A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Kay Wade wasn’t prepared the first time she stood on the lake’s edge at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina. In the early morning light, Lake Jocassee spread before

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Kay Wade wasn’t prepared the first time she stood on the lake’s edge at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina. In the early morning light, Lake Jocassee spread before

Outdoor Adventures in the Upcountry

Kay Wade wasn’t prepared the first time she stood on the lake’s edge at Devil’s Fork State Park in South Carolina. In the early morning light, Lake Jocassee spread before her with the Blue Ridge Mountains in the background. “I swear I just about fell down to my knees,” she remembers. “It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

Lake Jocassee is one of the many gems within the crown that is South Carolina’s Upcountry. Exploring this region, defined by increasing elevations of the Southern Appalachians and the rivers that create the Jocassee Gorges, couldn’t be easier. The Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway connects incredible vistas, waterfalls, parks, and other wonders in the northwestern corner of the state.

Read on for seven experiences you won’t want to miss when you visit the Upcountry.


Cast a line — or simply take a cruise — on Lake Jocassee. Photography courtesy of Upcountry South Carolina

Play at the lake.

Discover Wright Creek Falls at Lake Jocassee. photograph by Bill Barley

At Lake Jocassee in Devils Fork State Park, fish for trout and bass in the lake’s cool waters, discover waterfalls, take a refreshing swim, and scuba dive in its clean, clear waters. With so many ways to play, you might want to pitch a tent at the park’s campground and extend your stay.

The unique ecosystem here within the Jocassee Gorges creates the perfect conditions for a variety of plants and animals. “In the winter, you’ve got bald eagles in the trees, loons in the water, beautiful gulls soaring around, and kingfishers and grebes dancing across the surface,” Kay says. Spring and summer bring blooms of trillium, bloodroot, and the rare Oconee Bells along the 75 miles of undeveloped shorelines and trails.

In addition to year-round naturalist-led tours by pontoon boat, Jocassee Lake Tours, owned by Kay and her husband, Brooks, offers seasonal hikes, kayak tours, and kayak rentals. Their summer Adventure Camps provide four hours of fun that are great for reacquainting families separated by distance or generation. “When you see Grandpa in a bathing suit under a waterfall, it’s a different side of Grandpa,” Kay says. “When you see Grandma get up on a rock and jump 15 feet into the water — oh yeah!”

Other lakes in the area include the less remote Lake Keowee and Lake Hartwell.


Cowpens National Battlefield sometimes hosts re-enactments of the pivotal 1781 Revolutionary War battle. Photography courtesy of Upcountry South Carolina

Explore a battlefield.

Just south of the North Carolina border, history buffs and nature lovers regularly visit Cowpens National Battlefield, the site of a pivotal 1781 battle during the Southern campaign of the Revolutionary War. Drive near the end of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway and turn down the rambling road, dotted with hardwoods and an occasional cedar, that leads to the former battle site. As you stroll down the battlefield trail that merges onto Green River Road, you’ll stumble upon the site where Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton ordered the British troops into formation for the imminent battle.

About 50 years after the Patriot’s victory on that bitterly cold January day, a log cabin built on this rolling land became home for Robert Scruggs and his family. Here, the family of 13 farmed the land and pastured livestock, selling butter they churned and crops they grew at their country store across the road from the house. Today, this former home in the Upcountry is one of the few structures that preserve a peek into the way of life for the rural middle class during this period.

For more Revolutionary War history in the Upcountry, visit nearby Kings Mountain National Military Park.


Issaqueena Falls is accessible via a short 15-minute hike from the parking area for the Stumphouse Tunnel. photograph by Bill Barley

Hike to a waterfall.

The Stumphouse Tunnel was built for an abandoned train project in the 1850s. Today, visitors can walk through it. Photography courtesy of Upcountry South Carolina

The roughly four-mile round-trip trail to Raven Cliff Falls at Caesars Head State Park leads to views of South Carolina’s tallest waterfall. At the overlook, you’ll see Matthews Creek tumbling down the mountainside cliff and spilling over rocky ledges before it dramatically crashes into a mountain cove 420 feet below. A longer and more rugged 6.6-mile round-trip hike leads to a suspension bridge spanning the creek that feeds the falls. You will also find Cliff Falls, Firewater Falls, and Drip Rock Falls at this popular state park.

