Gorges State Park -- Paw Paw Waterfalls (3-10-17)
Gorges State Park is truly one of the gems of the North Carolina State Park System. Covering over 7,700-acres, the park protects a good portion of the wildly rugged Jocassee Gorges region along the North/South Carolina Border. Its dramatic landscape encompasses powerful rivers, deep gorges, countless forested ridges, and over 20 major waterfalls. Topographically, the park sits along the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment where the high mountains to the north drop off precipitously to the flat Piedmont to the south. From the park visitor center to the South Carolina border, a direct-line distance of around four miles, elevations decrease by over 2,000-feet. This drastic difference in elevation has equally drastic effects on local weather patterns. Warm, moisture-laden air from the south hits this proverbial wall and is forced upward where it cools and drops its moisture in copious amounts of rainfall. With average annual precipitation amounts that approach 100-inches Gorges State Park is, ecologically speaking, a temperate rain forest. It’s all this rain which has carved the rugged valleys and feeds the wild rivers and waterfalls. Needless to say it’s a place which never disappoints the adventurous and can test even the most hardy backcountry traveler. It’s no surprise then that I keep coming back to Gorges again and again and again. On this particular visit I’d be re-visiting a collection of the parks lesser-known cascades, ones that I had been to on an impromptu trip a few years back which saw me arrive with a dead camera battery. I had longed to return and capture the hike in a more comprehensive way than I was able to previously. This would be my day to do it.
The waterfalls in question are located on Bearwallow Creek and are collectively known as Paw Paw Falls, even though there are four distinct and unique cascades which form it. The discrepancy arose when original park maps were drawn up marking them as a singular waterfall even though it was already widely known this was not true. Individual names were quickly given to try to correct this mistake, but still to this day you might hear people or guide books simply referring to this stretch of creek as “Paw Paw Falls”. The correct names, heading downstream, for the four cascades are: Indian Camp, Split Rock, Chute, and Paw Paw Falls. All four waterfalls are similar in size, ranging from 20-30 feet in height but all have unique looks and/or settings which make each and every one distinctly beautiful in their own way. They are also incredibly difficult to reach. For years there has been talk from the State Park that a trail might be built at least to the uppermost of the cascades (Indian Camp) but no firm plans have materialized as yet. This means that, even though you can get close via old forest roads, a serious bushwhack is necessary to get up close with these hidden beauties. That said, I must emphasize that these ARE NOT WATERFALLS FOR THE CASUAL VISITOR. Bushwhacking in the backcountry of Gorges State Park should only be undertaken by hikers comfortable with traversing steep, thickly forested terrain and who are aware that should they get into trouble help is at best many hours away. A good map, one with the landmarks you’re looking for marked in advance, is an absolute necessity…a GPS is an even better idea. I used both on this hike.
The trek to the Paw Paw Waterfalls would begin at the busy Grassy Ridge Trailhead, more popularly known as the trailhead for the hike to Rainbow and Turtleback Falls. For the first three-quarters of a mile I’d be following established trails as I first descended the Rainbow Falls Trail before making a left after a quarter-mile onto the Raymond Fisher Trail, which would take me the rest of the way down to the park campground. This is the point where good directions and a solid map are needed. I’ll try to provide the directions…it’s up to you to get the map. Just past the pond fronting the campground is a large informational kiosk. I easily located the old roadway which leads up into the woods to the right of said kiosk and began a moderate uphill climb. I followed this old road for about two-tenths of a mile before reaching a T-intersection with another forest roadway. At this intersection I needed to make a SHARP RIGHT. I’ve dubbed this “Bearwallow Creek Road” in my album as it is the one that eventually, after a few key turns, ends up at the creek upstream from the falls. So, making the sharp right turn I briefly continued climbing before then starting a generally gradual descent. Four-tenths of a mile from my last turn I reached another junction atop a ridge. I would turn LEFT here and continue my descent for another quarter-mile before reaching yet another ridge-top junction. This is perhaps the most important junction of the entire route.
