Road Trip No. 8

Road Trip on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway in South Carolina

Mountains, waterfalls, and scenic overlooks. This is what you'll find with a road trip on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

January 10, 2020

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This road trip on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway begins with a view of Appalachian Mountains and ends with a giant peach. Along the way you’ll discover some of South Carolina’s best state parks, interesting roadside attractions, and outstanding local food. This is probably the most exciting road trip you’ve never heard of until now.

The 118-mile road trip along South Carolina Highway 11 passes through the heart of the South Carolina Mountain Lakes region. Scenic overlooks, waterfalls, state parks, and quaint towns make this road trip an excellent weekend getaway or week-long adventure.

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Exit 1 From I-85 onto SC Highway 11

The view from this interstate exit is one of the few in the country that caught me by surprise and immediately put a smile on my face. Immediately in the distance you can already see the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. If you have just traveled from Georgia that’s not such a big surprise, but from anywhere in South Carolina it’s an amazing treat.

Lake Hartwell State Park

Lake Hartwell is an anglers paradise and Lake Hartwell State Park is a great place to visit for a day of fishing. There are two boat ramps; one near the fishing pier and the other beside the campground. The visitor center has a small store with limited fishing supplies for last-minute items. Fishing not your thing? There is a picnic area with plenty of tables and a short 0.75-mile nature trail.

Spend a night or two at the enormous campground with over a hundred campsites. Some sites are pull-through and there are special areas exclusively for tent campers. The campground includes comfort stations with restrooms and showers, playground, and water/electric hookups.

Lake Hartwell State Park (864) 972-3352 | 19139-A Hwy 11 South, Fair Play, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/lake-hartwell

Downtown Walhalla packs a lot into just a few blocks.

1. Walhalla

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After exiting Highway 11 and traveling into Walhalla you’ll immediately be taken by the charm of the quaint town. Just three blocks long the downtown area is lined with two story facades of local businesses.

Stop by Carolina Pizza Company for a fantastic pizza cooked however you like then walk down the street to West & Co. Tap Room. Take a short drive back one block to the Oconee History Museum to learn about Native Americans and early settlers through this area.

READ MORE: 6 Reasons Why You Need to Visit the South Carolina Mountain Lakes

Looking back at the entrance to Stumphouse Tunnel.

Stumphouse Tunnel

Stumphouse Tunnel is one of the most fascinating hidden gems in South Carolina. The tunnel was started in 1852 to build a railroad connecting Charleston, SC to Knoxville, TN. But then the Civil War and a lack of funds brought the effort to a halt and it was never finished.

Today visitors to Stumphouse Tunnel, about seven miles from Walhalla along SC Highway 28, can explore inside the incomplete tunnel. The 18-foot-wide by 25-foot-tall tunnel is about a quarter mile long, although you can’t walk all the way to back for safety reasons. About halfway through the tunnel is a 60’ air shaft in the ceiling, creating a constant breeze.

Issaqueena Falls

The 100’ cascading Issaqueena Falls is one of the most beautiful and popular through the Oconee region of South Carolina. The 0.4-mile roundtrip hike leads to a viewing platform near the waterfall. It’s an easy hike and takes about half an hour, well worth the excursion for stretching your legs.

Oconee State Park

Located just 12 miles from Walhalla, Oconee State Park is one of the most exciting remote parks in the state. The park features 19 rustic cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the park’s construction. The campground has 140 sites with water and electrical hookups, laundry facility, and comfort stations with restrooms and hot showers.

Oconee State Park is the western end of the 77-mile Foothills Trail. The scenic trail winds along the mountains above Lake Jocassee, crosses the summit of Sassafras Mountain, and ends at Table Rock State Park.

Oconee State Park (864) 638-5353 | 624 State Park Road, Mountain Rest, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/oconee

Oconee Station State Historic Site

In the late 1800s a series of buildings were built on this site as a military compound and later a trading post for early settlers. Today the stone blockhouse and William Richards House are all that remains for visitors to explore. Throughout the year the Oconee Station State Historic Site hosts various living history events showing the life on the frontier during this time.

Oconee Station State Historic Site (864) 638-0079 | 500 Oconee Station Road, Walhalla, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/oconee-station

READ MORE: 14 Favorite Travel Photos From the South Carolina Mountain Lakes

Station Cove Falls

Just beyond Oconee Station State Historic Site is parking for the trail leading to Station Cove Falls. This 60’ waterfall takes about fifteen minutes to reach along the 0.4-mile out-and-back trail. The trail is fairly easy and well maintained throughout the year.

