PALMETTO TRAIL, SC
Explore South Carolina’s peaks, lowlands, and old battlefields with tips from a pair of thru-hikers.
The Palmetto Trail winds 360 miles (and counting) northwest from the coast, threading together South Carolina’s wildest lowlands to its highest mountains. Between, it crosses historic battlefields and defunct railways, giving hikers a full immersion in the state’s history. Start planning a thru-hike, or knock off the best sections now: no bugs, no problems.
The first time Bernie and April Hester set out to thru-hike the Palmetto Trail, April’s multiple sclerosis put a big question mark on the endeavor. “We weren’t sure if she could do it,” Bernie says. But she was strong, and the couple completed the trail in April 2017. They didn’t stop there. That October, they set out from the opposite trailhead and did it again, raising money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and becoming the first thru-hikers to complete the trail twice in one year. Then they did it a third time in 2018.
TOAST THE COAST
Myrtle Beach might get all the attention, but South Carolina has 2,876 miles of shoreline. Explore some of its best on a 7.1-mile hike along the coastal bluffs and marshes of Awendaw Creek. From Buck Hall Recreation Area, swoop through maritime forest and stands of the Palmetto Trail’s namesake miniature palm trees, where fiddler crabs scurry across the trail (look for the males’ oversized claw). At mile 2, emerge on the bluffs above Awendaw Creek and the Intracoastal Waterway before crossing a salt marsh (there’s a boardwalk). From there, dip inland through a live oak forest to reach U.S. 17. Hitch a five-minute ride back to Buck Hall or retrace your steps for a 14.2-mile out-and-back.
Find big-wilderness quiet on the Palmetto’s longest section, which winds through the otherwise trailless lowlands in Francis Marion National Forest. Case in point: During the 47.2-mile Swamp Fox Passage, the Hesters hiked for four days without seeing another person. They saw plenty of wildlife, though: This section of the Palmetto Trail passes through four ecosystems teeming with unique flora and fauna. To do it, begin at the U.S. 17 trailhead, and head 17.7 miles west on day one, trekking through grasslands and swamps with 100-year-old cypresses. Spy alligators lurking in the murky water (the Hesters have never seen them on the high-and-dry boardwalks). Snag one of the Hesters’ favorite campsites in the quiet pine forest .2 mile north of Bob Morris Road: It sits in a palm-shaded clearing at the transition zone between forest and swamp and doesn’t appear on maps, so it’s rarely used (find water .3 mile north at Turkey Creek). Day two, stage a 12.8-mile push: Gain elevation as you hike through the Santee Experimental Forest, where longleaf pines painted with white stripes mark the homes of the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Land at a campground near the Witherbee Ranger Station and the waters of Little Hellhole Reserve. Day three is an easy 7.7 miles through lanky pines where swallow-tailed kites and wild boars live. Tent on a bluff overlooking the slow-moving water of Cane Gully, then finish with 9 miles through the Wadboo Creek marshes to U.S. 52. Fun fact: Francis Marion and his troops hid in these swamps during the Revolutionary War, launching surprise attacks on British supply lines and earning him the nickname “Swamp Fox.”
RAILS TO TRAILS
Varied landscapes are the Hesters’ favorite thing about the Palmetto Trail: “One minute you’re in complete solitude, the next you’re descending an old railway into a historic industrial town,” Bernie says. See for yourself on an 11.4-mile shuttle hike from Poinsett State Park to the town of Wateree (a church, a power plant, and a few homes). Climb past oaks draped in gray Spanish moss, pausing at 260-foot Molly’s Bluff to catch views west all the way to Columbia. Then descend to the remnants of the 19th-century SC Railroad, where the boardwalk beelines across the Wateree Swamp. Loop around the reservoir to the road, then catch a 35-minute taxi back to your car.
WALK THE LINE
Though the mountains here seem gentle, the 10.9-mile Middle Saluda Passage packs a serious punch. “It’s our favorite section, and also the most difficult,” Bernie says. To taste it, park at Jones Gap (near mile 3 of the Passage) and head west along the Middle Saluda River before finding a waterside tent site near mile 2 ($19; reserve at southcarolinaparks.com). Next day, bear south along a tributary, then ascend .5 mile up steep wood-and-rock steps, gaining 400 feet. Top out on a 3,000-foot ridge in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness, where the view includes farmlands to the south, a string of distant mountains wrapping west and north, and the North Saluda Reservoir to the east. Continue along the spine to a suspension bridge that carries you to 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls. Retrace your steps for a 15-mile out-and-back.
You could drive to the top of Sassafras Mountain, but what’s the fun in that? Earn the view on a 24-mile loop that touches the highest point of the Palmetto Trail—and South Carolina’s tallest peak. At Table Rock State Park, head west on the Palmetto Trail, following a ridge above the Jocassee Gorges. After the boulderfield, hit a T in the trail at mile 8.9. Head north to stay on the Palmetto Trail, roller coastering into one of the gorges and then along granite cliffs to a rhododendron-crowned ridge, the trail’s highpoint. Veer onto the Foothills Trail to ascend 3,553foot Sassafras Mountain, dotted with the mountain’s namesake trees. “It’s drop-dead gorgeous up there for the sunset,” Bernie says, so set up camp anywhere (the whole peak is open) and enjoy. Next day, backtrack to the junction and continue on the Foothills Trail, tracing cliffs with Blue Ridge views, to Table Rock, a .9-mile road walk from the trailhead.
After peakbagging and swamp splashing, head over to RJ Rockers Brewing Company in Spartanburg (6 miles north of the Croft Passage) to clink pints of the Palmetto Trail Pale Ale. All sales of the brew benefit the Palmetto Conservation Foundation’s “Finish the Trail” campaign.
SEASON January to March and September to November SHUTTLE INFO Taxis are available near Wateree (taxicabincolumbiasc.com), and Nature Adventure Outfitters (natureadventureoutfitters.com) runs shuttles in the Swamp Fox Passage. PERMIT None CONTACT palmettoconservation.org
Time the Middle Saluda Passage (Walk the Line, right) for March’s budding season.