Best Hiking Trails For Fall Color In South Carolina
Where can you find the best fall foliage colors in South Carolina?
No matter what part of the state you live in, South Carolina has a ton of perfect spots to get outside and see the fall colors. From the muted tones of the Lowcountry to the vivid palate of the upstate, get ready to see some amazing fall foliage across the whole state!
Fall is different in the Lower South. Here in South Carolina it can feel like we’re in two completely different seasons from one end of the state to the next, but the colors are no less spectacular. In the mountains Upstate you could look out over the reddened trees of the Southern Appalachians and wonder if you’d fallen asleep and woke up in New England.
Here in the Lowcountry it’s a different story. Even as a lot of the foliage in these parts stays green, you’ll notice the changes if you know where to look. You might see the bald cypress trees blush red while still laden with Spanish moss. You might hear the salt marsh grasses rustle in the breeze as the chilly air turns them the color of straw.
I love exploring local trails along the coast in autumn. Pinckney Island is just up the road, and it has some of my favorite trails in any season, but with fall in the air, I thought it might be fun to explore some of the best fall hikes all over South Carolina.
These are all day hikes, though many of them offer opportunities to stretch them out into an extended backpacking trip if you have the time and inclination.
They’re great trails any time of year, but if you’re of a mind to catch the best fall colors, timing is everything. Even in the mountains, peak foliage is a brief window. It typically opens some time toward the tail-end of October and is closed within a couple of weeks. Every year is different, but you can bet I’ll be out there looking for it.
Laurel Fork Trail – Devils Fork State Park
There are two ways to view one of South Carolina’s most impressive waterfalls, and each is an adventure. Whichever path you take, the best time to do it is fall, when the poplar trees around the shore of Lake Jocassee are brilliant yellow, and the summer boat traffic has receded for the season. This 7,500-acre lake is the centerpiece of Devils Fork State Park, and at the northeastern tip of one of its meandering arms (Laurel Fork Creek Cove) the rushing waters of Laurel Fork Falls tumble over a rocky precipice into the lake. Reaching the waterfall by boat is the easiest and most popular way to see it, but there’s another option.
The alternate route—and for a hiker, the more fun route—is the Laurel Fork Trail. It’s a challenging hike and a long one, roughly 8.4 miles each way, beginning from US-178 on the Foothills Trail. But this trail is a real pleasure to explore, traversing beautiful forest and crisscrossing the stream numerous times on a series of manmade bridges before eventually leading you to the lake and falls. A couple of primitive backcountry tent sites are located along the trail in case you decide to make it an overnight trip.
Raven Cliff Falls Trail – Caesars Head State Park
With views that stretch well across the North Carolina state line, Caesars Head State Park offers incredible scenery in any season. Never is that more true than in autumn, especially in the cove forests in the northwest corner of the park, where bowl-shaped valleys populated with mixed-deciduous trees burst forth in brilliant reds and yellows. Elsewhere in the park, ridgetop oaks and hickories turn golden-brown above an understory of rich green rhododendrons. But Caesars Head State Park’s most famous feature by a long shot is Raven Cliff Falls, the tallest waterfall in South Carolina.
As with so many waterfalls, exact measurements as to its height seem to vary—somewhere between 350 and 400 feet seems about right—but there’s no doubt about the route you take to get there. After passing the State Park Visitors Center, follow the main park road to the Raven Cliff Falls Trailhead. From here, it’s a moderately difficult 2.2 mile hike to the falls. The terrain is rugged, with sections of boardwalk easing you up some of the tougher sections, but the scenery during peak foliage is out of this world. If you’re not tired out by the time you get back to the trailhead, the park has about 60 more miles of trails waiting for you.
Osprey Pond Loop – Pinckney National Wildlife Refuge
The brilliant reds and yellows of the deciduous mountain forests aren’t the only fall colors South Carolina has to offer. Down in the Lowcountry, things look a bit different, but the fall scenery is no less eye-catching. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, nestled in between the mainland and Hilton Head Island in Beaufort County, is a prime example of the kind of fall colors the South Carolina coast has to offer. Here the old palmetto fronds die off late in the season, and the marsh grass turns a beautiful shade of ochre, creating a striking contrast with the luminous blue sky. Also, one of my true favorite things about hiking here in fall is that the mosquitoes finally dial it back. At least a little bit.
