Monday, February 13, 2017

Your guide to Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway 11

A view of Table Rock from the State Park visitor center

South Carolina’s Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway 11 stretches from Gaffney near the NC border, to Lake Hartwell at Fairplay on the Georgia line. This alternate route to I-85 allows travelers to cross the Upstate in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Blue Ridge Escarpment rising sharply from the low hills of the Piedmont for a large portion of the drive.

In addition to the natural splendor, there are dozens of other attractions along the 112-mile stretch: historical parks, shopping, recreation and lodging topping the list. With access points along the entire stretch, Highway 11 is an easy destination from most of the Upstate. I’ve put together this guide of some of the most popular spots along the way, for an easy reference to planning your spring day-trips to some of the most scenic areas of Upstate, South Carolina!

The Peachoid water tower, source here

Our journey starts in Gaffney, Peach Capital of SC and home to the giant “Peachoid” water tower and the Gaffney outlet malls. Cherokee county has 24 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, among them the Gaffney Commercial and Residential Historic Districts. Cherokee County History & Arts Museum in the historic Central Elementary School building has permanent exhibits on the history that shaped the region, and is a great place to start your trip; the exhibit “Land of Revolutions” includes the origins of Scenic Highway 11, recounting the days the route was used by the Cherokee Indians and the first English and French fur traders.

After crossing Interstate 85 you will soon approach another place on the National Register of Historic Places, one of the nine National Park Service sites in South Carolina: Cowpens National Battlefield in Chesnee. This Revolutionary War site commemorates the area where Daniel Morgan and his army won the decisive battle against Banastre Tarleton's British troops.

After passing Lake Bowen and crossing Interstate 26 you’ll reach the intersection with Highway 14 in Gowensville. A short distance south is Highway 414, Beaverdam Creek and Campbell’s Covered Bridge. The only remaining covered bridge in the State of South Carolina, the bridge and surrounding acreage are owned by Greenville County, and also contain the foundations of a grist mill and a short trail.

Further along Highway 11 is Chestnut Ridge Heritage Preserve and Wildlife Management Area, one of the many parks managed by the SC Department of Natural Resources along Highway 11. The spring wildflowers and several waterfalls on the South Pacolet River are accessible by a 2.75 mile trail, and the views of Hogback Mountain make this an appealing destination any time of year. 

To reach Poinsett Bridge you will have to once more leave Hwy 11, traveling halfway to the North Saluda Reservoir to the oldest bridge in South Carolina. Built in 1820 as part of a road from Columbia to Saluda Mountain, it was named for Joel Roberts Poinsett and is currently managed by Greenville County. (The North Saluda Reservoir supplies Greenville with its water, and the reservoir and surrounding area are closed to the public.)

Shortly after crossing I-25 and passing The Cliffs and Perdeaux Fruit Farm, you will reach the historic Pleasant Ridge County Park, established in the 1940s for the African American community during segregation. The trail system is open to hikers and bicyclists, and features a lake and Pleasant Ridge Falls.

Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park

Soon after in Cleveland, Highway 11 makes a sharp turn to follow 276 (Geer Highway). To reach Jones Gap, one of the most popular SC State Parks, you would turn north on Highway 97 about a mile after making the turn onto 276. Jones Gap is the location of favorite waterfalls such as Rainbow, Falls Creek and Jones Gap Falls, and connects with Caesars Head State Park with a network of trails.

Right before Hwy 11 splits off again from Geer Highway is Wildcat Wayside, part of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. In addition to the waterfall that is visible from the road (Wildcat Branch Falls), the park also features several miles of trail that lead to Upper Wildcat Branch Falls and past a few smaller cascades.

View from Bald Rock looking out over the Upstate

At the intersection where Hwy 11 separates from 276 is a pull-off. Intended as a carpool lot, it can also serve as a parking area to visit Sweet Thing and Last Falls on Slickum Creek. On hot days when Wildcat Wayside is full these comparatively-unknown waterfalls can serve as a welcome diversion. 276 also makes a great side-trip from your Highway 11 excursion, leading to Bald Rock Heritage Preserve, Caesars Head State Park, Pretty Place and Raven Cliff Falls, the highest waterfall in South Carolina.

By this time you’ll be in the mood for a coffee, ice cream or a snack, and the Pumpkintown Opry is just the place to stop and refuel. The lodge was built in 1986, and contains a restaurant and “Southern Mountain Theater” that performs most Saturday nights. Nearby Pumpkintown was settled in the 18th century and thought to have been named for the pumpkins growing along the Oolenoy River. Less than 3 miles further down the road is Aunt Sue’s County Corner, with several old-timey stores and a restaurant/ice cream shop offering another respite from the road. A mile north on S Saluda Rd. is Victoria Valley Vineyards, complete with French varietals, wine tastings & tours, and a dining terrace.

View of Table Rock Reservoir from summit of Table Rock

Next on your Hwy 11 tour you will reach Table Rock State Park. If you have the whole day to spend here, make the challenging hike up to the summit of Table Rock for the panoramic views of the Upstate and the Table Rock Reservoir, or the less-challenging but no-less-scenic Carrick Creek trail hike. If you only have 30 minutes, turn south from Hwy 11 and stop at the Park’s Visitor Center, taking in the view of Table Rock from the pier on Lake Oolenoy or from one of the rocking chairs on the porch.

