Every fall my wife Ginger and I will try to get away for a day or two to make a trip to the mountains. We like to drive sections of the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway (S.C. 11). Sometimes we go on into North Carolina or Tennessee.
This year I wanted to visit Sassafras Mountain. It is the highest elevation in South Carolina. Over the years I’ve seen news releases or short articles about the mountain, and the surrounding Jocassee Gorges Wilderness. I was curious.
We left home one Sunday morning under a heavy, dark, cloudy sky. The weather forecast was for clearing and cooler weather. We went through Columbia and took Interstate 26 west through Spartanburg, then took exit 5, where the Cherokee Trail crosses the interstate. To the east is the Cowpens Battlefield where the British were handed a devastating defeat in the American Revolution. We went west toward Campobello.
It was lunch time when we neared Table Rock State Park, so we pulled in for a break. We sat in the car and ate our packed lunch of sandwiches and chips. The clouds had cleared and it was windy and crispy cool. We walked down to the visitor center and Ginger bought a Christmas ornament for our tree. I studied the large maps on the wall to locate Sassafras Mountain.
Just down the road we turned right onto Highway 178 that makes it way up through the mountains and into North Carolina. There are some steep grades and a few hairpin turns. Guardrails are present at many turns. I saw a WMA sign and wondered how anyone could hunt such steep terrain. We entered Jocassee Gorges, and at Rocky Bottom, we turned right onto the highway leading to the mountain.
This highway was tighter, steeper and there were no guardrails. The views were simply breathtaking. The dappled sunlight shimmered and shined through the woods. Soon we were at the top, or I should say, a small gravel parking lot, near the top.
A thin screen of hardwoods stood between the parking area and an overlook on the side of the mountain. A deep blue panorama that stretched to a distant horizon could be seen through the trees. A half dozen people stood out on the overlook, talking in hushed tones and taking pictures. We walked out onto the overlook and stood amazed. The view was beyond anything I had imagined. It was magnificent! Mountains stretched off to the west and north. Lakes could be seen to the southwest. There were no signs of human existence. No roads, buildings or cell phone towers visible, just the mountains. It was one of the most beautiful sights that I have ever seen.
I’ve stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and marveled at one of the greatest natural wonders of the world. I’ve gazed out over the endless prairie from the top of Pikes Peak. I’ve stood and watched the sun set over the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest of Arizona.
Ginger and I have climbed the giant sand dunes along the Outer Banks and looked out over the ocean and the vast Pamlico Sound. We’ve stood in the Grand Strand surf and felt the warm sun from a South Carolina dawn. Driven a twisting, turning section of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Tennessee.
I’ve looked out over the turquoise waters of the Pacific Ocean from the jagged coastline of Big Sur, and hiked among the redwoods of northern California. I’ve descended through the clouds in a jetliner among the snow-covered mountains to land in a sleet storm at Anchorage, and looked out the window of an airplane at the black coned, snow-capped top of Mount Fuji, pushing up through the clouds below.
We’ve walked among the giant world record trees of Congaree National Park. I stood in my own front yard and witnessed a full eclipse of the sun.
This sight before us now was one of these.
We lingered, unable to pull away from the sheer majesty before us, but the top of the mountain beckoned. A small narrow path led up through the trees and a hillside covered in maroon colored briars. It was only about a hundred yards, but our legs burned and our lungs gulped in the frigid air.
The summit was open and wind swept. The panoramic view seemed endless. Nearby mountain peaks, a brilliant blue sky, and rolls of white clouds gave way to more distant peaks that faded into lighter and lighter shades of blue. It was difficult to determine where the land ended and the sky began. It was truly one of the wonders of the world.
The summit is temporarily closed now while an observation tower, an access trail, and restrooms are being built. The overlook and parking area will remain open. Construction is scheduled to be completed by May 2018.