Best Hikes in the South Carolina Upstate

Bebe Nicholson

From easy to strenuous, the foothills offer amazing hikes for every age and level.

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Photos by author

When my husband and I bought a house on the shores of Lake Keowee, we were looking forward to lake living. But a surprising and unexpected bonus has been the excellent hiking within miles of our house.

From mountain views to waterfalls, from popular destinations to sparsely traveled wilderness, the South Carolina Upstate offers hiking opportunities for every age and skill level.

We have hiked many more trails than the ones I mention in this article, but the places I chose to write about are popular destinations characterized by breathtaking views, amazing waterfalls and a bit of local history. So get out your walking sticks, pack a lunch, and prepare to be awed by the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge foothills.

Table Rock State Park

No Upstate hiking guide would be complete without including Table Rock State Park, which is the starting point for hiking the Table Rock, Pinnacle Mountain and Carrick Creek Trails.

The first time I hiked Table Rock, I didn’t think I would make it to the top. It begins easily enough and there is plenty to see without tackling the more rigorous parts of the trail.

If you're hiking with young children, you might want to stick to the lower portion near the Nature Center, where small waterfalls tumbling over boulders form natural pools for children to wade and swim. If you bring swimsuits and a picnic, the kids will love it.

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Waterfalls form natural wading pools

But if you are out for some real hiking, Table Rock Trail is a strenuous, rugged and scenic climb ascending 2,000 feet to the summit of the granite dome, 3,124 up.

I've hiked Table Rock five times, and only once stopped at a shelter about three quarters of the way up without going the rest of the way. The hike to the shelter is rigorous and provides wonderful views if you don’t want to complete the trek to the dome. But usually, when I've gotten this far I can't resist going all the way up.

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View from the Table Rock Shelter

If you decide to proceed past the shelter, you need to be aware that the last stretch to the top is the most challenging part of the hike. You scramble up paths that are narrow, steep and slippery, with sheer rock faces and barely discernable footholds. Still, I always feel it's worth it when I get to the top and take in the panoramic view.

When I hiked up Table Rock a couple of years ago, I was surprised to see so many charred trees, reminders of the 2016 wild fires that swept through South Carolina that year. For about 3 weeks, persistent drought and high winds fueled the fires that left a smoky haze over the state and closed the parks.

The upper reaches of Table Rock were scorched, and ultimately about 10,263 acres were burned. But according to researchers, opening the tree canopy has resulted in more mountain laurels and rhododendrons being pushed further up the mountain.

I was amazed at how sporadically and randomly the fire burned some trees while leaving others untouched. One of the forest rangers at the nature center explained that this resulted from flying sparks, catching some trees but missing others.

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charred trees surprised us two years after the fire of 2016

The other rigorous hike that begins at the Table Rock State Park nature center is the Pinnacle Mountain Trail, which I have hiked twice. It connects with the Table Rock Trail, but branches off in the opposite direction. Both trails are clearly marked and heavily trafficked, although Pinnacle doesn't seem to be as popular as Table Rock.

Any hiker will enjoy the multiple waterfalls and creeks, but after a heavy rainfall you might get your shoes wet wading across shallow, rushing streams.

The easy trail, if you are with kids or less vigorous hikers, is the Carrick Creek Falls loop. There is an observation deck less than 100 yards up the trail, and the two-mile loop only takes you about an hour to complete. It’s clearly marked, with numerous views of cascading waterfalls and a forest of oak, hickory, pines, hemlock, and the ever-present mountain laurel.

Keowee-Toxaway State Park

One of my favorite trails is at Keowee-Toxaway State Park. Two hiking trails in the park take visitors over a natural bridge through the foothills.

The Natural Bridge Trail is a short, relatively easy hike and terrific for families and pets. The trail crosses Poe Creek across a natural granite bridge and much of the walking is beside the creek. The 1.3 mile loop winds up at a double waterfall; picturesque and popular.

