Located along a rural stretch of SC Highway 130 near the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway, the quiet and secluded town of Salem would be easy to miss if not for its star attraction—Devils Fork State Park.
The 644 acres of protected parkland lay in the middle of the Jocassee Gorges, an unspoiled wilderness named among the “World’s Last Great Places” by National Geographic Magazine. More importantly, the park offers the only public access to Lake Jocassee, a stunning, 7,565-acre reservoir surrounded by densely forested mountains.
Fed by four cold mountain streams, Jocassee is the only lake in South Carolina that supports both smallmouth bass and trophy trout prized by anglers. It’s also popular with kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and boaters. And because the visibility is so good in the lake’s crystal-clear waters, it’s a favorite destination for scuba divers, too.
Plunging down the steep-sided gorge, the Whitewater, Thompson, Toxaway and Horsepasture rivers have created several waterfalls that are best seen from the lake. Among the most spectacular is Laurel Fork Falls. By boat, you can get two views of the falls—from the cove where it drops into Lake Jocassee and from a crescent-shaped grotto behind a rock tower. Tour operators offer boat trips to see the waterfalls and experience some of Jocassee’s other natural wonders.
One of the most unique excursions is Jocassee Lake Tour’s First Sunday Expeditions with naturalist Patrick McMillan, the Emmy Award-winning host of the PBS series “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.” During the four-hour boat trips, McMillan introduces participants to the extraordinary biological diversity found in the Jocassee Gorges. Nestled in the rugged mountains of the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the lush forestlands are teeming with rare plants and wildlife, including the greatest number of salamanders found anywhere in the world.
Among the ecosystem’s botanical treasures is the rare Oconee bell (or acony bell), a small, white and yellow wildflower found in just a few select areas of the southern Appalachian Mountains. For two to three weeks in mid-March to early April, you can see blooming colonies of the delicate flower along a creek on Devils Fork State Park’s 1.5-mile Oconee Bell Nature Trail.
The Jocassee Gorges offer plenty of other opportunities for nature watching and outdoor fun. For a bird’s eye view of the lake and the surrounding wilderness, drive up the twisty, gravel Horse Pasture Road to Jumping Off Rock, an overlook perched on a 2,000-foot high rocky cliff. While you’re enjoying the view, be on the lookout for peregrine falcons that nest in the area.
Horse Pasture Road also offers access to fantastic hiking along the Foothills Trail and some of the most remote areas of the Jocassee Gorges.
Now a gateway to the Jocassee Gorges, Salem started out as a lumber town before turning to cotton production. Today, this small mountain town, with a total area of less than a square mile, offers a world of adventure in one of the most scenic spots in South Carolina.