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Upstate South Carolina Tour

Exploring the Palmetto State Uplands

While not considered a mountainous state, South Carolina does share in some of the Appalachian chain and has plenty of topography in the northwestern part of the state, known as the “Uplands”; the region has been, popularly called “Upstate.” This area includes recreational lakes, historic towns and sites, mountains, colleges and universities, one of the state’s largest cities, and one of the Southeast’s most popular amusement parks. Think of this as the scenic and very leisurely route between Atlanta and Charlotte. Let’s explore Upstate South Carolina!

Coming in from Georgia on I-85, you have the South Carolina Welcome Center and Lake Hartwell State Park. Lake Hartwell is a man-made reservoir spanning three rivers on the Georgia-South Carolina line: the Savannah, Tugaloo, and Seneca. Altogether, the lake covers 87 square miles and features 962 miles of squiggly shoreline, some of it running up to campus of Clemson University, which we’ll visit shortly. Lake Hartwell State Park is accessible right off I-85 and offers fantastic fishing, boating, swimming, bird-watching, and geocaching.

From the park, use Exit 4 off I-85 and head up SC Highway 59 into Seneca, a town of about 8,000 that sprung up as a railroad junction and key shopping point for cotton. The Ram Cat Alley Historic District includes 18 buildings downtown, all built between about 1887 and 1930. Nearby is the Lunney House Museum, featuring a 1909 Queen Anne bungalow along with a carriage house and the cozy “two-seater outhouse.” You can tour it all and check out art glass windows, original chandeliers, an 1866 grand piano, and a permanent exhibit on the family who lived there.

Seneca isn’t all about looking back, though; plenty of recreational fun can be had now in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains framing the town, and the city looks to the future at the World of Energy, a free learning and exhibit center which explores the worlds of nuclear and hydroelectric power; it’s no coincidence that both types of power generation facilities are located very close by. Right along the main drag (U.S. 76) in Seneca you’ll find the Best Western Executive Inn, convenient to the forests, historic sites, and nearby Clemson University.

If you want a bigger taste of the Blue Ridge Mountains from Seneca, do a little offshoot north on Highway 28 through Walhalla and then Highway 11 to check out portions of the Sumter National Forest and the Oconee Station Historic Site. Oconee Station started as a military compound and trading post in 1792 and also served as an inn during the 1800s. The buildings now welcome visitors looking to take in some history and mountain views. Outdoor recreation right here is plentiful, with fishing and hiking opportunities – including a 1.5 mile trail leading from Oconee Station. A quarter of a mile away you can hike to find Station Cove Falls, a 60-foot cascading waterfall at the base of Station Mountain.

Back to Seneca, let’s head east and northeast across Upstate to continue our Tour: following U.S. 76 east from Seneca to SC Highway 93 (Pendleton Road and the Old Greenville Highway), head into Clemson University. Founded in 1889 on a former plantation, Clemson (originally named “Calhoun University”, after the family who owned the plantation) is a top-tier public university bustling with about 17,000 students and paw prints throughout the streets. That’s the mark of their Clemson Tigers, prominent teams in the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference). Basketball action happens at tough-for-opponents-just-ask-ESPN’s Littlejohn Coliseum, which also hosts plenty of other indoor athletic events and concerts.

Clemson’s always-tough football Tigers play at Memorial Stadium, locally known as “Death Valley” for: a) opposing coaches’ comments about playing there; b) the stadium being located under a hill that houses a cemetery; and c) a rock brought from Death Valley, California to “Death Valley” South Carolina, which is now famous for players knowing to “Rub the Rock” prior to games. The rock itself is housed under glass near the main entrance, easily visible on off days when a pedestrian happening by the stadium can easily peer through the bars and see the “Rock”, the stands, and much of the field.