Reaching the intersection with Hwy 178 signals the proximity to the Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area and the dozens of waterfalls, parks and attractions within. Turning north here will take you to Sassafras Mountain (the highest point in the state), Twin Falls, Jumping Off Rock and the Narrows. An infamous local spot is Bob’s Place – let me know if you stop there, I’ve never worked up the nerve! Meanwhile, driving south from Hwy 11 will bring you to the historic Hagood Mill and Pickens.

Fall color at Nine Times Preserve

Just to the east of the 178/11 intersection is the town of Sunset, SC; you’ll know you’re there when you see the Post Office. A little further is East Preston McDaniels Rd. on which you’ll find Nine Times Preserve on Nine Times Creek, named for the nine bridges built across the small, trout-filled creek to gain access to the property. The 560-acre nature preserve is one of the most biologically significant properties in the southeast, and while a spring visit will coincide with a plethora of wildflowers, the autumn foliage is quite spectacular.

Little Eastatoe Creek flows parallel to Hwy 11 for a half-dozen miles, and provides the main attraction in Long Shoals Wayside Park, about 4 miles west of Sunset’s Post Office. The 10-acre park contains a sliding rock perfect for some summer water fun!

After crossing Poe Creek you’ll reach the entrance to Keowee-Toxaway State Park. Known for the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the 1,000 acre park is considered a gateway to the Jocassee Gorges. The Natural Bridge Trail leads past a dozen small waterfalls to a natural rock bridge. This is an ideal destination on a hot summer’s day; bring your bathing suits!

Another three miles down the road you’ll pass the road that leads to Devils Fork State Park, another popular summer spot with its trails and swimming area on Lake Jocassee. The park is home to the rare Oconee Bell wildflower, which draws hundreds of visitors from mid-March to early April to hike the Oconee Bell Nature trail. 

In the stretch of Sumter National Forest between Devils Fork and Oconee State Parks you’ll find a slew of waterfalls: Bee Cove, Miuka, Secret, Lee and Hidden Falls along the escarpment, others such as Spoonauger, King Creek, Big Bend and Pigpen closer to the Georgia border. Reaching most of these remote waterfalls requires a significant hike in addition to additional drive time from Hwy 11. However, the 60-ft Station Cove Falls is an easy 30 minute hike only about 2 ½ miles from the Cherokee Scenic Highway; the trailhead is located in Oconee Station State Historic Site, what used to be a military compound and later a trading post.

Although Oconee State Park is not much further north from the State Historic Site, to reach it visitors must circle around by way of Hwy 28 and 107, or hike through on the Foothill Trail connector. The park offers amenities such as cabins, canoe rental and paddleboats, and features fishing, swimming and hiking. Oconee State Park is the southern trailhead for the Foothills Trail, South Carolina’s 80-mile wilderness hike on the Blue Ridge Escarpment that ends at Table Rock State Park.

Exploring Stumphouse Tunnel

Most of the attractions seem to be on the north side of the highway, although with Lake Keowee (and later Lake Hartwell) to the southeast for the last ¼, there are some cool places to explore to the south as well; two examples are High Falls County Park and South Cove County Park. However, the lure of Sumter National Forest and the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River to the north is quite strong, offering exciting destinations such as Fall Creek Falls and Bull Sluice & Long Creek Falls on the Chattooga. Closer to Highway 11 (but still about 7 miles away) are the Stumphouse Tunnel Park and Issaqueena Falls. Yellow Branch Falls, a 60-ft waterfall that cascades over a series of rock ledges is one of my favorites, and is a 3-mile round trip hike that departs from a trailhead not far from Stumphouse.

In Westminster, Highway 11 crosses US-123, which connects Greenville with Toccoa, GA, passing through Easley and Clemson on the way. From the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway it is just 6-7 miles to Chau Ram County Park, home to Chau Ram falls, camping and kayaking.

Yellow Branch Falls

Less than 10 miles from the endpoint at Lake Hartwell State Park is the intersection with Highway 24, the Savannah River Scenic Biway. This 100-mile scenic trip parallels the Savannah River and the Georgia State line all the way to Augusta, and is characterized by farms, forests, lakes, small towns and numerous historical sites along the way.

The Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway ends at Lake Hartwell State Park, renown fishing destination on the 56,000-acre Lake Hartwell. Returning to Gaffney from this point via I-85 is a round-trip journey of over 200 miles, requiring more than 4 hours of driving (and that’s without stops or traffic). I like to remind people that once you’re off Hwy 11 roads tend to be steep and winding, with speed limits sometimes decreasing to 30, even 15 miles an hour. Budget additional time to reach your destination in case you get stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, or have the occasional minor navigational hiccup (as some trailheads are marked better than others).

View of the Upstate from Pretty Place

There are companies that offer tours of the area, including Dark Corner Tours, Jocassee Lake Tours and Horseback Waterfall Tours of the Upstate, although in my opinion the best way to see the area is to do a little research and start driving. You will not be able to visit all the mentioned locations in one trip; in fact, you might be hard pressed to drive the entire 112-mile scenic route in one go, unless you really enforce a no-stops mentality. However you will find it hard to stop exploring once you have started – the lure of this corner of the state is near-impossible to resist.

1 comment:

  1. Happy Valentine's Day to you and your loved ones. We are enjoying this special day in Arkansas at our special little cabin on the mountain!

    Beautiful post. We have been to a lot of those places but not all of them... We loved the Jones Gap area --but we didn't get to Rainbow Falls.. We did enjoy Jones Creek Falls...



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