Thursday, September 8, 2016

On the summit of Sassafras Mountain

It’s the highest point in the state of South Carolina and a spot to keep in mind as you start planning where to go this autumn to see the annual display of color. Sassafras Mountain: elevation 3,553’. The peak straddles not only the line between North and South Carolina, but the Eastern Continental Divide; from its summit four states are visible on a clear day. Still, this scenic viewpoint is one of the most easily accessed “highest points” in the US, perfect for a family day trip from Greenville.

View from the summit: Foothills trail straight ahead, road to parking on right

It wasn’t always accessible. Although long the site of a fire lookout tower, it was only in the 1990s that the SC DNR acquired the acreage of what is now known as the Jocassee Gorges. The last 4.5 miles of road to the summit were paved, a gravel parking lot was installed, and in 2010, three acres of trees were cleared from the summit, revealing the views that can be seen today. The breakthrough in the Sassafras Mountain lookout point project also came that year when 4.9 acres on the North Carolina side of the state line were acquired by the Conservation Fund and then donated to the SC DNR. In 2012 a boulder with a bronze plaque was installed at the highest point, formally marking the spot that for years had been a matter of guesswork. And while fundraising efforts continue, plans are in place for a viewing plaza at the top of Sassafras Mountain complete with a picnic shelter, several viewing platforms, a central viewing tower, multiple trails, educational signage and restrooms.

We were en route west to Georgia on Labor Day weekend, opting to take the scenic Highway 11 along the base of the foothills from where it’s just a small detour to reach the top of Sassafras. From Pickens it’s 16 miles north on US 178 to Rocky Bottom, where after making a right turn (east) on F. Van Clayton Memorial Highway it’s about 5 miles to the end of the road (just short of the summit). From the parking area there are currently three trails leading in three directions: the Foothills trail headed east 14.2 miles to Caesars Head, a trail west to the temporary viewing platform that looks south and southwest over the Upstate, and a gravel road leading north to the summit and further to Oconee State Park via the Foothills trail west.

The gravel road to the summit shows wear from the current construction, and the acreage cleared of timber still has a raw feel to it. We snapped pictures at the official highest point, views stretching to the Highlands in North Carolina, Mount Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Chattooga Ridge near Walhalla and all the way to Georgia and (supposedly) Tennessee (I say supposedly because although it was easy to pick out the Georgia range, I wasn’t sure if it was the Smoky Mountains in TN we were looking at in the distance).

This is the separation point for three distinct watersheds: two into the Atlantic and one into the Gulf. Water draining from the east side flows into the South Saluda, then on to the Broad River, the Congaree and then into the Santee-Cooper Lakes, ending up in the Atlantic. Water from the south side of the mountain drains into Eastatoe Creek, running through Lake Keowee and Lake Hartwell down to the Savannah River and into the Atlantic. Water from the north and west side of the mountain flows into the French Broad, making its way north through Asheville and Knoxville into the Tennessee River, then the Ohio River and finally the Mississippi (all the way up to Cairo, IL!) before flowing back down south into the Gulf of Mexico.

Seizing the opportunity for a quick lesson on using maps and compass

The proposed tower and viewing platform will also straddle the North and South Carolina state line. We walked a short distance west to a rock outcrop where a marker for the state line can be found. The boys had their fun jumping back and forth between states before we retraced our steps on the Foothills trail back to the summit.

The Foothills trail is a 77-mile long trail that stretches along the foothills of the Appalachians from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park. It also serves as an alternate method of reaching the Sassafras summit if one is not inclined to drive; it’s just a 2.1 mile hike to Chimneytop Gap on Highway SC Highway 178. The 28 miles of Foothills trail between Oconee and the Upper Whitewater Falls are designated National Recreation Trail, and as it snakes along the Blue Ridge Escarpment it crosses through National Forest, State Park, Wild & Scenic River, and Wilderness Areas, as well as in and out of North Carolina.

From the summit several goat trails lead through the scrub to the observation platform that looks south and southwest over the Upstate. The viewing deck is more easily accessible from the parking area; look for signs to “Observation Deck” at the end of the lot. From this vantage point it is easier to imagine how the view must have looked before the trees were cleared, as the panorama is abruptly cut off to either side by a thick canopy.

The Sassafras Summit ranks 29th amongst all the states in the category of tallest peaks, neighboring North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell coming in 16th at 6,684’, and Georgia’s Brasstown Bald 25th at 4,784’. Although nearby Tennessee also has a higher peak (Clingmans Dome, 17th at 6,643’), at least we’ve got Florida beat – at 345’ Britton Hill comes in dead last, even after the District of Columbia… However, this ranking shouldn’t stop you from making the 60-minute drive from Greenville this autumn; the drive is scenic, the view is unbeatable, and the fresh mountain air will inspire and invigorate you to climb more peaks!

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