On game days, this is known as one of the loudest stadiums in the country. One location mere blocks away popular before or after games, and just in general for sports, road, or even history buffs, is the ESSO Club. ESSO Club is a sports bar with origins as an ESSO gas station in the 1920s, complete with memorabilia and artifacts from the city, university, and stadium, Billy Carter (brother of the former president), and more. ESPN: The Magazine made ESSO Club their top pick for college sports bars, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution once described it as the best bar in the South. So we just thought we’d mention it. The school has a long tradition and affiliation with the military, hosting detachments from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force ROTC, and hosting the U.S. Marine Corps PLC program.

Clemson’s beautiful campus includes not only the school buildings, residence and park areas, but also the South Carolina Botanical Gardens, a 300-acre oasis of horticultural splendor free and open to the public year ‘round, dawn to dusk. Walking paths and driving lanes let you explore a dizzying array of colorful flowers and native plants, heritage and demonstration gardens, a geology museum, internationally-recognized nature-based sculptures, an old saw mill, the Hanover House (a reconstructed home dating back to 1716), and more.

From Clemson, enjoy a ride on SC Highway 28 south for a few miles into the charming burg of Pendleton, a town within origins dating back to 1790. The Pendleton Historic District encompasses much of the town, including Farmers Hall on the town square, shops featuring a bevy of local arts and crafts, a beautiful old cemetery dating as far back as 1819 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church down the street, and some lovely old homes. Nearby closer to U.S. 76, the Woodburn Plantation is a four-story clapboard plantation house dating back to 1830 with three original outbuildings and a museum in the main house; it is available for tours and features walking paths on the grounds. Its sister plantation, Ashtabula, follows shortly on our tour; both are maintained by the Pendleton Historic Foundation. A stop at the Tourism Commission at Highway 28 and Queen Street (on the edge of the town square) has all the info you need to check out Pendleton’s history, shops, plantations, and other nearby sights.

For our Tour from central Pendleton, follow Queen Street and the Highway 88 east out of town. Just outside of town is the lovely old Ashtabula Plantation, a two-story Lowcountry-style plantation house built around 1825. Filled with antebellum artifacts and antiques and surrounded by graceful shade trees. The plantation has a colorful history, including once setting the “world’s record” for rice production one year, hosting the state’s first set of Jersey cattle, serving as home to a plow inventor, and more. Tours include the original brick house on the property, which went up in 1790 and served as a tavern for a spell, since Highway 88 follows the Old Greenville Highway that connected Atlanta, Greenville, and Charlotte back in the day.

From Ashtabula, continue on Highway 88 east and enjoy some picturesque farmland of the South Carolina Upcountry. Follow 88 to 8 and then Highway 86 to I-85 (a lot of roads here start with “8”). Follow I-85 four miles to Piedmont, where at Exit 40/Highway 153 you’ll find the Best Western PLUS Piedmont Inn. For over one hundred years, Piedmont held one of the largest textile mills in the world; designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, much of the complex burned to the ground five years later; only remains remain and it no longer has the historic designation. Also of note, the famous 1915 film Birth of a Nation was set in Piedmont.

Now let’s visit the largest city on this Tour: with the next exit northbound on I-85 (Exit 42), follow I-185/U.S. 29 north. It brings you into the heart of Greenville. The city feels much larger than its population of 65,000, probably because it’s the anchor city for the Greenville-Spartanburg metro area, which has almost half a million residents. Partially due to the former plant in Piedmont we just mentioned, Greenville was known as the “Textile Capital of the World” during the early 20th century and today is one of the fastest-growing cities in the country for business and young professionals. International companies like Michelin make Greenville their North American headquarters, and BMW has an office and manufacturing plant nearby (more on that later) and technology, aviation, and alternative energy are significant economic drivers in the area.

Greenville is home to Furman University, South Carolina’s oldest private university. A liberal arts college founded in 1826, the school has a student body of 2,800 and a wooded 750 acre campus featuring 40-acre Furman Lake, a big reason the campus often makes the list of “America’s Most Beautiful College Campuses.” Along the lake is a replica of the cabin Henry David Thoreau stayed in while writing On Walden Pond, and the Bell Tower & Burnside Carillion both rises to mark the heart of campus and delivers cascading chimes from the 59 bells in the tower.

