Visiting the Highest Point in South Carolina at Sassafras Mountain

Does South Carolina have mountains? Yes it does, and this is the highest point in South Carolina at Sassafras Mountain.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

January 10, 2017

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Please verify current operations of any places you want to visit mentioned in these articles, and contact me if a business has permanently closed so I can update the article. Thank you and stay safe out there!

“There are mountains in South Carolina?” This is one of my most frequently asked questions when I talk of my adventures throughout the South Carolina Mountain Lakes region. I always laugh and reply, “Yes, there are mountains in South Carolina. And I’ve been to the summit of the highest mountain the state.”

The northwest corner of South Carolina stretches into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The scenic overlook at nearby Caesars Head State Park is one of the most stunning in the country with a view along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Interestingly you can see that scenic overlook while standing on the recently completed Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower.

I discovered Sassafras Mountain quite by accident while road tripping along the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway through South Carolina. I stopped at the Table Rock State Park Visitor Center, which also serves as a welcome center for the scenic byway, and learned from the nice lady at the desk about the highest point in the state “just ten minutes away.”

Click to enlarge. Pinch to zoom on mobile.
This stunning sunset over Rabun Bald in Georgia was viewable from the Lower Observation Deck, and it has been one of my favorite photos ever since.

Highest Point in South Carolina

At 3,553’ above sea level the summit of Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in South Carolina. It’s just barely in South Carolina, though, as the state line between the Carolinas cuts right across the middle of the mountain. The summit is about twenty feet on the South Carolina side.

Similar to other highest points like Mount Mitchell and Clingman’s Dome visitors are not allowed to drive to the very summit. Just before the top is a large gravel parking lot with plenty of room for personal vehicles; leave the RVs at the campground. The parking provides easy access to the Lower Observation Deck, two trails to the Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower, and there is a privy restroom.

View from the Lower Observation Deck looking southwest where you can just catch a glimpse of Lake Jocassee.

Lower Observation Deck

The first time I drove to the top of Sassafras Mountain the only thing visitors could do was walk out on the Lower Observation Deck. The walk is mere minutes along a primitive path from the very end of the parking lot.

The observation deck was designed by local college students at Clemson University. The deck extends off the side of the mountain with a pretty good view through a cut out in the trees. The view looks southwest toward Lake Jocassee.

A compass rose dominates the middle as the state boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina cuts through the very middle of the observation tower.

Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower

In April 2019 the long-awaited Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower opened to the public. After years of fundraising, design, and construction visitors can now reach the summit of the mountain and enjoy breathtaking panorama views in all directions.

There are two ways to the top of the mountain. The shortest route is a concrete path at the beginning of the parking lot. It’s an easy ten minutes walk with a moderate climb to the base of the observation tower. The second route is a primitive trail that zigzags to the top and takes about twice as long to walk as the direct route.

At the top visitors climb a set of stairs, or use the ramp on the opposite side, to reach a large observation deck about 20’ above the summit of the mountain. A line cuts across the very middle of the deck; this is the state border between North Carolina and South Carolina.

From this vantage point visitors can easily see Rabun Bald in Georgia, the route of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Table Rock Mountain in South Carolina. Closer to the mountain visitors can see the posh Carolina Point youth camp just below the mountain and a piece of the Blue Ridge Escarpment leading into South Carolina.

Did You Know

The Eastern Continental Divide crosses the summit of Sassafras Mountain. Water on the east side of the divide eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean while water on the west side flows into the Gulf of Mexico. In theory if you were to spill some water on the south side of the mountain it would flow through Charleston and if you were to spill water on the north side it would flow through the Mississippi River.

The privy toilets and single handicap parking space are located at the beginning of the gravel parking lot.

Handicap Accessibility at Sassafras Mountain

Handicap accessibility at Sassafras Mountain comes with some caveats. I found it interesting and ironically amusing that there was a marked handicap space in the gravel parking lot. Allow me to explain what I find amusing: Sassafras Mountain is only barely accessible, and I wouldn’t recommend it.

While the road to the top of the mountain is paved, the parking lot is gravel which would already make it difficult to use a wheelchair or walker. The concrete trail leading directly to the summit is somewhat steep and I’m not sure anything short of a powerful motorized wheelchair could make it.

I am not sure why, but a sign attached to the handicap parking post announces “Disabled Access” with an arrow pointing toward the primitive trail. Do not take this trail to the summit if you are in a wheelchair or have difficulty walking. The trail is not maintained, rather primitive, and is nearly twice as long to reach the summit.

Interestingly the trail leads directly to the handicap accessible ramp that ascends the observation tower. I’m not sure if the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources plan to eventually pave that primitive trail. Then, and only then, would it make sense to call that the “Disabled Access”.

Foothills Trail

The Foothills Trail is a 77-mile trail crossing the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains between Table Rock State Park and Oconee State Park. Established in 1981, the trail winds along the foothills above Lake Jocassee, past Upper Whitewater Falls, and crosses the summit of Sassafras Mountain.

A spur trail intersects the Foothills Trail on Sassafras Mountain. The spur trail connects the Foothills Trail to Caeasar’s Head State Park and Raven Cliff Falls.

The bronze plate commemorating the summit of Sassafras Mountain at the base of hte observation tower. The USGS medallion marking the actual summit is just a few feet from here.

How to Get to Sassafras Mountain

“The summit parking lot is just ten minutes,” the young lady told me at the Table Rock State Park Visitor Center. Ten minutes, she said. Thirty minutes later after some pretty curvy roads and steep climbs I finally reached that parking lot. I’ve always wondered how she makes it up there in ten minutes.

Getting to Sassafras Mountain is a bit of an adventure because it is a bit remote. Greenville, the nearest city, is about an hour away in South Carolina. It’s actually quicker and easier to get there from Brevard, North Carolina.

Either way you’ll end up on US Highway 178, locally called Moorefield Memorial Highway on the South Carolina end and Pickens Highway on the North Carolina end. The two lane paved road has quite a few twists and turns, making it feel twice as long as it actually takes to get there.

At the base of the mountain turn onto F. Van Clayton Memorial Highway to begin the climb to the summit. It is a 4.7-mile drive from here to the parking lot just below the summit of the mountain. A little more than halfway to the top you’ll see a sign pointing toward Carolina Point, a resort-style youth camp you’ll be able to see from the observation tower.

To reach the summit parking lot on Sassafras Mountain from Greenville, SC takes about an hour; from Brevard, NC takes about thirty minutes; and from I-26 along the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway about an hour and a half.  

Favorite Travel Photos of Sassafras Mountain

I’ve traveled to the summit of Sassafras Mountain four times now, and each time I was treated to an entirely different view. Here are a few of my favorite photos I have captured on the mountain summit over the years.

My second visit in Feburary 2017 the landscape was barren and cold, but the beams of sunlight were absolutely stunning.
With a 300mm telephoto lens i was able to capture this stunning sunset over Rabun Bald in Georgia from the Lower Observation Deck on Sassafras Mountain.
The first time I visited the newly completely observation tower this is all I could see. It was eerily beautiful.
Endless landscapes. Endless mountains. Endless family fun.

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