The Rim Is Aptly Named
Early last week Chris suggested that we plan a “big” hike for the coming weekend.  Since we did not have Ivan her criteria was that it be new-to-her, long, strenuous, and be followed by a “big freakin’ steak and a bottle of wine”.  This is a request that I will never say no to and the choice was an easy one.

On Sunday morning we ventured north to Jones Gap State Park.  With a network of over 50 miles of trails in the area, finding a route that would satisfy Chris’s request was a piece of cake.  I drew up a route that included parts of four separate trails before reaching the main event of The Rim of the Gap Trail.  

The Rim of the Gap Trail is one of the most scenic and technically challenging trails that I have hiked in The Upstate.  This 4.3 trail features rocky terrain that includes cable crossings, ladders, and rock obstacles that make the word “boulder” seem small.  Considering that we hiked over five miles before we even started the trail, this route is not for the faint of heart.  In all honesty, the trail almost killed us.

Actually, it was a mountain lion that almost killed us but I will get to that in a moment.

This loop is challenging in any conditions but Chris and I are always committed to making things harder than they need to be.  Therefore we picked a day with a 60% chance of rain on a trail with a lot of slick, rocky terrain (make that 100% since the wiper blades were on full speed on the ride up).  Nor are we the observant types because we overlooked the sign at the trailhead that informed us that the trail was actually closed due to icy conditions.  What can I say? It was 65 degrees and icy conditions did not occur to me.  
The Jones Gap Trail Is Flat And Easy

Anyways, starting at the main parking lot of Jones Gap State Park we hiked roughly two and a half miles up the Jones Gap Trail.  This is a beautiful part of the hike as the Jones Gap Trail is lush and green and you never lose sight of the rapidly flowing water.  This is a relatively easy excursion that followed the path of the Middle Saluda River before we turned off on the Coldspring Branch Trail.  Here we climbed from the river bed to higher elevations for about two miles.  A few short connector trails later and we finally arrived at what I considered the “start” of our hike.


This Tree Is Weird
We traveled a little more than five miles before reaching the trailhead of Rim of the Gap and took in some amazing scenery along the way.  The ecosystem changed substantially as we gained altitude away from the river and we experienced totally contrasting perspectives of the area as we climbed.  The lush beauty of life around the river gave way to a colder, barren winter forest as we made our way to the higher elevations.  One moment life thrived all around us and the next the terrain was cold, steep and unforgiving.  The Rim of the Gap Trail embraces this theme exponentially. 

The Rim is aptly named as you find yourself walking on what feels like the edge of my favorite whiskey glass.  At times the trail is no more than a few feet wide with a sheer rock face extending vertically on your right and a descent into oblivion on your left. We climbed, stretched, panted and barely spoke but for the words “wow” and “holy crap look at that”.  We were shocked by the amount of ice on the rocks and the fact that the fog was thick enough to chew.  I know from experience that this trail offers amazing views but on this day we were lucky to see 50 yards in any direction.  

This trail is brutal on the bones but worth every drop of sweat we invested along the way.  After about two miles the difficulty subsided and gave way to our descent back home.  Eventually we returned to the river basin and reconnected with the Jones Gap Trail that we had abandoned almost six hours earlier.

It should go without saying that this is a very unique hike in and of itself.  The distance, the beauty, the company, and the weather all worked together to make this hike a complete success.  I would be totally satisfied if our day had been limited to the above experiences but the trail held one major, unexpected surprise for us. 

About seven miles into our day we heard something that I have never heard and will likely never hear again.  The sound went beyond a growl… it was a warning which politely informed us that we had taken one step too far into a native’s personal space.  I have always been aware and cautious of bear and wild boar in the mountains but we both knew instantly that the sound that came no less than 15 feet in front of us was a cat. By cat I do not mean your house cat that purrs and cuddles up on your lap. I also do not mean a bobcat which might actually fall into the realm of “as scared of you as you are of them”.  I mean a cat that could potentially stalk you, strike you and eat you before you even knew he was there.  

We could not see what was hidden in the rocks but the sound was undeniable.  Without a doubt, we had violated the comfort zone of a mountain lion. 

The View from most of The Rim of the Gap.
Returning the way we came was not an option due to daylight limitations but we had received all the warning we needed not to continue forward.  We were left with a short retreat followed by a huge loop off the trail to bypass the rocks that sheltered our new acquaintance.  In all my years of hiking I have never ventured that far from a marked trail but getting lost seemed like a much more attractive option than getting eaten.  Thankfully it worked out. 

Here I find myself tempted to describe the fear and adrenaline we felt after this encounter but I have to be honest that it was too deeply intense and personal to accurately put into words. Instead I would like to touch on few points.

First, I need to respectfully disagree with the park ranger we spoke with at the end of our hike.  He proudly pledged to me that there are no big cats in the area and at worst we may have encountered a bear.  On the other hand, I have already spoken to other residents of the area they assure me that they have seen the rare mountain lion active in this region.  Their confirmation only concurs with what I already know to be true – the growl we heard was deep, distinct and had all of the finesse of a feline.  This was not a rough and brutish snarl of a bear but a refined warning from a much more graceful resident of the mountains.  
Middle Saluda River
Despite that, I have to say that this only added to our experience and in no way deters us from future excursions at Jones Gap or anywhere else in the mountains of The Upstate.  Mountain lions are not typically in the practice of devouring hikers and the growl we heard was more of a respectful warning than an act of aggression.  We were advised of our position and received no further contact once we retreated from his personal space.  Instead of ruining our day the overall experience was improved ten-fold.

Chris On A Bridge
This is why we hike.  Our bodies needed the exercise and our minds needed it even more.  A ten mile hike challenges the body and liberates the soul.  We saw beauty that only Mother Nature can provide and left with memories that we will hold on to for the rest of our lives.  Less than two hours after leaving the trail we were already talking about a return trip in the spring when the change of seasons will offer a completely different experience.  Sheets of ice will give way to wild flowers and we can check out the rock structure that our new friend called home for a day.  

Fear is not a factor when you can see God’s work less than an hour from home.  The Rim of the Gap stands out when it comes to hiking The Upstate and we cannot wait to visit again in the not-so-distant future.  We hope you are inclined to do the same.

One Of At Least 100 Mini-Waterfalls On This Hike. And Brett.
Hey, There's Another Waterfall. Without Brett.


We Made It!


OOPS!


UPDATE:  Thanks to Jennifer Miller for commenting below and sending a few pics from her last trip to Jones Gap.  Ms. Miller said that the tracks pictured below were 5 to 6 inches long which would suggest an animal of pretty impressive size.  On the other hand, the forest ranger I spoke with assured me that the largest cat in the area would be a bobcat, which means one of two things:

A) Mr. Forest Ranger is sadly misinformed and needs to come to terms with the fact that big cats can and do live in this region.

or

B) There is a bobcat at Jones Gap with ridiculously large feet and an incredibly deep voice.

I am no zoologist but I am going with option A on this one. If these tracks are the size Ms. Miller says they are, a bobcat would not be able to lift his feet.  That would just be sad.



So, the answer is actually, C - these tracks were not made by a cat.  Ms. Miller's follow up research suggests that the tracks included claw marks which are more likely of the canine variety.  This does not change the fact that mountain lions are in the area but in this case we are more likely looking at evidence of a huge dog or maybe a coyote (?). It is all still pretty interesting in my opinion and we look forward to learning more about the wide variety of animal species that we might encounter on future trips deep in the mountains.
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