Wandering out into the woods and mountains searching for beautiful things to capture on digital film is often more than just a hobby. On many occasions, it is a way to get away from the stress of modern life; to be reminded that the world can be a calmer place. Chaotic in its own way, to be sure, but in a fashion that feels...right. The scents of pine and earth surround and wrap the wanderer comfortingly. The delicate feel of the wind across the skin, and the coarse cold feel of the stone beneath the fingertips make me feel at home. The gentle roar of a waterfall, the song of a bird, and even the creaky whisper of tree trunks moving against each other are the best music to drive out the demons.
After a few deeply challenging weeks, a trip up to Rainbow Falls in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area of South Carolina medicated my bruised and battered psyche. The hike is not an easy one, but the view of the waterfall at the end makes the cost in sore muscles worth paying. The Rainbow Falls Trail itself is 2.2 miles, but in order to get to the trail, one has to walk along the Jones Gap Trail for a mile or so.
I had been on the Jones Gap Trail before, when completing a loop that started from the Coldspring Branch Trail. This opposite end of the trail was no less rocky and uneven than the other, composed more of jumbled stones than soft earth. But the trail follows the Middle Saluda River, South Carolina's first designated scenic river. On the day I went in mid-April, the river jumped and splashed over myriad torrents, cascades and cataracts, their rushing sound lending a soft roar as accompaniment.
When the Rainbow Falls trail branches off, it crosses the river by way of a narrow bridge with a single handrail. The handrail's stability did not inspire much confidence, so I relied more on my sense of balance to get me across. Not long after heading north away from the Jones Gap Trail, the path started to gain elevation. And once it did so, it did not let up much at all the entire way to the waterfall.
For a while, I felt shadowed by a couple of hikers who stayed relatively close. In order to give myself a break, and to allow them to pass, I found a lower waterfall and sat on a boulder adjacent to the flow, rinsing off some sweat and replenishing with water from my supply. Strangely enough, the couple never passed, and I don't recall seeing them again. Perhaps they decided to try this trail another day.
I continued by way of some stone steps between large boulders just up from my resting spot, and resumed my climb. The trail wound back and forth up the slope of the gap, and to the right, I was treated to awesome views of the gap's far side surmounted by a rich blue sky. I did meet a few denizens of the area. There were lizards, one of which I tried to photograph, but the sly reptile was not having any of it, and would not let me close enough to get a clear image. I was fortunate to find a more amenable subject in a butterfly which led me on a brief merry chase, but sat still long enough with wings unfolded for a close-up.
The butterfly was just before a large sheet of water that slid down a high rock face. Having never been to Rainbow Falls, and knowing nothing about it at the time, I wondered if this was the waterfall. However, the trail kept going, and I was fairly certain that I had not been out there long enough, yet.
After passing a few moments with a photogenic fiddlehead, the waterfall appeared around a corner. I had already been certain of its presence, because the impressive crash of white noise was unmistakeable. But, when I saw it, I was entirely glad I had come, even though I was tired from the climb. My exhaustion fled and I quickly made my way forward to get a good look at this amazing plunge waterfall. The main fall drops from a high bluff in a narrow channel, and smashes into enormous boulders at the base, splintering into smaller watercourses that join together to form other tiered falls below as it makes its way past the trail, rushing down the mountain.
I stopped at one of the lower boulders while I waited for fellow hikers to enjoy large flat stone that serves as a viewing platform. But, as soon as they left, I hurried to seize the opportunity. The sound was joyous, and blessedly cool after the warmth of the sun on the trail. The lower waterfalls flow around this boulder, throwing up a little misty spray. I remained there for quite some time, as no one else was waiting, taking photo after photo, trying many different lenses, speeds, and aperture settings, hoping vainly to get a shot that would adequately capture the grandeur of the scene.
After a while, I put away the camera and just sat on the stone, letting the mist, the roar, the breeze and the stone recharge my flagging mind and body. It seemed that I couldn't get enough of the riot of color. Beyond the blue of the sky and the green of the trees, the bluff that supported the fall sported shades of yellow and orange shot through the normal grays of the stone. And all around, the coming spring announced itself with small spatterings of red and purple.
On my reluctant way back, I met two hikers making their way up. One of the two, clearly out of breath and working hard, asked how much farther it was. I gave a vague answer, as I have elsewhere admitted to having a very underdeveloped sense of distance, but I said that the distance didn't matter. It was worth it.