For 60 years, the pristine Poinsett Watershed — one of the most significant wilderness areas in South Carolina’s Upstate — was off limits to the public. Thanks to the Palmetto Conservation Foundation, we now have the opportunity to explore some of the watershed’s 19,000 wooded acres.
Two trails run through the northern perimeter of the watershed, the sole source of water for the city of Greenville. Widely recognized as some of the cleanest natural water in the nation, it’s no wonder the Greenville Water System has fiercely protected the watershed since it acquired the land in the 1950s.
After years of urging, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation convinced the commissioners of the water system to grant it permission to build part of the cross-state Palmetto Trail through the property. The 6.6-mile Poinsett Reservoir Passage was the first section to be completed. Last year, the foundation opened the second leg — the Saluda Mountains Passage.
I hiked the moderately difficult trail late this fall and found it every bit as beautiful as promised. The 9.1-mile passage runs along the border between North and South Carolina, crossing in and out of the state line as it winds through the foothills.
We started at the western trailhead located near the Talisman Camp in Zirconia, N.C. From the camp parking lot, you have to walk about a quarter mile along a paved road before entering the forest.
From there, the trail quickly begins its up-and-down ascent through the Saluda Mountains. About three miles into the hike, you’ll reach the high point at 2,765 feet — an elevation gain of 565 feet. The leaves had fallen off most of the trees in the forest, providing us with a clear view of the mountains in the distance.
Less than a mile from the peak, we emerged from the woods to walk another short section along an unpaved road. The next mile and half features two sets of switchbacks and stairs. You’ll find yourself walking up a hillside only to start a steep trek down.
At this point, the wooded part of the trail ends and the last three miles are on a paved country road in North Carolina. While you lose the canopy of trees, you are treated to a scenic landscape of rolling hills and farmland. The highlight of the hike was walking past a barnyard with three gobbling tom turkeys in full regalia. Their impressive fan of tail feathers looked like the classic preschooler’s drawing of Thanksgiving dinner before the stuffing.
The last mile of the paved section is an uphill trek. It ends at Orchard Lake Campground, the starting point for the Poinsett Reservoir Passage. When I hiked the trail in November with my husband and a couple of friends, we left a car at the end of the passage to avoid having to retrace our steps. There’s no parking allowed along the unpaved road at the halfway point, so if you don’t have a shuttle vehicle, be prepared for a long day of hiking.
To learn more about the Palmetto Trail or get directions and a map of the Salulda Mountains Passage, click here.