The Blue Ridge mountains begin in South Carolina, and they begin in spectacular fashion. In the northwest corner of the state, the mountains suddenly burst from the rolling countryside, stretching more than 2,000 feet to the sky in sheer, rocky cliffs. This rocky explosion of mountain is known as the escarpment of the Blue Ridge.
Only 6 percent of South Carolina is covered by mountains, but when that 6 percent is the escarpment of the Blue Ridge mountains, it's really all you need.
And lucky for all of us, that rugged beauty is available to everyone. South Carolina has four state parks, all within a 20 minute drive of each other, that showcase the amazing geological and natural diversity of this spectacular area.
You could spend a lifetime exploring all the hiking trails, fishing streams, waterfalls and lakes of this area, and each of the four parks is worth as much time as you can give it.
But raising children isn't always conducive to spending weeks hiking. So with our plan for a family park-hopping day trip, you'll get a little taste of everything South Carolina's mountains have to offer-a little hiking, a little swimming, a little paddling. It's a perfect way to introduce the mountains to your little ones.
1. Start your day in Jones Gap State Park. Encompassing the eastern portion of the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, the centerpiece of this shady, peaceful park in a valley is the Middle Saluda River, the state's first scenic river.
The Middle Saluda is arguably the best trout fishing river in the state, and you can see the very pretty remains of a trout hatchery in the park.
Hike about a mile up the Jones Gap Trail, an old road alongside the rolling and tumbling river, to the Jones Gap Waterfall. It's an easy and interesting hike with a big payoff, perfect for kids.
2. Next, head west, over to Caesars Head State Park, the western portion of the same Mountain Bridge Wilderness. Where you explored the base of the escarpment at Jones Gap, Ceasars Head is the opposite. You're at the very top of one of those remarkable rocky cliffs. And the drive to the park reminds you of just how steeply the mountain rises from the piedmont. The drive up to Caesars Head is not one you'll easily forget.
Once at the top, walk out to the overlook area. The views are breathtaking. But don't just turn around and go right back to the car. Instead, head to the left, scrambling over the smooth granite rocks, until you find the trail that leads you to the Devil's Kitchen, a deep and narrow crack in the granite. Once you make it through, follow the trail down and around to an overlook that lets you gaze at the side of the cliff. It's a little adventure for both kids and adults.
3. Next, head just a few minutes down the highway to Table Rock State Park. That tall, flat, rock cliff with the blue lake at the base that you gazed at from Caesars Head? That was Table Rock. And the lake? That's Pinnacle Lake, home of one of the best swimming holes in the whole state.
And since you and your kids probably worked up a good sweat hiking in Jones Gap and Caesars Head, why not just jump right in? The lake is open for swimming seasonally, usually starting Memorial Day weekend. There's even a high dive right in the middle of the water, on a floating dock. And the view can't be beat-drink in the majesty of Table Rock Mountain and the blue sky behind it right while you float in the cool mountain water. You and the kids might never want to leave such a pretty little place to swim.
4. But at some point, you will want to move on to the next spectacular park to the west, Devils Fork State Park, on stunning Lake Jocassee.
Lake Jocassee is fed by four rivers and dozens of streams that spill down the escarpment into waterfalls at the lake's edge. The very best way to see these amazing waterfalls, known as the Jocassee Gorges, is by boat. A concessionaire at the park rents kayaks, canoes, SUPs and even pontoon boats.
Park-hopping in the mountains of South Carolina is a full day, to say the least. You'll need lots of fuel to keep going. There are a few quaint and delicious restaurants along the way, but this is a very remote part of South Carolina. You'll want to be sure to stock up ahead of time on water, snacks and sandwiches for your adventure.