The university is one of the smallest to play NCAA Division I sports, and the Furman Paladins compete across 20 sports in the Southern Conference including football and basketball. Above campus, Paris Mountain State Park offers hiking, biking, swimming, and fishing, all on campus and close to Greenville. A bathhouse built in the 1930s is now the Park Center, which offers historic exhibits.

The city has minor-league pro sports, including the Greenville Drive. A Class-“A” affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, the Greenville Drive draw big at 5,700-seat capacity Fluor Field at the West End. True to its Boston affiliation, Fluor Field is modeled after Fenway Park in terms of field dimensions, its own version of the “Green Monster,” a manual scoreboard, and even singing “Sweet Caroline” in the eighth inning (with more of a Southern than Boston accent).

Baseball fans know of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Heck, most people who don’t follow baseball have heard of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. Greenville salutes the native son with the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library, located in the house where Joe Jackson lived and died, showcases his life, displays many of his personal belongings, and features over 2,000 books related to baseball. Fluor Field at the West End is right across the street.

The Greenville Road Warriors (which also play well at home) play hockey in the ECHL as affiliates of the NHL’s New York Rangers and the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. Those games happen in the Bon Secours Wellness Arena, which opened downtown as the Bi-Lo Center in 1998 and hosts plenty of other events, concerts, and more.

Greenville’s downtown is flanked by several historic districts, including the Woodside Cotton Mill Historic District just west of downtown, featuring over 280 buildings of industrial or architectural significance reflecting life in the early 20th century textile town; the Colonel Elias Earle Historic District is a strip north of downtown that was once the estate of a prominent early settler and now features hundreds of 19th century homes with a wide array of architectural styles; the Overbrook Historic District is to the east of downtown and holds historic and large homes from prominent families in the early 20th century, many of whom made their fortunes in textiles. The East Park Avenue Historic District, Heritage Historic District, Pettigru Historic District, and Hampton-Pinckney Historic District are all close to downtown, serving as vivid illustrations that Greenville has been a bustling little city for quite some time.

The West End Historic District holds the ballpark at its southern end and proceeds up and near Main Street south of the Reedy River. This is the “hip and trendy” area of the city, where funky shops and restaurants and meet start-up companies and design firms in former 19th century storefronts and buildings, and a river walk connects many of them. Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban gem of a park, giving visitors not only dynamic green space, public gardens and sculptures, but a 355-foot long suspension bridge that spans the Reedy River.

Known as the Liberty Bridge, its unique design offers an unobstructed view of the beautiful waterfalls that cascade over the rocks below, which is also a popular spot for picnic and kids to test their parents’ skittishness by climbing around the rocks. This is perhaps Greenville’s ultimate gathering space; outdoor summer concerts, dining on overlooks, and community events of all kinds happen in the park, which we highly recommend for a visit on a nice afternoon or early evening.

Within blocks of Falls Park on the Reedy, you’ll find the Peace Center, an arts and performance complex including a 2,100-seat concert hall, 400-seat theatre, and amphitheater along the river. The Peace Center is the cultural hub of not just Greenville but all of the Upstate region. You’ll find everything from big-name concerts and Broadway shows to performances of ballet, theater, symphony orchestras, and more from the city’s impressive cast of performing arts groups. Model railroad fans will love the small but fun Miniature World of Trains, just up the street from the park. The layouts feature up to 40 HO scale trains traversing mountain and city landscapes across 1,600 square feet. Kids can also a scavenger hunt.

