Years of waterfall hikes, to all corners of the southern mountains, had finally come down to this. All told I've been to well over 300 cascades in the region but one exclusive list of 100 was what I had been pursuing. This list is, of course, that of the Carolina Mountain Club's Waterfall 100 Challenge. Waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, requiring treks both short and long, along trails and via bushwhacks, populate this list. I started the Challenge without knowing it almost as soon as I first came to North Carolina when I made my first drive to a waterfall in the area, Looking Glass Falls. It wasn't until the last couple years that I really started getting serious, though. After all the effort, after nearly 250 miles of hiking, it all came down to this one cascade deep in the heart of the Jocassee Gorges. In reality, I somehow always knew Hilliard (or, Bearcamp) Falls would be the waterfall that I would wrap up the Challenge with. The simple fact is that to see Hilliard requires a fairly difficult and lengthy 12-mile hike, and as a reward "all" there is to see as a reward is a fairly unimpressive 30-foot waterfall on a tiny creek. I like waterfalls, but my personal effort-to-payoff scale put this waterfall at the bottom of the list. As it turned out, though, I couldn't have saved a more perfect place to finally wrap up the Challenge.
Hilliard Falls, as mentioned before, is located north of Lake Jocassee deep within the rugged wilds of the Jocassee Gorges region. The falls are only a short distance off the fabulous and well-traveled Foothills Trail but the sheer remoteness of their location means only a relative few ever get to see them. A single, notoriously rugged, forest road does pass within about a mile of the falls but to travel this road requires high clearance four-wheel-drive. This is known as the Musterground Road which runs from Bad Creek in South Carolina and ends up connecting to the Chestnut Mountain Road leading north into Gorges State Park. As I didn't have access to a truck, however, this would be a long walk. There are two options for getting to Hilliard Falls by foot. Both are difficult, and both require hikes in the 12-mile range. One option is to walk the aforementioned Chestnut Mountain and Musterground Roads from Gorges State Park down to the Foothills Trail above Bearcamp Creek. The other option is to simply follow the Foothills Trail east from the Bad Creek Access Point to the short spur trail to the falls, also nearly a 12-mile trek. I bounced back and forth between these options before finally settling on the route via the Foothills Trail...it simply sounded better to me to follow a trail for 12-miles than doing a road walk of the same distance. So it was then that I found myself on a steamy July morning heading out from the Bear Creek Access Parking Area in pursuit of #100.
The route, though 5.7-mile one-way, is never difficult to follow over the entire course of its length. That's because 95% of it is via the fabulously maintained and fairly well-traveled Foothills Trail. The first portion of the hike is an easy half-mile walk down to a double-bridge crossing of the Whitewater River. This is where the route actually joins the Foothills Trail as it arrives from Whitewater Falls a couple miles upstream of the crossing. From the junction with the Foothills Trail the path heads east climbing up, over, along, and around the ridges lining the north shore of Lake Jocassee. About three miles from the trailhead the Foothills reaches another major crossing, this time of the wild Thompson River. Get a good rest at the Thompson, things get more difficult from here on. From the river, the route immediately shoots straight up the ridge on what is most definitely the steepest sustained climb of the hike. Luckily it doesn't last long and, after cresting the ridge, begin a long gradual descent via a wide old forest road. As the trail nears Bearcamp Creek it steepens again as it descends. Perhaps a half mile from the spur trail to the falls the trail crosses the Musterground Road. A little over five-miles in the trail drops into a thicket of rhododendron which all but obscures the uneventful crossing of Bearcamp Creek. Beyond the creek you enter a pleasant open forest glade where a signed junction for the spur trail to Hilliard Falls is posted. From that point its an easy 0.3-mile climb to the base of the falls.
The falls themselves are not awesome in size or stunning in power. Tiny Bearcamp Creek simply spreads out into a thin veil as it tumbles down a 30-foot sloping rock face into a shallow pool below. The beauty in the place is its extreme solitude. At nearly 6-miles to the nearest paved road this is one of the more remote waterfalls in the region. The delicate nature of the cascade contrasted with the wild, rugged location is a combination of traits I truly enjoyed. The trek to Hilliard was therefore much, much more enjoyable than I had envisioned before heading out. As 12-mile hikes go, this one isn't nearly the toughest I've done, but it required just the right amount of effort to maximize my appreciation of the destination. Hilliard Falls will now always have a special place in my memory. My Challenge is completed and I doubt I will return any time soon but it will forever be a place I remember with fondness.
So, without further adieu, I give you the hike that saw me complete my years long pursuit of the CMC Waterfall 100 Challenge. I hope this album can give you just a taste of what a special experience this was for me. As always...ENJOY!!!
Mileage Hiked: 11.4 miles Hike Duration: 5:15
Trailhead Temp: 75'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people
Min. Elevation: 1,540' Max. Elevation: 2,200'
Total Vertical Gain: 2,150' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 189'