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Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area Offers Some of SC’s Best Hiking Trails

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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Stretching over 11,000 pristine acres in the far reaches of South Carolina's Upcountry, the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area is a natural wonderland of hardwood forests, trout-filled streams and stunning waterfalls at the edge of the Southern Blue Ridge.

More than 50 miles of footpaths - the most extensive trail system in the state - traverse the protected land and connect two state parks: Caesars Head and Jones Gap. Rising from a 1,400-foot elevation of deep mountain coves to 3,200-foot granite outcroppings, the woodlands offer exceptional hiking for every level of fitness.

Located just south of the North Carolina border, the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area preserves a "bridge" of mountainous terrain between Table Rock and North Saluda watersheds. In 2018, a 955-acre parcel known as Gap Creek will be added to Jones Gap State Park. The newly conserved land includes a large hardwood forest with headwater streams that serve as habitat for a wide range of wildlife, from black bear and white-tailed deer to Rafinesque's big-eared bats and green salamanders.

With a number of cold-water creeks and rivers coursing through the backcountry, the wilderness area is also a popular destination for anglers looking to reel in wild trout, including the rare native brookie. The most notable of the tributaries is the Middle Saluda, South Carolina's first designated scenic river.

Jones Gap Trail in Jones Gap State Park offers visitors the opportunity to follow a section of the beautiful stream as it tumbles through the rugged terrain. The 5.3-mile pathway was part of a historic route built by Appalachian road builder Solomon Jones in the 1850s to provide passage through the mountains from North Carolina to South Carolina.

A mile up the gradually ascending trail, hikers are rewarded with a close-up view of Jones Gap Falls, a 50-foot cascade surrounded by cove hardwoods and rhododendron. Farther along are a series of rapids created as the river plunges over rocks in the gorge, as well as shallow pools to enjoy the cool mountain water.

Jones Gap Falls is one of several spectacular waterfalls found in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. From Jones Gap State Park, you can also access Rainbow Falls, an awe-inspiring sight, dropping a dramatic 100 feet over a metamorphic rock wall glistening with quartz and mica.

Caesars Head State Park offers more popular waterfall trails, among them Raven Cliff Falls, a 90-minute trek to an overlook where you can watch the entire 420-foot waterfall plummet into the Piedmont below. A connecting trail takes you to a swinging suspension bridge, offering views from above the falls.

Any visit to Caesars Head State Park should include a stop at its famed granite overlook. From this 3,260-foot perch, you'll enjoy a phenomenal panorama of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, aptly called the Blue Wall by the Cherokee Indians. This geological marvel marks the dramatic change in topography from the ancient peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains to the rolling foothills of the Piedmont.

The sudden shift in elevation in just a few short miles creates habitat for more than 400 species of plants, including rare varieties like the federally listed whorled pogonia and mountain sweet pitcher plant.

It also provides the natural characteristics that create thermals used by raptors migrating to Central and South America. Each fall, tens of thousands of birds are counted crossing the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. The overlook offers the best seat in the house for the avian spectacle.

Both Caesars Head and Jones Gap state parks also feature access points to the 77-mile Foothills Trail, rated one of the best long trails in the country by Backpacker magazine.

While there are no drive-up campgrounds in either park, 18 trailside campsites and one backcountry group campsite are located within the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. To reserve one of these primitive sites, call 866.345.7275 or click here.

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.