It once linked Cherokee communities to vital sources of trade and brought European fur traders into the Carolinas wilderness. Now the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway – S.C. 11 – draws visitors into some of the region’s best waterfall country.
What makes this area so full of cascades?
“It’s three words: Blue Ridge escarpment,” said Greg Lucas, outreach and education officer with S.C. Department of Natural Resources. “It’s where the Blue Ridge falls 2,000 feet and it’s almost a vertical drop. That just creates these steep gradients where in Oconee, Pickens, Greenville counties … you get a tremendous amount of waterfalls.”
Beginning on its north end, in the shadow of the giant Peachoid – the famed landmark water tower in Gaffney, S.C. – the Cherokee Scenic Byway unspools amid cotton fields and peach orchards. But soon the true Upcountry begins, and red clay fields give way to boulder-strewn creeks. One of the waterfalls is tucked away at Pleasant Ridge County Park near Marietta. (Note that the county park name is small on the sign, which more prominently advertises the Pleasant Ridge Camp and Retreat Center.) Follow the signs for the Leroy Smith Nature Trail and be sure to take the left trailhead. The falls are about 0.2 mile down, on your right. The path to the base of the small waterfall is poorly maintained but passable with moderate agility.
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For an easier-to-view cascade, there’s the Wildcat Branch Falls. If you travel north from Greenville on U.S. 276, the falls are 5 miles from where 276 and S.C. 11 meet, on the right side of S.C. 11 at wide spot in the road. The pull-off is hard to see, but there are usually boiled peanut stands nearby. View the lower falls from the roadside or walk up a short set of steps to see a second waterfall.
The road leads to the doorway of Jocassee Gorges, more than 43,000 acres where mountain rivers and creeks carve paths through forest on their way to the Piedmont. Stop at the Jocassee Gorges visitor’s center (where you’ll find the newest, cleanest restrooms on your S.C. 11 trip) to see the 3-D topographical model of the region and sort out just where the waters flow. The gorges area is home to Lower Whitewater Falls in Oconee County, a more than 400-foot tower of water that the S.C. DNR’s Greg Lucas said is especially dramatic. As with all waterfalls, don’t be tempted to climb: Every year in the Carolinas, people die on the slippery rocks around Upcountry falls.
The byway leads to the town of Walhalla, home to Issaqueena Falls, a 100-foot cascade viewable from a platform down a short trail.
Heading back home to Charlotte, stop in at the Keowee-Toxaway State Park for a leg-stretcher hike on the Natural Bridge Trail. The path leads to an easy-to-reach cascade on Poe Creek.
If you’ve timed your trek right, you may be able to conclude by jogging off S.C. 11 to U.S. 25 to Flat Rock and stopping in at Sky Top Orchard ( www.skytoporchard.com) for apples and cider. Amber Veverka