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Bad Creek Overlook

The Bad Creek Overlook provides a stunning view of Lake Jocassee from a high position above the lake. Just off to the left is Upper Whitewater Falls; although you can’t see the waterfall from this overlook, sometimes you can hear the roaring water.

Did You Know

Duke Energy owns and operates the Bad Creek Hydroelectric Station located near the scenic overlook. The energy station uses four massive turbines to pump water from Lake Jocassee through a one-mile tunnel into Bad Creek Reservoir. When extra power generation is needed the water is released through the hydroelectric power station back into the lake 1,200’ below.

Lower Whitewater Falls Parking

Lower Whitewater Falls is located about a half mile downstream from Upper Whitewater Falls. From the parking area it is a 4.2-mile out-and-back hike to reach the Lower Whitewater Falls viewing area. Along the trail you’ll cross the river before looping back around the viewing area.

The trail has about an 800’ total elevation gain which makes this a moderately difficult trail. Give yourself a good 1-2 hours for the roundtrip hike, but you’ll probably want longer to enjoy the view when you get there.

This view of Upper Whitewater Falls from the lower observation deck was worth the climb back up each and every step.

Upper Whitewater Falls

Although technically just across the border into North Carolina, Upper Whitewater Falls is a waterfall you don’t want to miss. The large parking area has room for plenty of vehicles, RVs, and trailers. A short trail leads to the first scenic overlook of Upper Whitewater Falls. It is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Eastern United States.

The better scenic overlook, though, is down a seriously long flight of stairs to an observation deck below. The steps were rebuilt in 2017 after a forest fire destroyed the area so they are rock solid and easy to walk (it’s coming back up that’ll be the fun part).

READ MORE: Explore the Stunning Upper Whitewater Falls in North Carolina

Wright Creek Falls is one of almost a dozen waterfalls on Lake Jocassee only viewable from a boat!

2. Devils Fork State Park

Devils Fork State Park is best known as the only access for boaters to Lake Jocassee. The 7,565-acre lake, owned by Duke Energy and used for hydroelectric power generation, is famous as a freshwater dive site with almost crystal-clear water. The number of boaters allowed on the lake each day is limited, making the lake rather exclusive and peaceful.

The main campground in the park includes 59 campsites with water and electrical hookups, comfort stations with restrooms and hot showers, and a dump station. There are 20 lakeside two and three-bedroom cabins. Each cabin comes with all cookware and linens.

Devils Fork State Park is one of only two state parks in South Carolina with a campground that can only be accessed via boat. Almost two miles across Lake Jocassee is the Double Springs Boat-In Campground. The campground has 13 primitive backcountry sites that include tent pads and nothing else at all.

A popular day activity at Devils Fork State Park is to hike the 1.5-mile Oconee Bell Natural Trail. The Oconee Bell is a unique flower only found in a few locations across the country. One of the best places to see these gorgeous flowers is along this nature trail when they bloom around mid-March through early April.

Devils Fork State Park (864) 944-2639 | 161 Holcombe Circle, Salem, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/devils-fork

Keowee-Toxaway State Park

Located below the Jocassee Dam on Lake Keowee, Keowee-Toxaway State Park is a fantastic day trip destination during a long road trip. The small park has a campground with 10 sites with water and electrical hookups and a primitive tent-only camping area. A three-bedroom cabin on the lakeshore is available with a private boat dock and all furnishings.

Get out and stretch your legs along the 1.3-mile moderately strenuous Natura Bridge Nature Trail or the 4.4-mile strenuous Raven Rock Trail. Both trails offer a welcome respite in nature with views of the lake.

Keowee-Toxaway State Park (864) 868-2605 | 108 Residence Drive, Sunset, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/keowee-toxaway

The black line cutting through the middle of the Sassafras Mountain Observation Deck marks the boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina.

3. Sassafrass Mountain

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At 3,553’ in elevation Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in South Carolina. The 7-mile drive along US Highway 178 takes about fifteen minutes with some curvy curves along the two-lane road. At the bottom of the mountain turn right onto F. Van Clayton Memorial Highway for a 5-mile drive up the mountain

At the summit visitors will find some of the most breathtaking views in South Carolina. The Lower Observation Deck offers a narrow view looking southwest from the end of the gravel parking lot. A short walk up the concrete path leads the recently completed Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower. The concrete viewing platform is about 20’ above the summit of the mountain and offers uninterrupted panorama views in all directions.

Itinerary Suggestion: If you decide to spent a night or two at nearby Table Rock State Park, make sure to spend one evening here watching the sunset. It’s only a thirty minute drive to the park from the summit.

READ MORE: Visiting the Highest Point in South Carolina at Sassafras Mountain

Carrick Creek Falls is just a five minute hike from the parking lot and worth a little excursion to see.

