21 Dec Road Trip on the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway 11
It’s time for our ultimate Highway 11 Road Trip Guide! We are going to highlight some of our favorite spots to stop and visit along the South Carolina Highway 11 (SC 11), also known as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway.
South Carolina might not seem like a state of varying terrain, but it is. Of course there is the well-known Lowcountry – home to Charleston, Beaufort and Hilton Head and some spectacular beaches. Further inland you will find the boggy but verdant Congaree National Park.
Even more inland is the less publicized, under-the-radar, Upcountry. To aid you in picturing it, it’s precisely between the rolling hills of Georgia and the striking Blue Ridge Mountains. The best way to explore the Upcountry is along the 118 mile , historically a route used by the Cherokee, the English, and the French fur traders.
Like the famed Route 66 (coined “the Mother Road” by John Steinbeck), the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway (otherwise known as Highway 11) is also replete with history, legend and lore. Travel this road and you will experience natural charm and awe inspiring views.
It’s home to more than 150 waterfalls, numerous state parks, a national forest, friendly towns, and elevations that go from 1000 feet to 3500 feet in the span of just seven miles.
Why is Highway 11 in South Carolina called the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway?
The Cherokee called these heights the “Great Blue Hills of God.” The stream-laced foothills and rugged mountains of the Blue Ridge have helped shape the development of the Upcountry.
The Blue Ridge Mountains are forested and steep and in some places are penetrable only along narrow passes cut by roaring, cliff-walled rivers. From the mountain heights some of the rivers plunge hundreds of feet in breathtaking falls.
While today’s travelers may hear the echoes of the area’s Cherokee heritage in places and river names such as Seneca, Keowee, Jocassee, Tamassee, Tokeena, Toxaway, and Eastatoe, the first indication of a Cherokee diminishing became evident in 1776. A new American nation was taking shape.
The region’s first white settler, Richard Pearis, married a Cherokee woman and built the area’s first business (a trading post and gristmill) on the falls of the Reedy River in what today is downtown Greenville.
Following the Revolutionary War, treaties with the Native American population opened up what was called the Pendleton District (now Anderson, Oconee and Pickens counties) and land-hungry settlers flowed in.
A great deal of this area still seems remote and undeveloped, especially in Greenville and Pickens counties. Most of the development is in Spartanburg and Cherokee counties where the land is more conducive to development and the roadway has existed the longest.
Those driving the highway for the first time will be spellbound by a passageway not much changed for centuries. This is due, in great part, to statewide efforts to preserve Upcountry lands.
A road trip on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway starts with a vista of the Appalachian Mountains and concludes with a giant peach.
How long does it take to drive 118 miles? Well, you can probably do it in a little over 2 hours, but why would you want to do that???
This is a road that you want to stop along the way and spend some time exploring, thus making it an excellent weekend getaway or even a week-long vacation.
Exit 1 from I-85 onto SC Highway 11
The spectacle of the Appalachian foothills will immediately put you in the right frame of mind for this roadtrip. If you are entering from Georgia it might not be as arresting, but if you are coming from anywhere in South Carolina it is a sight to behold.
Lake Hartwell State Park
Our trip begins at Lake Hartwell State Park. The 56,000 acre lake is obviously the centerpiece of the park and it is not only beautiful but also offers some of the best fishing in the upcountry for bass, largemouth, crappie, bream and catfish. There’s also a .75 mile nature trail and a fishing pier for those who want to stretch their legs and enjoy the natural beauty. If you are planning a longer stay, there are cabins and plenty of campsites available.
Lake Hartwell State Park
19139 A Highway 11 South
Fair Play, SC
At the intersection of Highway 11 and Highway 28 proceed north on 28 to Walhalla, aka “Garden of the Gods.” Just a three-block long downtown is a picturesque mix of local businesses and antique and gift shops.
Stop at the Steak House Cafeteria and act like a local; order the fried chicken called “the finest in Blue Ridge Country.” I haven’t figured out why it’s called Steak House, but the fried chicken is amazing! Same owner for 37 years. Down-home Southern cooking, cafeteria style.
