The waterfall and cliff communities are the heart and soul of the Southern Highlands Reserve.
These natural areas, comprising 100 acres and a change in elevation of 1000 feet (4700’–3700’) in a distance of 2000 feet, are the upper-most face of the Blue Ridge Escarpment as seen from the piedmont of South Carolina.
The steep southeast-facing slope drops down from a broad wind-swept summit above that is home to stunted and gnarled red oaks and chestnut oaks, only eight inches in diameter and 14 feet tall, yet maybe 80 years old. Layered bands of gneiss form an extensive cliff complex.
Several Spray Cliffs, nested within the larger Montane Acidic Cliff community, occur at the head of small streams where water has cut through bedrock to form waterfalls with grottoes. A number or rare and unusual Spray Cliff plants grow together in these areas — grass–of–Parnassus, round-leaf sundew, rock-fir clubmoss, grotto alumroot, grotto felt and Appalachian Shoestring fern. The rare granite dome bluet is also found in the surrounding cliff areas. All of the wet grotto areas are covered with dense moss/liverwort mats.
Described as a Significant Natural Heritage Area by Ed Schwartzman of the NC Natural Heritage Trust Fund, our waterfall and cliff communities are a gift that deserves our protection. To preserve this fragile environment, only the most essential conveyances have been constructed here. To avoid trampling, access is restricted in these areas.
In the very beginning, when our main objective was to explore and discover the Southern Highlands Reserve property, to find out what was here and where it was …. to become familiar with the place …. John and Jesse Turner got so lost one day that they inadvertently found themselves back at John’s house in Sapphire Valley – that’s a thirty minute car ride away! We never got THAT lost again but many hours and wet, soggy days were spent crawling around in the brush trying to find reasonable trail routes between craggy rock faces and outcrops.
Two roads for vehicular access were cut into two spots that provided jumping off points for both the summit areas and the waterfall areas. These were routes that avoided the most environmentally sensitive areas and, as difficult as they were to put in -being sited on the side of a mountain with a 2:1 slope, were the best shot we had.
The first year of exploring this mountain side was exciting. We had no idea what was there. Each exciting discovery of waterfalls and grottoes led to a search for more botanical and ecological treasures. And …. we got to name what we found! Christmas Falls was named as such because we found it on Christmas Day. Chaos Falls got it’s name because the water stream moves and dances in its long drop from the top of the falls. Eden Falls was named for Robert Balentine’s exclamation on first seeing them, “This must be what the Garden of Eden looked like”. Eden Falls was also the most sought after treasure. John McCarley of Cashiers, one of the first members of the SHR team, found Eden Falls on his own and refused to tell the rest of us how to find them. McCarley’s diabolical scheme was intended to spur the rest of the team on to more intense searches but actually resulted in lots of skinned elbows and shins, stuck 100 pound dogs that had to be carried off the cliffs and on the day the rest of us finally found the elusive Eden Falls, Balentine and Turner were so wet and muddy and lost (we ended up on a road well below the Reserve) that our rescuers would not allow us inside of the car dispatched to bring us home. We had to wait for a truck so we could ride in the back.
To say the least, this was a challenging area to access. The rare and unusual plants and diversity of plant habitats awaiting there, however, dictated that somehow we had to find a route and build it in a way that did not destroy what we were dedicated to protecting.
This was accomplished by doing everything by hand and by the ingenious devices devised by Aaron Bailey to ease the traverse of cliff faces, steep ravines and slippery rock surfaces in and around the waterfall grotto areas. In addition to building a 300′ set of wooden steps that wind unobtrusively through a steep Mountain Laurel thicket, Aaron implanted iron steps with hand rails in rock faces and built a wooden spiral staircase attached to an automobile axle and universal joint. Across a sheer rock face, Aaron constructed a Via Ferrata (The Iron Way) that consists of a 600′ steel cable attached to the cliff with bolts. All of these devices contribute greatly to the ability of a hiker to traverse these sensitive areas while leaving a minimum footprint.