4. Table Rock State Park

Table Rock State Park is one of the most diverse, gorgeous, and exciting parks in South Carolina. Located along both sides of the highway, the park’s visitor center also doubles as the official visitor center of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway.

Peak baggers enjoy the strenuous 7.2-mile out-and-back trail to the summit of Table Rock Mountain. At 3,124’ the summit offers a pretty spectacular view and reward for the nearly 2,000’ ascent from the park. A much easier hike is the 2-mile loop Carrick Creek Trail. This trail includes a cascading waterfall near the beginning and a gentler 400’ total elevation gain. An even easier hike is the 1.9-mile Lakeside Trail around Pinnacle Lake.

The park includes two campgrounds with a total of 125 campsites with water and electrical hookups. The park also includes a dump station, laundry facility, and bathhouses with hot showers. There are 16 cabins for rent in the park ranging from one to three bedroom. Each cabin is fully furnished and includes cookware and linens.

Table Rock State Park (864) 878-9813 | 158 Ellison Lane, Pickens, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/table-rock

Stop Here for the Night

With rustic cabins, comfortable campgrounds, and a great location, Table Rock State Park is a fantastic place to spend a night or two while road tripping on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway. Greenville is 45 minutes away if you need provisions or a night out, while the state park has just about everything you would need for a comfortable night.

The expansive Bald Rock is covered in graffiti and offers a stunning view of Table Rock Mountain and the nearby landscape.

Bald Rock Heritage Preserve

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One of the easiest attractions to miss on this road trip (because there are no signs marking its existence) is the Bald Rock Heritage Preserve. This ginormous rocky outcropping the size of a football field provides a breathtaking panorama view of Table Rock Mountain and the South Carolina landscape beyond.

Look for a gravel parking area on the side of US Highway 276 on the way to Caesars Head State Park. There is a small wooden footbridge crossing a creek leading to the graffiti-covered rocks. If you miss it on the way up, ask for directions at the state park’s visitor center and catch it on the way back down.

This view from the scenic overlook at Caesars Head State Park, looking over Table Rock Mountain and the reservoir below, is one of my favorite overlooks in the country.

5. Caesars Head State Park

Caesars Head State Park is home of the most stunning overlook in the entire state of South Carolina. When you go for a visit skip the visitor’s center and drive straight to the top of the parking lot. Take the short walk out to the scenic overlook on the rocky outcropping. You’ll feel like you’re flying as you stand at the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the point where the Appalachian Mountains officially end and give way to the piedmont.

The small park doesn’t have a campground or cabins, but it does have access to Raven Cliff Falls. The 4-mile out-and-back trail descends about 700’ to a covered observation deck of the 400’ tall waterfall. The moderately strenuous hike is well worth the effort, but bring a long lens for the photos.

Caesars Head State Park (864) 836-6115 | 8155 Geer Highway, Cleveland, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/caesars-head

Lower Wildcat Falls is actually viewable from the road so you’ll know if you miss it!

6. Wildcat Wayside

Wildcat Wayside is another of those roadside attractions you could very easily miss without ever knowing the wonder that awaits. Along the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway is a long paved parking area. The attraction here is a series of cascading waterfalls deep into the woods from the scenic byway.

The Lower Wildcat Falls is within sight of the road with a shallow pool at the bottom. A set of stone steps to the left of the waterfall leads to Middle Wildcat Falls. Another quarter mile hike leads to Upper Wildcat Falls, a gorgeous 100’ waterfall.

Jones Gap State Park

This small state park is located deep in a cove along the Middle Saluda River. The only activity to enjoy at Jones Gap State Park is hiking one of the hiking trails.

The most popular trail in the park is the Jones Gap Trail. This 5+ mile trail meanders along the Middle Saluda River to US Highway 276 above Caesars Head State Park. About 2 miles into the hike is a small waterfall from an adjoining mountain creek.

The 4.3-mile out-and-back Rainbow Falls Trail connects to the Jones Gap Trail and leads to a stunning little waterfall. The strenuous trail includes over a 1,000’ ascent in about a mile as the trail climbs to a viewing point for the waterfall.

Jones Gap State Park (864) 836-3647 | 303 Jones Gap Road, Marietta, SC | https://southcarolinaparks.com/jones-gap

Downtown Greenville was covered in a canopy of green making it one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited.

Traveler’s Rest & Greenville

A detour down US Highway 276 into Traveler’s Rest and Greenville wouldn’t be so bad at this point. In the small community of Cleveland the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway takes a left turn to continue. From here it is about a thirty-minute drive into Greenville.

