It's wild, remote and rugged. But you don't have to be a trailblazer to experience the beauty of Jocassee Gorges, an unspoiled wilderness hailed by National Geographic explorers as a "destination of a lifetime."
Within the 50,000 acres of protected forestland are two state parks, an extensive network of hiking trails, 35 seasonally open roads and observation platforms offering fantastic views of the gorges and its many natural amenities.
Before you set out for the backcountry, stop at the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center at Keowee-Toxaway State Park to get an overview of the terrain and learn more about the area.
Here are 10 things to do in the Jocassee Gorges:
1. Take a driving tour of the Jocassee Gorges. Pick up a map and driving tour guide at the visitor center. It will take you to more than a dozen points of interest in the Jocassee Gorges and surrounding area.
2. Enjoy the view from the highest point in the state. From the 3,553-foot summit on Sassafras Mountain, you can see four states-North and South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. An overlook just below the high point is accessible by car. A short pathway from the parking lot leads to the top of the mountain where a viewing platform will be built in 2016.
3. Kayak in Lake Jocassee. Surrounded by densely forested mountains with little development to spoil the view, Lake Jocassee is a paddler's paradise. The only public put-in is at Devils Fork State Park. If you don't have your own boat, you can rent one from one of the local outfitters. Jocassee Outdoor Center also offers guided kayak tours and boat shuttles to the upper reaches of the lake where you can view a number of waterfalls.
4. Walk the Oconee Bells Nature Trail. This flat, one-mile loop, located in Devils Fork State Park, offers the easiest access to view colonies of the rare wildflower when it's in bloom mid-March to early April. Look for the white bell-shaped flowers along the creek as you walk through the hardwood forest.
5. Drive up to Jumping Off Rock. It's a bumpy 10-mile ride up the mountain, but you won't be disappointed with the view, billed as the best vista in the Jocassee Gorges. From the rocky cliff, you'll have an unobstructed view of Lake Jocassee and the surrounding mountains. In the spring, look out for Peregrine falcons who have been nesting in the area for years.
6. Hike to Lower Whitewater Falls. The moderate two-mile hike to the overlook is well worth the effort to watch the Whitewater River drop 400 feet across a rock face. The trailhead to the cascading spectacle is located at Duke Energy's Bad Creek Hydroelectric Station.
7. Take a waterfall tour on Lake Jocassee. More than a half-dozen waterfalls can be found along the 75 miles of shoreline of this scenic mountain lake. The best way to view them is by boat. Several local outfitters offer tours of the falls, including the stunning Laurel Fork Falls. If the water level is high enough, they'll even take you into the grotto behind the rocky tower to get a different perspective of the 80-foot cascade.
8. Go trout fishing on the Eastatoe River. Flowing through a secluded mountain gorge, the cold, clear Eastatoe River has the kind of habitat preferred by wild rainbow trout. For details on the best locations to cast your line in the Eastatoe and other Jocassee Gorges streams, download the South Carolina Trout Fishing Guide.
9. Visit Twin Falls. It's an easy 15-minute walk along the picturesque Reedy Cove Creek to this side-by-side scenic wonder. One cascade plunges 75 feet over a massive granite slab. The other thunders down chunks of rock before joining back with its twin. Bring your camera for this one!
10. Go on a day hike in the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. A 1.7-mile trail takes you deep into this mountain gorge, home to old growth hemlock, three rare ferns and a creek filled with naturally reproducing rainbow trout. The left fork of the trail takes you to the river; the right to a platform overlooking The Narrows.