Table Rock Trail | 3.6 Mile Out & Back | 7.2 Miles Roundtrip
-Halfway Shelter | 1.5 Miles
-Governors Rock | 2.6 Miles
-Table Rock Face | 3.6 Miles
Table Rock State Park Location | Google Maps
Named by the Cherokee as “Sah-ka-na-ga”, which translates to “the Great Blue Hills of God” , the mountainous region of Upstate South Carolina is home to some of its most majestic scenery. Standing solemnly amidst the states highest peaks, the granite monolith of Table Rock Mountain (3,124’) is the centerpiece of one of the regions most iconic parks, Table Rock State Park. Encompassing over 3,000 acres, this historic state park is known for some of the most brutally strenuous hiking trails in the region. On a recent trip exploring the waterfalls of the Jocassee Gorges, I carved out a chunk of my day to visit this state park and attempt a bucket list summit of Table Rock Mountain.
Visitors arriving at Table Rock State Park attempting this 3.6 mile one way trip should head on over to the Nature Center to register with a park ranger. As you’ are signing in and paying the $6 entry fee to hike, you will be reminded that all hikers must return to the trailhead by a strict deadline of 7 p.m. The trails here become utterly dangerous to navigate after dark, with near vertical drop-offs at every turn. Although few deaths have been recorded here over the last decade, a teenager fell to her death after slipping on a rock and tumbling over the 50 ft tall Mill Creek Falls back in 2015. Sometimes its easy to forget that accidents can occur at any point when you’re surrounded by so much natural beauty. It’s always crucial to use your best judgement and exercise caution when recreating outdoors to keep yourself and everyone in your party safe.
Carrick Creek Falls
According to park rangers and hikers returning from the summit of Table Rock Mountain, the 7.2 mile roundtrip hike is known to take anywhere from 2.5 hours to 7 hours to complete. The major factor for this trail taking so long to complete is the steep grade ascending nearly 2,000 feet in elevation, which is equivalent to walking up the stairs to the top of Chicago’s Sears Tower and then some. So it’s best to get an early start in order to have as much time as possible to enjoy the scenery along the way. One of the most seductive parts of the Table Rock Trail are its waterfalls, the first of which lies right behind the nature center.
Carrick Creek Falls has to be one of the most charming waterfalls in the whole park. Gently dropping 15 feet into its own natural pool, this is usually a good place to catch people cooling off after a long day of hiking. Out of all the waterfalls in Table Rock State Park, this is the only one visitors are encourage to take a dip in or simply sit and picnic from the wooden deck surrounding it. Farther upstream, the trail passes by three more unnamed waterfalls along Carrick Creek. When the water level is low enough, you get a better view of the interesting rock formations along the creek bank that form a few slide style waterfalls. To explore a good chunk of Carrick Creek and get a magnificent view of even more waterfalls, visitors should make time to hike the 2 mile Carrick Creek Trail loop or even take the Pinnacle Mountain Trail to Spring Bluff Falls and Mill Creek Falls.
Just past the first few waterfalls, we continued straight through the Pinnacle Mountain, Carrick Creek, and Foothills Trail junction. The landscape of the lower elevations of Table Rock State Park are deceptively inviting with its lush appearance and colorful wildflower displays, that have welcomed early European settlers and prehistoric Native Peoples alike. The earliest recorded history of Table Rocks inhabitants come to us from petroglyphs discovered on Pinnacle Mountain in the 1990’s. Six hundred drawings in total were uncovered carved into the rock of several granite balds within the park, believed to have been created by the Hopewell Culture, predating the Cherokees and range from 1,500-3,500 years old. State archeologists believe these hunter-gatherer Paleo Indians would carve one of the many circle petroglyphs for each season they traveled up to the high country, in search of nuts.
