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Upstate trail journal: Upstate trail journal

Contributed by Austin Hays

Jones Gap (above) is one of many trails to hike in the Upstate. 

An isolated, winding road will take you past small farmhouses and babbling creeks to a single swinging gate marking the entrance to Jones Gap. 

Past the main entrance — assuming you arrived soon enough to grab one of the park’s scarce parking spots —you’ll find yourself in a fairly level field with little at the surface. A ranger station and park store lie at the end of a paved path, and atop a small knoll lays a stone pool that once served as a pond for fish hatching. 

The chatter of the relatively few visitors you’ll encounter is overpowered by the chirping of birds and the steady whoosh of the Middle Saluda River. But what Jones Gap lacks in instant appeal at the gate, it makes up for in some of the most quiet, pristine land in the South Carolina State Park system.

The soul of Jones Gap lies past the park headquarters, after the pavement ends. The park’s main footpath, the five mile Jones Gap Trail, begins at a wooden kiosk and carries you between the trees and past the Middle Saluda. For the first mile or so, you may see some figures standing at the riverbank, fishing poles in hand, hoping to catch some of the trout Jones Gap prides itself on. 

The trail faintly gains in elevation as you progress — so faint, in fact, you won’t notice how high you are until the trees thin out and you look over the edge. 

For the last portion, the trail drastically steepens as it climbs up towards Caesar’s Head and the Raven Cliff Falls trail. This can take a toll on your knees, so keep it slow and consider a pair of trekking poles to help you along. A 0.7 mile spur trail towards the end ­— the Tom Miller Trail — puts you outside the boundary of Jones Gap high up in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. From here, there are scenic views aplenty to be had, and the Raven Cliff Falls trail is right across the road. But those are all adventures for another day, so let’s head back down the hill and get back to the car.

From the road, you can either go back down the strenuous Tom Miller Trail or take the longer but easier Cold Springs Trail. Either way, you’ll eventually return to the Jones Gap Trail and get back to the point where you started. Along the way, be sure to take the short side-journey (only a few yards) to Jones Gap Falls, especially after a recent rainfall. 

Once you get back to the trailhead, your feet will probably want you to take it easy for a while; even if you didn’t do the entire route as described, you’ll still be feeling the effects of that ascent and descent.

Jones Gap may not be the most popular park in the upstate, but its splendor speaks for itself. The air is fresh, the river is clear, and the earth is well-cared for. 

The lack of parking makes Jones Gap a difficult day trip, but if you get there early enough, you’ll enjoy several thousand acres of land untouched by luxury mountain houses and RV camp sites. The rest of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness is only a hike — or long drive — away. Backcountry campsites along the Jones Gap trail are available for reservation on the park website. 

So, get out and wander on, and as always, don’t forget to pause every once a while to fully appreciate where you are.

This is the first edition of the Upstate Trail Journal — a series chronicling the bountiful trails and natural beauty in the South Carolina upstate. The author encourages you to find your trail by going to or by purchasing a map at a local outfitter.

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