4 Hidden Gems to Visit in South Carolina State Parks

There’s wonder to be found all around us, including and especially in our State Parks. Our friends at Atlas Obscura are helping us find them, and we’ve compiled a list of four highlights that should not be missed!

1. Horseshoe Falls at Musgrove Mill State Historic Site

Legend has it the mill owner's daughter, Mary Musgrove, helped a Patriot soldier hide behind these falls.

Stories abound at Musgrove Mill, the site of a brief but pivotal Revolutionary War battle fought in the woods of South Carolina. In a surprising victory, the Patriot militia defeated the Loyalists and British soldiers at the Battle of Musgrove Mill, despite being greatly outnumbered. It was a much-needed morale boost for the Patriots and marked a turning point in the war.

Today, the historic area is rich with local legends that intermix with the very real events that took place at this colonial gristmill over two centuries ago. One such tale is the legend behind Horseshoe Falls, a series of small cascades on the Cedar Shoals Creek that runs into the Enoree River.

According to legend, the mill owner’s daughter, Mary Musgrove, helped hide a Patriot soldier in a small cave near the falls, obscured by the plunging water. The soldier’s name was Galbraith “Horseshoe” Robinson, so nicknamed because he worked as a blacksmith. Together they gathered information about the British Loyalist troops, which helped the Patriots plan an attack.

In real life, the heroine of that legend, Mary Musgrove, was the daughter of Edward Musgrove, who owned the mill and lived at the site with his family. Little is actually known about Mary’s life, but she went down in history thanks to a dramatic account of her story in the popular 19th-century historical fiction novel Horse-shoe Robinson by John Pendleton Kennedy.

In the novel, Mary’s character helps the soldier, Horseshoe, spy for the Patriots. The book was so popular, the story of the fictional Mary survived the years, and today Mary Musgrove serves as a symbol of the brave contributions made by many women during the war. There is a monument to her at Musgrove Mill, a tribute to the heroines of the American Revolution.

Know Before You Go
Horseshoe Falls can be seen along the Battlefield Trail at the Musgrove Mill State Historic Site. The trail is an easy 1.3 miles, starting at the parking area on Horseshoe Falls Road. The falls are at the beginning of the trail, which then continues through the battlefield. They are accessible by an ADA boardwalk that leads to an overlook. The historic site includes a Visitor Center, nature trails, picnic areas, and interpretive signs with historic information. The site is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

2. Woods Bay State Park

This natural wonderland is a unique chance to explore a Carolina bay, a mysterious geological formation of unknown origin.

This unique state park in South Carolina is one of the best examples of a large Carolina bay, a mysterious geological oddity found along the Atlantic seaboard. Carolina bays are egg-shaped depressions in the earth filled with shallow freshwater, and to this day their origin is unknown.

There are thousands of these elliptical wetlands scattered across the coastal plains of the Mid-Atlantic. Curiously, they are all oriented in a northwest-southwest direction; looking at an aerial view of the area, it’s truly a bizarre sight. But aside from mystifying geologists, these natural formations also offer a unique habitat for a wonderfully diverse range of wildlife, including rare and endangered plants and animals.

In Olanta, one of the best remaining examples of a large Carolina bay can be found. The natural formation has been preserved as Woods Bay State Park, which stretches 1,590 acres across the coastal plain. More than 200 species of animals (including over 150 bird species) live in the cypress-tupelo swamp, oak-hickory forest, and shrub bog habitats in the park. Visitors can walk the boardwalk or take a canoe through the dark, shallow waters of the Carolina bay. It’s a unique way to experience this enigmatic natural wonder.

Carolina bays vary in depth and range drastically in size, from under an acre to thousands of acres. They number in the thousands, though much fewer remain intact. Interestingly, Carolina bays aren’t technically bays at all. The isolated depressions in the earth fill with freshwater from rain and groundwater, making them more like shallow lakes.

