HEAD OF THE CLASS
Jack and I have been on a roll lately finding rarely visited and previously undocumented waterfalls. For our latest adventure, we decided to make another attempt at the waterfalls on Head Foremost Creek. Head Foremost Creek is in South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness / Jones Gap State Park. A couple of years ago we scouted the creek on a long hike that also included Rainbow Falls and Fall Creek Falls:
On that occasion we bushwhacked to the brink of a major waterfall on Head Foremost Creek, but we didn’t find a reasonably safe route down to the base. That hike did turn up a small waterfall farther upstream (Head Foremost Cove Falls), but we wanted more.
Our plan this time was to approach the waterfalls from downstream. Unfortunately, there is no easy access by this route without crossing private property. To avoid the private land, we plotted a route that would require about a mile of bushwhacking through rough terrain. A mile is a long way when there is no trail, but Jack and I are used to scrambling over rocks, crawling through rhododendron thickets, and dodging briers.
I met Jack in Spartanburg and rode with him from there. We drove to the Fall Creek Falls Trailhead, which is actually outside the park. There is a small parking area and a kiosk with free hiking permits, but there is no parking fee at this location. We started up the Fall Creek Falls Trail around 9:40 AM under surprisingly sunny skies.
The Fall Creek Falls Trail is a steep, eroded piece of crap, but at least it provided us with a good warm up for the bushwhack to come.
We rock hopped Little Fall Creek, which joins Fall Creek just below the trail. We paused there to study the map. Little Fall Creek drops over similar terrain as Fall Creek, and while the drainage isn’t quite as steep, it looks like it could have a waterfall, too. We decided to explore it a bit on our way back, if time and energy allowed.
A short distance beyond we reached a junction with an old road running towards Fall Creek. We followed it a short distance and noted some nice cascades below the trail. This old road does lead to some unnamed falls and cascades downstream from the main waterfall on Fall Creek. However, since we didn’t know how long it would take to reach Head Foremost Creek, we decided to save it for later, too.
One last steep climb, followed by an equally steep descent, brought us to the base of Fall Creek Falls. Fall Creek Falls is one of the most impressive cataracts in South Carolina, but it’s difficult to photograph, mainly because the only decent vantage point is from directly below. From that angle, it’s impossible to capture the true magnitude of the falls. However, on this particular visit we were blessed with some lovely blue sky directly above the falls. That helped to compensate for the brilliant sun that was shining directly on the water.
After a few photos we began climbing away from the creek. Originally my plan had been to climb up to the point where the Fall Creek Falls Trail magically becomes the Hospital Rock Trail. I was pretty sure I remembered seeing an old road / trail heading west from that point on our previous visit. That matched an old road shown on the topo map. If we could follow it towards Head Foremost Creek, it would reduce our bushwhacking. However, that approach meant climbing steeply for another 500’, followed by a descent of the same 500’. Once we got a good look at the terrain to the west of the trail, we concluded that the bushwhacking didn’t look too bad. It was a steep slope, but the forest was mostly open.
We abandoned the trail and headed west. Our goal was to maintain a relatively constant elevation. We were able to do so initially by contouring around ridges and in and out of minor drainages. Eventually though the terrain became more difficult. We began encountering deep gullies, which we had to descend into and climb back out of. After several of these we stumbled onto an old, eroded road. This road is shown on the map, and I believe it is the same road that I had initially planned to incorporate into our route. However, I don’t know if the two roads actually connect. I’d like to go back sometime and find out.
We found a water bottle hanging from a tree branch near here. This is only notable because it was the only sign of other people that we encountered on our way to Head Foremost Creek.
Our bushwhacking had been successful thus far, so we continued in the same direction. More gullies intruded, and we began passing through massive boulder fields. Some of the boulders were truck-sized, but most of them were a lot bigger. Navigation along here generally followed along the lines of deciding whether we should pass above or below the yacht-sized rock immediately ahead of us.
This stretch was rough, but the terrain actually eased up a bit shortly before the creek. Finally we could hear the beautiful music of water splashing over rock, and we knew we were getting close.
We reached Head Foremost Creek along a steep stretch of slides, cascades, and small waterfalls. At this point we were pretty sure there was a major waterfall just downstream, but we decided to explore upstream first. We started up the slope, weaving through boulders, briers, and deadfall. This was rough going, but it actually got worse. The farther we climbed, the more hostile the terrain became. At one point I reached a boulder that I couldn’t climb. I detoured around and crawled through a tangle of briers before catching up with Jack.
Our reward for our effort was experiencing a wild, rarely visited run of waterfalls on a scenic mountain stream. The highlight for me was a relatively modest cascade racing below an overhanging boulder bigger than my house. Above that point we reached the base of what I’ll call the upper waterfall on Head Foremost Creek. We had a great view there, but unfortunately it was not particularly photogenic. The angle from our vantage point and the heavy deadfall didn’t make for great photos.
