A park for everyone

(Photo: Philip Hunt)

Jones Gap State Park is nestled in the northwest corner of South Carolina. While accessible, it can be rugged. While mostly quiet and serene, it can be exhilarating. While providing comfortable campsites, it also offers primitive campsites for the wilderness experience. When I think about Jones Gap, I’m reminded of Lucy from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. She asks if Aslan, the lion, is safe. Her beaver friend responds, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Jones Gap is a park that can offer safe, quiet walks to beautiful waterfalls and lung-burning hikes traversing steep rock walls that can thrill the adventure seeker. Since I was young, this park has provided adventure on every trip.

My first trip to Jones Gap was a birthday party in fourth grade. The dad set out with five young boys up a well-maintained trail. Before long, he thought this was too tame and decided we should “rock hop” up the stream instead. We hopped from boulder to boulder until we reached a small cascade. Each one of my friends clambered up the slick rock, and I brought up the rear.

Halfway up the rock, I froze. If I picked up my foot, I was sure I’d slide into the icy pool below. I finally summoned the courage and strength needed to join up with our crew. At the final destination of our hike, a sense of accomplishment accompanied my trail mix and juice box with the rest of the group.

When I got my driver’s license, I started camping with my friends. One friend in particular, Josh, was always up for camping, no matter the conditions. One camping trip in particular, we hiked into one of the backcountry sites at Jones Gap. When we left the parking lot in the late afternoon, the temperature hovered around 40 degrees. Due to a recent rainstorm, firewood was scarce to scavenge, and we ended up eating undercooked steak and potatoes. The puny fire flickered while we labored to stomach our bad dinner. It was a lying fire — although there was a flame, there was no discernible warmth. We decided it was best to hunker down in our sleeping bags in the tent and call it a night.

Each of our sleeping bags was rated for 15 degrees. The forecasted low was 20 degrees, and while our bags kept us alive, we weren’t warm. At one point during that chilly night, I realized I was snuggling with my friend. High school boys don’t snuggle in tents unless it is a matter of survival. As the sun crested the gap, we awoke to an ice cocoon. Our sleeping bags and tent had a layer of ice from condensation. For two boys from the Deep South, this trip had a lasting impact on our camping trips. Now with kids of our own, we always recount the tale of the coldest night in Jones Gap.

(Photo: Philip Hunt)

These stories may make it sound like Jones Gap State Park is no place for families, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The park has something for everyone. In fact, our kids had their first night under the stars at this park. The campsites are secluded enough that the park can be crowded, yet still feel remote.

The kids love climbing on the massive boulders throughout the park and skipping rocks in the stream going through it.

We like to rock hop up the creek during downtime. When my kids get into a precarious spot, the memories of being scared still on a rock in fourth grade come rushing back. When my kids get the courage to move, I am filled with joy that they can feel the same accomplishment I did 30 years later on the same stream.

Maybe when they get old enough, I’ll take them out on a trip when the thermometer dips well below freezing. Until then, our family will camp when the weather is more suitable for camping, not survival.

(Photo: Philip Hunt)

Jones Gap State Park is like a home away from home for me. The trails and waterfalls are beautiful. The weather can be beautiful or scary. The hikes can be mild or daring. I hope by the time my kids have their own children, they will also look with fondness back at Jones Gap. The confidence and sense of adventure that it imparted to them will pass to another generation. Wild places can’t be tamed. Wild places aren’t safe, but they are good.