May/June 2007Field Trip: Eastatoee Creek Heritage Preserve by Dennis Chastain, photography by Phillip Jones
If you have never been to the Eastatoee Creek Heritage Preserve, put it on your list of things to do. Few places in the South Carolina mountains offer so much for so little effort. If you have hiked into the Eastatoee (pronounced ee-sta-TOH-ee) Gorge in the past and had to endure the treacherous trail down its steep slopes, plan to go back and take advantage of a new, improved trail, which takes a somewhat longer route but provides a more enjoyable hiking experience.
From the intersection of the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (SC Highway 11) and US Highway 178, follow Highway 178 toward Rosman, NC. At 8.1 miles, you will cross Eastatoee Creek at an old-style concrete bridge with concrete side rails. Immediately after crossing the bridge, turn left onto a gravel road. Follow the gravel road approximately one-half mile to a parking lot on the left. Park here and walk several hundred yards through the green gates to the entrance of Eastatoee Creek Heritage Preserve.
Located in the heart of the Jocassee Gorges property, the 373-acre preserve is a secret garden of spring wildflowers, some of which are quite rare. The 2.5-mile, moderately strenuous hike provides a visual treat. Allow roughly an hour for the hike in. Along the way, take the time to look around. You might spot the richly hued, nodding maroon flowers of Vasey's trillium, the dainty five-petaled blossoms of star chickweed or the creamy white, subtly fragrant flowers of both Fraser's magnolia and cucumber tree. The list goes on and on - devil's-bit, trailing arbutus, partridge berry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, the regionally rare yellow toadshade trillium, sweet-shrub, heartleaf ginger, both common blue and Canada violet and wild hydrangea.
At the end of the trail flows Eastatoee Creek, one of the premier trout streams in the South Carolina mountains. Bring a fishing rod if you like, and drift a dry fly or swim a spinner in front of wild trout in this wild mountain stream. Note that only artificial lures are allowed in the preserve. Or simply enjoy the tranquil beauty of this remote mountain stream as it tumbles from its headwaters along the North Carolina state line through the gorge that forms the heart of the preserve. Foaming white riffles and runs, punctuated by alluring, deep, green pools make this one of the best preserved, most photogenic streams in the Upstate.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the entire stream, a chute called the "Narrows" is located just downstream from the end of the established trail. At this point, the entire flow of the stream is channeled into a chute, or crevice of rock, and drops some 8 or 10 feet. It is a much-photographed, awe-inspiring waterfall.
Now let's go back to the entrance gate and take a look at what you might see on the way in. Most of the hike is along an old logging road and provides an easy, wide platform for even fairly large groups of hikers to stay together. After about .25 mile you will reach the top of the ridge. This area was intensively logged several decades ago and is now dominated by yellow poplar, a native species that can form mono-cultural stands following a logging operation. To restore a more natural balance to the forest, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources conducted a prescribed burn of this area in 2005. The beneficial effects can already be seen. Notice how the herbaceous layer, the green plants and wildflowers, have responded enthusiastically to the removal of the dense layer of leaf litter and the dose of fertilizer from the ash. The tall, nodding flower stalks of devil's-bit, also known as fairy wand, are particularly abundant.
As you begin to descend toward the Eastatoee Gorge, a prominent trail sign and trail map mark a right turn on the route. This begins the new section of the hiking trail. The original trail was washed out by Hurricane Ivan in 2004. It did not take preserve manager, DNR biologist Mary Bunch, long to decide that the old footpath was beyond redemption. Walt Cook, a retired professor of forestry from the University of Georgia, designed and flagged the new route. DNR personnel, along with volunteers from Boy Scout groups and the Foothills Trail Conference, all worked for more than a year to open up an old, overgrown logging road. A private contractor was brought in to finish the trail from the logging road down to the stream.
Before leaving the trail-map sign, look approximately 20 feet to the left of the sign. An American chestnut tree on the road bank tells the story of the tragic loss of this once-dominant tree of the Appalachian forest. As recently as three years ago, this 40-foot tree was healthy, vigorous and bearing an annual crop of bristly chestnuts. It is now stone dead and pock-marked with cankers from the chestnut blight that virtually wiped out the species in the 1930s.
Continue on the nearly level grade for a half mile or so. Observant hikers will begin to notice the cottony white cocoons of the hemlock woolly adelgid on the twigs of the hemlocks located along the road. While these trees are not likely to survive the onslaught of this exotic insect pest, efforts are already under way to chemically treat some of the hemlocks in the grove down along the stream.
At one point along the old roadbed, a radical change in the terrain and the vegetation becomes apparent. The road bank on the right side will diminish to almost nothing and the dominant trees will change from mixed hardwoods to mostly mature Virginia pines. This spot is a perennial bear crossing. Look to the right and locate a large shortleaf pine that has been clawed by bears for a decade or more. These "bear trees" occur all along perennial bear trails and serve as signposts for bears traveling along the ridgeline to leave their mark. You will see a fairly large wound on the tree approximately five feet up the trunk, and other claw marks can be seen on the side.
Continue along the roadbed until the trail turns off to the left. For anyone who hiked the old route in years past, the new trail is a real treat, with bridges and sturdy steps to help negotiate seeps and steep slopes. Although a somewhat longer hike, the steep descent into the hemlock grove known as the "Campground" is now a much safer and less strenuous walk.
As you approach Eastatoee Creek, you will enter a substantial grove of Eastern hemlock with very little undergrowth. Follow the marked trail down to the stream's edge. This is the end of the established trail. It's one route in and out. For backpackers, the campsites are located throughout the hemlock grove approximately 50 yards from the stream bank. Whether you are day hiking or backpacking in to camp for a day or two, take time to unburden yourself and stroll along the stream, and be sure to explore the botanically rich upper fringe of the hemlock grove.
The Narrows and another attractive waterfall are located downstream, beyond the end of the established trail. If you wish to explore this area, be careful. The footing can be tricky, particularly when the woods are wet.