Hikers looking to explore South Carolina's rugged Jocassee Gorges now have a new trail to take them into a remote section of the unspoiled wilderness.
Roundtop Mountain Passage traverses thickly forested terrain near the 3,563-foot Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina's highest point. Along the way, the 5.1-mile footpath offers scenic vistas of the Blue Ridge Mountains - and the only spot from the ground to view the granite rock face of Rock Mountain.
Part of the 500-mile mountains-to-sea Palmetto Trail, the passage connects the Foothills Trail to the Palmetto Trail's Blue Ridge Electric Co-Op Passage, offering backpackers a couple of different options for weekend loop hikes.
As an in-and-out trek, Roundtop Mountain Passage is difficult, descending more than 1,200 feet, then climbing approximately 500 feet. On the return trip, you'll face the biggest challenge of the hike in the last 2.5 miles as you plod back up that first 1,200-foot drop.
But the walk through this undisturbed forest is worth every drop of sweat. The old-growth woodlands include one of the finest stands of Carolina hemlock in the state. It's a beautiful walk, season after glorious season.
The hike begins at the Sassafras Mountain overlook, following the Foothills Trail toward Table Rock State Park for about a mile. At that point, the Roundtop Mountain Passage forks off to the right.
The footpath continues along a ridge, ascending slowly to the high point of the trail where you're treated to mountain views, best visible in the winter when the leaves are off the trees.
From here, you'll continue to make your way down the mountain on an abandoned woods road to an overlook offering a view across Poplar Hollow Creek to Rock Mountain's spectacular rock face. This is a great spot to take a break and enjoy the vista.
The passage follows two more roads through the hardwood forest, ablaze in color in the fall. At several points on the trail, you'll also pass through thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel that offer their own rewards in the spring.
Mercifully, the last mile of the passage is mostly flat, giving you a chance to recover if you're making the hike in a single day. The end point comes at the intersection with the Blue Ridge Co-Op Passage of the Palmetto Trail.
Those planning to stay the night will find a pleasant primitive campsite about a half-mile along the Blue Ridge Electric Co-Op Passage toward Table Rock. It's located along Emory Creek, providing a convenient water source and the soothing sound of rushing water to lull you to sleep.