At this junction, about 0.85-mile from the campground, you have two choices depending on which way you would like to visit the falls…be it from upstream down or vise-versa. Arriving at the junction the official road makes an immediate left to where it continues for another 0.4-miles to the ford of Bearwallow Creek above the waterfalls. I, however, had decided to do the waterfalls from below heading upstream so I walked straight ahead for a few more yards where a narrower but noticeable path enters the rhododendron also on the left. Following this path would take me out to the end of the ridge I was on where I would make a final steep bushwhack to Bearwallow Creek just below Paw Paw Falls. So making the second left into the rhododendron I followed the fairly open path as it continued out along the ridge for less than a quarter-mile and with a final quick climb reached the point where I’d begin my descent to the creek. At first the path I had been following seemed to continue of the steep east face of the ridge but within a few dozen yards it petered out in a tangle of laurel. Breaking out my GPS and map I got a good bearing as to where I wanted to hit the creek below and set out through the increasingly tangled woods. The going is steep and the lower into the valley you get the more intense the undergrowth of rhododendron is. Near the bottom I was forced a bit further east than I wanted to go to avoid a particularly nasty stretch and found myself in a narrow, damp ravine. Thankfully though the bottom of the ravine was fairly open and ended up providing a fairly easy route north. Eventually I broke out of the rhododendron alongside Bearwallow Creek at a wide rocky bend. As it turned out I had emerged at the creek a couple hundred yards downstream from Paw Paw Falls but the water level was quite low so I simply began a fairly easy creek walk up towards the sound of falling water above.
Paw Paw Falls, the lower-most of the foursome I’d visit this day, is in my humble opinion the least unique of the group. Perhaps 25-feet in height a wide sloping rock face transforms the creek into a wide veil of water as it cascades down from above. In warmer weather the small pool at its base would probably be a nice place to cool off. I took the requisite pictures and then set about planning the next stretch of the hike. This next half mile of bushwhacking was the toughest of the trip as it was essentially a choose-your-own-adventure as I scrambled my way upstream. I wish I could recommend the best routes between each of these falls but it’s really up to each individual what looks to be the most appealing and safest way to go. I’ll describe the routes I chose but, if you visit, you may discover a different preferred route. I decided to ascend past Paw Paw to the left of the falls (river-right). The climb was steep as I fought my way through incredible dense thickets of laurel and briers. You’re likely to come away bleeding a bit after this trek, but I wear those scars with pride. Luckily the climb above the falls is brief and the terrain along the creek levels out quickly thereafter. At that point a bushwhack of another hundred yards or so saw me emerge at the base of the second cascade of the day, Chute Falls. Chute Falls is quite unique in that Bearwallow Creek is forced down a narrow s-shaped chute to descend another 25-foot ledge. Due to its form it’s a difficult falls to photograph, made doubly so by a recently fallen tree which was laying eye-height across the pool at its base. I therefore spent a good amount of time scrambling around trying to get a decent shot before I continued on. To get above Chute Falls I decided to hop he creek and ascend on the right side (river-left). The other side of the falls seemed to be hiding a few sketchier looking ledges and the overgrowth looked thicker. That’s not to say the climb I took was easy. It’s a steep scramble up the hillside here to get above Chute. I did find an open-ish ledge as I got above the top of the falls though which gave me easier access back to the river. Chute Falls and Split Rock Falls are the two most widely separated cascades in the series. This meant that rejoining the creek it would be another creek/bank walk upstream for a couple hundred yards to reach Split Rock. In my opinion Split Rock Falls is the most scenic of the four Paw Paw Waterfalls. Here creek is pressed up under a dark ledge before tumbling down behind a vertical boulder which seems to have split off from above…hence the name. The form of the waterfall, the yellow striations in the stone, and the incredible wildness which surrounds you here all combined to make this particular cascade top dog in my book. I spent a good deal of time here taking pictures and simply enjoying my surroundings. Once again it looked marginally easier to continue my bushwhack by heading upstream river-left (to the right of the falls). It’s another steep, tangled climb but its mercifully short and the final waterfall of the series, Indian Camp, is located almost immediately above. I emerged at the creek at the brink of Split Rock Falls and could see Indian Camp spilling out from the trees just ahead. A quick hop across the creek leads out on a narrow ledge beneath a huge overhanging rock with a full frontal view of the falls. Indian Camp is similar to Paw Paw Falls below in form but instead of a pool at its base the waters rushing down hit a solid rock wall and are forced to make a 90-degree left turn down a narrow and deep sluice. It’s quite a unique perspective standing atop the ledges which cause this dramatic shift in the river. There are lots of photo options here, looking both up and down the narrow gorge the falls flow into or, if you have a wider angle lens, a frontal view can be nice too. It was another great spot to sit and relax for a few before setting out for the final bushwhack out.