North of the Reedy, Main Street cuts through the heart of Greenville’s downtown. A streetscape redesign has turned it into a tree-lined street welcoming pedestrians, shoppers, performers, café, galleries, and more. Paralleling two blocks west is Academy Street (U.S. 123), the wider and busier thoroughfare through the business district. Many museums and attractions are this area north of the Reedy too, including the Greenville County Museum of Art, a premier American art museum that features the world’s largest collection of works by Andrew Wyeth; the adjacent Children’s Museum of the Upstate, the only children’s museum in the country that is also a Smithsonian affiliate; and the Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green, which has an impressive exhibit of Russian art and history located in a former Coca-Cola bottling plant.

Heritage Green is itself features lush gardens, all part of “Museum Row” adjacent to downtown. Also nearby is the Upcountry History Museum, which explores the colorful history of Upstate South Carolina as well as the regions around it with a series of interesting exhibits. Bob Jones University is on the northwest side of Greenville and offers the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery, which houses an impressive collection of religious art and art from the Victorian Era.

On the southeast side of downtown you’ll find the popular Greenville Zoo, perched on a hill with a nice selection of animals and very kid-friendly. Nearby is more history, with the Museum and Library of Confederate History offering a free and realistic look at life in the South during the Civil War.

To continue on our Tour, head east-northeast out of Greenville on I-385. Along the way before I-85, the Roper Mountain Science Center offers a nature-filled respite including hiking trails through woods, an arboretum, butterfly garden, a living history farm, old homesteads, and the Hooper Planetarium which presents a variety of shows and stargazing opportunities.

Once you reach I-85, head north (the signs will say toward Spartanburg and Charlotte).. Exit 54/Pelham Road is where you’ll find the Best Western Greenville Airport Inn, conveniently close to everything we just saw in Greenville as well as the nearby Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP), which is South Carolina’s second busiest.

Within minutes, you reach Spartanburg, the second major city in the metro area. Spartanburg (technically, the suburb of Greer) is home to the BMW Zentrum, the only BMW museum in North America. Why is it there? Because the BMW Plant & Performance Center are there, too. This a unique building showcasing BMW’s car models, stories and exhibits of the company’s engineering and innovation history. It’s the only BMW museum in North America – and very much unlike the cars, it’s free. Factory Tours charge admission, but you get the equivalent of a “backstage pass” look at one of the most advanced automobile factories in the world. Follow I-85 to Exit 60, and just follow the signs.

Southeast from I-85 in Spartanburg’s downtown, you can check out a variety of sights. Wofford College, established back in 1854, educates a student body of 1,600 in Spartanburg and its 175 acre campus is designated as a national arboretum. The NFL’s Carolina Panthers use Wofford’s facilities for training camp, and Duncan Park Stadium is the oldest minor league baseball stadium in the country, having opened in 1926. For culture, the Chapman Cultural Center is a performing theater with a museum about the area’s history; even a science center is inside. Hollywild Animal Park functions as a kid-friendly zoo with animals from exotic to the very familiar, including some animals who have been featured in movies. The Hub City Railroad Museum reflects on Spartanburg’s days as a rail center, featuring restored old rail cars and cabooses, model train layouts, and more. For history, the Spartanburg County Regional Museum of History and the Walnut Grove Plantation (which dates back to 1793)… both offer a look back at life in the region through the years – and centuries.

From Spartanburg, use either U.S. 29 for the traditional scenic route or I-85 for the four-lane fast route continuing northeast from Spartanburg. For much of the rest of our tour, it’s rural area and history, a chunk of it military related. From I-85 just past Spartanburg, take Exit 78 and follow U.S. 221 and follow the signs to Cowpens National Battlefield. This field, pastoral grazing lands at the time, commemorates the location of the Battle of Cowpens which took place on January 17, 1781 during the latter part of the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution and of the Revolution itself. It was considered a pivotal victory by the Americans. The Cowpens National Battlefield features a museum with exhibits about the American Revolution, a walking tour of the battlefield, and a reconstructed log cabin for the farmer who was quietly just farming the land before a major battle for the nation took place on it (we imagine that was a bit of a shocker for him).

