Gravel Roads & Waterfalls
When Jenni and I go hiking, we prefer a nice paved road that leads to a trailhead with generous parking and then a big payoff, like a fast-flowing waterfall, a couple hundred yards down a flat trail.
This isn’t one of those excursions.
Our area finally got a big break from the summer heat, with temps in the mid-70s, so we planned an outing to take advantage of the heat reprieve. I have a couple books with detailed directions for waterfalls in our area but the one I was looking for wasn’t listed. A few weeks before, I had enjoyed viewing some great photos of Virginia Hawkins Falls in Pickens County and was determined to find it.
I had to do some online research for this one since it wasn’t in my printed sources. But it only took knowing the correct name of the waterfall to find several sources online. I compared two or three. There were some variations between each but nothing too material.
When I pitched the idea to Jenni the evening before going, I told her it would be a 2.5 to 3.0 mile roundtrip hike with an elevation change of about 419ft. She said that was fine. So then I disclosed that there was a 3+ mile drive on a gravel road involved but that it was a well-maintained road. She was okay with that too. I waited until the following morning to disclose there could be several stream crossings but by then we were committed to going. (Too much information at one time can be overwhelming. 😉)
To get there, from the intersection of Hwy 11 and Hwy 178 in Pickens County, SC go north on 178 (toward the NC border) for 8 miles. Just after crossing a bridge, make a left onto Horse Pasture Rd. There are actually two roads when making that left turn—one is paved, the other is gravel. Take the gravel. Then go approximately 3.7 miles to a trailhead at Horse Pasture Rd and Laurel Fork Gap.
For us, the gravel road was not bad. And we were driving our Honda Civic. I think they always make the first couple hundred yards the worst so you’ll consider turning back but once we cleared that distance it was well-maintained. Once we had gone a half mile, we met our first two runners. We thought it an odd place to be running. Then there was a group of three, and then some singles spread out. Suddenly there was a group of 12-15 college age women running in a pack. In another mile we started meeting the men’s group. There were those trying for personal glory and then a huge pack of 15-20. Some waved but very few smiled. We had gone awhile (I was driving 8mph) without seeing any runners when we were rounding a hairpin turn and caught two men using the slope to make up time; I can’t decide if they looked more like a couple deer or startled squirrels trying to decide which way to dodge. I do recall they were wide-eyed and hands flailing but thankfully they jumped to the side of the road.
When we reached the trailhead there were two vehicles already there, but room for us and easily another 2-3 vehicles. We crossed to the trail sign. Frankly, I found the sign confusing and decided to go with the screenshots I had on my phone from online sources. A narrow trail behind the sign goes down a slope to a forestry road. When you get to the old road, turn right. It’s a nice, wide trail with a mostly gravel base. We could each take a tire track and walk side-by-side. The number of spider webs we hit made us think the people from the other vehicles had gone a different direction. Good news was that it was all downhill; of course, that meant bad news for the return trip. We crossed several streams of water but none that required us to step into the water. After about a mile there was a sign for a campground to the right (as well as a directional sign for Virginia Hawkins Falls). We walked through the camping area and used a newly restored bridge to cross Laurel Fork Creek. At this point the trail narrowed considerably but it was a short walk to the base of the waterfall.
The waterfall itself is a multi-level, cascading free-fall that some people describe as 25ft and others 50ft. Guess it depends where you stand or who you’re trying to impress. It was mesmerizing with a low, late summer waterflow; I imagine springtime could be amazing.
We enjoyed the falls by ourselves (as we did the ENTIRE hike) and then headed back to the car. On the way out we noticed a pile of half-digested wild grapes and realized we probably should have brought our can of bear spray. We measured the roundtrip at 3.0 miles once back at the trailhead. This hike is classified as Easy and I agree, but we were still worn out, craving salt, and ready for dry shirts. After a few bites of our picnic lunch, we headed down the gravel road.
No squirrels or joggers encountered on the way out.