Driving along the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it appears through the trees without warning-this unbelievably huge hunk of metamorphic rock pushed up from the earth 350 million years ago.
Table Rock, South Carolina's most photographed natural wonder, has been the subject of many a geologic study and high school science field trip. But for adventure seekers like me, it's just one bodacious rock to climb.
"People want to get on top of it," Table Rock State Park Interpreter Scott Stegenga said. "It's an accomplishment to reach the summit. And, of course, there's the view."
From the northeast edge of the 3,100-foot high granite dome, you can see across the Table Rock Reservoir to the lookout at Caesars Head State Park. Slicking Falls spills down a granite outcrop northwest of the reservoir's vibrant blue waters in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness and Recreation Area. The south face of the monolith offers another breathtaking panorama of the piedmont with Table Rock State Park's pristine Pinnacle Lake at its center.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before you can enjoy the scenic overlooks, you have to make your way up 2,000 feet of mountain, the equivalent of climbing the steps of New York's Chrysler Building --twice.
Still, this highly strenuous, five-hour out-and-back trek is one of the two most popular trails in all of South Carolina. Some 50,000 people hike the park's 10 miles of trails each year, with the majority of them choosing to follow the challenging 3.4 miles of red blazes to the summit of Table Rock.
Not everyone makes it to the dramatic cliffs, but it's certainly worth the attempt. The journey through the well-preserved forest is every bit as exhilarating as it is grueling.
Once a spiritual retreat for Cherokees, Table Rock derived its name from Indian lore. According to Cherokee legend, the mountain served as the eating table for a giant mythological chieftain. The shorter mountain, known as The Stool, was his seat. And the familiar blue haze that sometimes covers the mountains (hence the name Blue Ridge Mountains) was the shadow of this Great Spirit.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Table Rock State Park was built in the 1930s during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the New Deal programs created by Franklin Roosevelt to put Americans back to work and preserve the nation's natural heritage. In South Carolina, the CCC built 17 of the 46 state parks.
The landmark trailstarts at the Nature Center and immediately rewards hikers with a refreshing pit stop at one of Carrick Creek's many small falls. Some families never venture beyond the stream's inviting pool, a favorite dipping spot for those who don't mind icy mountain water.
A short ways up from the cascades, you'll cross two wooden foot bridges that traverse Green Creek. And then the serious fun begins.
The trail takes a decided turn upward through a mature forest of mostly oak and hickory trees with a scattering of pines and hemlock. As you continue your march forward, you'll come across some very cool brontosaurus-sized rocks.
By this point, the relentless ascending steps will have you huffing and puffing like the big, bad wolf. But just a few more paces and you'll have a chance to rest at an old CCC-built trailside shelter offering views of the South Carolina piedmont. You'll need this much-deserved breather to make it up the steep sections that lie ahead.
At Panther Gap, you'll have to decide whether to turn right and continue up the quad-burning Table Rock Trail or head left on the Ridge Trail which takes you to Pinnacle Mountain, an equally strenuous trek to the 3,400-foot peak.
Governor's Rock offers another chance to sit back and enjoy the mountainous landscape to the north and west. More climbing awaits after you cross the granite face, but don't despair-you're almost to the 3,124-foot summit.
When you finally arrive, take a picture by the elevation sign and keep on trekking. The big payoff comes a third of a mile down the trail when you reach the outcrop overlooking the reservoir.
It's there you can pat yourself on the back and say, "Been there, done that!"
Then sit down and enjoy one of South Carolina's finest views.
Hiking the Trail
Park Entrance Fee: $2 per person; free for children 15 and younger.
Registration: Before you begin hiking any of Table Rock State Park's five trails, you'll need to stop at the trailhead kiosk and fill out a short form with emergency information that includes your name, address and phone number, time of departure, number of people in your group and what trail you are hiking.
Where to Go: The park is in Pickens, located in the northwest corner of the state about 135 miles from Columbia.
What to Bring: Sturdy shoes, a couple of quarts of water per person and a bucket of bare-knuckle determination.
Information: Call (864) 878-9813 or visit southcarolinaparks.com/table-rock