South Carolina wants to show off its highest peak
SASSAFRAS MOUNTAIN, S.C. -- South Carolina’s highest peak isn’t very majestic — at least not yet.
Anyone wanting to stand atop Sassafras Mountain faces a yellow gate before a hike about 300 feet up a fairly steep broken asphalt path. Visitors turn a corner and can stand on top of a patch of cleared land next to a rock, where there a plaque was put up last month letting them know they are 3,553 feet above sea level. The view is all trees, interrupted by only a fenced-in shed and utility communication tower.
State wildlife officials want to change that. They are planning a fundraising effort to build an observation tower on the mountaintop that will rise above the trees. People climbing the 30- to 60-foot tower could see parts of four states, getting a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge mountains and valleys and South Carolina’s scenic Jocassee Gorges.
“You have the state’s highest peak, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build an observation platform there,” said Emily Cope, who is overseeing the effort to on Sassafras Mountain with the Department of Natural Resources.
No permanent plans have been made yet. DNR doesn’t want to spend any state money on the project, so officials are trying to figure out how much they can raise privately before deciding how big and elaborate the observation tower can be, Cope said.
Wildlife officials plan to have a website encouraging donations and will talk to several conservation groups, Cope said.
“We want something that blends in with the landscape,” Cope said. “We don’t want it to stick out like a huge thumb.”
It’s all for an icon in South Carolina that has been long neglected. Students across the state learn in South Carolina history in third grade about Sassafras Mountain. It also holds a special place for a group of people called the Highpointers, who try to reach the highest point in every U.S. state.
Some of them are easy, like the 345-foot tall Britton Hill in Florida, or Hawkeye Point at 1,670 feet, which rises about 20 feet above the rest of the farmland in northwest Iowa. Some require mountain climbing skills, like Alaska’s Mount McKinley at 20,320 feet. And some remain in private hands, like 4,139-foot Black Mountain in Kentucky, which is owned by a coal company that requires a signed waiver from hikers to visit.
Dave Covill has been to the highest point in all 50 states and remembers Sassafras Mountain well. The Highpointers held their 1998 convention nearby and included a climb to the peak.
“I think with a tower to get you 20 or 30 feet above those trees, the view will be unforgettable,” said Covill, who lives in Evergreen, Colo., and is president of the Highpointers Foundation.
South Carolina has worked for more than a decade to secure the land at the state’s highest point. Things were complicated because the peak sits right on the state line with North Carolina.
Duke Energy owned the South Carolina side and built the communication tower. The utility sold two acres to the state in 2004. But the North Carolina side of the mountain was still owned by former congressman Charles Taylor.
Taylor sold 8,000 acres of the North Carolina mountain land to the Conservation Fund in 2010, who in turn gave four acres atop Sassafras Mountain to South Carolina.
That finally cleared the way to making South Carolina’s highest point a destination instead of a curiosity. DNR built a parking lot and modest observation deck, and county officials improved the twisty road leading to the peak.
Duke Energy retains the rights to its communications structure, but has promised it will work with the state on its plans.
Raising private money could be tricky because the Great Recession has slowed donations from individuals and companies, said Russell Shay, director of public policy for The Land Trust.
“People facing economic uncertainty are much more cautious with their money,” Shay said.
That can be seen by figures collected by The Trust for Public Land. In 2004, there were 215 ballot measures across the U.S. asking voters to pay more taxes or issue bonds for land conservation, and 161 of them passed. Stung by the recession, governments asked for more money for conservation just 24 times in 2011. Fourteen of the measures passed.
But Cope isn’t worried. She thinks the allure of South Carolina’s highest point will be irresistible.
“I tend to be the eternal optimist. It’s the type of project that people inherently want to support,” Cope said. “It may not happen as fast as we like, but we’re going to get it done.”