Trail, mountain and waterfall little but fascinating in Newberry County

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 27, 2014 

  • If you go

    Rocky Branch Natural Area

    Directions: Take I-26 west to exit 85, and head to Little Mountain. Take a left on Main Street, and then a right on Mountain Street. The Rocky Branch Natural Area parking area is ahead on the left.

    Extra: If you like antiques, head back up Main Street after your hike and peruse The Corner Store and Little Mountain Unlimited, which has a downstairs cafe.

— The waterfall, mountain and trail at Rocky Branch Natural Area are all short compared to other waterfalls, mountains and trails, but they are spectacular in their own unusual ways.

Their main distinction is where they are. Who expects a waterfall (even if it’s only 4 feet) or a mountain (even if it’s only about 200 feet above the surrounding plateau) in the Midlands? And what trail can crawl so close to a highway and a power line gash yet seem so natural?

That’s the beauty of the Rocky Creek Natural Area, 44 acres of mature hardwood forest on steep slopes at the base of a Newberry County geological feature known as Little Mountain. The bump, technically a monadnock, is one of the last major chunks of what eons of erosion has turned into the Appalachian Mountains.

Local resident Roxie Koon Derrick put a conservation easement on the 44 acres at the base of Little Mountain south of Mountain Drive/Dreher Island Road in 2007.

“It’s such a unique place,” Derrick said at the time. “There are so many different minerals and flora and fauna. I hope it can be used for school groups."

Now it’s ready for school groups and anybody else who wants to explore its varied and slightly out-of-place plants and creatures. Many of the 330 species of vascular plants along the trail are more common in Oconee County than Newberry County — including mountain laurel and piedmont azaleas.

Little Mountain leaders worked to land about $200,000 from the Newberry County Capital Projects sales tax and from a state trails grant program to build a parking area, bathroom and hiking trail on the property. The parking area opened late last year, and the first section of the trail quietly was finished early this year. With the spring wildflowers beginning to bloom, now is an ideal time to explore that beautiful trail.

“We’re just so fortunate that Roxie Derrick had the concern to conserve that property,” said former Little Mountain Mayor Buddy Johnson, who spearheaded the effort to make the area more accessible.

While trail signs aren’t up yet, the start of the trail to the right of the parking area is obvious. The trail builders created a wide path that’s hard-packed with clay and rocks. It’s wheelchair-accessible for the quarter of a mile completed so far.

Hikers hug the upper edge of the slope for the first half of the trail, looking down through oak and hickory trees at the meandering Rocky Branch below. By late spring, the foliage will make it more difficult to spot the water.

After that initial straight section, hikers take a couple of sweeping turns like surfers carving down a big wave down to lower sections of the slope. The long switchbacks reduce the strain of the elevation change on hikers’ calves and thighs.

For now, the trail ends way too quickly. Most will be tempted to continue, either bushwhacking down the slope to the creek (be careful of briars) or following the plastic trail tape attached every once in a while to trees to mark the proposed path of the second phase of the trail.

The tape for now leads back up to Dreher Island Road, but the trail extension eventually will curl down all the way down to the creek, over a wooden bridge near the waterfall to a final spur of trail back a few hundred feet up the other side of the creek. It’ll be an out-and-back trail, with a round trip of a about 1 1/2 miles.

The trail is like the waterfall and the mountain — short but fascinating.

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