In the far northwest corner of the Palmetto State lies a place so utterly gorgeous, natural and rugged; I am surprised some Middle-earth themed box office dynasty hasn’t been filmed there. It holds a mystical place in Cherokee lore and was named one of the “World’s Last Great Places” in 2012 by National Geographic. Mountain stream and waterfall-fed 9,000 acre Lake Jocassee, surrounded by the Jocassee Gorges, is found in Salem, South Carolina.
The Lake itself remains mostly undeveloped with the only public boat access being through Devils Fork State Park. The park stays incredibly busy from spring through fall with visitors flocking to the park during the spring for a chance at spotting the rare Oconee Bell bloom. During the summer, boaters and campers take advantage of the cool, crystal clear waters including a boat-in only campground (sorry, no dogs). Lake Jocassee offers tremendous paddling opportunities for those who love secluded waterfalls. Mill Creek, Whitewater and Wright’s Creek Falls are only accessible by boat. Laurel Fork Falls is accessible via boat as well as the Foothills Trail. Again during the fall, folks migrate to Lake Jocassee to witness the foliage ablaze with autumn colors. The majority of South Carolina lies at lower elevations than the Jocassee Gorges and therefore lacks the cooler overnight temperatures and autumn nip associated with turning leaves. So as you can imagine, it’s a treat for those of us from the Midlands and Low Country areas to pilgrimage to the Upstate to view the fiery reds and glowing orange foliage.
In March, the weather had broken (or so we thought). With daytime temperatures in the upper 60’s and overnight in the mid-40’s, it was the time of year we enjoy camping the most. My birthday being the last week of March, we headed out for our first camping trip to Devils Fork State Park. Seth wanted to check out Lake Jocassee as the fisherman in him longed to see this body of water located right here in our own backyard so deep (300’) and cold that it brimmed with state record spotted bass, trout, and even smallmouth!
The boat-in sites weren’t an option for us as dogs aren’t permitted. Since we were tent camping we could’ve stayed at one of the 59 standard campsites, but we were drawn to Devil Fork State Park’s 25-site designated walk-in, rustic tent camping area on a peninsula that juts out into the clear, teal waters. With a level camping pad, potable water, and a fire ring, the site had all a girl could ask for on her birthday. Well, wouldn’t you know the morning we set out for camp, the temperatures took a nosedive. March was determined to go out like a lion! Married to the King of Winter Camping and the mother of a Newfie, I knew I’d be toasty warm so we pressed on. Because of the apparent cold spat the South Carolina Upstate was experiencing, the trees weren’t quite ready to bloom like they were at our home two hours southeast of Devil’s Fork. With no tree leaves and zero other campers on the peninsula, we enjoyed a million dollar view.
At check-in, the ranger told us that despite this chilly start to the second week of spring, we might just catch a glimpse of the rare Oconee Bell. We assumed we’d be there too early in the season but were ecstatic to learn of this possibility. Okay, I was ecstatic. I LOVE flora and fauna! If it doesn’t have gills, Seth is largely uninterested but goes along with it to humor me.
Within minutes of setting up camp, a snowstorm broke loose. Fortunately, the air was dry so we didn’t have to deal with the heavy, wet type that accumulates. These were romantic snowflakes – the kind that makes you cuddle with your hubby and pups inside the warmth and shelter of the tent. Seth and I woke during the night to the sounds of the Rocky’s chattering teeth. Seth lovingly swaddled Rocky in a fleece blanket. With the flashlight on, we had a good chuckle about our Newfie, Ginger Gold. While we were swaddling Rocky and pulling him close to us, Ginger was as far away as she could get from us in the tent, not laying on her bed but rather directly on the tent floor. We laid there a few minutes watching her hot breath fog the tent with each exhale. We marveled at her natural insulation. She was in her glory.
Day 1: Oconee Bell Trail
With two state park trails to choose from, the Oconee and the Bear Cove Trail, we opted for the Oconee in search of the flowers. We donned Ginger with her backpack. The only time Ginger is happier than when she is wearing her backpack filled with snacks is when she’s swimming. Newfoundland’s love to work and have a job to do alongside their people. Having Rocky with us, we were grateful the Oconee Bell Trail was so easy to walk and well maintained. For me, nothing beats being surrounded by trickling mountain streams, fern fronds and thick outcroppings of rhododendron and mountain laurel with the ones I love most. We enjoyed the beauty of this trail, how it protected us from the chilly winds and helped us warm our bones. Back at the campsite, Seth flamed the fire while I prepared one of my go-to Dutch oven meals. This evening the chicken pot pie was exceptionally tasty and warmed the soul.
*Author’s Note: Since we are just getting to know one another, I have a confession to make. I am a cast iron junky! After 15 years of marriage, the amazing, expensive cookware we received as wedding gifts had surpassed its life expectancy. While tirelessly researching, shopping and researching some more, I came to the conclusion I didn’t want to replace it with $500 pot and pans. All I really wanted was cast iron everything. Looking back, almost all of my most fantastic meal creations were the result of cooking, baking, and frying in cast iron. I use it indoors as well as outdoors and I swear by it! No, there’s nothing ergonomic about it and yes, carrying it around could wreak havoc on arthritic joints. Fortunately, I have a husband who so values my kitchen and campfire prowess, he washes and oils every piece of cast iron I use, making it possible for me to manage huge skillets and Dutch ovens even when my hands aren’t cooperating.
Day 2: Whitewater Falls
Rocky, being 3-legged (missing right front) had between 1.5-2 miles in him each day. When he was tired he rested, which gave us (me) time to study the flora and fauna surrounding us and usually meant Ginger was going to take advantage of Rocky’s rest break in the nearest stream or large puddle. If Rocky ever became too tired or we were trekking a steep grade, Seth would simply carry our beloved 70 lb. pup. An advantage of being 6’3” and 275 lbs. is that you can do things of this nature.
So, on our second full day at Lake Jocassee, we visited Whitewater Falls 1.9 mile trail with an observation platform for an excellent view of the fall’s 411’ drop. Rocky even braved 159 stairs like it was nothing.
When we arrived home after our weekend, we promptly ordered Rocky a Zack & Zoey Nor’easter Blanket Coat for Dogs, 20″ Large, Orange fleece-lined, water-resistant, reflective winter jacket to keep him snug as a bug on all of our future 4-season adventures.
**Please note Devils Fork State Park issues a travel advisory May-October, especially Saturdays and Sundays, due to heavy visitation and long lines with the park stating they often reach capacity during this time. Do yourself a favor and visit during the week or the off-season if possible.