Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway: See Amazing Natural Beauty

Route Details Length: About 130 miles, plus side trips. When to go: Fine scenery year-round; icy conditions may close roads

Route Details

Length: About 130 miles, plus side trips.

When to go: Fine scenery year-round; icy conditions may close roads in winter.

Nearby attractions: Kings Mountain State Park, with a re-created homestead, and Kings Mountain National Military Park, an American Revolution battleground, northeast of Gaffney via Rte. 29. Oconee State Park, with camping and hiking, north of Walhalla via Rte. 107.

Further information: Discover Upcountry Carolina, P.O. Box 3116, Greenville, SC 29602; tel. 800-849-4766, www.theupcountry.com.

Like ivy clinging to an old stone wall, the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway climbs over the slopes of the Blue Ridge foothills, forming a 130-mile arc in northwestern South Carolina. Along the way, the drive invites travelers to walk woodland trails to tumbling waterfalls, enjoy the solitude of mountain brooks, and gaze at highlands rolling to the horizon. Sample all of these delights, and you’ll see why members of the Cherokee tribes called this land Sah-ka-na-ga, or “Great Blue Hills of God.”

Lake Jocassee
Lake Jocassee

1. Gaffney
Every spring the rosy blush of peach blossoms welcomes motorists to Rte. 11, Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway. Come summer, roadside stands fill with the luscious fruits, which make for big business in these parts—a fact emphasized by Peachoid, Gaffney’s million-gallon water tower, painted to look like a gigantic peach.

Just west of Gaffney the byway passes Cowpens National Battlefield, where a ragtag band of patriots met a much larger force of elite British troops in 1781. Despite the seeming mismatch, the skilled tactics of General Daniel Morgan earned the Americans a resounding victory—one in a series of triumphs in the South that helped pave the fledgling nation’s road to independence. Today an interpretive walk guides visitors through the now-peaceful meadow that in Revolutionary times once rang with musket fire and the clang of clashing sabers.

2. Caesars Head State Park
Winding westward, the drive goes past Jones Gap State Park on the way to Caesars Head State Park, situated just to the north via Rte. 276. The two parklands, linked by a five-mile trail along the Middle Fork of the Saluda River, rank among South Carolina’s finest wild places. The road up to Caesars Head, a mountaintop monolith, rewards visitors with a panorama of the Blue Ridge foothills, their green crests disappearing in the distance. At the overlook’s edge, sheer cliffs drop a total of 1,200 feet.

More than 50 waterfalls—among them some of the tallest in the East—splash down from the heights of the Upcountry, as South Carolinians call these western mountains. Raven Cliff Falls, a bit north of Caesars Head, can be reached by a moderately strenuous two-mile hike. At trail’s end visitors look up to see a series of cascades that plunge more than 400 feet through a narrow gorge. In autumn, when the foliage of oaks, hickories, and maples achieves its peak, Raven Cliff affords one of the state’s most splendid scenes: a misty tableau of yellows, reds, and oranges enlivened by the dancing silver water of the falls.

3. Table Rock State Park
The Great Spirit, according to the Cherokees, dined atop this park’s granite summit, giving basis to the name—Table Rock—that has endured to modern times. Table Rock Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, sits at the edge of PinnacleLake and offers views of the peak. Challenging trails climb to the summit; an easier hour-long hike crisscrosses Carrick Creek, where blossoming mountain laurels and rhododendrons grace the woods in spring with clouds of rose-pink, purple, and white.

4. Keowee–Toxaway State Natural Area
European pioneers encountered a thriving Cherokee culture in these rugged hills. For a time the two peoples lived in peace, but as more and more settlers came, the Cherokees, like other eastern tribes, were forced to leave their homeland for points west. To learn about this sad chapter in history, stop at Keowee–Toxaway State Natural Area’s Interpretive Center, where a museum and kiosks display such artifacts as arrowheads and pottery. Also be sure to sample the nearby woodlands, which envelope the shores of man-made Lake Keowee. The sprawling reservoir has inundated the onetime capital of the Lower Cherokees—a village also called Keowee, or “Land of the Mulberry Groves.”

5. Devils Fork State Park
After crossing Lake Keowee, turn north on Rte. 25 to reach Devils Fork State Park, located on the shores of Lake Jocassee. Though it might be difficult to shift your gaze from the sparkling water of the lake or to interrupt your search for such wildflowers as trout lilies and Oconee bells, a skyward glance may be rewarded by a glimpse of a peregrine falcon, one of America’s most majestic birds of prey. Other denizens of the park include wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and gray foxes, while the waters of Lake Jocassee teem with bass, sunfish, and trout.

Back on Rte. 11, the drive splits northward in another side trip, Rte. 130, for a visit to Lower Whitewater Falls, part of the tallest series of waterfalls in the East. To view the cascade—its wide veil of water leaps for more than 400 feet—stop at the Bad Creek Hydroelectric Project for a hike along Foothills Trail or a drive to an overlook.

6. Rte. 107 Scenic Byway
The tour parallels the state border as it follows Rte. 413 west, then takes Rte. 107 south through the mountains of Sumter National Forest. Meandering through pines, oaks, hickories, and hemlocks, the highway is the gateway to many of the Upcountry’s most appealing sites. First you’ll pass the Walhalla National Fish Hatchery, which raises about a million trout each year. The hatchery also marks the entry to the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, a rugged realm of waterfalls and woodlands that boasts one of America’s most renowned—and most remote—white-water rivers: the Chattooga. Although many of its rapid-choked stretches are rated strictly for experts, raft trips on gentler sections allow chances for anyone who wishes to try them.

Farther south, Rte. 107 meets Rte. 28, which leads to the Stumphouse Tunnel Park. The preserve has several trails, complete with interpretive displays, and a picnic area that affords a view of 200-foot Issaqueena Falls. The drive then heads to Walhalla, a pretty town amid orchards, and rejoins Rte. 11, which rolls south to the expansive waters of Hartwell Lake.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest