I got a twofer recently while hiking Raven Rock Trail in the Keowee-Toxaway State Natural Area, a quiet 1,000-acre retreat in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The 4.2 mile loop through former Cherokee Indian land includes almost all of the Natural Bridge Nature Trail, a shorter loop that would take you about an hour to hike by itself.
Described as "moderately strenuous," Raven Rock begins innocently enough along the first half of the Natural Bridge Trail. After crossing the namesake granite bridge over Poe Creek, it's an up-and-down trek around McKinney Mountain to the rocky top, offering awesome views of the mountains to the west and the picturesque Lake Keowee.
From there it's pretty much downhill to the lakeshore. Judging from the degree of descent, I knew I'd be burning enough calories on the hike back up to enjoy at least a couple of guilt-free s'mores later in the evening.
We arrived at the end of a peninsula to discover a fabulous campsite overlooking the water. (Mental note: must return later this summer for an overnight stay at TS-3.) As we checked out the scenery, our Labrador Retriever Lucy ventured into the chilly water for an invigorating swim.
Twenty minutes later she was rested, refreshed and ready to help pull me up the steep ascent over stone ridges where we stopped to enjoy a postcard panorama of sunset on the lake.
Even with the assistance of a husky retriever, the climb was no picnic. I welcomed the dramatic change of course as we headed back down to Poe Creek. Spring rains made it a bit more challenging to hop across boulders in the fast-flowing water, but what's a hike without some adventure?
After successfully crossing the river, we rejoined the Natural Bridge Trail, taking one last look at the wildflowers blooming along the banks of the creek before returning to the Keowee-Toxaway Meeting House, where we had begun our three-hour trek.
Get more details about this hike, along with a helpful color trail map at www.southcarolinaparks.com. If you prefer to speak to a ranger, call the park at (864) 868-2605.