At that point we probably could’ve continued up to the top of the cliff where we’d been two years earlier. From there it would’ve been possible to reach the Hospital Rock Trail. However, we were pretty sure there was at least one more major waterfall downstream. So we headed back down, eager to see what else Head Foremost Creek was hiding.
We stayed away from the creek on our descent, which made the bushwhacking a little safer and easier. Eventually we passed the area where we first reached the creek. A bit beyond that we arrived at the brink of another cliff. We found a route down through breaks in the cliff while the creek raged off to our right. We caught glimpses of an incredible waterfall, but resisted the urge to get a closer look. Approaching it from our position would’ve been hazardous at best.
We circled around to the base of the falls, which is impressive. It’s a steep sliding cascade over open rock that is perhaps 100’ high. In keeping with an ongoing theme, the waterfall is breathtaking, but difficult to photograph. Once again, the most likely vantage point for photos is the base. My photos from there make the waterfall appear much smaller than it is due to distortion. Unfortunately, attempts at photos from farther away and from downstream were somewhat marred by the intervening foliage.
I did find one angle for photos that was rewarding. I scrambled up the rock face adjacent to the falls to get some photos from the side. Unfortunately this left me in a rather precarious position. The rock was just steep and slippery enough to be hazardous. To make matters worse, to get an acceptable photo I had to brave an exposed stretch of wet rock or crawl through some of the biggest briers I’ve ever seen. The rock was simply too treacherous, so I chose the briers. I was glad to get those photos, but even taking the somewhat “safer” route left me uncomfortable. Even a little slip there could have been tragic. I definitely wouldn’t do that again.
I rejoined Jack at the base and we relaxed for a bit before starting the hike back. I was exhausted from our earlier bushwhack and suggested trying a different route on our return. The map shows an old road downstream from the falls. It looked like that road would connect with the one we’d crossed earlier in the day. If we could find it, we could walk old roads most of the way back to the Fall Creek Falls Trail. That would be a lot easier than another mile of rugged bushwhacking.
We headed downstream and stumbled on the old road, as expected. We followed it away from the creek before returning to it. When we rejoined the creek we joined a much larger, maintained dirt road. Just upstream the road crosses Head Foremost Creek on a wooden bridge that is actually in pretty good condition. Clearly we were back near civilization. This made me a little nervous. Earlier I was confident that we were on public land, but I was concerned that we were now on private property. The last thing I wanted to do was to take a wrong turn and end up in someone’s back yard.
Despite those concerns we decided to follow the road. We headed downstream, and after a few minutes we passed above another run of cascades. We dropped down off the road for a closer look, and we were delighted with what we found. Although much smaller than the waterfalls upstream, these cascades are both lovely and photogenic. We spent a few minutes there taking photos before resuming the hike out.
A few minutes later we reached a junction with a faint old road heading north. This looked like the road we were looking for. Plus, Jack and I both had the sense that we were pushing our luck on the main road. We could hear dogs barking off in the not too distant distance. My concerns about stumbling into someone’s back yard were back. It was time to bail.
We headed up the old road, hopeful that it would lead us where we needed to go. Initially the route seemed promising, but then the road mysteriously disappeared. We wandered around for a bit before realizing that we’d followed the wrong road. We’d come uphill quite a ways, and neither of us wanted to backtrack. So, we went with our backup option. We started bushwhacking east, hopeful that we’d stumble back into familiar territory.
A few minutes later we passed the remains of an old still. Not long after that, we began noticing things that looked familiar. Giant boulders. Fallen logs. Deep gullies. Eventually we realized that we were back on the route we’d hiked in on. That was the good news. The bad news is that the road we’d followed earlier had circled around to a point that wasn’t far from the lower waterfall on Head Foremost Creek. We were practically back where we’d started.
Despite that setback we renewed our efforts. A big climb brought us to the old road that we’d crossed that morning. This time we knew it was the correct road, thanks to that water bottle that was still hanging from a tree. At that point I suggested following the old road up the mountain to its junction with the Fall Creek Falls Trail. However, Jack pointed out that we didn’t actually know for a fact that the road would take us there. Just because it looks that way on the map doesn’t mean it exists in reality. So, it was back to bushwhacking.
Going back wasn’t as bad as I expected. We regained the trail a bit later and followed it back to Fall Creek Falls. From there we headed straight out, as it was getting late and we were running out of energy. On the way out we actually passed two other groups of hikers. They were the only other people we saw all day.
Head Foremost Creek provided us with another exciting adventure. We’ll definitely return to that area, as Little Fall Creek and the cascades downstream from Fall Creek Falls still need to be explored. Also, I understand there’s a major waterfall on Tankersley Branch, which is the next drainage to the northeast. I believe the surrounding land is owned by the Nature Conservancy, but I’m not sure about access. That’s definitely one I’ll have to look into.
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