Monday, February 27, 2017

Look Rock and the Foothills Parkway

The Foothills Parkway might be the least well-known of the ten National Parkways that include popular drives such as the Blue Ridge and the Colonial Parkway; probably because it’s the only one of the congressionally mandated parkways that remains unfinished! When completed, the 72-mile parkway will connect US Route 129 and the Little Tennessee River on the west end with I-40 and the Pigeon River in the east, winding through the northern foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains for its entirety.

Authorized in 1944, about 22.5 miles are complete and open to the public, crossing a series of high ridges with views of Great Smoky Mountains National Park to the south and the Tennessee Valley to the north. The longest section is the 16.5 mile segment on the west end that connects US 129 with the town of Walland. Another 6 mile section connects US 321 in Cosby to I-40 in Pigeon River valley, and on the east end the Gatlinburg Bypass links the north end of Gatlinburg with the Great Smoky Mountains Parkway.

On our return trip from Sweetwater TN we elected to take the more direct route back to Upstate SC, one that would add a couple of hours to our travel time but take us on a more direct path home, cutting between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Nantahala National Forest. This course took us to the western terminus of the Foothills Parkway on the Little Tennessee River.

Look Rock tower

It is 11 miles from US 129 to Look Rock, the highest point on the Parkway that has 360-degree panoramic views of the mountains. Look Rock features a picnic area and a campground, but the highlight is the observation tower. From the south Look Rock parking lot (Southwest Parking #6) the ½ mile trail crosses the road and then gains altitude as it scales the ridge. Just before reaching the concrete tower hikers pass the air quality monitoring station which (I believe) is where the Look Rock webcam is located. Note that the enclosed portion of the tower is not open to the public

There is a natural ledge on the south end of the parking lot that does not require hiking, but it only offers views in one direction. Still, it will give you a good idea of visibility at the tower, which due to pollution (and on our visit, rain) can be rather severely impacted at this high altitude. On a clear day you can easily see Mt. LeConte and Clingmans Dome (29 and 26 miles away, respectively), and possibly Mt. Guyot (40 miles away). Cades Cove is only 8 miles away, although to reach it takes over an hour (and a 30+mile drive) around through Walland and Townsend.

View south from parking lot

An additional portion of the parkway is scheduled for completion this June; the Walland to Wear's Valley section that will add another 16.1 miles. Under construction since the 1960s, structural fill failures and environmental/erosion concerns have plagued the project since the very beginning. Construction was halted in the 1980s with just a 1.65 mile segment remaining unfinished; nine bridges were required to span the series of steep ravines in it, and the ‘missing link’ as it came to be called is finally nearing completion. As for the rest of the Parkway, Park officials say that the last three segments have not even entered the planning phase.

There are multiple other pull-offs that showcase the grandeur of the foothills along the west end of the parkway, every view seemingly better than the last. Similar to Skyline Drive or the Blue Ridge Parkway, each season brings something new to the view - in autumn this is a far less-crowded route to see spectacular fall foliage. On this particular trip the spring buds and blooms were not yet visible, but without leaves on the trees the views were less obstructed. Reluctantly we retraced our steps back to the Little Tennessee River and highway 129, with the curviest section of our journey still ahead; to reach North Carolina we would have to traverse The Dragon…

Friday, February 24, 2017

Lost Sea of Craighead Caverns

Spelunking, boating, waterfalls, campouts... all fun trips with the family. But what if I said one destination had all of these things!? In the middle of a mountain in east Tennessee is a lake so enormous as to merit the title of America’s largest underground lake in the Guinness Book of World Records. The 4.5 acre Lost Sea is part of an extensive cave system called Craighead Caverns, located near Sweetwater, TN in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. (The largest underground, non-subglacial lake in the world is Dragon's Breath Cave in Namibia, 4.9 acres in size.)

The caverns are named for their former owner, Cherokee Chief Craighead. In the “Council Room,” almost a mile from the entrance, a wide range of Indian artifacts have been found, indicating the cave was long used by the Cherokee for habitation and as a meeting place.

Starting with the 1820s, the first white settlers in the Tennessee Valley used the cave for storing potatoes and other vegetables, since the underground temperature is a cool 58° year-round. In subsequent years the cave was utilized by Confederate soldiers, who mined the cave for the saltpeter needed to manufacture gunpowder.

the descent underground

The Lost Sea was discovered in 1905 by a thirteen-year-old boy named Ben Sands. The water level of the lake fluctuates depending on precipitation, and by the time Ben had convinced his father to return to explore his discovery further, the water level had risen and concealed the entrance; local explorers only rediscovered it several years later. Today the lake is stocked with rainbow trout, and although fishing is not allowed, visitors can take a ride on the lake on one of four boats powered by electric motors.

