Hiking the High Hills

Most people have their fall sport—from hunting to football, we love either to participate ourselves, or to party down while rooting for the team (and quite a few have been known to do both).  But one of my favorite things has always been hiking when the leaves are starting to crunch and there’s just enough crispness in the air that a stray breeze still feels good.

When it comes to trails, Sumter County is probably near the top of anyone’s list for having some of the best in the region.  Whether it’s the nearly-flat ¾ mile circumference of Swan Lake or one of the more challenging sections of the Palmetto Trail, Sumter has tremendous variety for casual strollers, serious backpackers, and everything in between.

Since 1994, the SC Palmetto Trail has been an ongoing project of the Palmetto Conversation Foundation.  Upon completion, the Trail will traverse the state of South Carolina, covering more than 425 miles from the foothills of Oconee State Park to the Intracoastal Waterway in Charleston County.  Several connecting passages will showcase the unique history, culture, and geography of the Palmetto State.  To date, approximately 290 miles are completed, with the Saluda Mountains Passage in the upstate presently under development.

In 2001, I was part of a group present for the opening of the High Hills of the Santee Passage, fourteen miles of trail that runs through Manchester State ForestPoinsett State Park and Mill Creek County Park.  It was a great day—cool,  but not cold, a perfect day for a hike.  What I didn’t realize was that the trail wasn’t quite finished, and would involve balancing on the framework of an abandoned Civil-War-era railroad trestle, and leaving the trail to hike cross-country to a stream where I then took a canoe to get back to the trailhead!  But it was an exhilarating day, the kind that pumps new life into one’s veins.

Since then, the trail has been completed and offers some of the most interesting views of our native fauna and flora to be seen in this area.  As far back as 1972, the Rock Hill Herald referred to this area as “weird and beautiful” for its unusual botanical features.  The diverse terrain is the only place in South Carolina where you will find mountain laurel alongside oaks, pines and red cedar draped in Spanish moss.  And when the weather is just right, downtown Columbia is visible from the peak.

This is also an area steeped in our rich local history.  Civil War relics can still occasionally be found, and then-Colonel Thomas Sumter led his troops in the American Revolution not far from the area.  Another connection to American history is found in the section that runs through Poinsett State Park, property that once belonged to the Matthew Singleton family.  Among Colonel Singleton’s descendants was Angelica Singleton, hostess and acting First Lady of the United States during the Van Buren administration.  Dating back even further are the remains of a mill, constructed before the Revolution by a Mr. Levi, the property’s first known owner.

Poinsett State Park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as a New Deal project, on land donated by Sumter County in 1934.  Mill Creek County Park features a hand-hewn lodge dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.

On foot, the hike can take five or six hours—but mountain bikes and horses are welcome, too!  The High Hills of the Santee Passage is rated “moderately difficult,” and is open year round, from 9 a.m. to dusk.  Admission is free.

If you’ve never tried hiking before, the USC Sumter Fall Natural History Series Nature Walk is a great way to give it a try.  For more information, click here.

For more info, these links should also be helpful:
http://www.palmettoconservation.org/aboutthetrail.asp
http://scgreatoutdoors.com/hb-palmettotrail.html
http://palmettoconservation.org/maps/HighHillsWebMap.pdf
http://www.southcarolinaparks.com/files/State%20Parks/Poinsett/PO_brochure.pdf

So, strap on those hiking boots, make sure to bring some water, and get outside!  If you have a partner, or are part of a group, so much the better—there’s lots of room.  And after all, what better way is there to explore the natural beauty and local color of South Carolina, than to get right out there and experience it firsthand?

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