Roof of the Palmetto State
The view from Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point, is awesome, and it's about to get a whole lot better.
If you visit the website for the Discover Upcounty South Carolina tourism organization, one of the first things you’ll see are some beautiful images of our mountain region with the tagline, "Plan to be Inspired.” Truer words were never written. As one description has it, “South Carolina’s Upcountry region is tucked into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area boasts more than 150 waterfalls, three major freshwater lakes, The Chattooga National Wild & Scenic River, The Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, thousands of acres of parks, and hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails.”
In short, there’s lots to see, experience and learn here, including one very special “high point,” as one group participating in a Clemson University-sponsored outdoor class discovered on a recent trip with South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Upstate Outreach Coordinator Greg Lucas. Tag along with the group as they take a hike to the very top of the Palmetto State.
“This is the day that the Lord has made. Rejoice and be glad in it!”
My Sunday school teacher recently used this Bible verse from Psalm 118:24, and it seems an appropriate start to a program that begins on a gorgeous October morning at Sassafras Mountain in northern Pickens County, the highest point in South Carolina at 3,553 feet. The program is part of an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Clemson University Jocassee Gorges class.
The mountain air is crisp as we look out at a breathtaking view of the Blue Ridge, which includes Lake Jocassee, nearby Roundtop Mountain and even distant Currahee Mountain near Toccoa, Georgia. The viewing platform where we stand on the west side of Sassafras was designed, constructed and installed in 2013 by a team of Clemson University graduate students in architecture and landscape design. Accompanied by the ever-cheerful Taylor J. Main, videographer/photographer with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), we walk to the top of Sassafras, where a plaque marks the highest point in the state and soon-to-be the site of a viewing tower that will offer an unparalleled view of the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia.
The observation tower, expected to be built in spring 2018, will also include restrooms. A later project, for which additional funding will need to be raised, will include improvements to the parking area, a picnic facility, accessory trails, informational kiosks and educational pavilions. In addition to being the highest point in South Carolina, Sassafras Mountain sits on the state line with North Carolina, is along the Continental Divide, and is one of the important features of the Foothills Trail, a 77-mile footpath between Table Rock and Oconee state parks. The Palmetto Trail, which when completed will be 500 miles between the Mountains and the Sea, also now travels on the flanks of Sassafras.
The Foothills Trail beckons to us from the summit of Sassafras. The plan is to hike the 2.7 miles to Chimneytop Gap, where we left a vehicle on our way to the top. On our walk down from the highest point in the state, we pass through a rich cove forest, which in the spring is home to showy wildflower displays. This community, with its incredible diversity, provides an attractive palette of leaf colors in autumn, along with a tasty array of fleshy fruits that provide an important food source for numerous birds and mammals.
We also visit Teeter-Totter Rock, an interesting geological formation alongside the Foothills Trail where one rock sits atop another, and you can actually make the rock teeter-totter by getting on top and jumping up and down. Some members of the class give the rock a try, while others stand aside with incredulous looks on their faces!
If you would like to plan a trip to Sassafras Mountain, and maybe even Teeter-Totter Rock, the peak of autumn leaf season, during the last week in October or the first week in November is a great time to go. From the intersection of S.C. Highway 11 and U.S. 178 north of Pickens, head west on U.S. 178 toward Rosman, N.C. You’ll reach the community of Rocky Bottom after about 8 miles; turn right at the sign for Sassafras Mountain, on F. Van Clayton Highway. It’s about 4.5 miles up to the top, and don’t make any turns until you reach the parking lot. The overlook on the west side of Sassafras Mountain is at the end of the parking lot. To reach the pinnacle, walk uphill on the road near the kiosk, walking around the gate. It’s about a 200-yard walk to the top.
More information on Jocassee Gorges and its management by SCDNR can be found on the SCDNR website. And for general trip planning, to find great places to to stay, eat and experience during an extended trip, be sure and visit Discover Upstate South Carolina. So what are you waiting on? Get out there!
Greg Lucas, Upstate regional outreach coordinator for the SCDNR, has led the OLLI Jocassee Gorges class for the past 15 years.
More photos . . .
Trip Gallery of the Hike; Click on the first photo to scroll through the gallery. (SCDNR photos by Taylor Main)