The mountains are way too cold! Plus, it gets dark so early that day-tripping is a challenge. What’s the winter hiking cure for cabin fever?
Nearby Fountain Inn provides a solution in Cedar Falls Park, operated by Greenville County Parks, Recreation and Tourism. This southside park spans about a mile along the Reedy River. Old mill ruins and wide, rocky shoals and frothy white cascades create unique scenery of quintessential Upstate flavor. Winter bonus: Because the leaves have dropped from the trees,The river is more easily visible from the trail.
In addition to the splendid natural environment, the site is rich with history. It was once a Native American camp (not a permanent settlement), and an information placard explains how they lived in the area. There is also a sign posted about the history of the mill — much like the falls downtown, the river was used for hydroelectric power. A third plaque shares what types of wildlife dwell in the area from blue heron to beavers.
With four trails, the river shoals, mill ruins and a playground, you can visit this park several times without having the same experience twice.
If you’re too chilly to spend much time outside, no worries. There are two ways to access the cascades. From the smaller parking lot, it’s only a quarter-mile walk along the River Trail to the dam. This is where you’ll find the informational placards and mill ruins. Shoals are widest here, and you can walk out on sandbars for different views.
Cedar Falls Park has changed over the past two years. Previously, water rushed over the top of the historic man-made dam in a large waterfall. Sadly, the water has changed course and is now diverted through an opening in the dam called a penstock.
The penstocks were once covered with doors, and the mill would open and close the doors to control water flow, explained Don Schuman, parks director for Greenville County Parks, Recreation and Tourism. Those doors are gone, Schuman said, so when a storm dislodged the natural debris that was blocking one penstock, the water diverted. The water began to flow through the penstock, eliminating the main waterfall. Without a door to block the opening, the site will stay as it is, unless debris again clogs the penstock.
Despite changes at the park, the wide river shoals and whitewater make a beautiful scene — too expansive to capture on the panoramic setting of your camera. Many families were enjoying the park on our last visit.
If you want more of a walk than the short River Trail, options are the Forest Trail (.5 miles) and the Nature Trail (1.5 mi). Both are one-way, so double those lengths to calculate total distance if you have to backtrack to your car.
Another stroll isn’t listed as a trail, but there’s a wide, grassy path that leads from the playground to a hilltop meadow above the dam. (Watch for ant hills.). The path runs parallel to the half-mile forest trail. If you stop at the playground first, this would be an easy walk to the falls area – probably the most direct too, as the trails wind a bit.
The playground has the Activity Lawn Trail, which is a quarter-mile, like a meandering track.
If you really want exercise, you might think the longest trail, the Nature Trail is the way to start your adventure; following the riverbanks and picking up the River Trail to the shoals. The tricky part about that plan is the Nature Trail starts at the playground.
Imagine pulling up to the playground parking area with all the kids, and telling them, “No, kids. We’re not playing yet. We’re going to walk in the woods first.” Well, I was foolish enough to try it, and it didn’t work out. Maybe when they’re teenagers?
If you want to walk first, arrive at the small parking lot by the River Trail, where the playground isn’t visible. You might pass it, depending on your route.
Once we bailed out of the Nature Trail, moved the car to the other parking lot, and arrived at the shoals, my kids were happy to wait on the playground and explore the area. Whew! They liked the mill ruins, read the information about animals and Native Americans and explored the woods around the river. While a playground great, but I knew that was the first stop, the kids would be too worn out to walk.
While looking at the map before your visit is a good idea, I suggest keeping a flexible attitude instead of carving your plans in stone.
If you’re looking for the Nature Trail from the playground, the trailhead isn’t marked. Walk toward the birdhouse by the woods, and look left for a bench. The bench is next to the trailhead. The Nature Trail is the only unpaved trail in the park, and there is an odd fork when you first enter. Bear left at the fork and remember the first leg of the trail runs parallel to the road. You’ll know pretty soon that you’re on the right track when you reach the first footbridge. Another reason to try this trail in the winter is that the gnats are gnarly here, but in winter they should be dormant.