PALMETTO TRAIL, SC

IN­SIDER’S GUIDE

Backpacker - - Contents - By Mor­gan McFall-Johnsen

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 IN­SID­ERS

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.

SWAMP SOLI­TUDE

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.

HIGHPOINT DE­TOUR

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.

CHEERS

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.

TRIP PLAN­NER

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.

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