This is the one part of the bushwhack I can say is definitively easier to undertake on the right side of the falls (river-left). Though still steep, this side of the river valley is far more open than its counterpart opposite. Backtracking to where I hopped the creek above Split Rock Falls I made a wide swinging climb up the steep hillside into the woods. To my surprise, just as I reached a point roughly above the top of Indian Camp Falls I picked up a faint path well-marked with flagging tape. Apparently this isn’t as “unknown” a portion of the park as it once was. Words of caution though, don’t count on flagging tape to guide you on future visits. This type of marker is notoriously evanescent in nature…here today, gone tomorrow. I followed the tape and faint path for a few minutes as it followed the hillside a short distance above the waters of the creek before, in a moment of poor decision-making, I dropped down to the creek thinking I was above the ford of the Bearwallow Creek Road. I wasn’t, and found myself standing in an admittedly pretty stretch of the creek but a hundred yards or so too far downstream from where I wanted to be. Feet already soaked from earlier exertions, I decided that rather than re-climb the hill I’d just splash my way upstream to the ford in question. A few minutes later I found it, with the clearly visible lower end of Bearwallow Creek Road dropping down from the ridge to the south. With that, the bushwhack portion of the hike was over. Back on the old Bearwallow Creek Road I began the long, but blessedly open, climb of the ridge I had started upon. About a quarter-mile from the ford I ascended a rather wet, rocky, and steep stretch before making a sharp right-hand turn to continue on the road back to the ridge-top junction from earlier where I had begun the loop portion of the hike. From that point I simply made a right, ascended along the now-familiar road, to the junction from earlier where, now, I had to take a left to walk the remaining 0.4 miles back to where I’d once again meet the road up from the campground. A quarter mile back to the campground and then three-quarters of a mile (back on established trails!) and I found myself once again standing at the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, albeit a bit wetter, muddier, and bloody than earlier. No complaints on that though, those are all good signs of an adventure at Gorges!
Well, this has already turned into a short novel so I’ll try to sum things up quick. This is an incredible hike. HOWEVER, as I stated earlier this is NOT a hike for everyone. If you’ve read this far and are still thinking…yeah, that could be fun…then maybe it’s for you. Otherwise just save yourself some misery…enjoy my album then go down and see the fantastic Rainbow and Turtleback Falls instead which can be reached from the same starting point via marked trails. As far as bushwhacks go, I wouldn’t rate this as the worst I’ve done but it remains a challenging route to navigate. Get some good boots, grab a good map, charge up the GPS and the camera, and eat a big bowl of Wheaties…you’ll be all set then for an adventure like few have experienced in Gorges State Park. Without further adieu, I present to you the remote and wild Paw Paw Waterfalls of Bearwallow Creek…as always…ENJOY!!!
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.088785, -82.951872
Mileage Hiked: 5.2 miles Hike Duration: 3:30
Trailhead Temp: 40'F Trail Traffic: 10-25 people (all on Rainbow Falls Trail)
Min. Elevation: 2,220' Max. Elevation: 2,950'
Total Vertical Gain: 950' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 183'
Trails Used (blaze color/shape): Rainbow Falls (orange circles), Raymond Fisher (blue circles), plus other unblazed/unofficial trails