Raven Cliff Falls Loop
Raven Cliff Falls is a 400’+ waterfall formed as Matthews Creek tumbles off the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of Upstate South Carolina. Touted as South Carolina’s highest (probable) and most beautiful (I respectfully disagree) cascade Raven Cliff Falls has long been a must-see destination for visitors to the upstate mountains. I had visited the waterfall once before, in 2015, and honestly wasn’t all that impressed. The inevitable crowds and the fact that the waterfall can only (officially) be viewed from a distance detracted, for me, from its overall beauty. One thing that did catch my attention, upon studying trail maps of the area, was the possibility of including Raven Cliff Falls along a much longer and more challenging loop hike. A hike that, after doing more research, was reputedly one of the more difficult ones to be had in the mountains of South Carolina. My interest was immediately peaked. The loop in question involves the standard out and back to the waterfall but also includes a couple neighboring trails, the Dismal and Naturaland Trust, which provide access to the deep and rugged gorge below the falls. It’s not a trek for the novice hiker. You might have caught that one of the trails is called the ‘Dismal’ Trail. It comes by the name honestly. Regardless of which direction you hike the loop it’s going to involve a serious amount of effort. The gorge beneath the falls is well over a thousand feet deep. Hiking down into it is one thing, but you have to hike out as well. All I’m saying is lace your boots tight on this one. That said, after nearly four years of this exciting hike bouncing around the back of my brain I finally set out to see what I could find. It wouldn’t disappoint.
As mentioned earlier this hike starts and ends at the insanely popular trailhead for Raven Cliff Falls about a mile north of Caesar’s Head State Park along U.S. Highway 276. Parking here is woefully inadequate and both the primary and back-up lots quickly fill on sunny weekends. There is a modest fee also, $2 per person as of 2019, which I’d encourage you to pay because let’s be honest it is a very reasonable fee to help maintain our parks. The Raven Cliff Falls Trail begins directly across the highway from the main parking lot. The trails popularity is immediately apparent, it’s the width of a single lane road here. Descending briefly the path soon emerges along the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment with some nice views south of the Piedmont in the winter through the bare trees. The trail undulates up and down as it travels the side of the ridge, but never more than at an easy grade. Other than that there’s little remarkable about this first portion of the hike. At just over a mile and a quarter you reach the intersection with the Gum Gap Trail arriving from the right. This is the start of the loop portion of the hike and you can either make a right here to follow it in a counter-clockwise direction or bear left to do it the other way. Honestly, after doing this hike, there’s no real advantage one way or the other. I chose to bear left to do the loop clockwise as I felt this left the more interesting portion of the hike, the climb up past the ledges of Raven Cliff, for the back half. That was just my personal preference though so I’ll leave the choice to you after perusing the album. So, bearing left to continue on the Raven Cliff Falls Trail the path now begins a moderate descent until, about a quarter mile later the trail reaches another split, with the Dismal Trail breaking left and the observation platform for the falls just a short distance down the path on the right. I of course made the brief stop at the waterfall overlook and, as before, the scene to me was middling. The distant view just doesn’t do it for me (sorry, I know I’m probably in the minority). Getting what shots I could I quickly returned to the start of the Dismal Trail. Cinch up your straps…this is here the fun part of the hike begins.
The Dismal Trail is famous as 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 that I’m sure quickly dries up if rain doesn’t keep it fed. Upon reaching the bottom of its descent, the Dismal meets the Naturaland Trust Trail at a T-junction among a tangle of rhododendron. To continue the loop take a right to head up the gorge. A quarter mile later the Naturaland Trust Trail reaches, what I think, is the most beautiful spot on the entire hike…its crossing of Matthews Creek. Here a huge log footbridge crosses beneath a series of beautiful cascades with thick forest and huge boulders all around. The wild feel of the setting is palpable. You’d think that the 400’ waterfall seen on this hike would be the highlight…not so, it turns out. Needless to say I spend quite some time here taking photos and just soaking in my surroundings. It’s also a good spot to build up the energy for the climb out of the gorge, which now commences.
Beyond the crossing of Matthews Creek the Naturaland Trust Trail wastes no time heading upwards. While the Dismal Trail gets a lot of credit for its grinding uphill grade the Naturaland Trust is no slouch either. From the Matthews Creek crossing at the bottom of the gorge to its next crossing above Raven Cliff Falls, a distance of about a mile, it ascends a leg-burning 1,000 feet. If there’s an upside to using the Naturaland Trust Trail rather than the Dismal it’s that it offers much nicer scenery. For the first quarter mile the trail stays within sight of turbulent Matthews Creek, though from a high distance. There look to be many nice cascades along the stream if one is willing to do some step off-trail scrambling but that would have to wait for another hike for me. The higher the trail gets cliffs start to appear above, culminating in a pass directly beneath the shear 150-foot plus rock face of the aptly-named ‘Cathedral’. If you go on a day like I did, after a recent rain, prepare to take a shower. So close does the trail press against the base of the cliffs that runoff quite literally pours down on it from above. The Cathedral is a good place to take a breather before making the rest of the climb. You’ll know the toughest stretch is behind you when the trail turns to follow Matthews Creek upstream above Raven Cliff Falls and then arrives at the swinging bridge crossing it. The bridge may seem shaky but it’s stable, and the view in both directions is wonderful. Upstream noisy Matthews Creek crashes down in a series of large cascades while downstream the creek slides and then disappears over the unseen crest of Raven Cliff Falls. A keen eye can even pick out the observation deck high on the ridge across the gorge. Beyond the suspension bridge the trail continues to climb but at a much more reasonable rate than it has up to this point. It soon crests the ridge and then, about a half-mile from the bridge, reaches its northern terminus at the Gum Gap/Foothills Trail. At this point the worst of the hike is over for your muscles and lungs. For the next mile-and-a-half the wide trail bounces along the crest of the ridge, dipping occasionally and rising occasionally, but in a very easy manner. Watch for the signed right turn after about a mile to stay on the correct path (going straight leads to private property) beyond which the trail climbs one last time before returning back to where this loop began at the Raven Cliff Falls Trail. A left turn and a reverse hike of 1.3 miles along the Raven Cliff Falls Trail will return you to your car.
So there, after four years, the Raven Cliff Falls Loop was complete. After such a long wait I was worried the hype in my head might cause some disappointment compared to the true experience. Not so. Though, admittedly, this isn’t the most visually spectacular hike it still has enough mountain beauty to justify the effort. That, and the wildness of the area along with the challenge of the hike itself is also rewarding in my mind. So, all that said, I now present a hike around the famous (or to some, infamous) Raven Cliff Falls-Dismal-Naturaland Trust Loop. The 2019 hiking year has certainly started out with a bang. As always, I hope you enjoy…
Trailhead GPS Coordinates: 35.115599, -82.638317
Route Type: Lollipop Difficulty: EXTREME
Hike Length: 8.0 miles Hike Duration: 4:00
Trailhead Temp: 60'F Trail Traffic: 50-100 people
Min. Elevation: 1,700' Max. Elevation: 3,120'
Total Vertical Gain: 1,600' Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile: 200'
Trails Used (blaze color): Dismal (purple), Gum Gap/Foothills (blue), Naturaland Trust (pink), Raven Cliff Falls/Foothills (red)