Kit Smith remembers the first time she and her husband, Joel, heard about Caesar’s Head, the tiny residential community that sits near the apex of SC 276 as it winds its way from Greenville to Brevard. “It was in 1993 or ’94,” she says. “I saw a flyer on the door of the Purple Cow grocery store advertising a cabin for sale. I’d never heard of Caesar’s Head, but it seemed to have everything we were looking for, so we drove up to take a look.”
The Smiths were so taken with Caesar’s Head that, before the weekend was over, they’d decided to purchase a lot. “There were a number of mountain communities that met our needs, but Caesar’s Head felt special,” says Kit. “It wasn’t just the natural beauty — everyone we met seemed drawn here, and that resonated with us.”
Bunny Hicks, who discovered Caesar’s Head in the late 1980s, had a similar experience. “I loved how my children could just run out the door and go play in the woods or climb a tree,” she says. “My daughter Ginger told me that her favorite memories are of a fort we called the Rhododen and the way she could walk into any friend’s house totally uninvited and stay for hours. It’s that kind of place — the kids all know each other and play together all summer long. My grandchildren love it as much as their parents did — and still do!”
Bunny also connected with the community’s sense of the past. “The residents of Caesar’s Head have always been good about honoring its history,” she says. “Many houses sell not just with the furniture but also with old pictures of the neighborhood that have been collected over the years. It’s a fascinating story.”
The 60-acre community is named for Caesars Head, a towering rock formation that looks south over lush valleys and dramatic mountains. Stories abound as to how the promontory received its name — some believe it to be a resemblance to Julius Caesar’s profile while others tell the tale of a beloved dog that went over the edge. The first formal access to the monolith, Jones Gap Road, was completed in 1848; a few years later, the late S.C. Sen. Benjamin Hagood constructed a summer cottage and opened a hotel on the land that is now occupied by the Caesar’s Head community.
Although the property was deeded to Furman University in 1897, the 65-room hotel continued to operate, drawing vacationers from all over South Carolina. A history of the community written by longtime resident Elizabeth Gower notes that, at that time, it took about two days to reach the hotel from Greenville, and the lodging rate was $2 per night. Fifty years later, the hotel was purchased by brothers Tom and Pete Marchant, who charged $45 per week for both room and board. No matter who owned the hotel, though, one aspect remained constant: it was a beloved place where families, who came mostly from Greenville and Charleston, could escape heat and humidity, make new friends, and enjoy time outdoors.
In 1954, tragedy struck and the hotel, a cottage, and the adjacent servants’ quarters — the original Hagood house — burned to the ground. Far from being the end of the popular resort, the fire was the beginning of a new era. Since his brother had sold his interest, Tom Marchant had decided he no longer wanted the responsibility of running a resort but didn’t want the community he loved to change. Instead of turning ownership over to an outsider, Tom and homeowner Zenas Grier worked with residents to form the Caesar’s Head Community Association, which would take on management of the multi-home community.
With the hotel and its planned activities spaces gone, Caesar’s Head could have turned into a place for privacy seekers looking for solitude in the mountains. Instead, the opposite occurred: rather than keeping to themselves, families spent their days with their neighbors, gathering on porches, hosting dinners, and organizing dances and other diversions. Friendships blossomed and families returned year after year, as much for the fresh mountain air as to reunite with their friends. Though many Greenville families still own homes in Caesar’s Head, they’ve been joined by more and more Columbians each year. “We see a lot of our friends here that we don’t get to see in Columbia,” says Susan Strom, who, with her husband, Pete, bought a home on the mountain soon after enjoying a month at a friend’s cabin.
Today, friendships continue to bloom and the nightly social hour continues. Caesar’s Head residents wouldn’t have it any other way. “A few summers ago, I think I ended up with 24 people on my porch having drinks,” says Bunny. “The best part is that the kids are there too, running around in the yard playing manhunt with flashlights. Just like the adults, they pick up right where they left off the previous summer.”
Karen Stalvey, who with her husband, Allan, purchased a 1929 cottage in 2013, has also found the community to be exceptionally warm and giving. “I can’t tell you how much I love it up there,” she says. “We’ve made wonderful, lifelong friends whom we treasure. The children catch lightning bugs and the adults gather at someone’s home for cocktails. Everyone is always welcome.”
Karen says that Caesar’s Head also has a few pleasant quirks. “During our first summer, we arrived at someone’s home for cocktails and noticed a table set for six or eight,” she says. “It turns out that being invited for cocktails doesn’t mean you necessarily stay for dinner. It’s how it’s always been, so no one gets their feelings hurt.”
Susan and Pete also enjoy the social scene. “Caesar’s Head isn’t like any other place,” says Susan. “There’s really no access to restaurants, but you don’t notice because you love the people you’re with.”
As enjoyable as evenings are at Caesar’s Head, days are even more idyllic, thanks to the 40,000-acre Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, which surrounds the community, as well as nearby Pisgah, Nantahala, and DuPont national forests.
