February 25th, 2019
On Monday, I dropped my youngest son off at school, then drove to Walhalla to meet up with my hiking companion, Pam. I was supposed to meet Pam at 8am, but I arrived about twenty minutes early. Since I had a little extra time, I decided to stop at Hardee’s to use the bathroom and to grab a quick bite to eat.
Although Walhalla is the county seat, it is in fact a small, quaint Southern town, full of charm and character. Go to most any restaurant or eatery at breakfast time and you’ll probably find a group of older adults sitting together, sipping coffee, eating breakfast, talking, laughing, and just generally enjoying each others company. That’s what I encountered inside of Hardee’s. It’s always heartwarming to see and if I had more time, I definitely would have liked to have joined them, even though by comparison I’m still a relative whippersnapper.
After I left Hardee’s, I drove to the designated meeting place and waited for Pam. Once she arrived, I loaded my gear into her vehicle, then the two of us headed off towards Pickens County and the Jocassee Gorges Wilderness Area. The Jocassee Gorges Wilderness consists of about 43,500 acres of protected land. Passing through the wilderness is the Blue Ridge Escarpment or “Blue Wall”. The steeply sloping hills of the escarpment here, represent the sharp transition between the mountains and the Carolina Piedmont to the southeast.
Our intentions for today, were to hike along a new passage of South Carolina’s Palmetto Trail for as long as our time would permit, then turn around and hike back out.
The new Roundtop Mountain Passage runs for 5.1 miles between the Foothills Trail near Sassafras Mountain, and the existing Blue Ridge Electric Co-op Passage. The new trail creates the opportunity to do various loop hikes, including a 23 mile loop that extends to Table Rock State Park.
After arriving at the top of Sassafras Mountain, we put our gear on and prepared to set out. First though, we had to check out the progress on the new observation tower that is being built. At 3,553 feet, the summit of Sassafras Mountain is the highpoint in the state of South Carolina. There has been an observation platform just below the summit for some time. Now, a spanking new concrete and stone tower has been built at the very top that is slated to open in April. The tower will offer spectacular 360 degree views, including views of Lake Jocassee, Lake Keowee, and of the mountains of Western North Carolina.
Pam and I spent a few minutes at the base of the tower taking pictures, then finally began our hike. We started out heading east on the Foothills Trail in the direction of Table Rock State Park. Considering that we had started at the state’s highpoint, there was obviously nowhere for the trail to go but downhill, and that’s exactly what it did. Over the next several miles, we descended close to 1,600 feet.
After having hiked 1.4 miles, we came to the junction for the new trail. At the junction, the Roundtop Mountain Passage splits off to the right and continues to descend. Along this section we could hear a mountain stream flowing far below the trail, deep in a gorge. Since it was shrouded by thickets of Rhododendrons, the stream remained just out of sight for most of the way. The trail did, however, eventually turn and intersect the stream before crossing it.
Because it’s still wintertime and the trees have not leafed out as yet, we had some pretty good views in places. At one place in particular, we had really good views of Rock Mountain’s extensive cliff-face.
For five or six days straight last week, it rained continuously, including some uncharacteristically heavy rains that thoroughly saturated the soil. The rain finally moved out on Saturday only to be replaced by sustained heavy winds all day Sunday. That’s a significant one-two punch that often results in toppled trees. Near the end of our hike in, we began to encounter large chunks of broken off limbs and entire trees that had blown down across the trail. If we couldn’t make our way around them, then we had to either climb over, crawl under, or work our way through the tangled branches. In the distance, we could hear a chainsaw, which meant that someone was already on the job of clearing the trail.
Because we needed to be back in town early, after having hiked for a little less than two hours and after having covered 4.62 miles, we turned around and began the hike out. Since we had been going downhill virtually the whole way in, that of course meant that we’d have to do an extended climb in order to get all the way back to our point of beginning. The first mile or so of our climb was especially steep. I’m still recovering from a recent bout with the flu, so my lung capacity is decidedly not 100%. Normally Pam and I are able to keep a pretty good pace while going uphill, but on this day, I had to take it nice and slow.
At the top of that initial climb, we stopped, sat in the shade, and ate a quick lunch before continuing on. When we made it back to the junction, we saw that we had a little time to spare. Instead of heading west towards where we had begun our hike, we decided to follow the Foothills Trail further east for another half mile or so. Along the way, we passed the John L. Cantrell historic homesite. All that remains of this pioneer cabin are some of the bricks or stones from the fireplace. It’s a very nice, but quite remote, location for a homestead. It makes me wonder what life must have been like back then.
Some industrious unknown individuals have taken stones from the site and have assembled lounge chairs, complete with armrests, around of a central firepit. I think that land managers generally frown on this kind of thing, and while I can certainly understand why, another side of me is very impressed with the creativity and ingenuity involved. I tried one of the chairs and it was actually reasonably comfortable. After spending a few minutes checking things out, Pam and I resumed hiking.
When we finally arrived at the parking area, we walked out to the lookout platform, took a couple of pictures, then loaded our gear and settled in for the drive back to town. In all, we had hiked 10.3 miles. Our total vertical was close to 4,400 feet, including about 2,200 feet of climbing. The weather the whole day had remained pleasantly cool under a mostly clear blue sky. All in all, this had been a really good day for a hike in the woods. Thanks for reading.