Within the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, there are three major “gorges,” deep valleys surrounded by steep mountain slopes. Down below Caesar’s Head, Matthews Creek cuts an imposing swath. On the other side of US 276, in the Jones Gap part of the MBWA, everyone is familiar with the trails around the Middle Saluda River drainage.
But, there is a third gorge, lesser known with few trails and, as you might expect, fewer visitors. This smaller sister to the other two gorges is, nonetheless, impressive and beautiful.
Oil Camp Creek runs parallel to the Middle Saluda just one mountain ridge away. Saddled between Little Pinnacle Mountain and Campbell Mountain, the creek runs about 2 ½ miles from headwaters near the top of Caesar’s Head until it exits MBWA control in the River Falls valley. Steep ridges tower 1400 feet above the creek on the Little Pinnacle side and 800 feet on the Campbell side.
The name is worthy of explanation. Indians used to hunt bear in these mountains and had a “camp” next to the creek to facilitate cleaning their kill. Bear meat is quite greasy so the creek would frequently have an oily film on the surface, and the Cherokee hunting camp became known as the oil camp.
There are only 3 trails into this part of the Mountain Bridge. Two are long, tough hikes. The other is not well known. The result is few visitors.
First, Pinnacle Pass Trail starts at the Jones Gap State Park headquarters, crosses up Little Pinnacle Mountain and swings around the “nose” before dropping down into the Oil Camp Creek valley. It follows the creek for a little more than a mile before pulling away as the trail moves up toward and across US 276, on its way to meet up with the Naturaland Trail.
Second, the Mountain Bridge Passage Trail starts at the old Camp Spearhead and moves through the Ashmore Heritage Preserve before crossing over Campbell Mountain at the Upper Gap then dropping down to meet the Pinnacle Pass Trail just before that trail begins to pull away from the creek.
Third, there is an access trail head on Oil Camp Creek Road, on the River Falls end. It is a very short, unpaved road to a barricade where the trail begins. This section is an old roadbed complete with stone bridges constructed by the CCC back in the 1930s. This trail joins up with the Pinnacle Pass Trail just as it drops off the side of Little Pinnacle Mountain.
The inclination might be to expect all the water in the creek comes from the right side of US276; however, the “bowl” on the left side of the highway is the initial water source for the creek.
Looking at the topography, the steepness all along the creek’s route provides ample opportunities for waterfalls. There are several along the creek’s path starting with Cliff Rock Falls right on the edge of the “bowl.” Drip Rock Falls also can be found in the “bowl.” Mashbox Falls, along with Misty Falls dominate the headwaters of the creek. Further downstream is Oil Camp Falls, a rare cataract bog. There are numerous other unnamed streams with their own water features along the course of the creek.
Oil Camp Creek is a beautiful, clear stream along its entire run through the MBWA. Regardless of how you access this area, a visit is worth the effort.