In 1939, off-duty cave guides found the bones of a Pleistocene jaguar. A portion of the remains are now on display in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, while others (and plaster casts of the cat’s tracks) can be viewed at the visitor center. Around this time a mushroom farm was operating near the Historic Entrance in the “Big Room,” and it was in 1947 that the nightclub “Cavern Tavern” operated underground, complete with dance floor. It didn’t seem surprising to hear the cave had also long been used for moonshining and cockfights.

a few of the crawling tour options...

In the 1970s cave divers explored the Lost Sea and discovered several additional rooms that are completely filled with water, totaling more than 13 acres. The full extent of the underground sea has yet to be fully explored.

my spelunker!

In addition to historical relics, the caverns also contain stalactites, stalagmites and a waterfall. However, it’s the presence of cave flowers, rare crystalline structures called anthodites, which resulted in Craighead Caverns being added to the National Park Service list of National Natural Landmarks in 1974. According to the Lost Sea website, Craighead contains 50% of the world’s known formations of anthodites.

sleeping arrangements!

Want to explore the cave for yourself? Various tour packages are available (see website for details), ranging from an hour-long visit of the lake and main rooms, to an overnight “Wild Cave Tour” adventure that includes a cavern tour, various crawling tours in the undeveloped section of the cave, a boat ride on the Lost Sea and an overnight sleepover; this is the option that gets our vote! Roberts and Lauris emerged into the early morning fog absolutely covered in mud, tired from their adventure but with grins on their faces and quite a few stories to tell… It has already been decided that they won’t get to hog all the fun next time!

Thanks to Roberts for use of his photographs!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fort Loudoun

Of the wars that have taken place on American soil in the last 400 years, the one I know least about is the French and Indian War; a recent trip to a TN State Park helped fill in some of the gaps. From 1754 to 1763 the colonies of British America fought against those of New France, both sides supported by Native American allies and military units from Europe in what was the North American portion of the Seven Years’ War.

We were in Tennessee for the weekend and started our exploration in Fort Loudoun, a British colonial-era fort located in Venore, Tennessee. Built in 1756-57 to provide safe haven for Cherokee allies in exchange for their assistance against the French, the fort was one of the first British outposts west of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s named for the Earl of Loudoun, the commander of British forces in North America at the time.

“Relations between the garrison of Fort Loudoun and the local Cherokee inhabitants were initially cordial, but soured in 1758 due to hostilities between Cherokee fighters and European settlers in Virginia and SC. After the massacre of several Cherokee chiefs who were being held hostage at Fort Prince George, the Cherokee laid siege to Fort Loudoun in March 1760. The fort's garrison held out for several months, but diminishing supplies forced its surrender in August 1760. Hostile Cherokees attacked the fort's garrison as it marched back to South Carolina, killing more than two dozen and taking most of the survivors prisoner.” (source here)

Based on detailed descriptions of the design, the fort was excavated during the Great Depression, and the site raised by 17 feet so that the fort could be rebuilt above the water line of what was to be the Tellico Reservoir.  When the Tellico Dam was finally completed in 1979, the Little Tennessee flooded the locations of the Overhill Cherokee towns of Chota, Tanasi, Toqua, Tomotley, Citico, Mialoquo and Tuskegee – but the reconstructed Fort Loudoun remains.

Today Fort Loudoun is managed by the Tennessee State Parks. Along with a visitor center and the reconstructed fort, there is also a picnic area, fishing pier, hiking trails and boat dock. When doing research on the fort I discovered that there were actually three colonial forts built by the British in what is now the US that share the same name: the TN Fort Loudoun, and two others in Virginia and Pennsylvania... Seems like a recipe for confusion for British logistics!

To round out your visit to the fort, head across the road to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, a tribally operated museum dedicated to promoting the understanding and appreciation of the history of the Cherokee people. The Museum is also a location on the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. The ruins visible on the opposite shore of the Little Tennessee from Fort Loudoun are that of the Tellico Blockhouse, the US army fort built in 1794 with a similar purpose to Fort Loudoun's. The significance of the area to the Cherokee is further emphasized by the proximity to Icehouse Bottom, a prehistoric Native American site that is one of the oldest-known habitation areas in Tennessee. Icehouse Bottom was submerged with the creation of the Tellico Reservoir, the shoreline immediately above the site now part of the McGhee-Carson Unit of the Tellico Lake WMA, just one peninsula east of Fort Loudoun State Park.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Great Dismal Swamp

The name alone stimulates the imagination – Great Dismal Swamp. What turned out to be the last stop in our coastal Virginia exploration, the National Wildlife Refuge attracted my attention due to the proximity to Norfolk as well as the reputed abundance of wildlife within its confines.

