If there is one geographic feature that is instantly recognized by residents of the Upstate, it’s Table Rock. Located in Table Rock State Park, the mountain serves as a backdrop for Highway 11 and is easily seen from Bald Rock and Caesars Head. Table Rock is part of the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment that sharply rises from the foothills of Upcountry South Carolina to evolve into the mountainous western North Carolina. The Cherokee referred to this area as Sah-ka-na-ga, which translates as the “great blue hills of god,” and it was here at the giant Table Rock that they believe their god sat down to feast, using the rocky mountain as his table & Stool Mountain as his seat.
|Table Rock and Stool Mountain|
The leaves have just started to turn here in the Upstate, and with clear, sunny skies we decided to escape to the mountains and Table Rock State Park, an Upstate treasure on the National Register of Historic Places. The Visitor Center located south of Highway 11 (with its scenic view of Table Rock rising above Lake Oolenoy) is a frequent stop of ours when showing guests around the Upstate. However, on this visit we turned north on Table Rock State Park Rd. into the park, drove past the historic CCC Lodge on Pinnacle Lake, and stopped at the Table Rock overlook for a great view of the barren mountainsides rising above the green valley.
|The boys at the overlook|
Parking for the Table Rock trailhead is across from the Nature Center. All hikers must fill out a hiker registration form (at the Nature Center or the kiosk), and then can proceed up the trail that parallels the creek on its descent from the mountain. There is a viewing area at a lovely waterfall, and then the trail splits; the left fork is Pinnacle Mountain Trail and the Carrick Creek Nature Trail looping one way, while to the right is Table Rock Trail and the other end of the Carrick Creek loop. This is also the intersection with the Foothills Trail - Sassafras Mountain only 9.5 miles! At this point our party split up, the boys headed clockwise on the 2-mile Carrick Creek Nature Trail, while I was setting my sights on the summit of Table Rock.
|The Nature Center|
After about ½ mile up a gentle grade I passed the intersection for the Carrick Creek loop, and after crossing a bridge I left Green creek behind me and started the climb. The elevation of the Nature Center is 1160’ and the summit of Table Rock is 3124’; this hike climbs 1,964 feet over its length of 3.6 miles (one way). The ascent is persistent, and hikers should be prepared for a strenuous hike with little reprieve for legs and lungs. Other than resting on one of the flat boulders that are strewn across the forest floor, there is no break from the steady climb for most of the hike.
At an elevation of 2400′ I reached the halfway-up point, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) shelter with a view of Pinnacle Lake. As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the work relief program CCC built all of the pre-WWII structures within the park, including the Lodge on the drive in, and this shelter.
|view from shelter|
Not long after passing the shelter I hit Panther Gap (2.1 miles in), where the trail forks once more. From this point it is 2 miles west along Ridge Trail to Pinnacle summit (3,415 feet), South Carolina’s tallest mountain that rests entirely within state lines (3,553’ Sassafras Mountain straddles the NC/SC state line). Turning right I continued my climb up Table Rock Mountain, and after a short respite of rather level ridgeline I hit the steepest section of the hike.
|View from Governor's Rock: Pinnacle & Sassafras Mountains|
The climb up to Governor’s Rock was almost a deal-breaker for me, but thankfully I made it up the near-vertical steps up giant boulders to reach this incredibly scenic vista. With 2800’ of elevation the view extends to Pinnacle, Hickory Nut and Sassafras Mountains. Governor’s Rock marks the approach of the turn-around point of the hike, but it seemed as though a large portion of hikers didn’t know or didn’t care to continue; many turned around and returned the way they had come after a short rest. The view from this large granite bald is gorgeous, but the remainder of the hike is a piece of cake compared to the first 2 ½ miles, and features even more spectacular scenery… I recommend continuing on, following the red blazes back into the forest on the right side of the exposed rock.
There was definitely more color up along the ridgeline, as the persimmon & occasional maple was bright red and the understory of blueberries tinged yellow. Several outcrops on the right provided additional rest points and a view of Stool Mountain just before hitting the summit of Table Rock Mountain at 3,124 feet, 0.6 miles from Governor’s Rock. At this point the trail starts descending to the overlooks, the first of which is not far from the summit. The view across the surface of the granite dome & subsequent gorge features 400’ Slicking Falls, and the mosses, grasses and stunted trees growing on the bald provide a completely different milieu from the wooded ascent.
Follow the red paint to the end of the trail, a third of a mile after the summit. This is the grand finale, the reward at the end of a rather difficult hike; the view across Table Rock Reservoir to Caesars Head State Park is a stunning climax, the perfect spot to take a breather and soak it all in.
After a short ascent back to the summit, it is all downhill to return to the Nature Center. On this beautiful day of crystal-clear skies the trail was crowded; I encountered almost 100 people on my way up and probably double that on the way down, including a couple of speaker-toting, music-blasting parties that disrupted the peace of the hike far more than any trail chatter I may have overheard. I anticipate Table Rock Trail will see elevated usage in the next couple of weeks as the Blue Ridge Escarpment reaches peak fall color, and then once the cold weather descends it will revert to the peaceful ambience that its 2,000’ elevation gain and 7.2 miles usually commands.
What else is there to say about this hike? Come prepared: warm clothes for cool/windy weather at the summit, water, proper footwear, knowledge of the trail. Stay on the trail, as many of the outcrops and rock areas have precipitous edges that would mean certain injury or death with a misstep. The recommended time to budget for this hike is 4 hours, although I’m sure that it can take longer with stops at all the scenic points. And hang in there – the last bit to the Table Rock Reservoir is the easiest, and most rewarding.
PS. You can see the view of Table Rock without leaving your home with the SC Parks webcam here.