As cascades go, the 25-foot Virginia Hawkins Falls might not rank at the top of South Carolina's impressive list of big waterfalls, but its location in the beautiful Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve in Pickens more than makes up for its smallish size.
The protected wilderness encompasses 1,361 acres of mountain terrain along the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the Jocassee Gorges - hailed by National Geographic as one of 50 "Destinations of a Lifetime."
And the falls aren't exactly hard to look at either.
Thanks to moisture from Laurel Creek, the shade created by trees and rocks and the area having the second highest rainfall in the continental United States, the cascades' multi-tiered granite outcroppings are covered in a verdant moss. The lush landscape is as pretty as a postcard.
Past the falls, the rocky stream cuts through a forest of enormous tulip poplars, mixed hardwoods and an array of rare plants, including the Oconee bell, found only in a few locations in the southern Appalachian Mountains.
Known for its water purity, Laurel Creek itself is teeming with small fish and salamanders. The large population of the lizard-like amphibians has helped the Jocassee Gorges claim title to the greatest number of salamanders found anywhere in the world.
Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve has also has been designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. Wild and remote, it attracts a wide range of species, such as the Louisiana waterthrush and Swainson's warbler.
Virginia Hawkins Falls has another attribute that's appealing to visitors. You can get to it two ways: along an easy trail or a difficult one.
Located along the Foothills Trail, it can be reached by hiking the Laurel Valley-to-Laurel Fork Falls section of the trail, accessed from Horsepasture Road. The gravel forest road is about eight miles north of SC 11 off SC 178.
If you park at the trailhead parking area, it's a 10-mile round trip trek that will have you hiking up and down some very steep ridges. At one point, you'll have to cross an 18-foot single-log bridge over a small stream with a four-foot cascade. Be sure to take the short spur trail you'll come across along the way. It leads to a rocky point offering an excellent view of the valley below and the piedmont beyond.
At the 4.7-mile mark, you'll find a wooden bench at the top of Virginia Hawkins Falls. The trail continues on the right down 100-plus steps to the base of the waterfall.
Option No. 2 is just a three-mile round-trip hike on an old logging road. When you get to the Foothills trailhead parking area, continue driving on Horsepasture Road to Laurel Fork Gap. Park in a small open area near the sign for the preserve. Take the trail on the left to the closed logging road and Laurel Fork Creek. When you get to a primitive camping site, cross the bridge on the right and follow the Foothills Trail for a very short distance to the base of the falls.
For directions to the Foothills Trail's Laurel Valley parking area, click here.