Confusion Falls -- 1,480'

Caesars Head State Park - The Grand Loop


The Blue Ridge Escarpment is a striking natural landform marking the boundary between mountains and piedmont from southern Virginia to north Georgia, a distance of nearly 300 miles. Along this escarpment, or “Blue Wall” as it is sometimes called, elevation changes of 1,500 to 2,500 feet occur over a distance of only a few miles. Perhaps nowhere is this boundary more dramatic than at the southern end of the escarpment, along and near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line. The Blue Wall here is nearly vertical, 2,000-feet high, and thus provides some of the most challenging and unique hiking terrain found in the entire region. Enter Caesars Head State Park, positioned directly astride the escarpment just a few miles south of the state line and easily accessible via busy U.S. Highway 276. Tens of thousands of people make the stop every year to enjoy cool breezes and dizzying views from atop the sheer cliff from which the park gets its name. The other wildly popular attraction at the park is Raven Cliff Falls, the tallest cascade in South Carolina, which is accessible via a moderately-difficult four mile round-trip hike. The thing is, Caesars Head State Park is so much more than that. Encompassing 7,500-acres (over 13,000 if you include neighboring Jones Gap State Park and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness), there are 60-plus miles of trail directly accessible from its two main access points. Obviously I had already spent time exploring many of the parks trails previously but this time I wanted to do something a bit different…and push the limits of my abilities some. The result is the hike found here, what I’ve dubbed the “Caesars Head Grand Loop”. This 12-mile trek visits nearly every corner of the park, all of the named waterfalls within it, and tackles some of the steepest and most rugged terrain of any footpath in South Carolina. It promised to be an adventure.

I chose the visitor center parking lot as the starting point for this hike. I could pay the minimal day-use fee and stock up on water and snacks before heading out. It was also early morning, which is the best time of day to enjoy the views from adjacent Caesars Head as fog frequently sets in the valley below and the crowds of the daytime haven’t yet arrived. It also provides a vantage point for much of the landscape you’ll be travelling on this trek. The trail system is accessed directly across the highway from the visitor center, where a large trailhead kiosk marks the start of the Frank Coggins Trail. At first the Frank Coggins follows a gravel park driveway until, about a quarter-mile in, it veers left into the woods on its own. Descending moderately the first trail junction is reached, where the Coldspring Connector Trail departs north. Here the grand loop begins. Turning onto the Coldspring Connector you’ll now be headed downhill…fast. The steep drop to Coldspring Branch, and then the equally steep climb away from it on the other side, is a small taste of what you’ll be experiencing the rest of the day. The Coldspring Connector ends just north of the creek where a left turn now starts you off on the Coldspring Branch Trail which continues the ascent of the ridge to the north. The Bill Kimball Trail is passed on the right as the trail gains the crest of the ridge, climbs a bit more, descends toward US-276, crosses a narrow drainage, and emerges from the woods at the busy Raven Cliff Falls Trailhead just over two-miles from where you started.

The next part of the loop will likely be the busiest of the day, as you’ll now cross the highway and pick up the often-crowded Raven Cliff Falls Trail. The trail is a nice respite, however, as it meanders along the edge of the escarpment rolling up and down in a fairly gentle manner. Just under two miles from the highway is the short spur to the overlook of the falls, which isn’t super spectacular due to its distance from the 420-foot cascade, but it’s still worth a stop. Also, this is the point where the hike makes a turn for the adventurous. Adjacent to the overlook spur is also the upper end of the vaunted Dismal Trail, which is famous for being one of the steepest and most difficult trails in South Carolina. Walking the course of its 1.2-mile length involves an elevation change of 1,200 feet. Up or down, either direction is a challenge…though up is certainly less appealing. Departing the Raven Cliff Falls Trail, the Dismal doesn’t waste any time starting its drop into the gorge. Shortly after the start you’ll pass a small rock outcrop on the right which used to provide a nice, alternate, view of Raven Cliff Falls but trees now obscure it entirely. Down, down, down the trail plunges. Your ears might pop the descent is so rapid. There’s also very little to see. In the winter the Raven Cliffs can be seen rising across the gorge through the tree tops, but that’s about it. About halfway down the trail curves past a tiny tributary with a pretty cascade…though it quickly dries up if rain doesn’t keep it fed. The Dismal ends its crazy descent where it meets the Naturaland Trust Trail, at a T-junction among a tangle of rhododendron. Making a left on the Naturaland Trust will continue you on the loop.

It is immediately apparent you are now NOT on one of the parks more popular hiking thoroughfares. The trail is narrow, rhododendron frequently press in close, and the footing is one of loose rocks. Thankfully, however, the park has done a wonderful job of keeping the route well-blazed so at no time do you really need to worry about losing the route. It also maintains a fairly gradual downhill grade at first, which is a nice change from what precedes it. A half-mile below the Dismal junction you’ll pass a marker post where the formerly popular, but now overgrown, Ashbury Trail arrives from the west. Starting at a nearby summer camp of the same name, the Ashbury Trail used to be a favored way to reach Moonshine Falls, but the cable bridge across Matthews Creek no longer exists and thus, most people don’t want to make the wet crossing. Beyond the Ashbury Trail the Naturaland Trust continues its descent a short time longer, before reaching the lowest elevation of the day along a small unnamed tributary. Take a good breather it’s going to be (mostly) all uphill from here. The initial ascent is fairly steep but it’s over quickly, with the trail reaching an old forest track at a small pile of stones. This is where the side trip to Moonshine and Confusion Falls begins. You can shave 1.5-miles off this hike by skipping the out-and-back to the two falls but, if you’ve come this far, honestly why would you want to?

