Explore the Unspoiled Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area on the Middle Saluda Passage

By:Marie McAden

Date:5/31/2015

You have to love a trail that follows the path of South Carolina’s premier scenic river as it winds through 40,000 acres of pristine mountain wilderness.

With stunning views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and waterfalls at every turn, the Palm​etto Trail’s Midd​le Saluda Passage certainly qualifies as one of the state’s prettiest hikes.

But walking 13.9 miles one way on a trail that descends 1,700 feet, only to climb right back up another 1,700 feet, might be more than most hikers want to tackle in a day.

Fortunately, the Middle Saluda Passage offers options for those looking for a less ambitious trek in the woods. The hike can be reduced to a manageable 10 miles up and back by cutting out the first and last sections. If you have two cars available for shuttling, you can make it a one-way trip by leaving a car at the Raven Cliff Falls parking area on Hwy 276.

Rather than starting at the YMCA Camp Greenv​ille trailhead located at one of the highest points on the trail, begin at the low point in Jones Gap State​ Park. This section of the Middle Saluda Passage follows the Jones Gap Trail, part of a 50-mile network of hiking trails in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Palmetto Trail signs are posted all along the way, making it easy to stay on course.

The rocky pathway — built in the 1850s by Solomon Jones — was one of the first routes cut through the rugged mountains between North and South Carolina.

About a mile up the gradually ascending trail, a sign will direct you to Jones Gap Falls, not more than 70 yards away. This 50-foot cascade plunges over a rugged stone staircase enveloped by rhododendron and cove hardwoods. Flat rocks at the base provide a nice area to enjoy the scenery and a snack.

Back on the main trail, you’ll continue to hike beside the boulder-strewn mountain stream, known for its abundance of trout and salamanders. Several pools in the river offer visitors the opportunity to wade into the water and cool off in the warm summer months.

An endless succession of rapids, with names like Toll Road Falls and Ben’s Sluice, can be seen along the way as the river plunges through the gorge. The trail will take you over the river and its feeder streams several times on bridges, logs and rocks.

Four miles into the hike, you’ll enter a series of switchbacks known as “The Winds.” It’s one of the most scenic sections of the trail, with imposing cliffs on each side of the gorge and the rushing Saluda below. At the bottom is a series of small slide falls in the river known as Dargans Cascade.

Not far past “The Winds,” the trail takes a decidedly steep uphill turn. The Raven Cliff Falls parking area is another quarter mile up the mountain. If you’re returning to Jones Gap State Park, it’s a good place to turn around and avoid the tough climb.

For a map of the Middle Saluda Passage, click ​here. For more information about outdoor recreation in South Carolina, visit ​discoversouthcarolina.com/outdoors.

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