Per usual, our Jones Gap State Park camping adventure starts with a backstory. A few weeks ago, I asked my 13-soon-to-be-14 year old what he wanted for his birthday. I was expecting a typical teenage answer: money, new video games, or maybe a new pair of sneakers. Imagine my surprise when he said “I want to go camping”.
Twist my arm, kid.
Of course my next question was “where do you want to go camping?”. Without skipping a beat, he replied “Jones Gap State Park”. A quick bit of research alerted me to the fact that Jones Gap, and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, is probably THE furthest South Carolina State Park from our home (about a 5 hour drive). Further, it only offers trailside, backcountry camping, something our little family isn’t very well versed in (yet).
A small part of me debated trying to convince him to pick something closer to home, with a campsite that allowed easy access to our car (and actual bathrooms and cell phone service). But then reality slapped me in the face: in a world where teens are glued to technology, my (soon to be) fourteen year old is ASKING to go CAMPING.
So I made reservations.
Jones Gap State Park Camping:
Jones Gap State Park consists of 13,000 acres of pristine mountain woodlands. Together, Jones Gap and nearby Caesars Head State Park form what is known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.
It’s a big old slice of undeveloped wilderness.
I’m not going to lie, I spent a lot of time hemming and hawing over booking a campsite at Jones Gap. You see, the idea of backcountry camping sounds amazing to me. Sleeping under the stars in the middle of nowhere? Yes please! Take my cell phone service, I don’t care, I welcome the escape.
(For the record, there’s zero cell phone service at Jones Gap.)
But when you add two kiddos into the mix, who don’t have any backcountry experience (and let’s face it, Geoff and I are limited as well) never mind appropriate gear…well things get a little more complicated.
Booking Your Campsite:
So I did what any person in the year 2020 would naturally do: I took to the internet for reviews. I scoured and scoured for real life reviews of people who have stayed at the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area / Jones Gap campsites. I learned one very important tidbit: the campground map is wildly deceiving. It is not drawn to scale, and most of the sites are situated around a quarter mile to a half mile away from the next site.
For example, in this map, campsite #8 & #9 look to be directly next to each other. In reality, they were closer to a quarter mile apart. Site 15? A solid 3.5 mile hike from the parking lot at Jones Gap State Park.
The good news is if you hover over the campsites on the map when booking a reservation, you will see a “hike in distance” notification. Do not be fooled by the “Vehicles” section…that’s how many cars you get permits for in the parking lot, not at your site.
Campsite # 8
Ultimately, I decided on campsite #8. A quarter mile hike didn’t sound too terrible, and I knew we’d be able to make multiple trips with our gear if necessary. We’re currently your typical “car campers” – our gear is anything but lightweight and minimal. Plus, a quarter mile was just close enough that we could also hike our food back to the car at night.
Because there ARE bears in these woods, and they WILL steal your snacks, if you aren’t careful. In fact, the rangers request that you either hang your food in an appropriate bear-safe way, or leave it in your car at night.
In short, I did not regret our campsite choice one bit. It was perfect. Located right on the Middle Saluda River, the site was spacious, gorgeous, and just far enough to feel secluded…but just close enough that no one in our party complained.
(OK that’s a lie. I definitely heard a “why did we pick a site so far away?” from one of the teens, literally seconds before we stumbled upon our site. )
The site included a tent pad, a campfire ring, and four perfectly placed tree stumps to act as chairs. Other than the occasional hiker passing by on the trail in the distance, we were completely alone. And despite practically 24 hours straight of rain, it was glorious.
As an experienced ultramarathon runner, I have no qualms tending to bathroom business in the woods. But upon check in, when the ranger informed me that the comfort station – complete with bathrooms and hot showers – was open 24/7, I definitely felt a smile creep onto my face.
While I can certainly do without them, there are some modern conveniences I won’t turn down if they are available. And excuse my crassness, but pooping in a toilet is definitely one of them.
Ranger Station / Store:
At the parking lot for campers at Jones Gap State Park, you’ll find the Ranger station and a store. This is where you’ll check in for your campsite, and also purchase any souvenirs, firewood, or maybe that 10 foot USB charging cord my 11 year old desperately wanted (but mom didn’t cave).
The rangers leave every day around 4 pm, and then you are on your own. Between the trailhead and the ranger station, you’ll find an emergency call box, if needed. As mentioned, there is absolutely ZERO cell phone service available at the park, so make sure you know where this box is located before setting up camp.
