I have a love affair with water. I believe water is one of nature’s “stars,” and viewing falling water highlights our experiences with nature. South Carolina is a waterfall lover’s delight. Ranging from hundreds of unnamed waterfalls to waterfalls of moderate and grand scales, our Upstate’s terrain and rainfall patterns are conducive for displaying nature’s artistry in falling waters. Throughout history, waterfalls have been sites for religious ceremonies, legends of love’s tribulations, tourism destinations, and havens for personal tranquility.
The juxtaposition of Piedmont, foothill, and mountain terrains provides a perfect environment for the development of waterfalls. Water seeks the lowest point in its environment, and waterfalls require two factors: water and falling terrain. With an average 60 to 80 inches of rainfall each year, South Carolina’s Appalachian temperate Upstate regions resemble a rain forest. A thick canopy of deciduous and evergreen trees covers steep-sloping mountains, and a proliferation of cove forests shields flowing water from the sun, allowing cooler water temperatures to support trout in certain watersheds.
Winter rains, summer thunderstorms, and an occasional tropical storm drop ample precipitation to ensure a healthy water table. Uplifted lands known as the Blue Ridge Escarpment rise abruptly above the flat Piedmont in the foothill regions, slowing weather patterns, uplifting air, and resulting in concentrated rainstorms releasing large amounts of water over the lands. A visit to a waterfall varies with seasonal and daily rainfalls; it’s possible for a normally calm waterfall with cascades and trickles to change into a powerful rush after copious rainfall.
The escarpment’s terrain gives water ample opportunities to display the art of nature. Whether it be a small stream, creek, or river, waterfalls form where erosion and faulting of the lands occur. Most of us experience the sudden uplifting of the escarpment when we travel on Interstate 26 West, climbing the grade from Columbus, North Carolina, to Saluda, North Carolina. Native Cherokee named the escarpment the Blue Wall, known today as the Blue Ridge.
While traveling to my first destination, I remembered how invigorating it was to photograph waterfalls and enjoy a break from a hectic schedule. Slowing the last few miles on twisting curves, I arrived at a parking lot, with an upcoming 3-mile trek to the falls. The trailhead started in a lush cove forest. The coolness of the forest was soothing, and I marveled at the lush colors in the explosion of ferns, trillium, violets, and bluets along the forest floor. The soothing greens of the ferns and trillium calmed my senses. A creek meandered through the forest floor, and the water’s sound slowed my pace as I enjoyed the surroundings. Thickets of mountain laurel and rhododendron covered the banks along the creek, prolific with floral displays in June.
The terrain and air temperature rose as I left the cove forest. My pace slowed, my legs started to ache, and I realized I should have stayed in the cove a bit longer. After a few hundred feet of elevated climb, I felt as if I were millions of miles closer to a searing sun. Arriving at the waterfall destination became more appealing with each step. Spending an hour climbing steep hills, I heard the motivation to finish this trek — the sound of falling water in the distance. Falling waters heard from afar sound similar to the wind coursing through trees, and my arrival to the falls was near. Falling water emits a “twinkling” sound, different from flowing water, as water drops collide with one another while cascading over rock ledges. Soon, the first glimpse of the waterfall appeared through the dense forest canopy. Bright-white waters, contrasted against a lush forest green dazzled my vision. Just a little longer, I thought …
The hot, exhausting walk was soon forgotten when I arrived at the river waterfall. Recent thunderstorms made for a thunderous wall of water coursing over the cliff’s edge. The drop-off was sudden — almost a 90 degree vertical falloff from the top of the cliff to the bottom of the falls. The roar of the water resembled a jet’s engine. I was amazed to see trees 60 to 80 feet tall clinging vertically to the cliff’s ledge. Crashing water replaced and pushed air away from the bottom of the falls, and a fast-moving, cooling mist enveloped the forest. The thundering water misted ferns, mosses, and trees within this unique ecosystem.
Huge fractured boulders, the size of cars, lay at the falls bottom. Fractures occur along the waterfall’s cliff edge, so the waterfall retreats backward over time. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of water crash against these boulders daily, and eventually over time reduce huge rocks to small grains of sand. In less than 10 miles, the cold, oxygenated water reaches Lake Jocassee. Three mountainous rivers feed this stunning Upstate lake. Jocassee’s turquoise waters provide visitors a sense of the water’s clarity when viewing rainbow and brown trout under 10 feet of cold sparkling waters.
The next morning, I enjoyed a good cup of coffee and set off to experience an entirely different adventure at another waterfall at sunrise, this time in downtown Greenville. Upon arrival, I noticed overhead clouds reflecting a soft light over the land and the waterfalls reflecting dawn’s golden colors. I rushed to set up my camera before the light changed color and character and framed a beautiful scene of three separate branches of water rushing through a canyon of rocks. The sunrise colors turned rocks and water a beautiful golden palette, and I imagined photographing in Utah’s red rock environment. The intense sunrise colors vanished within 30 seconds, and the character of the scene changed.
I packed my camera and moved to another vista. Looking up, I noticed the lights within the surrounding bank, insurance, and restaurant buildings lost their intensity as sunrise approached. I wondered how many people enjoy the beauty and uniqueness of the Reedy River Falls in downtown Greenville from their offices. Although located within the city of Greenville, I think these downtown waterfalls have the best structure of rapids in the state. Overhead, the 38-foot-long Liberty Bridge provides aerial views of water’s artwork within city limits. The city of Greenville developed a distinctive business and entertainment district around these falls, further proof waterfalls provide unique experiences, no matter the size or location visited.
My last visit on the trip was Wildcat Wayside Park, featuring a tier of three waterfalls. Developed in the 1930s, this roadside park features stonework structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The waterfalls at this location are steps away from Highway 276, and many families stop for lunch and a dip in cooling waters before moving on. The smaller waterfalls gave me a different perspective; I felt more of a personal connection with these, and they didn’t overpower the senses.
Moving within 6 inches of a veil of water, I touched the rock face of the waterfall and cupped handfuls of cold water cascading along the wall. I cleansed my salty face, and the cooling waters spoke to me. Further up the path to the third waterfall at the trail’s top, it was convenient to stop and rest at each giant hemlock along the trail. Every tree trunk was at least 5 to 8 feet in circumference and towered above the forest. I saw many hemlock trees on my journey, but the tree is threatened by the woolly adelgid. This invasive, sap-sucking insect has the potential to kill a host tree within a decade. I felt fortunate seeing healthy trees but wondered about their fate.
Driving home to Columbia, I thought of the trip’s highlights — out in nature for an extended period of time, enjoying waterfalls, mountain blooms, and feeling mentally refreshed. It’s time to get back to work, but a renewed outlook tells me it’s okay to leave the mud on my boots a bit longer.
Planning on visiting a South Carolina waterfall? Research waterfall websites to determine the stamina needed to visit a fall; some trails are listed as strenuous, but numerous falls are easy to reach so children can enjoy the journey. Most waterfalls have natural wading pools at their base, offering cooling waters after a summer’s hike. Several falls have benches along the trail to provide a rest, and viewing platforms provided at waterfalls are often visited by the public. Rest assured, the kids will want to walk barefoot to the very face of the falls to explore. Take heed to signs warning to stay off the edges of waterfalls and to avoid climbing on slick trails and rocks around the falls. Waterfall spray and a recent rainfall make trails slick and dangerous around the edges of waterfalls.
Cascading waters await our visits during the summer months as we spend time with loved ones and less time glued to our electronic devices. Waterfalls uplift our mind and spirits, so let’s enjoy the stunning experiences of falling waters.