Rainbow Falls is generally acknowledged for being rated as Spectacular and as having earned that rating. What most folks don’t readily know is there are 2 decidedly different trails with which to access this splendid cascade.
The upper trail, previously described by this examiner, is shorter, about a half mile one way with the trail head at Camp Greenville so you descend into the gorge containing the waterfall. The trail drops 400 vertical feet and is so steep that in-place ropes are needed.
So this article is dedicated to the longer (2 ½ miles one way), difficult (1200 foot elevation change) that ascends to Rainbow Falls from the trail head at Jones Gap State Park. To get to the trail head for this “lower” route, go about 1 mile past the Cleveland, SC Post Office to River Falls Road. Look for the F-Mart. Turn right and follow the signs to the park.
After parking, take the path from the parking lot across the river and by the old fish hatchery pond and park headquarters. Turn left and cross the river to the kiosk and the trail head. This hike is really special because of the diversity that you’re presented with during the 2 ½ miles up to the falls. To better explain the various environments you’ll pass through, the hike is best broken up into sections:
- Section 1. From the parking lot, you’ll take the Jones Gap Trail (Blue blaze) alongside the Middle Saluda River for about ¾ of a mile to where the Rainbow Falls Trail (Red blazes) forks to the right. An information sign sits in the fork.
- Section 2. Shortly after the fork, you’ll cross the river on a metal bridge after which the trail will again follow the river for about a hundred yards, crossing Cox Creek on a one-lane (actually one-log) bridge just before the trail makes a hard right.
- Section 3. The trail parallels Cox Creek for a while before the trail rock hops the creek then runs between a huge split boulder and makes a hard right. Before heading out on the trail look upstream and you should see a nice water feature about 50 yards away. There is an informal trail heading in that direction.
- Section 4. Leaving the split boulder, you’ll start ascending (moderate slope, easy hiking) around the nose of a ridge where you can get some good views (especially in winter when the foliage is off) of Jones Gap and the River Falls Valley. After rounding the nose, you’ll be taken back over to Cox Creek.
- Section 5. Arriving back at the creek, you’ll follow an impressive group of cascades, including a really nice waterslide for some distance before the trail pulls away again.
- Section 6. This is the most difficult section of the trail. It moves steeply uphill to round another ridge nose with some good views but the most impressive thing about this section is that you have now arrived at the face of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. You’ll be at the very foot of a 100 foot rock face. Coming down the face is a stream that, given how steep the face is, you’ll wonder how it stays on the rock.
- Section 7. Turning left at the rock face (like you had a choice), the trail continues to ascend but at a much more comfortable slope until you’re again back at Cox Creek where you will see an impressive 15 foot plunge. Since you are entering the gorge containing the waterfall, you will be able to hear but not see Rainbow Falls.
- Section 8. Once you come up along side the plunge, you’ll be able to see Rainbow Falls towering above you.
Rainbow Falls is an impressive waterfall. You should go. But which trail to use? Simple solution, you need to go twice and take a different trail each time. Both trails are worth it and the waterfall is definitely worth two visits.
And on the way out, be sure to stop at the F-Mart. Visit with Don Forrest, the local legend who runs the place. Have a couple of his excellent hot dogs and, if you’ve got room left, one of his homemade milk shakes.