Another dramatic waterfall, Issaqueena Falls at Stumphouse Tunnel Park, is named for a maiden from Native American legend who found refuge on the ledges of the falls. While you’re in the park, don’t miss a trek to the Stumphouse Tunnel — several hundred feet of an abandoned train project begun before the Civil War.


At Table Rock State Park, discover Pinnacle Lake via paddleboat. Photography courtesy of Upcountry South Carolina

Visit a state park.

With multiple state parks in the region, like Devils Fork State Park, the historic Paris Mountain State Park, Oconee State Park, and Jones Gap State Park, there are miles of trails to explore.

At Table Rock State Park, experience natural wonders large and small, from wading in the pool below Carrick Creek Falls to the expansive views from the towering Table Rock. This beloved park is one of 16 state parks in South Carolina created with care by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. While you’re visiting, you can also explore two lakes, a campground, more than a dozen renovated cabins, a playground, a swimming hole, and trails that lead to waterfalls and up mountainsides.

On 67-acre Lake Oolenoy, anglers and kayakers can take advantage of a pier and boat ramp for electric or paddle-powered boats. And from the boathouse of the smaller Pinnacle Lake, you can rent all types of boats, whether you want to fish, canoe, kayak, or paddle.


Take a walk.

Wildcat Wayside, a small roadside park beside Highway 11, makes a nice travel stop with an easy .8-mile trail. From the road, you’ll glimpse a lovely waterfall emptying into a wide, shallow pool. Dip your feet in the cool water, then take the stone steps to the left of the pool. The trail winds up to a wooded path lined with rhododendron, mountain laurel, white pines, and hemlock. You’ll come across waterfalls, as well as the foundation and chimney from a picnic shelter built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.


Sassafras Mountain is South Carolina’s highest point. Photography courtesy of Upcountry South Carolina

Check out the views.

From Sassafras Mountain Tower, surrounded by a vast expanse of land and sky, verdant peaks give way to hazy blue mountains that fade into the distance. Although it’s called a tower, at a height of 11 feet, it’s more of a low turret-like structure with a ramp to provide accessibility. Designed to give visitors 360-degree views from South Carolina’s highest elevation, it sits 3,553 feet above sea level.

Look for a handful of small brown signs hanging from the platform’s railing that point in the direction of cities and landmarks: Asheville to the north, Clemson to the south, Caesars Head State Park to the northeast, and Lake Keowee to the southwest. Look west to see Georgia’s rolling terrain — a large compass rose incorporated into the tower’s floor will help you get your bearings. There’s also a bold dark stripe that divides the steps and viewing tower, marking the border between the Carolinas, which falls along the Eastern Continental Divide.


For a thrilling adventure, go whitewater rafting on the southern stretch of the Chattooga River. Photography courtesy of Wildwater Rafting

Run with the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River.

That “wild and scenic” in the name is more than a colorful description of this river that freely flows 57 miles from its beginnings in the heights of the southern Appalachian Mountains, creating South Carolina’s northwestern border. It’s a national designation imparted in 1974 that ensures the protection of its undeveloped beauty.

This remote stretch of river, bordered by banks dense with woodlands extending a quarter mile on both sides, boasts incredible views and world-class rapids. Paddling adventures along its northern stretch include swimming holes and smaller rapids more suitable for beginners. And seasoned rafters will find an unforgettable challenge within the swift and powerful currents along the steeper southern section of the gorge.

If you’re more comfortable on land than water, hike the Chattooga River Trail. As you traverse the terrain that follows the river’s bends and curves, sometimes you’ll approach the rushing water at the river’s edge while other times you’ll have views high above its rugged banks. You can also enjoy fly-fishing in its shallows and horseback riding along its banks.

Wherever you choose to visit in South Carolina’s memorable Upcountry region, you’re sure to understand the pull that Kay Wade felt when she first experienced its wonder: “It’s just such a beautiful and rich place,” she says. “I feel like I fell into a pot of gold here.”

This story was published on Mar 01, 2024

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.