Known as the Mountain Lakes Region, South Carolina’s Oconee County is renowned for lush green foothills, sparkling streams and breathtaking waterfalls
We’re with five other thrill-seekers onboard one of Wildwater Adventures’ bright-blue rafts as it plunges like a rubber submarine into the roiling abyss of the Chattooga River’s notorious Bull Sluice Rapids on the border of South Carolina and Georgia.
Gripped by a curious sensation of terror and exhilaration, I’m crouching down, clinging to my now-useless paddle in hopes of remaining in the raft as it is consumed by an ocean-sized wave of bone-chilling water. Relieved and smugly satisfied to be one of three stalwart paddlers still onboard as the raft pops to the surface in the after-swell, I’m convinced this is a roaring good way to begin a four-day adventure in South Carolina’s Oconee County.
Accompanied by my friend, Melinda, whose superior intelligence and acute sense of self-preservation prompted her to decline the optional Bull Sluice plunge, we’re setting out to explore the highlights of the Palmetto State’s northwestern-most county, alternatively known as the Mountain Lakes region or the “Golden Corner.”
Situated along the Blue Ridge escarpment, Oconee County’s 674 square miles are defined by forested foothills, jewel-like lakes, rushing streams and rivers, and the highest concentration of waterfalls – some 150 of them – in the eastern United States. Mountain Lakes, therefore, does seem to most aptly describe the region.
We’re taking our tour in a Winnebago Trend Class C motorhome as we amble along the sinuous Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (State Highway 11) to learn what Oconee County has to offer visitors to the area.
We get things rolling with the aforementioned whitewater rafting exercise. The Chattooga is more than just an exciting rafting venue (some may recall it being featured in the 1972 film Deliverance) – it’s an aesthetic masterwork of nature as well, designated in 1974 as a Wild and Scenic River.
Our base of operations for the first two days is South Cove County Park, a meticulously maintained multiuse complex at the southern tip of Lake Keowee, conveniently positioned between Oconee’s two main towns, Seneca and Walhalla. It features 88 RV sites with partial hookups, a fishing pier, playgrounds and picnic areas. While hooking up at our lakefront site, we’re greeted by a flotilla of panhandling waterfowl.
During an early morning walk the next day, we encounter an angler armed with a spinning rod, intently flipping a green artificial worm, which he claims is working well for spotted bass. He tells us that Keowee is widely known for its trophy bass and is home to several annual tournaments. Fishing is an extremely popular pastime here in the Mountain Lakes region and possibilities for it are many and varied. In that regard, let me backtrack a bit to say that, in addition to its Wild and Scenic designation, the Chattooga River is listed in Trout Unlimited’s “America’s 100 Best Trout Streams.”
We head out, stopping first at Mountain Rest CafÃ©, west of Walhalla on State Highway 28, to fortify ourselves with a big country breakfast including such Southern requisites as grits, and biscuits and gravy. Next, we drive 4 miles south to work off the biscuit ’n’ gravy-fed calories with a 1.3-mile hike to Yellow Branch Falls. The jaunt along a forested path is rewarded by great views of the falls cascading more than 60 feet over glistening rock ledges.
Next, we visit nearby Issaqueena Falls – a big and beautiful 200-foot cascade – followed by what must be Oconee County’s most unusual visitor attraction. Stumphouse Tunnel is a 1,617-foot-long, 20-foot-wide passageway to nowhere – originally intended to be a railroad tunnel. The tunnel was to be one of three in South Carolina essential to completion of the proposed Blue Ridge Railroad route linking Charleston to the Ohio River Valley. Construction began in 1856 when an English company imported a small army of Irish miners to the site, intent on gouging out the 5,863-foot passage, largely by pick and shovel. Funding difficulties and the Civil War brought the project to an end. Neither the tunnel nor the Blue Ridge Railroad line was ever completed.
Checking in for our rafting trip the day prior at Wildwater Adventures’ headquarters in Long Creek, we’d noticed the company also conducts a ziplining program. The center has set up a 10-section course with lines running through a 20-acre hardwood forest. Always receptive to new adventures, we call Wildwater to reserve spots on an afternoon Canopy Tour.
We’re bound for Long Creek, on the county’s western edge, where we’ll stop for lunch and a look-see at Chattooga Belle Farm, a 138-acre working farm owned by Ed and Kitty Land. It’s an impressive layout that includes a restaurant (Belle’s Bistro), farm store and event barn overlooking acres of vineyards, orchards and berry patches artfully swathing the surrounding hillsides.
We dine on salads fresh from Kitty’s gardens and juicy Angus burgers produced from the farm’s herd. Ed then gives us a tour of the facilities, where we see the farm store well-stocked with Chattooga Belle branded products including jams, preserves, relishes, packaged cuts of Angus beef and rows of Muscadine wine that Ed produces and bottles on the premises.
Following some rudimentary instruction to prepare us for our Wildwater Canopy Tour, Mel and I are fitted with helmets, gloves and an apparatus resembling a parachute harness – now ready to make the leap. Although launching out on the first section is a bit unnerving, we’re soon soaring among the treetops like Tarzan and Jane. The three-hour Canopy Tour is great fun. We’d do it again in a minute.