From Cowpens, follow SC Highway 11 (which doubles as the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, another great alternative route) back towards Gaffney, where you can catch I-85 or U.S. 29 to continue the Tour northeast. At the interchange with I-85 and Highway 11, look for the “Peachoid,” the local water tower painted like a huge peach on a stand. Definitely worth a picture on a nice day! If you head into town, you can shop at Gaffney Premium Outlets or check out Harold’s Restaurant, which was featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives and offers Southern and American comfort food.

Once you’re sufficiently shopped-out and comfortable, continue northeast on U.S. 29 to State Road 11-21 to Battlefield Road. You’re awfully close to North Carolina at this point, but the road keeps you just inside the state and leads you to another major military point, Kings Mountain National Military Park. The Park commemorates the Battle of Kings Mountain which, like at Cowpens, was considered a decisive victory in the Revolutionary War. Thomas Jefferson called the battle at Kings Mountain “the turn of the tide of success.” President Teddy Roosevelt wrote "This brilliant victory marked the turning point of the American Revolution."

The battle, which lasted of all 65 minutes, was fought on October 7, 1780 and halted British advancement from Charleston and points south from moving into North Carolina, helping to stall their Southern Campaign. President Herbert Hoover address a crowd of 75,000 people at the Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the battle in 1930; a monument now stands where he delivered the speech as part of an historic Loop Trail around the Park. There are plenty of markers, trails, and other accoutrement around the park to provide a solid look at the history of the land around the Park. It’s also the southern terminus of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail, the 214-mile route used by the Revolutionary War Overmountain Men who marched from Virginia, over the Smoky Mountains and to this site to fight the Battle of Kings Mountain.

Nearby, Kings Mountain State Park offers more recent history. A living history farm from the early 20th century complements fishing holes, hiking and biking trails, and even equestrian facilities that offer the chance to check out the park on horseback.

From Kings Mountain, follow SC Highway 55 to SC 274 and then SC 49, which brings you across Lake Wylie for a brief entre into North Carolina (the state line zigzags a little around here). Follow NC 49 past the McDowell Nature Preserve and NC 160; when you get to Carowinds Boulevard, hang a right and head back over the state line to South Carolina and Fort Mill.

Fort Mill is nestled in a corner of South Carolina along the North Carolina border. Right along the border; this is Charlotte metro all the way; Uptown Charlotte (their downtown) is only a 10 minute drive via I-77. (In no traffic. Which isn’t often). Fort Mill’s history includes serving as the meeting place of the full Confederate Cabinet in 1865; the site is in the town’s Confederate Park, which also features a monument to slaves who fought on the Confederate side during the Civil War – likely the only such monument in the nation.

Downtown Fort Mill hosts a strawberry festival every spring and art festival every fall; plenty of shops, restaurants, spas, and antique markets make the town a popular day-trip destination for Charlotte area residents and students from nearby Winthrop University, located just to the south in Rock Hill. A popular local hiking spot is Anne Springs Close Greenway, where woods and waterfalls can be explored, along with a horse barn which offers horseback riding.

The signature attraction for many visitors in Fort Mill is Carowinds, the major amusement park for the Carolinas. Carowinds straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina state line; some of the over 60 rides literally carry you between states. Carowinds has eight themed areas across its 398 acres; among them, a water park called Boomerang Bay. Roller coasters are many; include the Intimidator, inspired by Dale Earnhardt; Thunder Road, a wooden coaster that crosses the state line; and the Fury 325, a new coaster designed to carry riders and fast as 95 miles per hour and rise 325 feet, making it the tallest non-launch roller coaster in the world… it Is scheduled to open in Spring 2015. Carowinds also features a 160-foot drop tower ride, a kids’ area, and more.

The Best Western Carowinds is blocks away from Carowinds, right next to I-77 and U.S. 21 for easy access. It’s a great place to finish up the Tour, relax, and enjoy the area. From there, you can hit Charlotte up in North Carolina or head down to Columbia to explore the state’s capital city. Or check out our other South Carolina Drive Tours to have even more fun in the Palmetto State!