Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve to Raven Cliff Falls Hike Route Map

Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve & Raven Cliff Falls

Raven Cliff Falls, in Caesars Head State Park, is touted as (arguably) the highest waterfall in South Carolina and (absurdly) its most beautiful. Because of this, a massive number of people make the trek out to see them every year. Most…say 99.999% of those people, start their walk to Raven Cliff Falls from the woefully inadequate parking areas located along US-276 to the east. From that direction hikers have the choice of seeing the falls from a distant viewing platform (4-miles round-trip) or a suspension bridge located just upstream from the brink of the falls (7-miles round-trip). Regardless, either choice will likely mean crowds. What most people don’t realize is there’s another route option to the Raven Cliff Falls suspension bridge, call it a backdoor of sorts…a route that is both shorter, easier, and hiked by an exceedingly small number of people. That’s the hike described in this album, and it starts from a spot called Gum Gap on the North Carolina/South Carolina line.

Access to Gum Gap is the primary reason this backdoor to Raven Cliff remains all but unknown. If you can even find it on a map, odds are that map won’t even show a road leading to Gum Gap. It’s there, trust me, but it’s not one everyone will be comfortable driving. Frequently muddy and or washed out, the final half-mile before reaching Gum Gap shouldn’t be attempted in any vehicle without high-clearance and 4-wheel-drive. If you attempt the drive, you’ll notice a couple miles before reaching the gap signs indicating that you are entering the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve. The preserve includes over 1700-acres of property along the South Carolina state line and is part of a network of unbroken protected lands which, collectively, form the Mountain Bridge Wilderness and Recreation Area. While mostly undeveloped, the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve is nonetheless roughly bisected by the well-maintained Foothills Trail Spur and is also immediately adjacent to the western boundary of Caesars Head State Park…where, you guessed it, Raven Cliff Falls is located.

If you manage to make it to Gum Gap you'll want to get on the Foothills Trail Spur heading south, following its bright blue blazes past a locked metal gate.  The route is fairly straightforward from here as you'll be following the same trail almost all the way to the falls.  The forest road heads downhill at a moderate grade, following the valley of Julien Creek.  At around the 2/3-mile mark a Y-split is reached with the trail staying to the left.  To the right the road heads over a wood bridge and into private property.  The forest road continues on much the way it has up to this point until, at a mile-and-a-quarter in, it reaches the one major obstacle along this hike...Matthews Creek.  Matthews Creek is the major stream which forms Raven Cliff Falls farther down.  When I went water levels were average-to-low and I was just able to rock hop across without getting wet.  Any amount of rain, however, and I'm sure this quickly turns into a wet crossing.  Best to be prepared for that possibility.  A half mile past the creek you'll reach another metal gate with a sign marking the boundary of the Watson-Cooper Preserve in the trees to the left.  The trail continues straight ahead as it now enters Caesars Head State Park.

Soon past the gate another forest road comes in on the right and the trail surface thereafter get progressively more rocky and eroded.  It also starts climbing for the first time as it seeks out the crest of the ridge separating you here from the waterfall.  At just over two-miles in you'll crest the ridge and reach a large, signed intersection where you'll no take a right onto the Naturaland Trust Trail for the final 6/10-mile to Raven Cliff Falls.  The pink-blazed trail immediately starts angling down the opposite side of the ridge, with the waterfall easily heard below.  A sharp switchback marks the halfway point of the descent and, after a couple steep sets of stairs the trail pulls right up along Matthews Creek...which is now a tad more energetic than the stream you crossed above.  Just above the point where the trail meets the creek is a stunning 20' cascade...to me it's prettier than falls seen from the bridge.  The suspension bridge is just a bit farther downstream.  As I mentioned earlier you can't actually see the main drop of Raven Cliff Falls from the bridge.  What you can see are numerous smaller cascades crashing down the ever-steepening slope before disappearing over the brink of the falls main drop far below.  It's pretty, just not the 400' high waterfall some expect to find upon arrival.  After enjoying the view simply retrace your steps back up to the Foothills Trail Spur, make a left, and return the two miles to Gum Gap.

Overall this is a fairly unremarkable hike.  Its appeal, other than the cascades at the end, is its solitude.  Sharply contrasting with the mobs which approach Raven Cliff from the opposite direction, you may very well manage to not see a single person before reaching the Naturaland Trust Trail.  That, to me, is reason in itself to give it a try.  So if I managed to perk your interest, I'd invite you along with me now as I make the short trek to Raven Cliff Falls through the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve.  As always, I hope you ENJOY!!


Trailhead GPS Coordinates:  35.102806, -82.691237


Route Type:  Out-and-back           Difficulty:  CHALLENGING  (Petzoldt Rating:  6.80 )

Hike Length:  5.4 miles                    Hike Duration:  2:00

Trailhead Temp:  65'F                      Trail Traffic:  NONE!!

Min. Elevation:  2,650'                      Max. Elevation:  3,060'

Total Vertical Gain:  700'                 Avg. Elevation Gain / Mile:  130'


Trails Used (blaze color):  Foothills Spur (blue), Naturaland Trust (pink)


GPX TRACK, MAP, & DATA

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4-21-2020

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