Steak House Cafeteria
316 East Main Street
Stumphouse Tunnel Park
Continue north on Highway 28 to Stumphouse Tunnel Park, about seven miles from Walhalla. The tunnel was started in 1852 and is a failed effort to complete a railroad line between Charleston, SC, and Knoxville,TN. The Civil War and a lack of funds doomed this project.
Today, visitors can explore the unfinished tunnel. The 18-foot wide, 25-foot high tunnel is about a quarter mile long, though you can’t walk all the way for safety reasons.
Issaqueena Falls (located in the park)
A .4 mile hike, the Issaqueena Falls is an easy walk for even the beginning hiker and it’s well worth it to view this natural beauty. The 100-foot cascade is among the most popular in Oconee County.
Named for a Native American maiden who had met an English trader, Allen Francis, and had fallen in love. This did not sit well with the Cherokee chieftain Karuga. He forbade her to have any communication with Francis and held her captive. She learned that Karuga was planning to attack the English settlement at Ninety Six and escaped to warn the settlers.
The Cherokee pursued her and she disappeared at the site of the falls. Her pursuers believed that she had leaped from a ledge overlooking the falls, but, in fact, she was hiding. When the Cherokee left she continued to the settlement and was able to warn the inhabitants. And, yes, she was able to marry Francis.
Though only a short hike, the trail to Issaqueena Falls is a fabulous cross section of the lush environment. Amid towering chestnut, oak and chinquapin trees, the woodpeckers, quail and chickadees make their homes. The trail will lead you to the top of the falls and a short path to the right leads to a viewing platform and a grand view of the entire scene.
Stumphouse Tunnel Park
Stumphouse Tunnel Road
Oconee State Park
Take Highway 107N from Highway 28 to Oconee State Park, about 12 miles from Walhalla. This is one of the most remote parks in the state. It features 19 rustic cabins and 140 campsites with water and electric hookups, laundry facilities and comfort stations with restrooms and hot showers.
An excursion to Hidden Falls is not to be missed. It’s approximately 2.1 miles on a clearly marked trail from the parking area. As you walk you will be charmed by the melodious sounds of Tamassee Creek which is hidden by dense underbrush. Hidden Falls flows over a series of granite ledges and drops 60 feet. It is breathtaking, especially after a rain. Several rock benches provide places to sit and relax. Dangle your feet in the stream.
Oconee State Park
624 State Park Road
Mountain Rest, SC
Lower Whitewater Falls
Continue on 107N a short distance to Highway 130N. The falls of the Whitewater Falls chain (six different waterfalls along the North Carolina and South Carolina border) are among the highest series of falls in eastern North America.
Although more travelers visit Upper Whitewater Falls in North Carolina, the Lower Falls in Oconee County, in our opinion, gives more bang for the buck. It is comprised of a 200-foot drop that’s so dramatic that you’ll be glad you read this article.
From the parking area it is a 4.2-mile, out-and-back hike to reach the Lower Falls viewing area. The trail has about an 800-foot gain in elevation and does take some effort.
Give yourself 90 minutes to two hours for the roundtrip so you can proceed at a moderate pace. Then again, you might want to allocate more time because when you take in the view you just might not want to leave.
Lower Whitewater Falls
Bad Creek Road
Three Pines View Bed & Breakfast
Take Highway 130S which will intersect with Highway 11. If you want to spend the night (not at a campground) we have just the place for you.
Three Pines offers four luxurious guest suites: the Bear Hug, Stardust, Lofty View, and Captain’s Quarters. Each suite boasts a fireplace, hot tub, kitchenette and private balcony. Gourmet breakfast included.
Three Pines View Mountain Lodge
151 Shack Hollow Road
Hop back on Highway 11 to bring you to Lake Jocassee and its 75 miles of underdeveloped shoreline. All the surrounding area is owned by South Carolina and the State Park Service so you will find a beautiful natural environment.
For the best views of the lake stop at Keowee-Toxaway State Park. There’s camping and fishing at Lake Jocassee, but the hike over this park’s natural bridge (right through the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains) is the main reason to stop here. This trail was once traveled by the Cherokee. Explore the coves, streams, waterfalls and the only temperate rainforest east of the Mississippi.
