Unique places and ways to see fall colors in South Carolina
As the days grow shorter and temperatures begin to cool, it’s time to start thinking about a road trip to the mountains to enjoy that annual rite of autumn — leaf gazing.
For those looking to take it all in from the comfort of their car seats, there’s no prettier drive than South Carolina’s Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (S.C. 11), offering 115 miles of Mother Nature’s best work. Traveling through the low, soft hills of the piedmont, leaf peepers will get a fantastic view of the magnificent peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains awash in fall color.
Or think outside the box and enjoy the dazzling display from a different vantage point. Raft the National Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, or kayak down a blackwater creek in the Lowcountry for a front row seat to the fall color show.
Hop aboard a hot air balloon, drift across a mountain lake in a pontoon boat or take a waterfalls tour on horseback. If you really want to get up close and personal with the fall foliage stars, take a hike in South Carolina’s beautiful Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, a forested wonderland boasting 100-foot waterfalls, sheer rock cliffs and unmatched views of the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
In South Carolina, opportunities abound to catch the color spectacle — from the mountains in the Upstate to the marshes in the Lowcountry to the lakes of the Savannah River Valley.
It’s one breathtaking view after another on the two-lane Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway. This winding stretch of black top will take you past deep mountain coves, steep drops and waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet down a rock face.
Looming majestically in the distance is the Blue Ridge Escarpment, an abrupt wall of mountains rising from the low hills of the piedmont. Cherokees called these lofty heights the “Great Blue Hills of God”.
The southernmost peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains follow the Byway, a route once used by both the Cherokees and English and French fur traders. This beautiful and relaxing drive runs past some of South Carolina’s most important Revolutionary War sites, including Cowpens National Battlefield, commemorating a decisive fight that helped turn the tide of war in the South.
For those who prefer to venture off the beaten path, Highway 107 offers a less traveled passage through the 85,000-acre Sumter National Forest with elevations ranging from 800 to 3,400 feet. Or head up Highway 130, a popular fall color sightseeing drive meandering around the picturesque Lake Keowee to the mountains.
Running along the western edge of South Carolina, the Savannah River National Scenic Byway is another great autumn outing. This 100-mile country drive passes three major lakes as it winds through national forests, small Southern towns and rolling farmland.
A mere quarter of one percent of rivers in the nation have the distinction of being designated a National Wild and Scenic River. South Carolina’s Chattooga is among that exclusive list of tributaries.
A quarter mile of woods up both banks of the free-flowing river is protected from development and not easily accessible, preserving the natural beauty and tranquility of the mountainous terrain. But it’s the Chattooga’s rip-roaring rapids that draw thousands of thrill-seekers each year.
The river gained celebrity status in the 1970s when it was featured in the adventure thriller “Deliverance,” starring Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight. Today, three outfitters offer rafting trips on Sections III and IV — 31 miles of river touted among the best whitewater anywhere.
In the fall, rafters are treated to a spectacular display of color as they barrel through the dense forest of the Chattooga River Gorge to the tranquil waters of Lake Tugaloo.
Those looking for a little less excitement can book a boat tour of Lake Jocassee, a pristine 7,500-acre reservoir tucked deep in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In October, the surrounding forestlands are ablaze in color, producing a reflection of brilliant yellows, oranges and reds in the lake’s calm, crystal clear water. Jocassee’s 75 miles of shoreline also feature sheer vertical cliffs, rocky towers, hidden coves and a number of beautiful waterfalls.
At the other end of the state, Nature Adventures Outfitters offers tours of the 1,900-acre Wambaw Swamp Wilderness in Francis Marion National Forest. The red maples, yellow ash and amber orange cypress trees against the backdrop of a blue sky will have fall foliage fans oohing and aahing as they paddle through the flooded forest.
For a totally different perspective of the annual fall phenomenon, try floating over the trees in a hot air balloon. Anderson’s Skyscapes of America offers one-hour flights over the surrounding countryside and lakes of the piedmont. The balloons take off in the tranquil hours of the early morning or just before dusk, backlighting the leaves in the sun’s soft glow.
A more down-to-earth option for aerial enthusiasts is the ever-popular zip line. Wildwater’s Chattooga Ridge Canopy Tours provide flyers with a bird’s eye view of the fall foliage as you zip between trees in South Carolina’s Upstate.
With more than 50 miles of trails, hikers won’t have any trouble getting a closer look at the fall color exposition in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, 11,000 acres of pristine woodlands on the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
One of the best and easiest-to-get-to spots for leaf gazing is in Caesars Head State Park, located at the western end of the wilderness. A giant granite outcropping just a short walk from the parking lot affords a fantastic panorama of the Blue Ridge Mountains rising 2,000 feet from the piedmont below.
Along with the color-packed trees, visitors might see hawks, falcons, kites and eagles flying through the gorge as they make their annual migration from their summer grounds to the warmer climates of Central and South America. To conserve energy for their long trip south, the raptors take the Appalachian Flyway, where they can catch thermal winds that send them skyward without having to flap their wings. The Blue Ridge Escarpment in Caesars Head State Park is the only place in the South Carolina mountains with the natural characteristics to create the updrafts.
Another favorite perch with fall foliage watchers is Table Rock, South Carolina’s signature natural landmark. Pushed up from the earth 350 million years ago, the 3,100-foot granite dome overlooks the Table Rock Reservoir and the forests of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. The south face of the monolith offers another stunning panorama of the piedmont with Table Rock State Park's pristine Pinnacle Lake at its center.
But it’s a strenuous 3.4-mile hike up 2,000 feet of mountain to get to the summit. Visitors who would rather not break a sweat can get a different, but equally dramatic view at Jones Gap State Park. From the park’s deep mountain cove, the Blue Ridge appears as a wall of color stretching up to the sky.
Enjoy lunch on picnic tables overlooking the Middle Saluda, the state’s first designated scenic river, or take a hike on one of the easy to difficult trails connecting Jones Gap to Caesars Head State Park.
Families planning a leaf peeping trip in the fall will find a wide selection of accommodations in South Carolina state parks. From wooded campsites to historic cabins to lakefront villas, the lodging options all have one thing in common: beautiful settings for fall foliage viewing.
In the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, where camping is limited to primitive sites, visitors can reserve a cozy cabin in a wilderness resort just one mile up the road from the entrance to Caesars Head State Park. Foxfire Mountain Cabins sits on one of the highest privately owned mountains in the state, offering great views and easy access to state park trails. Each of the six one- and two-bedroom cabins is equipped with all the essentials, along with a few extras like electric mattress warmers.
Travelers driving the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway will love The Inn at Table Rock, a large Victorian-style bed & breakfast with great views of the famed metamorphic dome and the surrounding woodlands.
Farther down the road in the picture-postcard township of Gowensville is The Red Horse Inn, a AAA Four-Diamond bed & breakfast where guests enjoy sweeping vistas of the mountains from Table Rock to Tryon Peak in North Carolina. It is one of only two lodgings in the Southeast to be make AAA’s 10 Top Places to Enjoy Fall Colors.
The main inn features six elegantly decorated rooms each with its own cozy fireplace, sitting area and view of the rolling hills surrounding the property. There also are six private cottages complete with kitchen, living room, bedroom, fireplace, whirlpool, deck and/or patio.
Wherever you stay and however you choose to travel, you’ll be find astounding fall color in South Carolina.