Driving along SC 11 in the northwestern-most corner of the state, it's easy to miss the unspoiled wilderness National Geographic Magazine named among "50 of the World's Last Great Places."
Jocassee Gorges is a jewel hidden in plain sight. Just beyond the blacktop are 50,000 acres of lush forestlands boasting one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the eastern United States. With more than 75 inches of precipitation each year, it is the only temperate rain forest east of the Rockies.
This unique ecosystem is home to a stunning array of rare plants, including ferns, mosses, fungi and wildflowers. Among the rarest is the Oconee Bell, a delicate, bell-shaped flower that grows in just a few select areas of the southern Appalachian Mountains. As much as 90 percent of the world's Oconee Bells are found in the Jocassee Gorges.
The Upcountry wilderness also has one of the most abundant black bear populations in the state and the greatest number of salamanders found anywhere on the planet.
The name Jocassee, according to Native American legend, means "Place of the Lost One." This protected land, once the hunting grounds of the Cherokee Indian Nation, is indeed a special place worthy of National Geographic's designation as a "destination of a lifetime."
But it's the Jocassee Gorges' dramatic landscape that will take your breath away. In as little as a mile, the elevation abruptly drops 2,500 feet from a blue wall of mountains to the rolling hills of the Piedmont. This topographical phenomenon is known as the Blue Ridge Escarpment.
A dozen rivers plunging through the steep, forested slopes created the area's rugged gorges and its many impressive waterfalls, including Whitewater Falls, the tallest cascades east of the Rocky Mountains. This two-state wonder drops 811 feet from North Carolina to South Carolina.
Another of its five-star natural attractions is Lake Jocassee, a deep, pristine reservoir known for its reel-buzzing, trophy-size fish. The state record spotted bass, redeye bass, smallmouth bass, brown trout and rainbow trout were caught in the 7,500-acre lake.
Four rivers-Whitewater, Thompson, Toxaway and Horsepasture-were impounded to create Lake Jocassee. In addition to fishing, the crystal-clear lake is a popular destination for kayaking, boating and scuba diving.
Jocassee Gorges is also where you'll find the highest point in South Carolina. Sassafras Mountain stands 3,553 feet, offering a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and foothills.
You can get to Sassafras by car or along the Foothills Trail, a 77-mile woodland path that winds its way along the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Nearly two-thirds of the trail lies within the Jocassee Gorges. One of the most rugged sections crosses over the high point on its way to the historic Horsepasture wilderness and Laurel Fork Heritage Preserve.
A spur trail takes you to another wild and remote area-the Eastatoe Creek Heritage Preserve. This steep mountain gorge is filled with hardwoods, rhododendrons and several rare fern species, including Tunbridge, a tropical fern found nowhere else in North America.
Along with its many botanical treasures, the Jocassee Gorges offers unique bird watching opportunities. Designated an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society and Bird Life International, the wilderness includes both mountain and lower-elevation habitats that draw a wide range of species from Swainson's warblers and Louisiana waterthrush to Peregrine falcons and bald eagles.
Learn more about the Jocassee Gorges from the state Department of Natural Resources or visit the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center at Keowee-Toxaway State Park located at the intersection of SC 11 and SC 133.