The original wagon road through Jones Gap was built in the 1850’s by Solomon Jones to get livestock and farmers from the mountains down to the market in Greenville, SC. Don’t imagine a road like we have today – think mud so deep it runs up to the wagon axles, mixed in with the many types of manure made by frightened cows, incontinent sheep, and travel sick pigs. Not a pretty sight.
Luckily, today the only livestock you’re likely to meet on the trail is the goat you brought with you. Jones Gap Trail follows much of the original wagon road route, and portions of the trail near Hwy 276 are still clearly remnants of the wagon road, with deep ruts and tall banks on either side of the foot path. While the dying back of the hemlocks in the gap has removed must of the original mystique and beauty of the river, Jones Gap remains a pretty and well watered oasis in the dry upstate of South Carolina.
Is it goat approved? Park rules say pets must be on a 6 foot leash. I had a goat on a six foot leash and had no problems.
How you get there: Google Caesar’s Head in South Carolina. It’s off Hwy 276, and the ride up from Hwy 11 is one of the twistiest two laned roads in SC… and a wonderful challenge in a small pickup or car that can and will take corners! Then look for the gate pictured below after you pass by the Caesar’s Head overlook and ranger station (which is in and of itself well worth a visit). This gate is the back way into Jones Gap.
Time for hike: The distance for this hike is 10 miles. It is an out and back, going down hill on the way in and an easy uphill on the way out.
Best season to do this hike: Winter. Come on a week day. Jones Gap is fanatically popular in the warmer seasons. If you want parking even in winter I would suggest you get to the trail before 11 am. If you come in the summer do NOT plan on parking at the main parking area for Jones Gap. Odds are it will be filled. The back way in, however, tends to be significantly less popular.
Trails to Take
The trail starts behind the aforementioned gate. It follows the old farm to market road, down to a house. There’s a neat spring with a metal sand water strainer and a house a short distance down the road from the gate. After that, the trail rapidly descends from gravel road to forest trail, still following the old, (and in places still visible), remains of the road.
The trail crosses a fairly wide river/stream. After rain this may be flooded significantly, but that’s okay because there’s a log bridge over the water. The downside is if its been raining you need the log…but the log gets slick in the rain and may dunk you in the drink you were trying to avoid anyway. It’s done that to me. Twice.
On the other side of the log the blue trail (Trail #1, Jones Gap Trail), splits in a confusing way. You want to go straight forward along the river. This is Trail #1 Jones Gap Trail. The other blue blaze that goes off to your right is Trail #2 Tom Miller Trail.
If you got the right trail you’ll continue forward through dog hobble on boggy ground, and cross another log bridge, this time over a short waterfall.
The trail continues forward and then down the “winds”, a section of tight switch backs that amazingly was actually part of the original wagon road. Guess wagons have a better turning radius than cars. At the bottom of the winds is the first of two waterfalls on the trail. This one is a popular spot to stop for lunch for hikers, but is so far as I know, unnamed.
The trail passes by the waterfall and continues through dry upland, until it descends back to the river. Cold Spring Branch Trail comes off to the right and the trail continues along the river. There is a side trail to Jones Gap Falls, a tiny falls that isn’t active in drought conditions. The trail to it is tight, and not recommended if you are hauling a full size goat.
The trail leaves the wagon road behind at the point in which it crosses the green steel bridge over the river. The trail will become considerably more populated with hikers from this point and rockier. The trail eventually runs up to Rainbow Falls Trail (red blaze). The blue blaze continues along the river and dumps out in the camper’s parking lot right next door to the park office.
If you can get past the park office and continue down the paved walkway in front of it there’s an old fish hatchery pond that’s worth a visit.
Then turn around…and head back.
- The rangers at the Jones Gap ranger station at the bottom of the trail like to knock off work at 5pm. This means if you stroll down to the station at 4:45 PM even though your car is 5 miles up the mountain…you might have a fight on your hands to get back on the trail if they spot you.
- This a deep mountain valley. This means the sun doesn’t reach the valley till about 2 hours after it gets everywhere else and it leaves the valley 2-3 hours before it leaves everywhere else. This considerably shortens your available day length.
- Jones Gap, like much of the rest of the South, is experiencing the die off of hemlock trees, which may actually push the southern hemlock to extinction. For those who went on this trail 20 years ago (like me) the trail looks a lot brighter, hotter, and a lot less pretty today. It also has a distressing tendency to shed large, dead conifers on your head in a high wind. Be careful!
- The lower 2/3rds of the trail are high traffic – dogs, kids, hikers. However, in general the hikers I meet in Jones Gap are of the more serious sort, and will not be too much trouble with a goat in tow.
- The log bridges have a nasty habit of slicking up in the rain. And then dunking you in the river when you try to cross.
- The side trail to Jones Gap Falls is tight and highly peopled. Not a fun side trip with a large goat!
- The park office is at the bottom of the trail. Don’t walk all the way to the bottom if you need to avoid Ye Olde Forestry Service. Jones Gap is heavily trafficked and thus the park rangers tend to have short fuses here.
- If you do plan to camp, #1 I wouldn’t do it with a goat, and #2 the camping costs and must be reserved at the park office. It fills up fast during the warmer months, but you generally have your pick in winter.
In sum: Going to Jones Gap always makes me feel better, especially after driving over Lake Hartwell which is 30 foot below full pond. Jones Gap never seems to have a drought problem, unlike everything else around here!