Pinckney Island offers about 14 miles of trails in total, and you can access them all from the parking lot about a half-mile from the refuge entrance. The trail starts as a gravel road before branching off into several possible routes, most of which eventually loop back toward the parking lot. The 3-mile Osprey Pond Loop offers a lot of prime scenery in a relatively short and easy hike, with plenty of options to branch out and explore some side trails if you have a full day to burn. Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge is open seven days a week during daylight hours only; no overnight camping is permitted.
Sulphur Springs Trail – Paris Mountain State Park
Just a few miles outside Greenville, Paris Mountain State Park is a great fall getaway with more than 14 miles of hiking trails leading past rocky cliffs and serene mountain lakes. The park even has a few trailside tent sites, making it a great place for backpacking if you have a couple days to spend wandering around in the mountains. I highly recommend doing so, because while the Sulphur Springs Trail is my favorite hike in this park, I can assure you that the whole trail system is worth exploring.
The Sulphur Springs Trail is a 3.8-mile loop. It’s not the longest trail on this list, but don’t let the length fool you; this is a tough hike that packs some serious elevation changes. The trail climbs rapidly through mixed hardwood and conifer forest, with a few stream crossings along the way, and an old wood shelter if you need a breather. I love the light here in fall, especially as the oaks along the ridges start to shed their leaves and let the sun peek through to the forest floor. The real highlight of this trail is the Mountain Lake Dam and its old stone water tower, both built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
Palmetto Trail – Poinsett State Park
Nestled in the transitional area where the rolling hills of the South Carolina Midlands give way to the flat coastal plains of the Lowcountry, Poinsett State Park is home to a diversity of habitat seen almost nowhere else in the state. From sandy pine woodlands and blackwater bottomland forests to upland oak and hickory forests, you can experience several distinct habitats in a park that spans just 1,000 acres.
That makes Poinsett State Park a great place to hit the trail in fall. The park offers 25 miles of trails, including a section of the Palmetto Trail, a planned 500-mile footpath that stretches across the state from the mountains to the coast. Fall is arguably the best time to explore it, with an ever-changing canopy overhead and the soft crunch of leaves underfoot. Be sure to pick up a trail map before you start exploring, as the trail markers can be a bit confusing without one (the Palmetto Trail follows sections of the Laurel, Hilltop, Coquina and Scout trails within the park). Campsites are available, making this a great place for a weekend trip.
Sassafras Mountain Hike – Headwaters State Forest
Ready to bag South Carolina’s two highest peaks? Mild weather makes autumn the perfect time to do it, and the views from Pinnacle Mountain (3,415′) and Sassafras Mountain (3,563′) are never better than when the forests below are alive with fall color. It’s a rugged 13.9 miles one way. It’s doable as a day-hike if you can arrange drop-off and pick-up at either end, but also makes for a great overnight backpacking trip should you decide to hike it out-and-back. Be ready for a challenge though; it’s a strenuous hike that gains more than 3,800 feet and includes some steep climbs.
The adventure begins at the Pinnacle Mountain Trailhead in Table Rock State Park. You’ll hike 4.2 miles on the yellow-blazed Pinnacle Trail, ascending through hardwoods and rhododendron. Stop to take in the view from Bald Rock Overlook, and then watch for an intersection with the white-blazed Foothills Trail on your left. You’ll take the Foothills Trail the remaining 9.7 miles, quickly summiting Pinnacle Mountain before continuing on. The remainder of the trek traverses dense forest with some lovely fall colors. Watch for the remains of an old stone farmhouse; it’s a favorite spot for backpackers to pitch a tent. Once you pass the campsite, it’s just 2.2 miles to the summit of Sassafras Mountain in Headwaters State Forest.
Awendaw Passage – Buck Hall Recreation Area
I’ve mentioned the Palmetto Trail before. It’s a 500-mile work in progress (about 150 miles in the Midlands and Upstate are still in the planning and construction phases) that will one day allow hikers to walk all the way across the state. The trail begins—or ends, I suppose, depending on which way you’re headed—in the Lowcountry salt marshes along Awendaw Creek. The first 7 miles are known as the Awendaw Passage, and it’s one of my favorite fall hikes along the coast.
The trailhead on Buck Hall Landing Road (just off US-17) marks the eastern terminus of the trail, right at the edge of the Intracoastal Waterway. From there the trail meanders westward through rich maritime forests, alternating between natural surface, crushed stone and wooden boardwalks. You’ll get some splendid views of the salt marshes along the way, the marsh grasses taking on an almost golden color as winter approaches. I like to watch for egrets and heron wading in the brackish water, and daydream about one day following the trail all 500 miles to the peaks of the Blue Ridge.