Friday, June 3, 2016

Table Rock State Park: Table Rock Trail (Blog Hike #575)

Trail: Table Rock Trail
Hike Location: Table Rock State Park
Geographic Location: north of Pickens, SC
Length: 7.1 miles
Difficulty: 10/10 (Difficult)
Last Hiked: May 2016
Overview: A long, tough climb to world-class views from Table Rock.

Directions to the trailhead: From Pickens, drive US 178 north 8.6 miles to SR 11 and turn right on SR 11.  Drive SR 11 east 4.1 miles to Table Rock State Park’s west entrance on the left.  Turn left to enter the park, and drive the main park road 1.3 miles to the Nature Center on the left and the large trailhead parking area on the right.  Park in the trailhead parking lot.

The hike: Perhaps no South Carolina natural landmark is more recognizable than Table Rock Mountain.  The mountain’s name comes from a Cherokee Indian legend about a hunter who used the mountain’s flat bare rock summit as a dining table after his hunt.  Table Rock Mountain towers nearly 2000 feet above the Piedmont to the south and sits on the very edge of the Appalachian escarpment.  Thus, the views from atop the mountain may be the best views in South Carolina.  These views come at a price: with 7.1 miles of length and over 2000 vertical feet of total climbing, this hike to the top of Table Rock may be the hardest hike in this blog.  I would have listed the difficulty rating at 11/10 if the math professor side of me would permit, which it does not.
            My personal history with Table Rock started in the classroom.  I live and work only about an hour from this park, and every year after showing my students my hiking blog I would have at least one student ask me if I had hiked to Table Rock.  The answer was “no” until an unusually cool Monday in late May (after my university’s graduation) gave me a good-as-I-will-ever-get opportunity.  I was not sure if I would have the stamina to make it to the top, but I did make it to the top and completed one of my “bucket list” hikes in the process.
            Table Rock State Park is an impressive site in its own right.  The 3083 acre park was established in 1935, making it one of South Carolina’s oldest state parks.  The park offers two campgrounds totaling 94 sites and two fishing lakes.  The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) left their mark here by building a lodge and several of the park’s trails, including the Table Rock Trail, the park’s signature hike, described here.  Other worthwhile hikes in this park include the Pinnacle Mountain Trail, which provides an equally long and difficult climb to Bald Rock, and the Carrick Creek and Lakeside Trails, which offer flatter, shorter, more leisurely hikes.
Start of trail behind the Nature Center
            The hike starts at the back of the Nature Center, where registration (one form per hiking group) is mandatory.  The common entrance trail begins as a wooden boardwalk with some steps that lead down toward Carrick Creek.  This entrance trail serves the Table Rock, Pinnacle Mountain, and Carrick Creek Trails, so the red blazes for the Table Rock Trail are joined by several other colors of blazes here.  Carrick Creek contains numerous scenic waterfalls, the first of which is reached almost immediately.  A wooden deck-type area provides some benches for easy waterfall viewing.
Waterfall in Carrick Creek
            Soon the wooden boardwalk ends, and the trail surface turns first to asphalt, then to gravel, then to dirt and rock.  Some more waterfalls and waterslides are passed before Carrick Creek is crossed on a wide wood and iron bridge.  At 0.2 miles, the Carrick Creek Trail splits to form its loop.  As indicated by the sign, angle right to stay on the Table Rock Trail.
            The climb starts in earnest now as you step up and over the first of many wooden waterbars and stone steps that lift you into the upper reaches of the Carrick Creek ravine.  Just after passing the 0.5 mile marker, a brown carsonite post, you reach a trail intersection where the Table Rock and Carrick Creek Trails part ways.  As directed by another sign, turn right to continue your journey toward Table Rock.
Some of many stone steps
            The Table Rock Trail’s red blazes climb ever higher through layer after layer of rock.  The boulders in the surrounding forest go from car-sized to cabin-sized the higher you climb, and partially obstructed views can be had from some of these boulders and rock ledges during the leafless months.  At 0.9 miles, the trail curves right as it exits the top of Carrick Creek’s ravine.  The grade mercifully lessens temporarily, and some rocks make nice benches to sit and rest.
            Four broad switchbacks carry the trail further up the mountain, around more large boulders, and up through more rock layers.  An uncountable number of rock steps aid the climb, and some larger rock outcrops can be seen through the trees uphill to the right.  At 1.9 miles, you reach a wooden shelter built by the CCC.  Though primitive in construction, anyone with back problems will welcome the backs on the wooden benches here.  At an elevation of roughly 2400 feet, the shelter sits more than half way up the mountain, but the steepest and rockiest trail sections are yet to come.