When my husband and I don’t have kids along, we continue past Natural Bridge Trail, which connects with The Raven Rock trail, a 4 mile loop that takes us just under three hours to complete.

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View along Raven Rock Trail overlooking Lake Keowee

It isn’t as difficult as Table Rock, but it's strenuous enough to provide a good workout. The trail takes you uphill through a boulder field along a fairly steep grade, with several stunning views of Lake Keowee and the beautiful foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

If you’re looking for a good exercise hike without being extremely difficult, this is the trail to take. Our favorite picnic spot is the boulder overlooking Lake Keowee, which precedes our descent to the parking lot.

Issaqueena Falls and Stumphouse Tunnel

If you’re entertaining family or guests, nothing beats a trip to Issaqueena Falls and the Stumphouse Tunnel.

A short easy walking trail leads from Stumphouse Mountain Park to Issaqueena Falls, a beautiful waterfall that plunges 200 feet to the rocks below. A shallow stream is a great draw for kids, and a viewing platform provides a good view of the falls.

But if you’re a little more daring and adventurous, you can make it down a steep, slippery incline to the base of the falls. It’s a narrow path strewn with boulders and flanked by trees, so be prepared to slip and slide, grasping tree limbs and roots for purchase. Be sure to avoid the poison ivy, too.

We managed the descent with our grandkids, who enjoyed scrambling over rocks and hiding in the nook behind the waterfall, which allowed them to peer through a screen of cascading water.

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Hiding beneath the waterfall

Stumphouse Mountain tunnel is a short, easy hike from the same parking lot, so one trip allows you to visit both the falls and the tunnel.

Stumphouse Tunnel is what remains of an 1850s attempt to link the port of Charleston to the cities of the Midwest by rail. It was dug using hand tools prior to the Civil War. Irish workers were brought into the area for the project, and by 1859 the State of South Carolina had spent over a million dollars on it.

When the state refused to spend anymore, the work was abandoned. But the tunnel had been excavated to a length of 1,617 feet and is like walking into a cave carved into the side of the mountain.

It’s worth strolling to the end, but it stays around 50 degrees year round, so take along a jacket and a flashlight.

Close to Stumphouse Park is Yellow Branch Falls, another easy to moderate hike. It’s about 45 minutes one way to the 50-foot waterfall. Starting from the parking area, you hike approximately .2 mile on the Yellow Branch Nature Trail before you come to the junction with the Yellow Branch Falls Trail.

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This is a good trail for families, but it can get crowded. The path to the falls takes you along meandering creeks and some fairly steep terrain through groves of hardwoods. It’s close enough to the picturesque town of Walhalla for you to see some of that area in the winter when trees are bare.

The trail, although not difficult, skirts some deep ravines, so be careful about letting the kids run ahead.

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Spectacular waterfalls are plentiful in the Upstate

Oconee County's "best kept secret"

Another great family hike is at Chau Ram Park in Oconee County. Located where Ramsey Creek and the Chauga River converge, this area has been described as one of Oconee County’s “best kept secrets.”

Over three miles of trails include access to a 40-foot waterfall rushing over boulders where Ramsey Creek flows into the Chauga River. A 160-foot suspension bridge spans the river, providing some excitement and novelty for kids. The park has a playground area, but one of the favorite draws for our grandkids was the sandy beach flanking the creek.

We watched teenagers tubing, which looked to be an exciting ride, although none of my group tried it. My grandkids enjoyed clambering over the boulders and exploring the area around the waterfalls.

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Chau Ram incudes a suspension bridge, boulders, waterfalls, and a beach

For more information about these and other state parks and trails, check out the South Carolina official Parks Site. And if you have your own favorite hiking areas in the Upstate, I’d love to hear about them.

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I've worked as editor, newspaper reporter, freelance writer, and book publisher. My writing includes lifestyle, humor, travel, relationship, family, politics, faith and health articles, along with three published books. In my various careers, I've been a journalist, retail manager, nonprofit director, flight attendant, freelancer and mom. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.

Alpharetta, GA
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