Winter hiking can be really special – bright days, crisp air, leafless trees. This last element is one that provides many surprises that can’t be enjoyed during the summer. Winter ridge views can be spectacular as the open canopy reveals valley vistas where you normally would be confined in a green tunnel. Trail views can often provide a glimpse of mountainside treasures you never knew were there, and not just an interesting detail but a major feature such as a rock face, boulder field, or even a large waterfall. Such is the case along the well-traveled Jones Gap Trail.
From the trailhead at the park headquarters, follow the blue-blazed trail. This is also part of the Middle Saluda Passage, so you’ll also see diamond-shaped metal signs marking the Palmetto Trail. This is a pleasant walk because it follows the noisy whitewater of the Middle Saluda River.
Just under ¾ of a mile, the trail crosses a field of small boulders. (If you reach the trailhead for Rainbow Falls, you’ve gone about 75 yards too far.) A feeder stream is found within this field that requires rock-hopping to get across. Looking to your left, you will see a nice tumbling cascade as the stream descends to the boulder field. What you can’t see, if the trees are in leaf, is the fact that, about 50 yards back of the cascade is a significant rock face. In the winter, the face can be seen along with the fact that this is actually a 100 foot waterfall.
From the left side of the base of the little cascade, cross over to a path that follows the right side of the stream about 50 yards up to the base of the rock face. The face is almost vertical and trees grow right up to the base of the rock. Getting decent photos will be difficult with trees in leaf because of their proximity.
The waterfall starts at the top with a ledge that produces a small plunge. There are similar plunges down the face and at the bottom as the water jumps off the ledges that interrupt the smooth rock. There is no base pool. The water quickly gathers itself and moves on down the mountain to the Middle Saluda.
The stream and the waterfall are unnamed. Because of the circumstances, Surprise Falls is both an appropriate description and name for this water feature. Next time you’re up along Jones Gap Trail, take 10 minutes to see Surprise Falls.
To get to the trailhead, take US 276 out of Marietta toward Caesar’s Head. A mile past the Cleveland post office, turn right at the F-Mart onto River Falls Road. (On your way back out, stop at the F-Mart, visit with owner Don Forrest and have one of his excellent hot dogs.) Follow the signs to Jones Gap State Park and park in the lot. After paying the fee, follow the entrance path across the river, past the trout pool, past park headquarters to the kiosk at the trailhead.