Traveler’s Rest is a haven for great local food with over a dozen restaurants. Swamp Rabbit Brewery & Taproom is a favorite and I always stop at Tandem Creperie and Coffeehouse. In Greenville head downtown for a stroll through Falls Park on the Reedy. Great food is literally on every corner but for dessert be sure to visit Marble Slab Creamery where you can watch them make your ice cream from scratch.

Stop Here for the Night

This would be a great area to spend a night or two while road tripping the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway. The two towns have great options for food and entertainment and all the road tripping supplies you could need.

In Traveler’s Rest check out the Best Western for the most affordable lodging or the Hampton Inn for the most comfortable. In Greenville the Hampton Inn & Suites overlooks Falls Park on the Reedy. Courtyard by Marriott and The Westin are in the heart of downtown. You’ll find more affordable options near the airport; Hyatt Place Haywood and La Quinta Inn & Suites are two great options.

I only recommend standing in the middle of the creek for a photo op if you have waterproof shoes cause that mountain was is cold!

7. Poinsett Bridge

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Deep in the woods, off the beaten path, the wonderful Poinsett Bridge is one of my favorite hidden destinations in the state. Built in 1820, this stone bridge was once part of the state road that connected Columbia, SC with towns in North Carolina.

Visitors to Poinsett Bridge can walk across the sturdy stone bridge and along a trail into the woods. Climb down the stone steps to peer beneath the arch of the bridge over Little Gap Creek.

It’s only takes a few minutes to walk on the gravel path from the parking lot to the covered bridge.

8. Campbells Covered Bridge

Located just off the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, Campbell’s Covered Bridge is the only remaining covered bridge in South Carolina. Built in 1909 the bridge today is part of a small county park. Visitors can walk down the gravel path and cross through the bridge, or head just upstream for a view of the bridge stretching over Beaverdam Creek.

Have you ever seen peach trees in bloom? I was thrileld to visit Strawberry Hill USA in February to see this!

9. Strawberry Hill USA

James Cooley was the third generation of his family to farm the land in the upstate of South Carolina along Highway 11. It had started as a cotton farm with his grandfather, transitioned to peaches with his father, and in 1978 James took over the farm.

In 1995 James plowed over 6 acres of peach trees in favor of strawberry plants. Within just a few years his farm earned the nickname “Strawberry Hill USA” from his loyal customers. Today the farm has nearly 1,000 acres of peach trees and over 100 acres of strawberry plants.

This ginormous breakfast at the Stawberry Hill USA Cafe kept me full all day!

Stop at Strawberry Hill USA Café for a delicious made-to-order breakfast. There’s plenty of seating so you won’t have to wait long. Grab an ice cream on the way out. Walk across the road to browse through the fresh produce from the farm at the roadside market. You’re almost certain to take something home with you.

Strawberry Hill USA (864) 461-5353 | 3097 SC Hwy 11, Chesnee, SC | https://www.strawberryhillusa.com/

The historic Robert Scruggs House at Cowpens National Battlefield.

10. Cowpens National Battlefield

Located along the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, the 845-acre Cowpens National Battlefield commemorates a pivotal battle during the American Revolutionary War. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan, fighting for independence, faced off against the noted British leader Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton.

Begin with a stop at the visitor center where you can watch a short 10-minute video on the history of the battle and browse through the small giftshop. Grab a park brochure and head out on the easy 1-mile Battlefield Trail. Take a drive around to the historic Robert Scruggs House on your way out of the park.

Cowpens National Battlefield (864) 461-2828 | 4001 Chesnee Highway, Gaffney, SC | https://www.nps.gov/cowp

READ MORE: The 7 National Park Sites of South Carolina

Gaffney

Gaffney is a pleasant and peaceful small town to visit at the eastern end of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway. Located along Interstate 85, the town is a great place to begin or end this road trip.

Make a stop at the Cherokee County History & Arts Museum. Opening in 2008 the large museum is a compendium of history in the region. Exhibits include Native American history, the Southern Campaign of the American Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.

Gaffney Peachoid

When the Gaffney Peachoid was built in 1981 it because a quirky roadside attraction that has lasted for decades. Standing 135’ tall it holds the record as the world’s largest “peach”. It’s actually a very cleverly camouflaged water tower that holds one million gallons of water. The Peachoid is not a tourist attraction, however you can get a pretty good view of it right next door at Fatz Café which also happens to be a pretty good place to eat.

Stop Here for the Night

The eastern end of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway is a good place to spend either the night before you begin this road trip adventure or the night after you end it. I have found Baymont by Wyndham hotels to have increasingly better amenities and full breakfasts in the morning. At Exit 90 just down I-85 you’ll find Hampton Inn at a good location. The Strawberry Hill Gaffney Market is located next door.

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