Among Caesar’s Head residents, hiking is by far the most popular activity, and it’s easy to see why. Trails — some of which are also used by mountain bikers and equestrians — wind through the heavily forested mountains. They are covered with a patchwork of geological formations including boulder fields, which are hidden patches of gigantic rocks where mountain wildflowers peek through the crevasses; caves; mountain bogs; and balds. Also present are vast wildflower meadows, meandering streams, thundering waterfalls, thousands of varieties of plants, and animals ranging from deer to black bear.
Kit, who has hiked all but one of the trails within the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area as well as miles of Pisgah National Forest, says that the Dismal Trail, a challenging pathway that takes hikers over a swing bridge into a deep gorge, past the 400-foot-tall Raven Cliff Falls and onto hidden lookouts, is her favorite. “It’s a great hike because you can vary it easily, based on how far you want to go,” says Kit. “I can also access it without getting into my car, which is great.”
Filled with brook, rainbow, and brown trout, the region’s pristine creeks and streams are a wonderland for those who enjoy fly fishing; all that’s needed is a permit and, for novices, a guide to take them to the best hideouts. Within the community, residents swim at the pool and play tennis or pickleball on the tennis courts. Gardening is popular, too, particularly among the Columbians, who find that nearly everything grows better in the cooler mountain air. The fact that the region is technically a rainforest doesn’t hurt, either.
When Caesar’s Head families aren’t enjoying the great outdoors, they can often be found in Brevard, where local eateries serve sophisticated dishes on tables lit by handmade candles and shops sell everything from penny candy to fancy cooking implements. The town is best known for its world-renowned music center, which brings top jazz, classical, bluegrass, and opera performers to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The popularity of the Brevard Music Center has also transformed the region into a hub for local music.
“We’ve found that we have discovered new activities in the mountains that we don’t necessarily take the time for in Columbia,” says Karen. “One is going out to listen to music. There are all sorts of great places where you can just show up with a blanket and chairs. There’s usually a food truck, so it’s super casual. We have a wonderful time.”
Summer holidays are a big deal at Caesar’s Head, particularly the Fourth of July, which is celebrated with a community-wide barbecue and golf cart parade. Wine tastings, music nights, and other events also entertain residents.
“Being at Caesar’s Head is like going back in time,” says Susan Shuler, who, with her husband Jack, bought and renovated one of the resort’s original cottages in 2009. “When the children were young, we’d take family hikes and have lunch by a stream; these days, I hike and fly fish with my friends. We will literally spend hours in the woods together day after day and never run out of things to say. It’s a soulful place, and I cherish the relationships I’ve built here.”
Recipes popular with Columbians for entertaining at Caesar’s Head
Braised Short Ribs, courtesy of Susan Strom
5 pounds beef short ribs
1 large onion, sliced
Optional: additional root vegetables, such as turnips, parsnips, fennel, and/or carrots
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 bottle of red wine
1 tube tomato paste
32 ounces beef broth, homemade, canned, or in a carton
1 bag frozen pearl onions
Season the ribs with salt and pepper, then brown them on all sides in olive oil. Remove from pan and set aside. In the same pan, saute the onion and additional vegetables (if using) until slightly soft, then add the garlic and cook the mixture until the onions are translucent. Deglaze the bottom of the pan with some of the red wine; when the brown bits have been scraped away, add the rest of the bottle, then stir in the beef broth and tomato paste. Add the browned ribs back into the liquid, pressing them down to submerge as much as possible.
One hour into cooking add the frozen pearl onions. Bring to a boil and then place in a 300 F oven about 2 hours, or until the ribs become tender.
Drain the liquid into a small saucepan and reduce until it becomes thick enough to spoon over the ribs. Serve ribs over rice, pasta, mashed potatoes, or pureed parsnips with the sauce spooned over the top.
Chicken Marabella, courtesy of Karen Stalvey
1½ cups large pitted prunes, such as Sunsweet
1 cup large green olives, pitted, such as Cerignola
6 bay leaves
1½ heads of garlic cloves, separated, peeled, and minced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Two 4-pound chickens, backs removed and cut in 8 pieces
1 cup dry white wine, such as Pinot Grigio
Combine olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers, bay leaves, garlic, oregano, 2 tablespoons salt, and 2 teaspoons pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken to the marinade. You can also place the chicken and marinade in a 2-gallon plastic storage bag and squeeze out the air to make sure the chicken is fully covered with the marinade. Refrigerate overnight, turning occasionally to be sure the marinade is getting into all of the chicken pieces.
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Place the chicken, skin side up, along with the marinade in one layer in a large, 15 by 18-inch roasting pan; sprinkle with the brown sugar, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper; and pour the wine around (not over!) the chicken.
Roast for 45 to 55 minutes until the internal temperature of the chicken is 145 F. Remove the pan from the oven, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and allow to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Discard the bay leaves. Transfer the chicken, prunes, and olives to a serving platter, sprinkle with salt, and serve hot with the pan juices.