Running the Rapids at Bull Sluice on the Southeasts's first Wild & Scenic River, the Chattooga River

Our Outdoor Family Adventure in Lake Hartwell Country

Get out and go in this corner of South Carolina

My husband, Luke, had stumbled upon some shocking statistics.

A United States Environmental Protection study stated that Americans spend more than 93% of their lives indoors. I was speechless. If just 7% of our lifetimes were spent outdoors, we’d better spend it wisely. Another study showed that in America, 400 million vacation days go unused every year!

We quickly got to work planning that family vacation we’d been putting off for years. Luke had the idea to vacation in Lake Hartwell Country because he’d read about the trophy-sized trout in Lake Jocassee. Get us out of here!

Living it up at the lake

Dock at Lake Jocassee near Salem SC
Rental Kayaks at Lake Jocassee

“You’ve got a live one!” I shouted, as the fishing pole curved and jerked my 80-pound son, Logan, forward like he was a puppet on a string. We were bank-fishing on the shore of Lake Jocassee, and he was the first to hook something. From the fight it put up, that “something” had to be a stubborn smallmouth bass. Logan held on while his dad, an aspiring angler, coached him through the reel-in, and his sister, Megan, helped hold the pole steady.

Our rented villa in Devils Fork State Park offered public access to the 7,500-acre lake. The glassy, blue water was like gravity—serenely pulling us toward it, whispering “Fish me, fish me!” In the distance, we could see a few fishing boats trolling the horizon. But we opted to fish from the rocky shore where we were close to a lush, green canopy of trees providing shade.

Luke and I cheered when Logan and Megan finally brought the bass in—it was quite the shiny trophy, albeit moss green. We took a photo of Logan with his prize before releasing it. Fishing requires luck—and he had it. The rest of us did pretty well, but from picking the right bait to casting at the right time in the right spot, Logan was a natural-born fish whisperer (even if he did need a little help muscling them in).

Later, we rented kayaks and spent the afternoon immersing ourselves in the tranquility of the transparent, deep mountain lake. Megan and I in a tandem kayak, and Luke and Logan paddling ahead in their tandem kayak. It was Luke’s idea to have kayak races. By the time we’d circumnavigated one of the dozen small islets, we were all dripping wet—a mixture of freshwater and sweat. I was pretty proud of my entire crew for putting in all the effort of Olympians going for gold. Already we had used more sunscreen than we’d applied in the past year. Excellent.

Riding the rush of the rapids

Our family couldn’t get this close to the world-class whitewater of the Chattooga River without riding it. We made reservations with a local outfitter to take our crew whitewater rafting.

Thank goodness for our guide. She expertly maneuvered the raft through Class III rapids like it was an aerodynamic missile, not a wide, flat rubber boat. But it was a team affair. With our paddles, and fueled by adrenaline, we strategically attacked the rapids. Sometimes we seemed to hover over them. Other times we needed to answer to a white wall of water, hitting it head on. Between rapids, the current slowed, easing up enough that we could relax and take in the scenery. Hemlock trees towered above us, and below us, there was an entire ecosystem—water bugs, small fish and even a shy otter who surfaced for a matter of seconds.

While Logan had the best cannonball form from the swimming rock where we picnicked, Megan was the day’s MVP. Even in the most stomach-dropping sections, she was leaning into it and paddling hard, and clearly exhilarated. Proof was in the pictures. From under her helmet she was always smiling—a lopsided grin with water dripping down her chin.

Whitewater Rafting on the Chattooga River near Long Creek SC

Hiking and waterfall hopping

View from inside Stumphouse Tunnel

The two attractions shared a parking lot. First, we explored the Civil War-era train tunnel that never realized its goal of connecting Charleston to the Midwest. It was dark and eerie to walk into the earth like that, but fortunately, we could only go halfway before the tunnel was blocked off by a gate.

After heading back to the parking lot, we followed a short, marked trail to the top of the falls, which are named for a Native American maiden. Legend has it that because she was trying to help white settlers, her captors chased her until she found refuge in the falls. I told Luke the thin streams of white water gently falling down the 200-foot-tall slate pyramid looked like Slinkys going down stairs. The kids wanted to scramble to the bottom to swim in the shallow pool, but we assured them their time and energy were better spent hiking to Yellow Branch Falls, our next stop.

Reaching Yellow Branch Falls was an adventure in itself. Although the trail was well-maintained, the hike involved several primitive water crossings. That day’s MVP was Megan again, as she took the initiative to look after Logan. She helped him balance on the fallen tree bridge, find his footing on the boulders we climbed over, and she watched like a hawk when he got too close to the water’s edge.

The reward for our hiking efforts was the refreshing spray of Yellow Branch Falls. Spring runoff cascaded down 60 feet over a tiered wedding cake of rock wall—straight out of an inspirational poster. While wading in the cool, shallow pools, we looked for blackbelly salamanders.

80-Foot Issaqueena Falls near Walhalla SC

Flying high (in a harness)

“Mom! Mom! Mom!” The family vote was nearly unanimous. Born with a fear of heights, I voted “nay” to being the first to zip across the last and longest cable. But it was 1:3 and the “ayes” had it, so I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and launched myself over the lake below. In a few miles and hours I’d gone from getting my Zen on at the base of a waterfall to unleashing my inner eight-year-old while ziplining high above a canopy of trees. It all started when we discovered that Wildwater, the company that had taken us rafting, also managed Chattooga Ridge Canopy Tours. If they could serve up an incredible experience in water, why not put them to the test in the air?

“Aaaah!!!”

It was my 12th time leaping from an elevated platform, yet it felt as exhilarating as the first flight. Normally I would say, “I haven’t felt a rush like this in years!” But the truth was, I felt it two days prior on the Chattooga River.

Clearly, those studies didn’t survey residents of the northwestern corner of South Carolina. The outdoors here were simply too much fun.

I’m not a numbers person, but as we drove home the next day and relived our memories from the trip, I did the math. Would we be coming back to Lake Hartwell Country in the near future? 100% yes! We haven't scratched the surface yet!

Get in on the outdoor action in Lake Hartwell Country.

Dragging Feet from the Zipline
Ziplining over the Lake