A January Weekend at South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge – The Inspiration
Last December I took my dog Roxy on a road trip. My destination was roughly unknown but the original idea was to spend time around Springer Mountain, the southern start of the Appalachian Trial, or the mountains near Asheville, NC. As my wife can attest to I love taking alternate routes or changing the agenda on a moments notice. Being with only a dog finally allowed me that level of freedom so with that spirit as my guide I took I-95 into South Carolina, stopped by Charleston, SC, ate a great hot dog with Jeff Wheeler at Perfectly Frank’s and opted to take his advise on hiking.
Please allow me to digress for a paragraph. This specific trip would also encompass a long needed visit to Pageland, SC where an old friend from work lived. Neil Griffin (virtual to me until 2012) is an eclectic soul whose passion for life is inspiring. The difficulty of working in that stop was the time in my car vs. on trail and not seeing him was not an option. When Jeff saw my Facebook check-in and suggested I meet him for dinner, the opportunity to pick the brain of a Clemson graduate became an added benefit.
And the Anne Frank w/sauerkraut (yes the irony is appreciated) and a side of sweet potato fries was gold to this road traveler.
Some parks in the Greenville, SC area had peaked my interest but the one which Jeff highly recommended was Caesars Head State Park. Located in Cleveland, SC near the gorgeous campus of Furman University, Caesars Head has miles of trails allowing the hiker to experience the effort gamut of strenuous to leisurely. Being that our visit was not only weekday but during the holiday season my expectation was that Roxy would have limited people to contend with and therefore could run without much human distraction.
The park does ask that all pets be leashed and it should be noted that adherence to park rules is important to ensure the safety of fellow explorers. Thankfully Roxy is well-mannered and though I respect the park’s request it is not a rule I would want absolutely followed. A mindful dog owner will leash as needed but should also afford his pet some trail enjoyment.
Jeff’s recommendation would be 100% accurate. Checking in at the Caesars Head Visitor’s Center to purchase two walking stick medallions and a trail map allowed for a conversation with a park ranger who directed me to Raven Cliff Falls, a popular and beautiful destination. Taking his suggestion afforded me the opportunity to traverse four trails: Raven Cliff Falls, Gum Gap/Foothills, Natureland Trust and Dismal. What this also exposed me to was the benefit of the Mountain Bridge area and how the mountain ranges are connected.
For Roxy the hike was lucid freedom. Bounding off trail through branches and leaves the dog looked like a dancing deer. The bountiful streams gave her a natural water supply which allowed me to limit my stops. Yet while the whole of our day in the woods was firmly grounded in the positive there were challenges. Roxy was not a fan of the suspension bridge over Matthews Creek. For me it was a gorgeous view of the falls: She surveyed that well-built but wobbly structure with apprehension and even refused to walk up the short stairs to the bridge. Somehow she mustered the confidence, with tail and ears both low, to move forward.
This was her first challenge.
Once past the falls we met a couple who, by appearance, were well-tested by a plethora of hikes. They briefly admired my companion and were kind enough to give us a verbal glimpse of our future. We were now on the Natureland Trust Trail and both it and the next, Dismal Trail, had a strenuous rating. The couple noted a few ladders that might be a challenge but beyond that they did not consider it a problem for the dog and me. Seconds after thanking them and saying our goodbyes we both were facing a four-foot ledge with some rocks and roots as footholds. While the good was that it was a move up Roxy did not take kindly to me lifting her 45 lb frame and we both struggled getting her to that elevated position.
After that it was a breeze (apart for my mistake of going off trail) with Roxy being oblivious to the challenges of switchbacks or the two ladders I would have to descend. She found her paths and waited for me to arrive. Part of this segment found us at Cathedral Rock, a majestic and cool spot to break for fuel and was something I was not expecting.
The expected water crossing was another story.
When the Natureland Trust bottoms out from the falls you have to cross what is best described as a wide stream. Roxy loves the water and my assumption was that she would look at this as another benefit of the park. I could not have been more wrong. We spent roughly 20-30 minutes trying to find her a shallow or rock aided lane to the land across. It was nature’s way of testing my leadership and patience, which I am proud to say was a success. The dog was flat-out scared and while I knew this would impact my scheduled arrival to Pageland her safety was of primary importance.
I wish I had taken of video of her mustering the courage to cross and her eventual landing. It was as if she took pride in the accomplishment.
As I reflect upon what has been written a correction may be in order: the Natureland Trust Trail is listed as very strenuous. Going down the trail you do not experience the required effort. Additionally we were only on a segment of the trail. After the water crossing it would be a quick 1.5 mile hike up Dismal Trail, also listed as very strenuous. Brenda Wiley’s link to the two above is very accurate and unfortunately you do not get to see the trail marker of just how strenuous unless you first go down the Dismal. And here we are going up.
While I may fault the park for not marking the bottom of the Dismal, or some area along Raven Cliff Falls, I should have done a better job of noting the elevation per the trail map. Roxy loved it. I hated it. Now pressed for time and pushing hard, these switchbacks were punishing and I easily consumed two apples and two Clif Bars during the 1.5 miles. But as with any hike, once you reach the conclusion all is a good memory (assuming no casualties).
In total I believe we traversed roughly 9-10 miles. Sitting in the car on my way to Pageland, with dog fast asleep, I knew I would return very soon. First there would be required reading as to the Mountain Bridge area. Maybe a three-day hike with primitive camping between mountain ranges? Next would be the general invite to all interested parties. Lastly setting the time.
Enter Chris Gandy.
Upon seeing my photo journalism and sharing the experience Chris saw this as a place where two old, close friends could get away from the world. My wife had suggested that Chris and I make a committed effort to schedule at least one trip to the outdoors annually: Chris jumped on that and rented a cabin in Caesars Head for early January. Visions of Table Rock and Jones Gap danced in my head. Little did I know at least one mistake would be repeated, but nothing that would diminish the great memory of the trip to come.
To be continued…