On one of our last adventure days in South Carolina, Tom and I searched for the Grand Canyon of South Carolina. It wasn’t the first day we had looked for it, but we were narrowing our search down.
Many states claim a place as the Grand Canyon of _______, and a quick Google search can find it. In some states, however, no one has claimed that a certain place is the Grand Canyon of that state, and South Carolina is one example of that. So Tom and I spent some time with a topographical map of the state, looking for an area that could be called “The Grand Canyon of South Carolina.”
The most promising area is the Jocasee Gorges area. Four rivers – Whitewater, Horsepasture, Thompson, and Toxaway – had been busily carving valleys in the eastern side of the Appalachian mountains of South Carolina for centuries. Surely one of these valleys would be the Grand Canyon of South Carolina. There is even a Jocasee Gorges scenic drive, and I was sure we would be able to find the right place along the scenic drive.
Unfortunately, in 1973, Duke Power and the state of South Carolina built a 1,750 foot-wide dam, which created Jocasee Lake and filled most of the valleys with water. Today a line of South Carolina State parks borders the 75 mile shoreline of the lake. The people in the area love the lake and use it for fishing, boating, and swimming. The water is over 300 feet deep in many places and remains cool in the hot summers.
The film “Deliverance” with Burt Reynolds and Jon Voight was partially filmed in the Jocasee Gorges before the dam was built. The scenes of the dam being built are the Jocasee dam, so you can watch the movie and see a little bit of what the area looked like before it was flooded.
A lake, however, cannot be the Grand Canyon of South Carolina, so Tom and I continued looking for a likely candidate. We checked out Keowee-Toxaway Sate Park, Devils Fork State Park, and Table Rock State Park but none of them had a suitable “canyon.” I was lobbying for Caesars Head State Park, which has a fantastic breath-taking overlook featuring the Blue Ridge Escarpment. From the overlook, the view is reminiscent of a very green Grand Canyon. But Tom says that an escarpment isn’t a canyon, and the whole state of South Carolina would be part of the canyon if I insisted. Hmmm.
While we were hiking at Caesars Head, we came to a valley that could be a candidate. We looked for an overlook or viewpoint of the valley, but the woods were too dense to allow us to get a sense of the whole valley.
We decided to drive to the bottom of the valley and try to get a better view of it from the bottom up. We drove to Jones Gap State Park and started hiking up the valley. The valley at Jones Gap was created by the Middle Saluda River which is still a wild and undammed river. It was the first river protected under the Scenic Rivers Program in South Carolina. The river drops almost 1,000 feet in the four miles within Jones Gap State Park. The valley is close to 1,000 feet deep with steep walls rising on either side of the river.
We hiked up the Gum Gap / Foothills Trail. The Foothills Trail is a 105 mile trail that follows the mountain ridges in northwestern South Carolina. The trail passes over Sassafras Mountain, the highest peak in South Carolina. Fortunately, the parts of the Foothills Trail in Jones Gap State Park are less rigorous. We explored the beautiful valley and stopped for a while at Jones Gap Falls.
This Middle Saluda River valley is one of the prettiest areas we have found in South Carolina. Jones Gap State Park has 11 primitive campsites right along the river. You have to hike in to get to them and the sites are so beautiful that I would have been willing to sleep in a tent again to stay there.
Is Jones Gap State Park the Grand Canyon of South Carolina? Perhaps. It is certainly the closest we have found so far, but we may have to look further. Until we find something better, I am declaring Jones Gap State Park to be the Grand Canyon of South Carolina. Whether it is or not, Jones Gap is a wonderful place to visit and hike.