CCC Shelter
            200 feet past the shelter, you reach this hike’s first truly spectacular view.  Standing at the top of a narrow bare granite outcrop, the view extends a seemingly unlimited distance to the south and southwest.  The park’s two lakes can be seen 1300 feet below, as can some low knobs in the distance.  If you are starting to get tired already, then this view is a nice turn-around point and consolation prize to the broader views available higher up.
View just past CCC shelter
            Past the rock outcrop, the trail becomes rocky and rooty as it makes its final push to Panther Gap, which is reached at 2.1 miles.  The orange-blazed Ridge Trail exits left to follow a 0.7 mile ridgeline course with more up than down before terminating at the Pinnacle Mountain Trail.  As directed by another sign, you need to turn right to stay on the Table Rock Trail.  The next 0.5 miles is the easiest part of this hike, as the trail stays close to the ridge and passes over only minor ups and downs.  Some large tulip poplars live on this ridge, and the forest hiking is very pleasant.
            The easy going abruptly ends at 2.6 miles when you begin the steep, rocky climb to Governor’s Rock.  The elevation gain is only about 200 feet, but the terrain is steep enough to necessitate the use of steps carved out of the smooth granite rock.  I have read that these steps were built using a battery-powered jackhammer, but I could not confirm that fact.  A couple of small caves appear beside the trail.  Unfortunately, the entrances to these caves have been marred by spray paint graffiti.
Arriving at Governor's Rock
            At 2.8 miles, you top the last set of carved steps as you come out on the wide exposed granite that is Governor’s Rock, elevation 2854 feet.  Unlike the first viewpoint, which faced south, this viewpoint faces west, thus allowing you to look down the north side of the ridgeline you just hiked up from Panther Gap.  The narrow South Saluda River valley lies below, and most of your field of vision is filled with knobs and ridges.  The contrast between these first two overlooks is interesting, so take advantage of some seat-like boulders to sit, eat a trail snack, and enjoy the view.
View west from Governor's Rock
            The trail curves right to head back into the woods and continue climbing above Governor’s Rock, albeit on a gentler grade, before descending slightly.  Some mountain laurel was in full bloom up here when I hiked this trail.  Another brief, steep, rocky climb brings you to the top of another smaller rock outcrop.  This viewpoint faces south, but some trees growing below the outcrop partially block the view.
Sign at Table Rock Mountain summit
            A little more gradual climbing brings you to the signed summit of Table Rock Mountain, elevation 3124 feet, at 3.3 miles.  The mountain’s summit is covered by trees, and thus it offers no views.  To reach the world class views that make this mountain famous, continue past the summit and descend on a gradual to moderate grade.  After all of the climbing you have done, this descent is a little discouraging considering you have not reached the end of the trail yet.
            Just past 3.5 miles, the trail emerges on a wide, large granite outcrop that faces south.  The park’s website calls this overlook Table Rock Face, and this viewpoint has fewer trees to obstruct the view than the previous south-facing one.  A secondary summit known as The Stool sits directly below you, the park’s lakes appear as tiny ink blots at the mountain’s base, and the flatter Piedmont extends to the horizon.  I think I might have been able to see the Atlantic Ocean in the distance (OK, probably not).  You have worked hard for these views, so take some time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
The Stool, as seen from Table Rock Face Overlook
            Most of the people who passed me on the way up stopped at this overlook, but as I looked off to the left I saw another red blaze leading further east.  After briefly heading back into the pine woods, the only trees that will grow in the thin soil up here, the trail heads onto more bare granite, where the blazes are painted on rock rather than on trees.  Just before 3.6 miles, you reach a final wide granite rock outcrop the park’s website calls Watershed Overlook, which faces east.  Table Rock Reservoir, a much larger body of water than either of the park lakes, sits below you, while Paris Mountain and the Piedmont extend far beyond.  Across the reservoir to the extreme left you can see a waterfall known as Slicking Falls.
Table Rock Reservoir, as seen from Watershed Overlook
            The trail does indeed end at Watershed Overlook.  All of the overlooks on this hike are unprotected, and the granite gets steeper as you get closer to the edge.  Therefore, you have to be careful how far you walk to avoid tumbling down the granite.  After taking in the last view, retrace your steps downhill for 3.6 miles to complete the hike.  The hike back down is easier on the lungs but harder on the knees, and thus it should not be underestimated.


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