With Miles of Hiking Trails, a Wild and Scenic River, Sparkling Reservoirs and Great Camping … the Blue Ridge Foothills are a Springboard to Outdoor Adventure.
Warm sunlight tumbled through the trees beside Robert and Glenda Metz’s travel trailer – the autumn glow transforming their campsite into a sanctuary of mellow color.
Fall is a golden season at Oconee State Park, swaddled deep in the Andrew Pickens Ranger District in South Carolina’s Sumter National Forest. Here, dense woodlands that carpet the rolling hills ignite in a calliope of spicy hues each fall, drawing gawkers, hikers and campers alike.
But that’s only one facet to this geographic gem — a place that’s a virtual buffet of recreational opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts.
Springtime typically brings furious, roiling water on the nearby Chattooga River, one of America’s earliest wild and scenic rivers. Spring runoff also heightens the frothy flow at dozens of area waterfalls, while clouds of mountain laurel; rhododendron blossoms and feathery ferns soften the woods.
Put it all together, and there’s much to like about the extreme northwest corner of South Carolina. In fact, the Metz’s are such big fans that they’ll visit several times a year to explore the region, enjoy scenic drives, walk in the woods and go camping.
“We first came here probably 30 years ago when our children were small,” said Glenda Metz, of South Carolina.
“For what we look for, it’s [Oconee State Park Campground] wonderful — quiet, well-kept and very, very clean.”
The couple jokes that it was their dog —the beloved Ben — that finally forced them to buy a travel trailer. But today they’re grateful they went that route — it makes impromptu camping a breeze.
“Traveling with a pet is so much easier this way,” Robert said. “Besides, Ben likes camping, too!”
Sumter National Forest has a reputation as a first-rate recreation destination for adventurers who like to multitask. A rafting trip can become a trout fishing extravaganza. A trek along any of the region’s extensive hiking trails — over 50 miles’ worth — invites camping. Some national forest campsites offer horse stalls, perfect for mountain trail rides.
And the sweeping scenery that defines these Blue Ridge foothills, well that’s pretty spectacular year-round.
“There’s a reason the Cherokee Indians called this place “The Great Blue Hills of God,” a National Forest Service Ranger said.
Scenery to Spare
Northwestern South Carolina is a deliberate destination – chances are, you’re not going to just stumble across it.
But it’s easily reached, and with lovely views, getting there really can be half the fun. To the east, pick up the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway (South Carolina Highway 11) off I-85 near Gaffney, S.C.
Head west toward the Andrew Pickens Ranger District, and you’ll spin past historical sites that date back to the American Revolution and sprawling orchards.
Along the way, you’ll find three South Carolina state parks that are worthy destinations in their own right: Caesars Head State Park/Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, Table Rock State Park and Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area. All rise from Historic Cherokee Country, are close to reservoirs or waterfalls, dramatic views and camping. (Note: primitive camping only at Caesars Head.)
As you gradually climb into Sumter National Forest, elevations rise from 800 to 3,400 feet — but roads are well-kept, not terribly steep, and accessible to even large diesel pushers.
From the west, you can reach the Andrew Pickens District via U.S. Highway 76. Here, the wild and scenic Chattooga River cuts a wriggling border between Georgia and South Carolina —a huge drawing card to white-water enthusiasts each spring, when waters run high.
Hiking trails wind near the river, and a myriad of rafting guide companies can assist anyone who wants to get on the water, from experienced river rats to beginners.
The Chattooga is one of the longest, free-flowing rivers in the Southeastern United States. For white-water rafters, it’s considered an American classic — the scenic corridor featured in the movie “Deliverance.”
River levels vary with seasonal conditions, but at its best, adventure-seekers will find nearly 60 miles of cascading falls, rugged boulders, gentle shoals and adrenaline-pumping rapids flowing past pristine wilderness. The last seven miles of the Chattooga are considered the most exciting, with Class III and IV rapids.
Downstream, the river finally joins Lake Tugaloo; the most popular take-out spot is about 15 minutes from Westminster, S.C.
Recent drought conditions have affected water levels. Avid rafters should check river conditions in advance with the U.S. Forest Service (864) 638-9568 or visit www.chattooga-river.net.
Hikers will want to explore the Chattooga River Trail, a nearly 40-mile route through North Carolina, Georgia and South Carolina that follows the Chattooga from Burrell’s Ford Campground (no RV access), in South Carolina, to U.S. Highway 76.
While a smattering of National Forest Service Campgrounds accommodates RVs, you’ll generally find primitive settings without hook-ups or amenities.
A better bet? Check out a great pair of state parks — Oconee State Park and Devils Lake State Park.
Located off South Carolina Highway 107, Oconee State Park is a treasure — a terrific destination for families, hikers, anglers or anyone looking for some woodsy serenity.
Today, the park’s 1,165 acres include a fishing lake, swimming beach, boat rentals, a playground and miniature golf course, and miles of hiking trails. The park serves as the southern trail head for the Foothills Trail, an 80-mile wilderness hike across the Blue Ridge Escarpment toward Table Rock.
RVers will find roomy campsites with water, electric hook-ups and picnic tables; flush toilets and hot showers are available, as well as dump stations and laundry facilities. Campsites can accommodate RVs up to 35 feet long.
“My mother used to come up here with my dad, and she still likes coming here, so now we come with her,” said John Looney, of South Carolina.
“In fact, we were just up here two weeks ago,” he laughed. “Fall is a beautiful time of the year to come; in fact it’s hard to beat.”
A few miles north, South Carolina Highway 11 will lead you to Devils Lake State Park, a popular campground that provides the only public access to Lake Jocassee — a largely undeveloped 7,500-acre reservoir.
At 300 feet deep, Lake Jocassee is a choice destination for fishing; boating and scuba diving, through recent drought conditions have bared its rocky banks. But when water is running high, you can see waterfalls cascade straight into the lake.
Best of all, the parks deeply wooded campgrounds have sites that border the lake shore. RVers can choose from paved sites with water and electric hook-ups. Some sites can handle RVs up to 36 feet.
To make a camping reservation at any South Carolina state park, call (866)345-PARK.