The old forest track makes for an easy walk as it meanders in and out of numerous shallow drainages. It’s also wide and clear…nicer than most of the trails you’ll hike this day. One-half mile from the Naturaland Trust, at a sharp left-hand bend in the road, watch for another small pile of stones and a worn path which follows the top of the ridge to the right. Turn and follow said trail a short distance (you should hear falling water by now) and watch for the sharp left-hand switchback which makes a short, steep drop to Moonshine Falls. Moonshine Falls, named for the old still you can still see rusting beneath the overhang behind the falls, is a beauty. Seen from below its 40-foot drop is one-half freefall, one-half cascade. On a sunny day, you might even get treated to a mist-rainbow as well. The path continues downstream from Moonshine, drops past a couple pretty but unnamed cascades, before one last steep descent deposits you at the pool beneath Confusion Falls. Though no more than 15-feet in height, the twin cascades which comprise Confusion Falls are aesthetic beauties. The crystal clear pool beneath only increases the wild serenity of the scene. It’s a lot of work to get to these falls but, oh boy, are they worth it. Return to the main loop by backtracking via the path and forest track to the Naturaland Trust Trail…and then prepare for some work.

I won’t sugar coat it…the next ¾-mile is BRUTAL. In that distance the trail climbs an almost silly 900-vertical feet. It doesn’t get much easier after that either. The mile-and-a-half after that gains another 800. It’s this first section that is undeniably the worst, however. The trail heads straight for the bottom of the escarpment cliffs, which loom high above. There are a couple backcountry campsite along this stretch but not much else to distract from the climb. The higher you get the more boulders are seen strewn across the steep hillsides, fallen long ago from the same cliffs high above. Eventually the trail pretty much becomes a boulder scramble before, at a hard right hand turn within the boulderfield it regains some sanity. The route now turns east to follow the base of the cliffs forming the top of the escarpment. Though the uphill climb eases some at this point the terrain is still wickedly rugged and steep as the trail winds its way through numerous boulderfields and beneath huge, sloping ledges. At 1.5 miles above the forest track to Moonshine Falls, the Naturaland Trust Trail gains a narrow ridgetop and makes a hard left switchback at the junction with the Pinnacle Pass Trail. The next mile involves still more climbing, though in shorter bursts rather than the sustained grind from earlier. Tiny Rock Cliff Falls is reached 2/3-mile above the Pinnacle Pass junction, after which the trail pulls alongside the highway once again at a private driveway crossing at ¾-miles. A quarter-mile later the Naturaland Trust Trail crosses the highway itself, descends gently for 2/10-mile and reaches its upper terminus at the Frank Coggins Trail.

This lower portion of the Frank Coggins is a loop and you can go left or straight, onto it, from the Naturaland Trust. Two more of the parks named waterfalls are along the portion straight ahead so that’s the way to head. Still descending, the somewhat underwhelming Firewater Falls is reached in a couple hundred yards. The huge rock face it flows over is impressive but, unless there’s been a recent downpour, it’s usually little more than a trickle. Next, a quarter-mile below the Naturaland Trust junction, you arrive at a small footbridge from which you can look down ad see the final cascade of the day, named Cliff Falls. Cliff Falls might actually be an impressive and beautiful cascade, if only you could see it from its base. Sadly the park hasn't created a trail below as yet (and I don't believe it has plans to) so this is the best view you get. It’s unfortunate. You’re on the climb again after Cliff Falls but at least it’s the last one of the day. The other end of the Frank Coggins loop is reached in 2/10-mile and, in another 2/10-mile the Coldspring Connector Trail is reached…where the grand loop all started. From this point it’s just another half-mile back up the Frank Coggins Trail to the visitor center and the finish line.

This hike is definitely not for everyone. It’s long, it involves significant amounts of climbing (and descending), and requires you to be proficient in map reading and backcountry travel. If you get in trouble in the more remote sections of this hike, help is at best many hours away. That said, if your physical condition and hiking experience allow, this is about as rewarding a walk as you can find in South Carolina. Though I can’t say it’s one I’ll be rushing back to do any time soon…these 12-mile high vertical hikes don’t pass as easy as they used to…I couldn’t be more thrilled with what I was able to experience on this incredible adventure. So, without further ado, I present my hike of the Caesars Head Grand Loop in South Carolina’s stunning Caesars Head State Park. As always…I hope you ENJOY!

Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.10592, -82.62583

Route Type: Loop      Difficulty: EXTREME (Petzoldt Rating: 17.00 )      Hike Length: 11.8 miles       Hike Duration: 6:15      Trailhead Temp: 30'F                                  Trail Traffic: 25-50 people      Min. Elevation: 1,470'      Max. Elevation: 3,208'      Total Vertical Gain: 2,600'      Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 220'

Trails Used (blaze color):  Coldspring Branch (orange), Coldspring Connector (blue), Dismal (purple), Frank Coggins (purple), Moonshine/Confusion Falls Path (unblazed), Naturaland Trust (pink), Raven Cliff Falls/Foothills Spur (red)


GPX TRACK, MAP, & DATA

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2-2-2020