There are two trails: the 1.3-mile (moderately taxing) Natural Bridge Nature Trail or the 4.4-mile (fairly strenuous) Ravens Rock Trail.
Take some time to wander the visitor center; it‘s located in a historic church and provides interesting information as to the natural and cultural history of the area.
Keowee-Toxaway State Park
108 Residence Drive
If you want to experience the highest point in South Carolina then head north onto Highway 178 when it intersects with Highway 11.
At 3553 feet in elevation, Sassafras Mountain is the highest point in the state. The seven-mile, windy, curvy, two-lane road will take you about 15 minutes. At the bottom of the mountain, take the five-mile trek on the F. Clayton Memorial Highway.
At the summit, the view is such that no words can do it justice. There is a Lower Observation Deck, but for the ultimate view go to the nearby Sassafras Mountain Observation Tower. This viewing platform is 20 feet above the summit of the mountain and offers a panoramic view in all directions. If you can, try to spend an evening here watching the sunset…especially if you are camping at nearby Table Rock State Park.
Table Rock State Park
Table Rock State Park is one of the gems of South Carolina’s state park system. Besides having two lakes, trails to hike, and an old fashioned swimming hole with a high dive, it also boasts historic buildings and cabins scattered across the 3,000-acre park because it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp. Many of these buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Rent a paddleboat, hike to the top of Pinnacle Mountain, wander through the nature center, camp out, and enjoy the beauty of South Carolina.
If you want to challenge yourself, hike the 7.2-mile, out-and-back trail to the summit of Table Rock Mountain. At 3124 feet the summit will reward your effort with spectacular views.
One of everyone’s favorite activities is the easy, two-mile loop to Carrick Creek Falls. Wading is allowed (at your own risk) in the creek near the observation deck at the base of the 15-foot falls. Many days children can be seen standing behind the often-photographed falls.
There are 125 campsites with water and electrical hookups. In addition, there are 16 cabins for rent, ranging from one to three bedrooms. All are fully furnished including cookware and linens.
Table Rock State Park
158 Ellison Lane
(864) 878 9813
Caesars Head State Park/Jones Gap State Park
A short drive up US Highway 276N from Table Rock is Caesars Head State Park named for a large granite outcropping atop a mountain and offering spectacular views that extend into North Carolina and Georgia. Jones Gap State Park, home to South Carolina’s first designated scenic river, is nearby. The two parks form what is known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness area an 11,000-acre tract of pristine forest.
Caesars Head, in my opinion, has the most spectacular overlook in all of South Carolina. When you enter the park, pass the visitor center and head to the top of the parking lot. Take a short walk to the scenic overlook and you’ll think you are standing on the edge of the world.
A very popular trail leads to the 420-foot Raven Cliff Falls. The four-mile, out-and-back trail descends about 700 feet where a suspension bridge offers one of two publicly accessible overlooks to the falls. This waterfall never takes a bad picture so don’t miss it.
Jones Gap State Park, in the Middle Saluda River Park, offers backcountry camping, a fish hatchery, an ecology center, and 30 miles of hiking trails.
The most popular trail is the 5-mile Jones Gap Trail that winds along the river to Highway 276. About two miles in is a small waterfall.
The 4.3-mile, out-and-back Rainbow Falls Trail connects to Caesars Head State Park and brings you to a sublime little waterfall. This trail climbs over 1,000 feet in about a mile, so there is definitely some hard work involved.
If you enjoy spotting wildlife, birds, and wildflowers, then Jones Gap Park is a must.
Caesars Head State Park
8155 Greer Highway
Jones Gap State Park
303 Jones Gap Road
If I’m spending a few days on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway (and not camping) then I head down Highway 276 to Travelers Rest. Greenville is nearby, but for me, that’s a separate trip. “The Rest” has the right mix of restaurants and lodging and after all the outdoor activities a little R&R is welcome.
Hare & Field – Gastro pub with delicious hearty fare. Try the steak frites, fish and chips, oyster sliders, and the hush puppies.
Hare & Field
327 South Main Street
Travelers Rest, SC
Farmhouse Tacos – Quality Tex-Mex offerings with a full bar. Extensive, hand-crafted tacos. I love the buttermilk fried chicken and Korean short rib. Tasty filling burrito bowls.
