Want to change things up this fall on your leaf-peeping trip to the Upstate? Saddle up for a horseback ride through the mountains.
Offered year-round, this new cowboy adventure takes riders through stunning backcountry terrain from the rugged Jocassee Gorges to the gently rolling hills of a Blue Ridge Mountain forest. During the fall foliage season, you'll be riding under a canopy of oranges, reds, purples and yellows, giving you a front row seat to the annual autumnal spectacle.
It was weeks before the peak of color when I signed up for the Horseback Waterfalls Tour with Rhett Leonard, a gregarious horseman with 20 years of equestrian experience. We met at his Rockin' Reverend Ranch in Pumpkintown, located 24 miles northwest of Greenville.
While Leonard loaded horses into his trailer, we enjoyed the vista from his 70-acre hilltop farm. Perched in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the ranch offers a spectacular view of both Table Rock and Caesars Head - the Upstate's most famous natural landmarks.
With the horses ready for travel, we followed Leonard from his ranch to the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, up the winding Highway 276 to Caesars Head. Just outside the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area we crossed the state line and entered the 10,000-acre Dupont State Forest.
It was late afternoon on a September weekend and the parking lot had cleared out considerably. Leonard prefers to ride early in the morning or at the end of the day when there are fewer hikers, dog walkers and mountain bikers on the trails.
Our group consisted of both experienced riders and newbies. Intimately familiar with each of the horse's personalities and experience, he carefully assigned riders to the horse that would best fit their skill level.
Leonard uses only Tennessee Walkers, known for their unique four-beat "running walk." The breed is especially popular in trail riding because of its smooth gait, stamina and easy temper.
Charger, my assigned steed, lived up to the breed's rep - and his name. As we began the tour walking single file up a rocky trail, he followed behind two other horses, patiently waiting for the trail to flatten out and widen.
Once we were on an open gravel road, he charged ahead, leading the pack at full gait. It was exhilarating riding through the forest, up hills and down, at such a fast clip. Even my husband, whose experience is limited to two other trail rides, was loving the buttery feel of his Walker's stride.
Over the course of the three-hour ride, we crossed a covered bridge, stopped at three impressive waterfalls and took a short spur trail to a beautiful mountain lake. Later in the fall, when the trees will be awash in color, this woodlands tour will be that much more spectacular.
If you come in late October - the peak of the fall foliage season - take Leonard's other tour to Jumping Off Rock with its hallmark view of the crystal clear waters of Lake Jocassee and the Blue Ridge Mountains. To book either outing, call (864) 918-1020 or visit their website.
The Horseback Waterfalls Tours is just one of many out-of-the-ordinary ways to get in your leaf gazing this fall in South Carolina.
For thrill-seekers, I recommend rafting the National Wild and Scenic Chattooga River, best known as the setting for the 1970s blockbuster film "Deliverance". Aside from the river's bodacious rapids, it's flanked by dense mountain forestland that has been maintained in its natural state.
Local outfitters - Wildwater and Nantahala Outdoor Center - offer trips on 31 miles of the river, touted among the best whitewater anywhere. Section III is the calmer, more family-friendly excursion, while Section IV takes you on a wild ride through rapids with names like Corkscrew, Crack-in-the-Rock and Sock-'em Dog.
If you really want to get up close and personal with the arboreal stars, take a hike on one of the Upstate's many well-marked trails. Walk the flat, paved path to Caesars Head overlook or hoof it up 2,000 feet of mountain to the top of Table Rock. With hundreds of miles of trails traversing a wide range of terrains, you'll have no trouble finding one to suit your skills and energy level.