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Virginia, the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge contains over 112,000 acres of forested wetlands and the 31,000 acre Lake Drummond at its center. It is the largest intact remnant of the habitat that once covered more than a million acres in this region, and with 200 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies and one of the largest black bear populations on the east coast, the area has significant ecological importance.

Evidence of human presence in the Dismal Swamp dates to some 13,000 years ago. The name Great Dismal is thought to come from Colonel William Byrd II’s expeditions into the swamp in the early 1700s to draw the state line between Virginia and North Carolina. George Washington visited the swamp in 1763, and having organized the Dismal Swamp Company, he proceeded to drain, farm, and log large portions of the swamp. Then with the approach of the Civil War the swamp gained a new significance: as a stop on the Underground Railroad on the way to the port of Norfolk, and of home to ‘the maroons,’ those choosing to remain in the relative safety of the swamp. The Union Camp Corporation donated 49,100 acres of the swamp to The Nature Conservancy in 1973 (who passed it on to the Department of the Interior), and the following year the refuge was established and the site officially designated as part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

It would be hard to cover more than a portion of this immense area in a day (especially without a boat!), and with this knowledge in the forefront of our minds we chose to concentrate on the area around the Refuge Office. The office itself was closed on what was a federal holiday, but nearby are a few hiking trails and the only road leading to Lake Drummond that allows vehicle traffic. We started at the Washington Ditch parking area and set off on the ¾ mile boardwalk trail to get a feel for the swamp. The elevated wooden Dismal Town Boardwalk Trail meanders through a representative portion of swamp habitats before emerging out on the Washington Ditch to return to the parking area. This was the spot used by Washington and company as their Dismal Swamp headquarters.

setting off on the Dismal Town Boardwalk trail

The five-mile Washington Ditch leads from the western boundary of the refuge to the north end of Lake Drummond, and was dug by hand by slaves for the purpose of transportation. The hike from the parking area to the lake is 4.5 miles, the main reason why we elected to skip it in favor of the auto tour route a little further south; we wanted to see the lake, but with cloudy skies and tired boys a 9-mile hike wasn’t an option.

Washington Ditch

The auto tour route begins just south of the Refuge Office. For rules and regulations (as well as to print out a permit) please visit the FWS website, although that information is also available on site. The road heads east along Railroad Ditch, then south along the West Ditch and finally west along Interior Ditch until it reaches the southwest shore of Lake Drummond. Along the six mile route there are several trails that take visitors out into the marsh and to several other interesting points, including a bald cypress that may be up to 800 years old.

The enormous lake in the center of the swamp was only ‘discovered’ in 1665 by colonial NC governor William Drummond. The largest natural lake in Virginia was formed about 4,000 years ago after a wildfire burned away several feet of peat soil. The peat is also the reason behind the lake’s dark brown color; it is stained dark as tea as it seeps through the peat, and this extended filtering also renders it incredibly pure.

foam stained brown

Although there are no alligators in the lake, it is home to many species of fish. In the winter the lake provides a resting area for thousands of migratory birds including Tundra Swans and Snow Geese, and during the summer visitors will see Great Blue Herons and egrets. On our January visit we spotted at least one Bald Eagle soaring overhead.

Tundra swans?

I had certainly expected a damp, ‘dismal’ visit on this rainy winter day, however our tour was anything but… On a hot, muggy summer’s day the swamp will provide a completely different experience (bug spray!), but this winter morning was a perfect time to explore a small portion of this amazing ecosystem, even with a slight drizzle. As we navigated the ditch roads back to civilization at least one boy drifted off to sleep before we even hit the pavement; I imagine his dreams to have been about the bears and eagles getting back to the business of the swamp upon our departure…

Friday, February 17, 2017

Where Neptune greets the sea

It’s the most populous city in the state, but covering a total of almost 500 square miles Virginia Beach feels like more of a suburb than a city. Together with the nearby towns of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News (where we visited the Mariners’ Museum), Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk, the area is known as "America's First Region.”

Within Virginia Beach boundaries are First Landing State Park, Fort Story and the Cape Henry Lighthouse, and Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge. However, the city may be most famous for its 3-mile boardwalk that stretches along the oceanfront and is lined with hotels, condos and boutiques. There are separate paths for inline skating and biking along the ocean, and the wide beach offers plenty of space for sunbathing and barefoot walks in the surf.

Here, where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic, it is only appropriate to find a statue of Neptune. A counterpart to the Greek god Poseidon, Neptune is the Roman god of the sea and freshwater.  The bronze Neptune of Virginia Beach stands 34 feet tall at the entrance of Neptune Park on 31st Street.

please caption this photo

The 12-ton statue has a 12-foot tall rock base which is surrounded by octopus, fish, dolphins, lobsters, and other sea creatures. Neptune rises over visitors, a trident in one hand and a loggerhead turtle in the other. The mighty god was attracting a fair share of curious visitors, even on a windy, overcast January afternoon – I can only imagine the crowds on a sunny summer day.

