THE ULTIMATE Road Trip: State Parks Along SC Highway 11
If you’re planning on hitting eight state parks in a day, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. I’d just suggest packing a sandwich. Whether you’re a true wilderness buff or a city dweller, I’ll tell you why you want to stop at each and every point on this backroad adventure.
The parks off Highway 11 are hidden gems dotting spots on a scenic, historic South Carolina highway built as an alternative to the hustle and bustle of I-85. Known by many names, including: “The Keowee Path,” “The Cherokee Path” or “The Cherokee Foothills Historic Highway,” everything about Highway 11 lives up to its off-the-beaten-path nature. From the rolling hills to the miles of open roadway, it’s the kind of road that has passengers stopping their conversations every three minutes to remark: “Wow, that’s beautiful.” That’s because the road just so happens to take its time winding through the awe-inspiring views of the South Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains.
Our first stop was this northernmost point just shy of the North Carolina and South Carolina border. More than 60 miles of hiking trails hug the Middle Saluda River that runs through this immensely peaceful refuge. As the ranger told me: “It’s worth the wait,” when we encountered a line at the gate because there wasn’t any available parking. He was right.
Upon entering, you’re greeted by a trout pond and log cabin visitor center. From there, you can just disappear into the depths of the miles of trail. On a given trip, you might meet a family spending the day fishing or a couple of seasoned hikers with full gear and their trusty German Shepherd. Dedicated travelers can hike from Jones Gap all the way to Caesars Head, and you can hear the trickle of water over rocks from almost anywhere.
Caesars Head and Jones Gap state parks connect to form what is called “The Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.” It encompasses 13,000 acres. To get to the visitor center at the top of Caesars Head State Park, you have to wind the entire way up the mountain for what seems like miles. We passed a mountain entrepreneur selling honey on the way before we stopped off at one of the beautiful overlooks. There are a few different trails to take and many include miles on your feet. The beautiful overlooks serve as the perfect spot to have a nice picnic lunch with family at the opening to the visitor center. Just a few trees separate you and the steep decline of the mountain below. If you choose to go for the trails, there are areas for trailside camping as well. And we learned a little trivia: the reason for the name “Caesars Head” is because of the granite gneiss on top of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, which looks clear down to the city of Greenville.
There are so many ways to take in this majestical beauty. We took it in from inside the park, but also outside on the highway itself! It’s a place with a rich history. The Cherokee Indians referred to it as “The Great Blue Hills of God,” or “Sah-ka-na-ga”. Legend has it that the Cherokee Chieftain would dine after a hunt on Table Rock mountain, giving it the name it has today. An average hiker can get to the top and back down in about 5 hours, but there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the beauty from down below. The Visitor Center offers great views of the mountain and overlooks Lake Oolenoy. There are also a number of other things to do there at the park including fishing, swimming, camping or renting a cabin.
Tranquility is the best word to describe this sweet spot off Highway 11. It’s the kind of place you wouldn’t mind getting lost in for a little while. The Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center is the gateway to the Jocassee Gorges, and the name "Jocassee,” in Native American legend, means "Place of the Lost One." It’s also an area that for decades has been targeted for conservation and land preservation. Campsites for both RV’s and tents are sprinkled throughout the park. We were drawn to the canoe and kayak access point dipping straight into Lake Keowee. The views of the Blue Ridge Mountains from certain points of these trails are unparalleled. And imagine riding by boat between rolling hills. Unreal.
Looking down and into the blue water of Lake Jocassee at Devils Fork is a true reminder of the beauty of untouched nature. It’s known for a couple of special qualities, one being the fantastic trout fishing. Part of that has to do with the fact that most of the land around the lake is protected and undeveloped. There’s something magical about walking through nature that is just that–wild and untouched.
During the spring, hikers may catch glimpses of the Oconee bell wildflower. But if you go in the fall like we did, brace yourself for the beauty of the yellow falling leaves. Whether you decide to take kayaks out into the deep blue water or overlook the lake on a grassy field or beach below, there’s no shortage of ways to appreciate the natural beauty of this one.
It’s easy to see why families come from near and far to stay, reunite and reconnect at Oconee State Park. One of the coolest parts of this particular park is the nearly twenty cabins that line the winding road through the site. When we drove in, we saw what looked to be a family reunion. Imagine the kids tossing the football, the food being served on paper plates at the picnic tables and the ease that comes from being in a space where the only thing you have to worry about is enjoying the company of one another.
The cabins themselves are situated up a quiet roadway through the park, and the only noise you hear is the rustling of the wind in the trees or the swinging of a screen door. During the summer, it’s like an outdoorsy kid’s dream vacation, complete with an old-fashioned swimming hole, mini carpet-golf and picnic shelters for campsite neighborly gatherings. There’s just no other way to say it: this is the kind of place you make (and eat) too many s’mores.
Two structures dominate this site in what is easily the best way to learn about southern history. All you have to do is walk inside one of the colonial-style structures and you’re immediately transported back in time by 300 years. According to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Oconee Station was built before 1760 to allow the settlers a guardhouse against Cherokee Indians in the area. The Richards House, built in 1805, is recorded as the first brick house to be built in the northwest corner of the state. During the 19th century, the house served as a stagecoach shop. Visitors can walk through the houses and get a sense of the difference between modern day homes and the small settlements that our predecessors lived in just a few hundred years ago. For those up for a hike, there’s a trail leading to Sumter National Forest, and it ends at Station Cove Falls.
This is the kind of place you want to catch at sunset–and we did. It was at the tail end of our trek southbound down Highway 11, and it could not have been a more perfect ending. Lake Hartwell sits on the edge of the border of South Carolina and Georgia. Besides the incredible view from the long pier or the small beach below, one of the neatest pieces about this site is it’s one of a few parks that have single room camper cabins. That basically means you don’t have to have full gear to feel like you’re camping! For the most part, you’ll see families fishing for some of the native swimmers, including bass and catfish. The lake itself rests on 54,000 acres and countless areas to explore. But sitting in one spot for the day is sufficient to appreciate the brimming beauty of these banks.
By Sam Bleiweis