P.S…the Ultimate Outsider stamp is located next to the emergency call box, incase you are looking for that as well.
Jones Gap State Park Hiking:
There are over 60 miles of hiking trails in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, connecting Jones Gap and Caesars Head State Parks. On these trails you can also find 5 waterfalls: Falls Creek Falls, Jones Gap Falls, Rainbow Falls, Dargans Cascades and Silver Steps Falls. Registering with the park before using these trails is mandatory, check the registration box at the trailhead before heading out.
As mentioned, my kiddos are pretty “green” (as in, new) when it comes to hiking. Despite having some endurance running under their belts (my oldest ran his first half marathon at age 12) these flat land, coastal dwelling kids do NOT have mountain legs. So personally, we only ventured out on two trails: Jones Gap NRT #1 and Rainbow Falls Trail.
That said, I have to give these two mega kudos (even though they don’t read Mom’s lame blog) for making the 4 mile round trip hike to Rainbow Falls and back, in the absolute pouring rain. (More on this waterfall and trail below!)
Palmetto Trail / Jones Gap NRT #1
If you know me, or have followed this blog (or my other one) for a while, you know I have a personal connection to the coastal end of the Palmetto Trail. I have laughed, cried, suffered, and prevailed on this trail, covering hundreds upon hundreds of miles on my feet. So I’m always happy to stumble upon other sections of the Palmetto Trail that I haven’t covered yet.
The Palmetto Trail is one of the longer trails running through Jones Gap State Park, at 5.3 miles (one way). It’s also the trail our campsite was located directly on. Unlike the coastal section of the Palmetto Trail, which is flat, full of cypress knees, and pine needles, the Upstate portion of the Palmetto Trail reminds me of New England. Rocks, inclines, and an almost glowing green forest. It’s gorgeous.
If you are looking for a much longer hike, the Palmetto trail connects about 14 miles of existing trails (with multiple-colored blazes) in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of Jones Gap State Park and Caesars Head State Park
Rainbow Falls & Rainbow Falls Trail
One of the highlights of Jones Gap State Park is Rainbow Falls. Located about 2.5 miles from the trailhead, you’ll find this breathtaking 100′ free falling waterfall on Cox Camp Creek. The hike itself is relatively strenuous – I towed my 11 year old most of the way because his little legs were “too tired” on the way up.
Fun fact – we gave him an endurance gel almost near the falls, and the kid practically ran the entire way down the mountain, but I digress.
You’ll cover about 1,000 feet of elevation gain, as well as cross a handful of gorgeous bridges, and navigate some gnarly (but not terribly treacherous) rock stairs and formations along the way.
And once you reach the falls? The view is absolutely worth the hike. I only wish my not-so-smart phone hadn’t gotten soaked, or it may have taken better pictures.
Jones Gap State Park Day Use Facilities:
If spending the nights in a remote campsite isn’t your thing, have no fear, there are plenty of day use opportunities at Jones Gap State Park. From short hikes, to geochaching, birding to fishing, there’s plenty to do during a day trip at Jones Gap. Plus, there are plenty of picnic tables scattered around the day use area.
There is also and education center, with a classroom and aquatic ecology lab, though it is currently unopen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones Gap State Park: What You Need to Know Before You Go:
- Jones Gap State Park is a “trash free” park. In order to protect wildlife, visitors, and the park, there are no trash cans available. Bring a garbage bag, pack your garbage out.
- Park hours are 9 a.m. – 9 p.m., daily, during daylight savings time and 9 a.m. – 6 p.m., daily, the remainder of the year. Trails close one hour before dark, year round.
- Admission fee is: $6 adults; $3.75 SC seniors (age 65 & older); $3.50 children ages 6-15; ages 5 and under, free.
- If you are coming for day use only, you MUST reserve a parking spot on the weekends. There are only 30 parking spots available. Reservations are $5 per car, and you must also pay the daily admission fee. Read more about parking procedures HERE.
- Camping? You don’t have to worry about the parking reservations or admission fee. There is a separate parking lot for campers, and admission fee is included in your campsite reservation.
- Pets are allowed in most outdoor areas provided they are kept under physical restraint or on a leash not longer than six feet.
- Again, there is no wifi or cell phone service.
In short, Jones Gap State Park was a hell of a drive from Myrtle Beach, SC…but it was absolutely worth it. The beauty of this park absolutely cannot be beat. Put this one at the top of your “must visit” South Carolina State Parks list! Big thanks to the teenager for dragging us along!