There have been many theories over the years about the origins of these formations. At one point people thought they may have been caused by meteors hitting the Earth, but that is no longer considered likely. Scientists have suggested they were caused by sinkholes, or strong currents following coastal wind patterns, or groundwater springs carrying materials to the surface that dissolved and left behind these peculiar coastal pockmarks.

Know Before You Go
The best way to explore the habitats of the Carolina bay is by canoe, just be be sure to check the park website for updates on the water level. A boardwalk also runs through the swamp, and there are nature trails around the perimeter. There is a nature center building in the park, and park rangers that can give you more information about the area. Note that the park was formerly known as Woods Bay State Natural Area.

3. Devils Kitchen at Caesars Head State Park

According to local lore, this narrow passageway through two large rocks was accidentally created by the devil himself.

Nestled on the Blue Ridge Mountains of South Carolina, Caesars Head State Park is known for its spectacular views of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and is named for a granitic gneiss rock formation located atop the escarpment.

The origin of the name “Caesars Head” is disputed, though some have claimed the rock bears a resemblance to the famous Roman general. Trails throughout the park offer beautiful views of the mountainous landscape. The short path to the viewing area that overlooks the Caesars Head rock passes through another intriguingly named geological curiosity, a narrow passageway between two giant rocks, called “Devils Kitchen.”

When the trail reaches Devils Kitchen, a set of stairs descends deep down into the rocky gap, which is just wide enough for a person to pass through. The formation was created thousands of years ago, as water on the mountain froze and expanded, causing the rock to crack open from the pressure. The granitic gneiss, a type of metamorphic rock, breaks at a 90-degree angle when it cracks, which formed the narrow passage flanked by tall rock walls.

The name of the geological formation is another story. It comes from a myth dating back to the days when the area was settled by Scottish and Irish immigrants who enjoyed brewing their own alcohol. According to the story, the Devil himself made a particularly hot brew here, and spilled a drop of it on the rock, splitting the rock open on the spot.

Shortly after passing through the Devils Kitchen, the trail arrives at a small overlook offering a panoramic view of the eponymous Caesars Head rock formation.

Know Before You Go
The park is about 30 miles from Greenville off Route 276 W. The parking lot and Visitor Center are at the top of the mountain. The park has an interpretive center, gift shop, bookstore, and several picnic areas. The trail through Devils Kitchen is an easy hike just a short distance from the Visitor Center to the Caesars Head overlook, however walking through the crack in the rocks requires descending a fairly steep set of stairs. Proceed with caution.

4. Oconee Station State Historic Site

A historic blockhouse and trading post give a glimpse into the early colonial history of South Carolina.

In the late 1700s, the upstate of South Carolina was the western frontier for European settlers in America. To protect against raids from the native Cherokee Indians, early colonists in what is now Oconee County erected military outposts, called blockhouses, that were garrisoned by local militiamen who watched for attacks.

One of the few remaining blockhouses, Oconee Station, now stands in a small clearing at the Oconee Station State Historic Site in Walhalla, South Carolina. Right next to it is another historic building, a brick home and trading post built by an Irish-American merchant named William Richards.

The historic site is located on 210 scenic acres along Oconee Creek. The grounds boast nature trails, a waterfall, and wildlife. The real gems, though, are the Oconee Station blockhouse and the Richards House, sitting side by side. Together they offer an interesting glimpse at the colonial history of the state, showing two sides of the relationship between the settlers and Native Americans.

About 20 to 30 soldiers were stationed at the military blockhouse from around 1792 up until the troops were removed in 1799. By 1795, the station was used as a trading site, where colonists exchanged guns, livestock, and other wares for animal skin and furs from the Cherokee. In 1805, Richards built his two-story handmade brick home, which doubled as a trading post until 1809. An inventory from that year showed a stockpile of over 30,000 animal skins, 82 pounds of ginseng, and other goods of the era.

Know Before You Go
The Oconee Station site is located off the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway (SC 11). The buildings are open for tours from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends, or by appointment. The site is located next to Oconee State Park, which is accessible through the four-mile Oconee Connector Trail.

This content was originally published on Atlas Obscura.