Back in Walhalla, a town settled by German colonists back in 1850 that now serves as the seat of Oconee County, we head for two of the region’s top cultural attractions. Housed in a renovated 1892 tobacco factory, Oconee Heritage Center preserves the history and cultural heritage of the county through its sizeable array of exhibits and collections of original artifacts. It’s like a giant antique store where one could spend hours browsing. Just a block away, we visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, which houses a priceless collection of vintage Cherokee baskets, pottery, weapons and clothing.
Next on our agenda is a visit to Clemson, where Mel, who loves gardening, is eager to visit the South Carolina Botanical Garden, a 295-acre sanctuary of woodlands and niche gardens nestled on the edge of the Clemson University campus. We are very near Lake Hartwell at this point. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir covering 56,000 acres, it’s the area’s largest body of water, most of it lying in neighboring Pickens and Anderson counties. While it offers an abundance of recreational and fishing opportunities, we won’t have time during our brief stay to see it – so Hartwell will have to wait for a future visit.
Moving on now via State Highway 11 to Oconee’s northern reaches, we aim for Devils Fork State Park, near the village of Salem, where we’ll spend our last two nights. The campground here features 59 RV sites with water and electricity – all hidden away in the woods alongside Lake Jocassee.
Jocassee is remote, lying well off the beaten path, and access to it is limited, with the park serving as its only point of entry by road. It is not a place that overwhelms one at first glance. After checking in at the park visitor center we drive down to the boat ramp where a group of kids are pulling out canoes. The view from this point, however, is nothing special, and we have something of a ho-hum reaction as we head for our site.
That impression changes soon after we board Stephanie Couch’s pontoon boat the next morning for a five-hour tour of the lake. Stephanie owns Jocassee Keowee Rentals and has been guiding tours and renting kayaks and other watercraft here at Jocassee for more than 20 years so we sense we’re in good hands. Once beyond a row of multimillion-dollar homes on the lake’s western shore, we enter a wonder world of unspoiled nature – Jocassee’s sparkling blue water framed by mountains covered in dense green forest, all topped by billowing clouds.
Cruising north, we encounter innumerable streams and waterfalls tumbling into the lake – which, along with nearly 75 inches of rainfall annually, feed the 7,500-acre, 400-foot-deep lake, adding to its reputation for pure, clean water. These streams and rivers emanate from the Jocassee Gorges, a protected watershed of almost 250,000 acres extending into neighboring North Carolina, a sanctuary devoid of polluting runoff.
Hoping to show us a bald eagle family that she’s recently seen perched in a tall pine, Stephanie cuts the motor as we drift silently into a wooded cove. No luck this day, but we do spot a giant blue heron sunning on the shore. We see some of the native flora as well – blooming sourwood, rhododendron, silver leaf hydrangea and a sprinkling of coreopsis. Stephanie says we must come back in the fall when the oaks and maples turn, making for a real show of color.
Waterfalls are now becoming larger and we pause at several – Wright’s Creek, Mill Creek and Laurel Fork falls – for photos. We also come upon a pile of boulders where a group of youngsters are having a ball, barrel diving into the lake.
At the very top end of Jocassee now, where the Toxaway River spills into it over a granite ledge, we disembark, clambering up to a suspension bridge over the river for a better view of the lake. The bridge enables hikers on the 82-mile-long Foothills Trail, which extends along the escarpment from Oconee State Park to Caesars Head State Park, to cross the steep Jocassee Gorge.
Looking around us here, we surmise this must be one of the most beautiful and serene places we’ve ever seen – a contention endorsed by a far more authoritative source than ourselves. In a 2012 special issue, National Geographic featured Jocassee Gorges – where we now stand – as one of “50 of the World’s Last Great Places,” a “Destination of a Lifetime.” The isolated gorges support a unique ecosystem, including the highest number of salamanders found anywhere in the world and more than 60 species of rare plants, including the Oconee bell, an extremely rare and delicate wildflower whose nearest relatives grow in China and Japan.
Contemplating the beauty that has unfolded during the day, it seems unbelievable to us that Lake Jocassee – and Lake Keowee as well – are man-made. They’re actually reservoirs, created in the early 1970s by Duke Energy to supply hydroelectric power and later to serve as a source of cooling water for the utility company’s Oconee Nuclear Power Station.
Back at our campsite, we dine on one of Ed Land’s big Chattooga Belle Angus steaks and recount events of our fabulous day on Lake Jocassee – all the while aware that we must pack up and go in the morning. We are reluctant to leave this last best place and pledge to return one day soon … perhaps for fall colors.
For More Information
Chattooga Belle Farm
866-647-9768 | www.chattoogabellefarm.com
Devils Fork State Park
864-944-2639 | www.southcarolinaparks.com/devilsfork
Jocassee Keowee Rentals
864-704-0004 | www.lakejocassee.com
Mountain Lakes CVB
864-380-3976 | www.scmountainlakes.com
South Cove County Park
864-882-5250 | www.experienceoconee.com/parks/south-cove-park
866-319-8870 | www.wildwaterrafting.com