fall is when the action occurs; more than 10,000 birds were counted last fall.
CROWD CONTROL: Camp at designated sites only. Spring and fall weekends are the only times campsites may be full, but at midweek there are almost always vacancies. Jones Gap and Raven Cliff Falls are the most popular trails to hike.
MAPS AND BOOKS: You can purchase a topo map of the area ($2.10) and the Mountain Bridge Trail Guide ($18.50) at either Caesars Head or Jones Gap visitor centers or in advance at the address to the right.
PIT STOP: Brevard, North Carolina, just 20 minutes north, has several outdoor shops for any gear crisis.
WALK SOFTLY: Mountain bikes and horses are prohibited on the trails.
MORE INFORMATION: Caesars Head and Jones Gap State Parks, 8155 Greer Highway, Cleveland, SC 29635; (864) 836-6115. Camping permits must be obtained from either one of the state park headquarters. They cost $2 per person per night.