Today, some 60,000 people a year tube, kayak, canoe or raft sections II, III and IV of the Chattooga, a 29-mile stretch of rambling river running from S.C. 28 to Lake Tugaloo. Navigating through the wild waters, it's easy to overlook the stunning mountain landscape that rises up from the riverbank.
But just upstream, a 15.5-mile wooded footpath provides the perfect vantage point to soak in the beauty of the narrow, twisting waterway that serves as the natural boundary between South Carolina and Georgia. Every turn in the trail offers a new and more beautiful panorama of the river and its densely forested gorge.
The Chattooga River Trail is one of those epic hikes you never forget. On this trail, the journey is the destination.
Following the rugged terrain of Sumter National Forest, the trail takes you high up on bluffs where you are treated to long, breathtaking views of the fast-moving whitewater as it tumbles over heaps of rocks to settle in quiet pools.
At other points, the trail descends to the river's edge, offering hikers the opportunity to wade out on sandbars into the cool, clear water and swim in deep coves between cascading falls. Large rock outcroppings provide scenic spots to enjoy a picnic lunch.
But the spectacular views of the Chattooga - one of the longest free-flowing mountain rivers in the Southeast - are only part of the payoff. The trail also offers access to five major waterfalls: Spoonauger, King Creek, Pigpen, Licklog and the 30-foot Big Bend - the highest single drop on the river.
The grand finale of the trail is Ellicott Rock, the point where the states of South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia come together. The hard-to-find boulder was engraved in 1811 by U.S. surveyor Andrew Ellicott with "N-G" for North Carolina and Georgia.
Two years later, commissioners representing the two Carolinas marked a second rock just a few feet away as the juncture. Actually, neither rock is on the 35th parallel as specified by Congress. The definitive spot is 230 feet to the south of Ellicott Rock.
Despite its many rewards, the Chattooga River Trail has remained one of the state's best kept secrets. And that's what makes it such an extraordinary hike. The scenery is enhanced by the sense of solitude one experiences in the wild.
Because the area is so remote and boating is prohibited along much of the upper sections of the river, you can walk for miles without seeing another soul. Other than the occasional hiker and fly caster, the back country gets few visitors.
The southern terminus of the trail begins at the Russell Bridge on S.C. 28. For the first couple of miles, it's a moderately difficult hike through a forest of hardwoods, pines and mountain laurel.
From there, the trail parallels the river's course taking you across small streams and around lush coves. The calorie burning begins as you climb to ridges high above the water, offering dramatic views of the mountains and cliffs on the Georgia side of the river.
At about the five-mile mark, you'll come to Licklog Falls, a two-tiered, 80-foot cascade that can be viewed right from the trail. Not far past it, the Chattooga Trail runs into the Foothills Trail. If you follow the Foothills path to the right, you'll encounter Pigpen Falls along the same creek.
North of the intersection, the two trails follow a common route, venturing deep into the forest and then back out to the river. It's almost eight miles to Burrell's Ford Campground, making it one of the most secluded sections of the trail. About two miles shy of the primitive campground, you'll come to Big Bend Falls.
Two more waterfalls - Spoonauger and King Creek - can be reached from spur trails near the campground. Both are certainly worth the added steps. From there, it's another four miles to Ellicott Rock.
Primitive campsites are available all along the trail, some right by the water. If you don't want to backpack the entire length of the trail, you can hike it in sections. Parking is available at the Pigpen Falls trailhead and at Burrell's Ford Campground.
Before setting out, I recommend you can pick up a trail guide at the U.S. Forest Service Andrew Pickens Ranger District in Walhalla. It pinpoints the location of all the waterfalls, parking lots and trails in the area. For more information on the Chattooga River Trail, call the district office at (803) 638-9568.