After hiking half-way up a mountain, through sylvan thicket and over winding creek, there's no better payoff than a spectacular waterfall. South Carolina's Upstate is full of these scenic wonders - and not all of them require a rigorous trek through the woods to view.
I'm going to tell you about my 10 favorite falls. Most of them can be reached by trail with only moderate effort. One is best seen by boat, another by raft. While the cascades range from a modest 50 feet to an awe-inspiring 420 feet, each is impressive in its own unique way.
So, here we go. The Outdoor Insider's Top 10 List of South Carolina waterfalls:
10. Lower Whitewater Falls: I'm starting big - really big. Part of a chain of falls billed as the highest series in eastern North America, this section of the cascade drops a dramatic 200 feet in the Jocassee Gorges. It's a moderate two-mile hike to an overlook where you can stand and gaze in amazement at the enormous rush of water plummeting down a rock face.
9. Spoonauger Falls: Little effort. Lots of reward. It'll take you about 20 minutes to reach this 50-foot waterfall set back into a lush green hillside covered in trees and shrubbery. The water runs down a stepped rock face spilling onto a flat area of rock - an inviting spot to dip your feet on a hot summer day. The kids will love searching for salamanders hiding among the rocks.
8. King Creek Falls: If you visit Spoonauger, don't miss the chance to see this 70-foot waterfall near the Chattooga River. It's just a mile up the road. The hike is a bit more taxing, but worth the extra sweat. The water drops into a U-shaped cove swathed in laurel. You can wade at the bottom of the falls or sit on one of the downed trees and enjoy the refreshing spray from the falls.
7. Twin Falls: You get a twofer with this once, hence the name Twin Falls. This breathtaking natural attraction starts out as Reedy Creek and then splits to form two cascades. The larger of the falls thunders down from a height of 75 feet over a massive granite slab; the twin to the right is just as spectacular barreling over chunks of rock piled at a 45-degree angle. If you follow the water as it makes its way downstream, you'll find a slide that dumps into a small swimming hole.
6. Issaqueena Falls: The trail to these falls is even easier than the one to Spoonauger. At a leisurely pace, it may take you 15 minutes to get to the overlook. The falls are named after the young Indian maiden Issaqueena who is said to have jumped off the top of the 100-foot cascade to escape her tribesman. Apparently, they were not pleased she had run off with a silversmith. But this story has a happy ending. Issaqueena survived the plunge and fled with her husband to Alabama.
5. Raven Cliff Falls: The mother of all South Carolina waterfalls, this 420-foot beauty spills gracefully off Raven Cliff Mountain into the rolling hills of the piedmont below. The trail to the falls is one of the most popular in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. The first and last quarter miles are the steepest, but it's no more than a moderate climb. It will take you about 90 minutes to reach the overlook erected across the gorge from the falls.
4. Long Creek Falls: Getting to Long Creek Falls is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. That's because the easiest way to see this cascade is to raft Section 4 of the Chattooga River. The multi-tiered, 50-foot waterfall is one of the highlights of the whitewater trip that doesn't involve plunging into a raging torrent of water. Landlubbers can hike to the falls, but you'll be trekking on a path that is not an official Forest Service trail.
3. Laurel Fork Falls: You have to be a glutton for punishment to hike to these waterfalls. It's a strenuous five-to-six hour hike on the Foothills Trail with lots of wooden steps to traverse as you ascend and descend to the river. Instead of hoofing it, take a relaxing boat ride in Lake Jocassee. If you book a tour with a guide, they'll take you into the crescent-shaped grotto behind the rocky tower for a spectacular view of this 80-foot cascade.
2. Rainbow Falls: This one is postcard material. Falling 100 feet over steep walls streaked with gneiss and mica schist, Rainbow Falls is a stunner, especially in the spring when the azaleas are in bloom. But it's a strenuous hike to get to it. You'll be climbing 1,000 feet over a distance of 1.6 miles. Go for it! It's so worth it.
1. Falls Creek Falls: My all time favorite, this 125-foot cascade is one of the finest in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. There are two ways to get to it - neither particularly easy. The shorter trail named after the falls is about two miles with long, steep sections. Or you can ratchet up your game and take the rugged five-mile Hospital Rock Trail that will bring you to the other side of the falls. Either way, it's a fantastic show!
Palmetto Conservation sells a great book called "The Waterfalls of South Carolina" by Benjamin Brooks and Tim Cook. Now in its third edition, it features full-page color photographs and directions to 31 waterfalls in the Upstate. To order a copy, click here.