Winding 115 miles through northwest South Carolina, from Lake Hartwell on the Georgia border to Gaffney just south of the North Carolina state line, the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway offers some of the loveliest scenery in the state. Originally used by Cherokee Indians and, later, English and French trappers and fur traders, the route rises into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains past the storied peaks of Table Rock, Caesars Head, and Sassafras. It weaves alongside a trio of lakes—Hartwel, Keowee, and Jocassee—and too many rivers and streams to count; in fact, the area is often referred to as the state’s “freshwater coast” and is also renowned for its more than 150 waterfalls. The western portion of the byway is home to half a dozen state parks beckoning you to come hike, bike, fish, or swim; the eastern half passes over rolling hills blanketed with peach orchards and strawberry fields and dotted with roadside produce stands and horse farms. Along the route, travelers will also discover bustling small towns, a pair of postcard-perfect bridges, and historic sites that tell the stories of Revolutionary War soldiers, early American frontiersmen and settlers, and the Cherokees, who first inhabited this land and called its majestic mountains “the Great Blue Hills of God.”
This small town serves as a jumping-off point for visitors traveling to the state parks set among the foothills and mountains of the Blue Ridge. Leave some time to go antiquing on Main Street, though, at Warther’s Originals and Middle of Main, and to pop into Sunni Ann Mercantile Company, a smart boutique where you can stock up on snacks and snag a Lake Jocassee T-shirt or Lake Keowee cap. Plan on lunch at local institution the Steak House Cafeteria, which is ironically known for its fried chicken breast dubbed “Arabian Rooster.”
Oconee Station State Historic Site
Built as a military compound in 1792, the station was the westernmost outpost in the state’s defensive line, providing early warning of attacks. It later served as a trading post and meetding place for American frontiersmen and Cherokees. Today, a stone blockhouse used by the state militia and the William Richard House, a two-story brick residence built in 1805, still stand on the site. A 1.5-mile nature trail winds through a forest filled with wildflowers—bloodroot, mayapple, and pink lady’s slipper—and leads to Station Cove Falls, a 60-foot cascade.
Devils Fork State Park
This park is the only public-access point to crystal-clear Lake Jocassee and the surrounding Jocassee Gorges, 50,000-plus acres of temperate rain forest with the highest concentration of waterfalls in the eastern United States. The lake, fed by mountain springs, is a favorite destination for scuba divers and swimmers as well as anglers who routinely haul in trophy-size trout and bass. Spring brings the blossoming of the rare and endangered Oconee bells, which hikers can spot along a designated one-mile trail.
Keowee-Toxaway State Park
Water-based activities are the major draw at this park on Lake Keowee, and the restriction of motorized boats ensures a quiet and peaceful paddle for kayakers and canoeists on the lake and beautiful mountain streams such as Eastatoe Creek. Inland, on the moderately challenging 1.5-mile Natural Bridge Trail, hikers tunnel through corridors of rhododendron, past moss-covered tree trunks, and around boulders the size of bison and bears; violets, orchids, and trout lilies abound, as do songbirds (75 species have been spotted). Stop in at the Jocassee Gorges Visitor Center, housed in a little white church building, to learn more about native flora and fauna and Cherokee tribal culture.
The highest point in South Carolina, this mountain rises 3,553 feet and straddles the state’s border with North Carolina. A new observation tower at the summit offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, forests of hardwood and white pine, and glittering splinters of lakes. A compass rose etched into the center of the stone tower’s floor is bisected by the state line; visitors can place a foot on each side of the engraving and stand in both states at the same time.
Table Rock State Park
The mountain that gives this park its name is the most photographed natural wonder in the state. Known for its distinctive granite dome and a seemingly tabletop-flat summit, it’s popular with hikers and climbers alike. Those intent on a mountaintop experience can follow the strenuous 3.6-mile Table Rock Trail from the Nature Center through a boulder- strewn forest of hickory and oak to high-altitude rock outcrops. Visitors looking for a more leisurely stroll may opt for the 1.9-mile Lakeside Trail loop; highlights include the old stone boat landing and the historic lodge, both constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Caesars Head State Park
This park takes its name from the granite outcropping sitting atop the Blue Ridge Escarpment, the line where the mountain range dramatically drops off—a plunge of 2,000 feet—and is replaced by rolling hills. As you’d expect, the views from the park’s overlook are breathtaking. Another spectacular sight is the 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls, the tallest waterfall in the state, accessible via a four-mile loop trail.
This happening little town just 10 miles south of the byway is a great stop for a night—or the perfect home base from which to explore sites along the route. You’ll find several excellent restaurants, including outposts of popular eateries in nearby culinary hotspot Greenville. Standouts include Sidewall Pizza (order the popular Little Pepperoni); Topsoil Kitchen & Market, helmed by Chef Adam Cooke, a recent James Beard nominee; and Tandem, a charming creperie and coffeehouse. Stop in at the Community Tap, a bright, bustling bottle shop and growler bar for local pours like Liability Brewing’s Mortal Wombat IPA.
Book a night—or several—in one of the Station’s polished guest cottages. Flooded with light and featuring simple, modern furnishings and reclaimed wood pieces, each cottage includes a living room, galley kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom with a king-sized bed. It’s a short walk to downtown shops and eateries on the Swamp Rabbit Trail; the popular greenway created along an old railroad corridor connects Travelers Rest to Greenville and runs alongside the Station. (Consider renting bikes from local outfitter Sunrift Adventures to explore the length of the 22-mile trail.)
Built in 1820, this stone Gothic arch is the oldest bridge in South Carolina and perhaps the Southeast. Cross over on foot or descend the bank and examine the moss- and lichen-covered stonework from the side of Little Gap Creek, which the bridge spans. It was named for diplomat and botanist Joel Roberts Poinsett, who served as America’s first ambassador to Mexico and returned to South Carolina with colorful plants that would also bear his name (poinsettias).
Campbell’s Covered Bridge
The only remaining covered bridge in South Carolina, this rust-red charmer was constructed in 1909, restored in 1964, and closed to vehicle traffic in 1984. One of the most photographed sites in the state, the bridge is the centerpiece of a small park. Pack a picnic and spread a blanket in the adjacent meadow or sunbathe on the rock shoals just upstream along Beaverdam Creek.
Strawberry Hill USA
You’ll know you’ve arrived when you crest the hill and spot the red-roofed cafe surrounded by peach orchards, strawberry fields, and scores of American flags snapping in the breeze. Inside you’ll find a midcentury-diner setup and a menu of American classics, from hot dogs to barbecue (don’t forget the crispy tater tots). Order a cone of homemade peach or strawberry cheesecake ice cream then head across the road to the produce shed, where the Cooley family has been selling fruits and vegetables fresh from their surrounding farm since 1947.
Cowpens National Battlefield
A winter pasturing ground, called the Cow Pens by locals, was the site of a decisive battle that turned the tide of the American Revolutionary War. On January 17, 1781, Daniel Morgan led a force of militia, cavalry, and Continentals to victory over an army of British Regulars. Just nine months after this defeat, the British surrendered to General George Washington. Today, the field is a national park site, featuring a visitor center (stop in and see a short film about the battle) and miles of paths and trails.
Perhaps best known as the site of the Peachoid, a million-gallon peach-shaped water tower, Gaffney is the eastern terminus of the byway. After rolling into town, head to Limestone Street for shopping at longstanding department store Hartzog’s then sidle up to the bar at Liberty Cigar & Coffee for a cold brew or a glass of wine. Set aside an hour for a visit to the Cherokee County Museum, which maintains excellent exhibits on American Indian history and the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution, including a 90-foot war mural.