Monday, August 6, 2018

Exploring Lake Jocassee

There is no doubt that the best way to explore the 75 miles of Lake Jocassee’s shoreline is by water. The 7,500 acre lake is at the heart of the Jocassee Gorges, regarded by National Geographic as one of “50 of the World’s Last Great Places,” and the uniqueness of the area in terms of geography, plant diversity and natural beauty is second to none. The majority of land around Lake Jocassee is protected from development, a large portion being part of the Jim Timmerman Natural Resources Area at Jocassee Gorges. Meanwhile public road access is mostly restricted to Devils Fork State Park at the very south end of the lake. Public boat ramps at the Park were our means of access on a recent visit; for more on Devils Fork State Park and its trails and amenities please visit my post, Devils Fork.

Lake Jocassee is tremendously deep, up to 350’ in places. At the southeast corner of the lake you’ll find the Jocassee Hydro Station holding back all this water, standing 385 feet high and 1,750 feet long, and separating Jocassee from what eventually becomes Lake Keowee. The shoreline north of the dam is popular with boaters due to the tall cliffs rising out of the water. You’ll often see multiple pontoons anchored and swimmers enjoying the aqua waters, and the white sand beach (depending on the water level) will even have folks with barbecues and tents on sunny weekends.

Created by the state of SC in partnership with Duke Power in 1973, Jocassee is famous for its clear and cool waters, fed by rivers descending from the Appalachians. The easternmost is Horsepasture River, which flows into the northeast corner of Lake Jocassee along with Toxaway River, together forming the right ‘arm’ of the lake. Access to the wilderness to the east is complicated. Horsepasture Road winds 16 unpaved miles through the Jocassee Gorges from Rocky Bottom and the Eastatoe Gorge all the way to Lake Keowee, with a handful of smaller two-tracks (not always open to vehicle traffic) and a network of trails providing some access. However, the terrain is breathtakingly rugged, and while there are spectacular views of Lake Jocassee along Horsepasture Road (see my post on Jumping Off Rock), the only way to get down to the lake is via an arduous hike, such as on the Foothills Trail.

Laurel Fork Falls, from cove and from grotto

The large, steep valleys that surround Lake Jocassee are responsible for a large number of waterfalls, many of which are visible from the water. The crown jewel is Laurel Fork Falls, an 80 foot waterfall that is on the same river that flows over Virginia Hawkins Falls (see my post on the Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve). Although the view from the Laurel Creek cove is extraordinary, you'll have to turn the corner into the grotto behind the rocky tower to see the waterfall plunge into the lake (see photo above). Nearby you’ll find an access trail to the Foothills Trail along with multiple other waterfalls including Devils Hole Creek Falls and Mills Creek Falls. Additional popular destinations on the east arm of Jocassee include the many small islands jutting out of the turquoise waters, and a rock formation our friends call ‘jump off point’ due to the convenient access to a ledge for jumping into the lake. *PLEASE exercise extreme caution when jumping into any lake, checking depth and searching for obstructions (underwater as well as above water) as well as considering safe footing.* Navigating to the mouths of Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers will take you into North Carolina, so make sure you’ve got your passport with if you’re headed that far…

Cliffs near the Jocassee Hydro Station

Flowing into Lake Jocassee in the northwest corner of the lake are Whitewater River and Thompson River, together forming a left ‘arm’ to Lake Jocassee. Land access to this corner of the lake is via trails from the Bad Creek Trail Access Point; the Bad Creek Hydroelectric Station on Whitewater River is a 1,065 megawatt pumped-storage facility that started generating electricity in 1991 and is owned by Duke Power. The Bad Creek site provides a trailhead for the Foothills Trail, a trail through the Coon Branch Natural Area, and a ½ mile spur trail to the Whitewater River. While there is a platform overlooking Lower Whitewater Falls off the Foothills Trail, a small waterfall on Whitewater River can be seen from Lake Jocassee (Lower Lower Whitewater Falls?) just beyond the hydro station. Further east are Wright Creek Falls and Thompson Falls, as well as multiple unnamed waterfalls that are more/less easily found depending on water flow. A map of the larger waterfalls can be found online here (please note that what is labeled ‘Unnamed Falls’ is actually located at the mouth of Bad Creek).

Waterfalls on Lake Jocassee clockwise from top left: Wright Creek Falls, Thompson River Falls (from top), Devils Hole Creek Falls and Mills Creek Falls

As you follow what used to be Whitewater River back south to the main reservoir and the Devils Fork State Park boat ramps, at some point you’ll pass over the remains of Atakulla Lodge. The structure was left standing when the valley was dammed, and preserved by the cold waters of Jocassee, the Lodge still stands under 300’ of water. Experienced divers can visit the site, as well as the Mount Carmel Baptist Church Cemetery (a setting for a scene in the film Deliverance, 1972) which is about 130 feet underwater on the lake’s south end.

Guided waterfalls tours are available, fresh water fishing charters depart from the boat ramp at the park, and boats ranging from kayaks to pontoons can be rented from various vendors in the area. Fishermen will be excited to learn that Lake Jocassee holds state records for 5 species of fish: redeye bass, smallmouth bass, spotted bass, brown trout and rainbow trout. Visitors can either stay at one of the park's villas, in the campground, or at one of the many nearby private vacation rentals. Regardless, plan a return trip to Devils Fork in the spring to view the rare Oconee Bell wildflower, and hit Bear Cove trail in the autumn for the fall foliage. However you choose to explore the Jocassee Gorges, an exploration of Lake Jocassee by boat should be on your South Carolina bucket list; nothing compares to a day spent soaking in the resplendent beauty of its pristine shores, turquoise waters and cascading waterfalls with a backdrop of breathtaking blue mountains.

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