As I write this, the cool spring weather has left us for good and the high heat and humidity that defines a steamy Charleston summer has taken its place.
Barring flying to a faraway place, outdoorsy types have two options to enjoy some cooling-off adventures: hit the water here or head to the mountains less than five hours away.
The mountains of South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina offer an array of activities, but three eco-friendly ones that have been getting attention of late should be on the radar of Lowcountry residents.
Here in the Palmetto State, 43,000-acre Jocassee Gorges in Oconee and Pickens counties was ranked ninth out of the “50 of the World’s Last Great Places” by National Geographic magazine in November. It was the only one in the Southeast and only one of the three in the United States.
National Geographic credited the area’s second highest rainfall in the U.S. for supporting the area’s rare plants and highest concentration of waterfalls on the East Coast. Jocassee and Oconee County, which has 72 waterfalls, offer plenty of hiking, birdwatching (peregrine falcons!), paddling and camping opportunities.
Georgia provides another adventurous option with the Len Foote Hike Inn in the Chattahoochee National Forest.
As the play on words suggests, guests check in at the Amicalola Falls State Park by 2 p.m. and then “hike in” (actually up) five miles to the inn, where they eat dinner, spend the night, eat breakfast and then hike back. Or stay another day or two.
Backpacker magazine named the trail to Hike Inn among one of 36 “Best American Hikes” and the inn itself is on National Geographic Traveler magazine’s “Stay List.”
And for those who like heart-racing action, the 3-year-old Navitat Canopy Adventures near Asheville, N.C., offers a much-heralded experience, featuring 10 zip lines, two rappelling experiences and two “sky bridges” on 242 acres of land that Navitat is working to conserve and restore ecologically.
Like adventurous counterparts in the Palmetto and Peach states, Navitat also is getting national recognition. In September 2010, USA Today named Navitat’s Asheville location as one of the 10 best ziplines in the country.
Since then, Navitat has been featured in stories by CNN Headline News and The New York Times.
What: Abutting the Blue Ridge Escarpment, Jocassee Gorges was protected 15 years ago by a cooperative acquisition effort between the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, Duke Energy, the Richard King Mellon Foundation, assisted by The Conservation Fund. Subsequent efforts to protect more land have taken place or are proposed.
Where: Of about 150,000 protected acres, Jocassee Gorges makes up about 43,500 acres, including Lake Jocassee in Oconee and Pickens counties. Lake Jocassee is a 7,500-acre, 300-foot deep reservoir fed clean, cold water from Appalachian rivers.
Staying: While plenty of small, private campgrounds abound in the area, the first check should be with Devils Fork State Park. The park is on Lake Jocassee and includes lakeside campsites, as well as 20 cabins that are air-conditioned, fully furnished and include linens, kitchen appliances and basic cooking and eating utensils. Cabins range from $125 to $155 (not including taxes) per night. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, a minimum stay of a week is required. http://southcarolinaparks.com/devilsfork/introduction.aspx
Another option for those not wanting to camp is Shamrock House, a large historic cabin situated on 10 acres in Sunset and bordering the Jocassee Gorges property. The cabin sleeps 12 while the nearby Trout Stream House sleeps nine. With a minimum of a two-night stay, prices start at $500. http://theshamrockhouse.com/
Playing: A one-stop shop for outfitting your adventure of choice would be the Jocassee Outdoor Center in Salem, where visitors can rent canoes, kayaks and pontoon boats to use on lakes Jocassee and Keowee, take guided waterfall or fishing tours, get maps and other supplies. The center’s hours of operation are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. www. jocasseeoutdoorcenter.com/
Best view?: One of the best vantage points to see Jocassee Gorges is Sassafras Mountain in northern Pickens County, where a fundraising campaign is underway to build an observation tower on the highest point in South Carolina. www.dnr.sc.gov/sassafrasmountain.html
Len Foote Hike Inn
What: The Len Foote Hike Inn is a sustainably designed facility that offers a place for individuals, couples and families to unplug and get away from civilization, without going too far from it. Hike Inn, after all, is just hours from Atlanta.
While part of the Georgia State Park System, Hike Inn is operated by the nonprofit Appalachian Education and Recreations Services Inc., which seeks “to protect Georgia’s natural resources through education and recreation.”
Where: Located in the Chattahoochee National Forest near the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, hiking in to your inn seems appropriate. The 5-mile hike, considered easy to moderate in difficulty, originates from Amicalola Falls State Park, takes between two and four hours, and traverses small streams and ridges in forests featuring hickory, pine and oak trees.
Staying: The Hike Inn is not a hotel and is actually quite rustic. The inn features bunkhouse rooms with 20 rooms and a lobby, a bathhouse with separate facilities for men and women, the Sunrise Room, a community building where guests gather to read, play board games and socialize. Bunkhouse rooms have lights but no electrical outlets. http://hike-inn.com/
Playing: The staff leads a tour of the facility at 5 p.m. daily and offers wildflower and photography tours. Some opt to hike to Springer Mountain, which is the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The hike to and from the mountain is 8.8 miles, so many who plan to do it book two nights at the inn.
Eating: Part of the cost of staying at the Hike Inn is all-you-can-eat dinners and breakfasts, served at 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. respectively. If given advance notice, the staff will prepare meals for vegetarians and vegans, as well as trail lunches.
Costs: The all-inclusive cost ranges from $123 for individuals to $188 for two adults. Friends of Hike Inn get a 10 percent discount.
Eco-friendly: Hike Inn features solar panels and odorless, waterless, composting toilets.
But please don’t bring cell phones, beepers, radios and laptops. Also, don’t bring pets, alcohol and, preferably, no cigarettes or other tobacco products because of concerns with forest fires. The inn is smoke-free with the exception of the covered porch at the front of the inn.
Because the hike inn is for foot travel only, mountain bikes and horses also are not allowed.
What: Ziplines consist of a pulley suspended on a cable, which is mounted on an incline, designed for the user to be propelled by gravity to a lower location.
While western North Carolina has an increasing number of zipline operations, few are drawing the national attention of Navitat Canopy Adventures, which has 10 zip lines, 15 tree platforms, two sky bridges, and two rappelling experiences. Navitat’s longest zipline is 1,100 feet and the highest is 200 feet in the air. In all, Navitat’s course measures 5,731 feet.
The tour, which includes three short hikes, lasts about three and a half hours.
Where: Navitat is built on 242 relatively isolated, densely wooded acres north of Asheville, N.C.
Playing: For those who want to see more wildlife or for cooler temperatures, staffers at Navitat suggest booking a tour at 8 a.m. or shortly thereafter or just before dark. Among the wildlife seen at Navitat are black bear, Northern flying squirrel, gray and red fox, cottontail rabbit and gray and Indiana bat.
For those worried whether they can physically do the tour, the minimum standard is being able to walk one mile. Navitat is designed for first-time zipliners, but there are a few weight and age requirements. The weight requirement is 90 to 250 pounds. Participants must be age 10 or older. The oldest person to zipline at Navitat was in his late 80s.
Cost: $89 on weekdays and $99 on weekends. Discounts are available.
Eco-friendly: One of Navitat’s goals is to restore the land to it full ecological potential. Among the staff members is a plant ecologist who serves as its education and conservation director.
Navitat’s efforts include removing non-native invasive species, treating hemlock trees (consider the redwoods of the East) that are under attack by an invasive insect, and creating an American chestnut orchard in an effort to help re-establish the species, which was decimated by an invasive fungus in the 20th century.