1813 Lauren Road
Traveler’s Rest, SC
Hotel Domestique – “Part countryside auberge, part modern boutique hotel and culinary destination.” An intimate setting appointed with contemporary furnishings and modern art, yet maintaining a relaxed, getaway atmosphere. The hotel is the culmination of a dream by the world famous cyclist George Hincapie. World class cycling, golf, fishing and hiking are at your doorstep. Exceptional dining at Restaurant 17 located on premises. Seasonal menu. If you have the time, this stop will kick your road trip up another level.
10 Road of Vines
Travelers Rest, SC
There are also some chain motels nearby including a very comfortable Hampton Inn.
Poinsett Bridge/Campbell’s Covered Bridge
Now for some bridge history. Poinsett Bridge is the oldest in South Carolina and is on Callahan Mountain Road. There are signs for it on Highway 11. Built in 1820, this stone bridge was once part of a state road that connected Charleston, SC, with towns in North Carolina.
You can walk across this solid bridge or along a trail in the woods. Climb down the stone steps to look beneath the arch at Little Gap Creek.
A little further, and just off Highway 11, is Campbell’s Covered Bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in the state. Built in 1909, this bridge is part of a small county park that also features interpretive signs and the remains of a grist mill and cabin. You can walk down a gravel path and cross through the bridge or walk upstream for a view of it over Beaverdam Creek. Great spot for a picnic.
After leaving Campbell’s Covered Bridge, head north on Highway 14 or US Highway 26 to the quaint town of Landrum. There are some outstanding antique shops and boutiques. If you have an appetite, the Southside Smokehouse and Grille serves some amazing barbecue and Louisiana-style dishes with a full bar.
Southside Smokehouse & Grille
726 South Howard Avenue
Strawberry Hill USA
Take Highway 176 south down to Highway 11. Strawberry Hill USA is pure Americana. On one side of the road is the Cooley Family Farm which grows and harvests peaches, berries, pumpkins and vegetables. On the other side of the highway is the cafe which serves breakfast, lunch and ice cream. The Cafe is open year round and offers home cooked Southern classics like chicken fried steak, grits, biscuits along with burgers, clubs, omelettes and pancakes. Save room for the homemade ice cream.
Strawberry Hill USA
3097 Highway 11
864 461 5353
Cowpens National Battlefield
Located on the Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Highway is the 845-acre Cowpens National Battlefield which memorializes a crucial battle during the American Revolutionary War. The Battle of Cowpens took place towards the end of the war in 1781. Brigadier General Daniel Morgan led 2000 American soldiers on a successful double envelopment of Sir Banastre Tarleton’s 1000 British Redcoats, thus inflicting a devastating loss.
Stop at the visitor center and watch a 10 minute video so as to have an overview of the battle. Pick up a park brochure and follow the easy, 1-mile Battlefield Trail. Enjoy this scenic and important place.
Cowpens National Battlefield
4001 Chesnee Highway
Highway 11 rolls into Gaffney where our road trip will end. Located along Interstate 85, the town is an ideal place to end, or, if you are so inclined, to begin in reverse.
Visit the Gaffney Downtown Marketplace known, locally as the “Yellow Mall,” which offers outlet pricing and a large variety of stores. Downtown has a nice mix of old and new.
Make a stop at the Cherokee County History and Arts Museum. Exhibits include Native American History, Southern Campaign in the American Revolution and the Civil War.
We promised you a peach! So we will end this road trip at Gaffney’s famous landmark: the Peachoid. If it looks familiar that might be because the peach-shaped water tower appeared in the Netflix series House of Cards. Built in 1981 to advertise South Carolina’s growing peach industry and standing at 135 feet tall, it is the world’s largest “peach.” But actually, it’s a water tower holding one million gallons of water. The Peachoid is not really a tourist attraction but, in its own quirky way, does attract tourists. If you want a great view have a bite next door at Fatz Cafe, a Southern chain serving steaks, seafood, and pasta with a full bar.
Cherokee County History & Arts Museum
301 College Drive
Highway 11 is designated a Scenic Byway for all the best reasons! Get out and enjoy this road trip.