Filling in the Palmetto Trail's final gaps Plan outlines $21 million worth of needed connections

The Palmetto Trail was created 20 years ago to showcase South Carolina's beauty, such as this section that runs through Jones Gap State Park near the Greenville-Pickens county line.

The vision of having a walking trail twisting more than 500 miles through some of South Carolina's most historic and scenic lands could be realized within the next decade.

But first, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation - the trail's creator - has to fill in eight gaps, mostly in the Upstate and around the Columbia metro area.

The idea of the Palmetto Trail began stirring around 20 years ago, as foundation board members talked about the state's natural diversity and how good it would be if more people experienced it on foot or on bike - rather than just cruising Interstate 26, said executive director Natalie Britt.

The Lake Moultrie Passage in Berkeley County was the first to open, thanks to support from Santee Cooper, which provided the necessary access.

Since then, the foundation has opened 362 miles of trail to the public, and with support from Boeing, recently completed a 195-page master plan for what to do next.

"A big part of what this master plan aims to do is to close those gaps," Britt said. "We look at this whole plan as a 10-year plan, but if our corporate funders keep coming on board and our members keep coming on board, I believe we could do it in five years, but that would be pushing it."

The plan also aims for other improvements, such spurs that would link the trail to other nearby points of interest. And it calls for more access to potable water, more camping options, better access to restaurants and bed and breakfasts, as well as upgrades for cyclists and those in wheelchairs. "We want to improve access to all users," she said.

Of the trail's 362 miles, only about 215 miles are open for biking. Most of the rest are simply too steep, or the foundation hasn't secured the land owners' permission.

Britt said the foundation has spent about $6 million to date on the trail, and the money has come from state grants, corporate supporters and private donations. She estimated that volunteers have donated at least that much through their labor.

For instance, before the 11-mile-long Peak to Prosperity passage in Fairfield and Newberry counties opened about three years ago, volunteers rebuilt all but one of the 18 trestles on the old 19th century railroad bed.

The master plan, done by Alta Planning + Design, estimates that finishing the eight gaps would cost as much as $21 million, though Britt said that cost could be lessened by more volunteer work and in-kind donations, such as easements on private land.

"That's what it would cost if we had to hire somebody to finish the trail," she said.

The Lowcountry section is largely finished, mostly because of support from Santee Cooper and the Francis Marion National Forest, though the plan does call for some sections there - and elsewhere - to be shifted in places.

The greatest challenge to finishing the trail lies just west of downtown Columbia, where a terrain of private lands and broad rivers promise a costly passage.

But several gaps in the Upstate already have been mapped out and are simply awaiting financial support to finish them.

The foundation recently opened the Saluda Mountains Passage near the North Carolina border, a steep route that passes through Greenville's 19,000-acre watershed. Stones from the remnants of an old homestead were used to pave the trail in places.

"It's the first time that's been open to the public in 50 years," Britt said. "A waterfall was discovered while we were building that. It's a stunning passage."

But just to the west, last summer's heavy rains led to landslides that washed out portions of the Old Hospital Trail near Jones Gap State Park. The foundation plans to rebuild and reopen that section by this fall.

The Wateree passage through Poinsett State Park in Sumter County also suffered a lot of damage during this year's ice storms.

"It took four weekends with 25 volunteers with chainsaws just to reopen those seven miles," Britt said. "That shows how crucial our volunteers are to maintaining the trail."

For those unfamiliar with the trail, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation and partners hope to lure newcomers with special events on June 7, which is National Trails Day.

The Lowcountry Open Land Trust is working on hosting one of the events in Awendaw.

Trust director Elizabeth Hagood said the Palmetto Trail's significance is great. "It is the primary way the public can have access and enjoy the recreational benefits of the forest and the protected lands around that."

The ability to get people outdoors is crucial to keeping them interested in conservation work, she said.

Britt said National Trails Day is a chance for families and others who may be a bit intimidated by the outdoors to experience it with the help of guides and naturalists.

In a sense, the purpose of the day is the same as the purpose of the Palmetto Trail itself.

"The idea is to showcase what the state has," Britt said.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.