Green Creek Falls
Roughly 0.5 miles into this hike, the trail passes by its last major waterfall, Green Creek Falls. After climbing to the top of the falls, the path crosses over Green Creek and begins the arduous uphill climb we all came here to tackle. As we leave the lush and wet looking forest of rhododendrons, hemlock, and mountain laurel behind, the parks scenery changes all together. The higher elevations of Table Rock are seriously dry, with a fine powdery sand made of decomposed granite making up the trail. More typical of the drier Southern Appalachians, the forest transitions over to hickories, oaks, and pines which all produce nuts that were prized by those early Native Americans that roamed these mountains. This same source of food attracts a myriad of wildlife including wild turkey, red and gray fox, and the elusive black bear. It was here at Green Creek Falls that I encountered a momma black bear and three cubs on my return trip from the summit near dusk. While bears don’t typically live within the park boundaries, they’re known to pass through, so be Bear Aware and practice Bear Safety.
The middle section of this trail, until reaching the halfway point at the C.C.C. Shelter, is characterized by the boulder fields. Boulders ranging in size from small cars to two-story homes are interspersed throughout the trail and theres no way around them but to go over. Its more or less a straight shot up not unlike walking up an endless flight of stairs. Seeing 51 inches of rain annually, most of that water falling on Table Rock washes downhill, eroding away this trail to the point were sections of it are totally washed away. There are a few areas where a 2 to 3 foot ledge exists between where the trail used to be and where you now have to pull your body up. Some of the steeper sections have ties of downed trees that are used to keep the soil in place, but even so the water has still managed to create potholes that’ll catch your entire foot if you’re not on the lookout.
Halfway C.C.C. Shelter
All of this becomes worthwhile once the trail ascends above the canopy line and you start to get framed views of Grassy Knob (1,542’) and a sneak peak of the rolling scenery beyond. People have been traveling to Table Rock to catch these same views for several hundred years. Around 1845, the Sutherland family opened a small hotel near the base of Table Rock Mountain within the present day park. Believed to have begun the first commercial tours here, guests were guided up to the mountain summit along a well established trail. Historians believe hiking to the top of the mountain 147 years ago might have actually been easier due to the level steps that were bolted down along the route. The hotel relocated to a more remote location on the north side of the mountain at the onset of the Civil War, leaving the mountain sparsely visited during that 4 year period.
It wasn’t until the early 1930’s, under the supervision of the National Park Service, that the Civilian Conservation Corps began work on land donated by the state and city of Greenville, to create Table Rock State Park. Among one of its numerous historic buildings is the famous Halfway Shelter of the Table Rock Trail. At 1.5 miles up, it’s not technically halfway to the end of the trail, but halfway to the actual mountain summit. Surrounded by dense shrubbery and mature trees, it resembles the Historic C.C.C. Shelter of Craggy Gardens in North Carolina. Stepping inside the shelter, hikers are greeted by an unobstructed view of Brown Mountain (1,916’) in the foreground and a chain of smaller peaks including Tater Hill (1,473), surrounding the small town of Pickens some 13 miles away.
Having made it to the halfway point, I took a much needed rest to gather the energy to move forward to the next major milestone of the trail, Governors Rock. But first, we would have to make the 0.25 mile trek uphill to the last trail junction on our path at Panther Gap. A lot of the places whose names survive throughout history, owe their origins to how its early inhabitants experienced them and Panther Gap is no exception. Once the most widely dispersed large mammal in the Americas, Eastern Pumas (also known as panthers, mountain lion, painters, catamount, and cougars) were an important part of the ecosystem of South Carolinas forests and swamps. Mostly nocturnal, these active hunters were known to travel as much as 20 miles in a day. Secretive in their movements, pumas preferred to live in the remote high country ridges, away from people.
The agricultural expansion of the late 1800’s brought with it a loss of habitat and the depletion of deer stock that pumas replied upon. Another major factor in bringing about its demise was the active hunting permitted to ranchers, whom sought to protect their livestock from the large predators, which switched from hunting deer to hunting livestock herds. While healthy populations of cougars exist in the western states and a small pocket in the Florida Everglades, Eastern Pumas were officially declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Still, this has only helped to double down on the rising sightings of big cats all across the country. In South Carolina, the areas of Pickens and Greenville County surrounding Table Rock State Park receive the most sightings each year.