The Virginia Beach boardwalk was not a planned stop on our itinerary, and so it was a short stop – only long enough to admire the god of the sea and enjoy an ocean-side walk before warming up with some hot chocolate and coffee. A real exploration will have to wait for another time, possibly during a warmer season… Any suggestions on places we ought to see?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

First Landing State Park

(Continued from this post on the Site of the first landing and Cape Henry Lighthouse...)

West of the Little Creek/Fort Story base is First Landing State Park, the name a little misleading as the actual site of the ‘first landing’ was within boundaries of the military base. The 2,888 acre park was originally called Seashore State Park, but later was renamed to reflect the historical significance of Cape Henry. In 1607 the Virginia Company made landfall on the Cape, the group of settlers eventually moving west to form Jamestown – the first permanent English settlement in North America. It is possible to visit the actual ‘first landing’ site within Fort Story (see my post on our visit) as well as to climb the historic Cape Henry lighthouse, but the boys wanted to explore, something that is strongly discouraged within military base boundaries. We drove the short distance back to the State Park, paid a small fee to enter, and followed signs to the Visitor Center.

The story of the ‘first landing’ is covered in a series of exhibits that also includes the Powhatans, the actual ‘first’ settlers of the region. This wasn’t the natives’ first contact with Europeans; around 1570 Spain had tried to establish a colony there and had sent missionaries to convert the natives to Christianity. However, it was the arrival of the English colonists in April 1607 that the name of the park refers to. Something to think about in relation to our American history... It was a dozen years later when the Mayflower Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but it is that ‘second landing’ that is associated with the holiday (Thanksgiving) and receives far more coverage in the history books. It has been implied that after the Civil War the northern ‘story’ replaced the southern ‘story'; could this explain the extra importance accorded the 'second landing'? These questions were not to be resolved on our visit, however the exhibits offer an in-depth look at the lives of the settlers and natives through more recent times.

The Visitor Center is on the ocean-side of the highway along with the campgrounds and boardwalks for beach access. After our stop to view the exhibits we headed out to the beach, slightly discouraged by strong winds as we crossed the dunes. However, our perseverance was rewarded with having the 1.5 mile beach almost entirely to ourselves, and as we walked up and down the shore and searched for treasure from the ocean, my initial misgivings about spending time on the water in January slightly faded. Today the dunes are much smaller than they would have been when the settlers walked these parts, as are the forests and marshes; still, the imagination runs wild with what it must have been like to first step foot on these shores 400 years ago.

In the early 1600s Captain John Smith explored the Chesapeake Bay seeking precious metals and passage to Asia. He traveled the James, Chickahominy and York rivers, and led two major expeditions from Jamestown in 1608. Today his travels are honored with the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, a portion of which passes right along Cape Henry. As we searched for shells and interesting rocks the wind continued its relentless push; I found it hard to imagine Smith’s crew sailing/rowing almost 3,000 miles in such conditions.

sanderlings looking for a meal in the surf

Finally we left the beach to the mercy of the wind, and headed back to the car. Across highway 60 is the second portion of the park that includes the State Park cabins/lodges, but also the Trail Center and 20 miles of trail. This was our next stop, as in addition to the historical significance of the park, First Landing also has the distinction of being the northernmost east coast location where subtropical and temperate plants can be found growing together. We wanted to take a short hike to experience the botanical aspect of the area, and after a consult with the ranger at the Trail Center we set off on the Bald Cypress Nature Trail.

The 1.8 mile trail travels over bald cypress swamps on boardwalks, across dunes and swales, and through the dune forest. For 50 cents visitors can buy a self-guided tour booklet at the Trail Center, its numbered stops corresponding to trail markers along the way. We made a game out of finding the markers and in the process learned fascinating things about the history of the region, the cycles and changes of the natural area, and the animals and plants that call the park their home.

We emerged from the forest just as daylight began to fade. Although we were only a short distance from Virginia Beach, we found a restaurant in the other direction on the way back to Norfolk, to fuel up after a long day outside. The highlight of the day happened that evening when Lauris lost his first tooth; even though we never recovered it, the Tooth Fairy still found Lauris to leave him a little something! An eventful trip, and only one day left in coastal Virginia... On our last day we were planning to visit the enormous wetlands area that straddles the North Carolina/Virginia border. Stay tuned for a tour of Dismal Swamp...

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 (approaching Campobello), the Palmetto Trail utilizes a short section of Highway 11 as part of the Peach Country Passage. The numerous peach orchards of the region are spectacular when blooming in the spring, and bicycling the 14-mile Peach Country Passage is a great way to enjoy the beauty; Palmetto trail parking available in Inman, Gramling and Landrum. 

Next, 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.

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