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Hike to the El Lieutenant Rock Dome

Marie McAden Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.
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El Lieutenant can be found on the Bill Kimball Trail.

Yosemite National Park has El Capitan. Caesars Head State Park has El Lieutenant, a smaller version of the famed rock formation.

Who said trail builders don't have a sense of humor?

The best way to view the Upcountry South Carolina's natural rock attraction is by hiking a combination of Coldspring Branch and Bill Kimball trails in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. I should note, it's a strenuous 4.6-mile loop that descends more than 1,000 feet in less than 2 miles.

And you know what that means. You'll be climbing every inch of those 1,000 feet in the second half of the hike. But I promise, when you stand at the base of the rock and look up, you'll be plenty impressed by this colossal boulder.

Chains help hikers traverse a particularly steep section of the Bill Kimball Trail.

The trailhead to Coldspring Branch can be found in the south end of the Raven Cliff Falls parking lot, 1 mile north of Caesars Head State Park's Visitor Information Center. As soon as you set off, you'll plunge down a ravine and up again, traveling alongside U.S. 276. You'll continue ascending as you turn and head into the woods, leveling off for a bit before plunging to the bottom of another slope to meet the Bill Kimball Trail about a half-mile from the trailhead.

Take the left fork, blazed in pink, and follow the Bill Kimball Trail along a ridge. That's when things get exciting. At the crest of the ridge, the trail takes a decidedly steep turn downward. There are a few stairs and switchbacks to ease the descent. In one particularly steep section next to a large rock wall, you'll find chains you can hold onto as you continue your hike down.

This is the first big rock face you encounter on the Bill Kimball Trail.

About the time you think you've entered the bowels of earth, you'll start ascending and come upon a spectacular rock face. Take a look at the resilient trees that have rooted in the middle of the rock and the huge boulders that have fallen to the foot of the slope. Feel free to gawk at the rock, but save some of your awe for what's to come.

Up ahead is the big show - El Lieutenant stretched out over your left shoulder like a giant TV screen. Look up ... and up ... and up to take in just how massive this rock is. For the record, it's a 300-foot sheer cliff.

You might spot some ominous-looking birds flying above the dome. Apparently, ravens are tight with El Lieutenant and enjoy hanging out near the rock.

When you're sufficiently amazed, continue on the trail, still descending into the forest. For awhile it will be steep and rocky, and then the trail finally lets up, sloping down at a more relaxed grade.

You cross Cold Branch, a tributary of the Middle Saluda, several times on a hike to El Lieutenant.

At the intersection with the Coldspring Branch Trail, take a right - and brace yourself. It's all uphill from here, although it doesn't seem nearly as treacherous as the 1,000 -foot descent.

You'll cross Coldspring Branch, a tributary of the Middle Saluda River, numerous times as you return to the trailhead. If you're careful navigating over the rocks and logs in the water, you won't get your boots wet.

You'll hit another intersection at the Coldspring Connector. Go west, young man. (That would be right.) As you continue uphill, you'll come to the now-familiar intersection with the Bill Kimball Trail and then it's just .6 miles to the parking lot.

If you're one of those people who feels safer packing a trail map when you hike, stop by the Caesars Head Visitor Information Center and for just a few bucks pick up a handy, dandy map showing all the Mountain Bridge Wilderness trails. Happy hiking!

Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.