South Carolina might not seem like a state of diverse landscapes, but it really is. There's the famous Lowcountry, home to Charleston and some pretty killer beaches, and a bit further inland you'll find the swampy-but-lush Congaree National Park. But Even more inland is the lesser-touted Upcountry, filled with low mountains. To help you visualize it, it's smack-dab between the more dramatic Blue Ridge Mountains and the rolling hills of Georgia's Piedmont. The best way to explore the Upcountry is along the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway, which roughly follows Highway 11 all the way around South Carolina's Northwestern edge, from near the Georgia border to right outside the North Carolina state line in Gaffney.
Historically, the route was used by the Cherokees and English and French fur traders, and since then, state parks and quaint small towns have sprouted up and nestled themselves among the mountains. This is the real South Carolina, and if you're looking for a road trip filled with incredible natural beauty and quiet charm, you can't do any better than the Cherokee Foothills.
The route starts right near Lake Hartwell State Park. The 56,000-acre lake is obviously the centerpiece of the park, and it's not just stunningly beautiful, either. Lake Hartwell offers some of the best fishing in the area; cast out a line and reel in bass, largemouth, crappie, bream and catfish. There's also a short, .75 mile nature trail and a fishing pier for those who just want to stretch their legs and enjoy the beauty. If you're planning a longer stay, there are camper cabins and plenty of campsites available as well.
Westminster, SC has an adorable Main Street, and no afternoon of exploring it would be complete without a stop into the England's General Store Museum. The original general store was actually located two blocks west on the same street and was built in 1908. For decades, the store was a staple for locals, selling all kinds of goods ranging from shoes and notebooks to the "Flymo", a hovering lawn mower. (Who decided that a flying lawn mower was a bad idea, by the way?) William “Dub” England, the last owner, closed shop in the 1980s, opening the remains of his collection as a museum instead. Today, the collection is displayed here in the Barrett-Jones building and is cared for by the Oconee Heritage Center.
If you want to go even further back in history, there's also the Oconee Station State Historic Site. You can still see Oconee Station, the stone block building that was built by the military as an outpost in 1792, and a historic home at this park. Additionally, there's plenty of natural beauty around as well. Visitors will find a fishing pond and a 1.5-mile trail into Sumter National Forest that ends at a waterfall.
As you forge a path deeper into the Cherokee Foothills, the setting grows even more beautiful. Take some time to enjoy it at Devils Fork State Park. This popular destination is centered around Jocassee Lake, within the Jocassee Gorges. The deep, crystal clear lake is fed by streams and waterfalls, and offers stellar trout fishing and even scuba diving. Spot rare wildflowers on the one mile Oconee Bell Nature Trail loop or enjoy the shady hardwood forests along the 2-mile loop of the Bear Cove Trail. The park also boasts two campgrounds and several villas near the lake, which have WiFi, hot showers, and more.
For another view of the Jocassee Gorges, head to Keowee Toxaway State Park. There's camping and fishing in Lake Keowee, but the hike over the park's natural bridge, right through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains once traveled by the Cherokee is the real reason to stop here. Explore the coves, streams, waterfalls, and only temperate rainforest east of the Mississippi of the park. Take some time to wander the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center as well. It's located in a historic church and provides loads of insight into the natural and cultural history of the area.
Hagood Mill in Pickens is much more than just the historic 1845 grist mill. There are also two restored log cabins, a blacksmith shop, a cotton gin, moonshine still, a gift shop and nature trails. Right nearby, you'll even find the Hagood Creek Petroglyph Site, a building loaded with information on rock art and displays of portable petroglyphs from the area. On the third Saturday of every month, Pickens puts on a mini festival of sorts at the Mill. It includes live music, classes, performances, and tons more.
Table Rock State Park is one of the highlights of SC's state parks system. Beyond having two lakes, mountains to hike, and an old-fashioned swimming hole (complete with high-dive), it was also built out by the Civilian Conservation Corps, so there are historic buildings and cabins scattered across the 3,000 acre park... many are even on the National Register of Historic Places. Rent a paddleboat, hike to the top of Pinnacle Mountain, poke around the Nature Center, camp out, and just enjoy all of the fun and beauty that South Carolina has to offer.
The best place to take a quiet moment to reflect on the jaw-dropping beauty of the mountains is the Fred W. Symmes Chapel. Built in 1941, it's located on the property of the YMCA Camp Greenville. It's a super popular spot for weddings, services, and events, so check the schedule before you plan to visit to make sure the chapel isn't closed for a private event. Even if you aren't particularly religious, the view looking out over the hills is worth driving up the mountain for.
Within the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, you'll find two stunning state parks: Caesar's Head State Park and Jones Gap State Park. Jones Gap, on the Middle Saluda River, offers backcountry camping, a fish hatchery, geocaching, a ecology learning center with a hands-on living lab, and some awesome hikes along 30 miles of trail. Rim of the Gap Trail offers the best views, but you can't go wrong with any of them... many even offer waterfall views. If you're into spotting wildlife, birds, or wildflowers, Jones Gap is a great visit. You can even hike from Jones Gap to Caesar's Head State Park for additional fun!
Add a dose of quaint charm to the trip with a stop at Campbell's Covered Bridge. It's the only covered bridge left in all of South Carolina, and has been standing since 1909. The pinewood bridge, built by Charles Irwin Willis, is 38 feet long, 12 feet wide, and spans Beaverdam Creek. The county now owns the bridge and the surrounding land, and it's a quiet little park, complete with interpretive signs and the remains of a grist mill and cabin. It's a nice place to dip your feet in the creek if you need to cool off on a hot day!
Strawberry Hill USA is a slice of heaven on earth. On one side of the street is the Cooley Family Farm, which grows and harvests peaches, berries, pumpkins, and veggies. On the other side is the Cafe, which serves breakfast, lunch and ice cream. If you're visiting in the summer, head to the farm to visit the produce shed, which sells freshly-picked treats. Autumn brings pumpkins and plenty of family fun. The Cafe, though, is open year-round. It specializes in home-cooked Southern classics like livermush, country-fried steak, grits, and cathead biscuits, along with burgers, clubs, omelettes, and pancakes (which they offer topped with fruit from the farm as availability allows.) Oh, and save room for their homemade ice cream. The peach, strawberry, blackberry, strawberry cheesecake and blackberry cheesecake flavors are made with their own berries and peaches!
Learn about South Carolina's Revolutionary War history at Cowpens National Battlefield. The Battle of Cowpens took place towards the end of the war, in 1781, during the Southern Campaign. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan led 2000 American soldiers on a successful double-envelopment of Sir Banastre Tarleton's 1000 British Redcoats, thus decimating their forces. Today, the Battlefield is a scenic place. The visitor center offers an informational film, exhibits about the battle and weaponry used, and a bookstore. There are also occasional events, like Living History Days, battlefield walks, artillery firing demonstrations, and more.
End the trip in Gaffney at one of the town's most famous landmarks: Peachoid. If it looks familiar, that's probably because the peach-shaped water tower appeared in the Netflix series "House of Cards"! It was built in the 1980s, and is a nod to South Carolina's peach-growing industry. In fact, at one time, Cherokee County, SC alone, where Gaffney is located, produced more peaches per year than the entire Peach State (shots fired, Georgia!) Fun facts: It's 135 feet tall and holds one million gallons of water. And yes, from some angles, it might kind of look a bit like a butt.
Banner Photo Credit: via Flickr/Ken Lund