Upon turning RIGHT at Panther Gap, the trail takes on a more subtle incline that’s less strenuous than the previous climb up. This path is in pretty good shape, with an evenly level surface that sees a lot less erosion than those downhill from here. Hikers with enough energy and time left to continue exploring this park, often return to this trail junction after reaching the Table Rock summit and continue straight uphill to Pinnacle Mountain. The 1.9 mile Ridge Trail acts a connector between the two peaks and is actually 0.2 miles shorter than taking the Pinnacle Mountain Trail from the Nature Center. Traveling through a series of dry open meadows, the path to Governors Rock from Panther Gap is only 0.85 miles. On the right side of the trail you get treated with a shrouded view of the panoramic vistas we enjoyed from the halfway shelter. This is an enjoyable stretch that is mostly flat, until we reach the base of Governors Rock.
If you were to look at the front of Table Rock Mountain, Governors Rock is the shiny bald hump on the far left corner just below the forested summit. It turns out that all of the days previous hiking was just a warm up for the vertical scramble that must be undertaken to reach the top of this 2,854 foot granite boulder. The steepest section of the entire trail, this is a non-stop hand over foot scramble. From stone to downed log and back over some more stone, its a near 600 foot ascent from here to the summit. Once you reach the last scramble up Governors Rock, the climb will be aided by notches carved into the rock by those early C.C.C. trail crews. During the wet part of the year, a natural spring near the summit runs down the face of Governors Rock, making it quite dangerous to scramble. Those familiar with climbing Indian Staircase in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge might get some flashbacks from hiking this part.
All of that hard work is paid ten folds with the panoramic views of South Carolinas tallest peaks from the overlook atop Governors Rock. Rising towards the clouds on the far western part of the mountain is Pinnacle Mountains forested peak on the opposite end of the Ridge Trail. Just behind it and a little to the right is the tallest peak in South Carolina (with some of it extending into North Carolina) Sassafras Mountain. One of the many hidden gems of Table Rock State Park lies below every hikers feet at this point and most of them don’t even realize it. Carved into the sloping face of Governors Rock are circle shaped petroglyphs. Thought to be thousands of years old its tough to discern which are hand made petroglyphs and which are caused due to natural erosion. Till this day, archeologists are unsure as to how these prehistoric people were able to carve into this mountainside as granite is one of the hardest of the natural stones. Even present day masons some 3,000 years later must use specialized carbide tipped tools to chisel into solid granite.
Table Rock Summit (Table Rock Face)
The good news at this point is that if you’re just inching to summit this beast of a mountain, your trip is almost over. From Governors Rock to the actual summit is a smooth 0.4 miles. Traveling along a mostly flat surface, theres just one last 200 foot scramble up to the sign marking your official summit. After taking a mandatory selfie, the rest of this trail to the Table Rock Face Overlook is a downhill stroll through the park. Clearings throughout the path allow hikers to step out onto bald granite outcroppings with some of the best views in the whole area. You can see almost 30 miles south to the outskirts of Greenville, Slickin Falls to the north, and a tunnel eyed view of the mountainous valley containing the Table Rock Reservoir.
To the right of this overlook is a small solitary peak known as The Stool (2,615’). Its name is derived from ancient Cherokee lore spanning hundreds of years. The legend tells the story that a giant who once lived in the nearby valley had his servants place his food on the great flat top (in reference to Table Rock Mountain) near a cool spring that bubbles to the surface (Table Rock Reservoir). The smaller, more rounded mountain nearby served as the giant's stool, from which he sat to feast (The Stool Mountain). Its an incredible story that last even till this day, which helps us to understand some of the early history that helped shape this region. While its impossible to get a great shot of the mountain while standing atop it, some of the best places to get a great view of it are from the Pinnacle Lake Trail and a roadside pull-off on Highway 11, turning northeast from the park entrance.
While I’ve had an incredible time exploring this tiny slice of South Carolina, I have to head back across the border into North Carolina. At daybreak tomorrow morning, I plan to be knee-deep on the Art Loeb Trail trekking across the Great Balsam Mountains. This quintessential hike is another bucket list trail located on the Blue Ridge Parkway, extending into one of the most cherished areas in the region, The Shining Rock Wilderness. Stay tuned for our upcoming article and until next time, see y’all on the trails!