Mike Dawson steps over logs and crunches through leaves in the woods northwest of Columbia. On his left is the Lower Saluda River — an undeveloped, picturesque stretch, with the cold water flowing around big smooth rocks. The roar of Interstate 26 is audible nearby, but it’s peaceful here, far from the chaos of downtown.
“This over here is some of the prettiest I’ve discovered,” says Dawson, CEO of the River Alliance, which for more than 20 years has been planning and helping build miles of greenway in the Midlands.
By this time next year, a key new section of the Three Rivers Greenway along this stretch of river could be complete.
The project, dubbed the Saluda Riverwalk, is being funded by Richland County’s Transportation Penny at a cost of around $5 million.
It’s out for bid now, and work will likely begin early next year, according to Rob Perry, director of transportation for Richland County. Dawson says the contractors will be given up to a year to build the greenway, but could finish sooner.
The planned three-mile pathway — part paved trail, part boardwalk, with a handful of small bridges — will stretch from below Riverbanks Zoo up to I-26 along the Saluda.
It’ll include three bathrooms spaced out along the trail, lighting and a parking lot just above Millrace Rapid off Candi Lane with spaces for 40 cars — though Dawson admits that’s going to be insufficient parking almost from the start.
That’s Phase 1. Phase 2 will connect the new greenway to the Columbia Canal walkway at Riverfront Park via a bridge over the Broad River. It’ll also include a bridge out to an island between the two rivers. The total funding for both phases is $7.9 million.
When both phases are complete, visitors will be able to walk from downtown Columbia all the way up to the zoo and beyond.
Ever since Riverbanks Zoo fenced off its parking lot in 2012, shutting off access to the Saluda, river enthusiasts have been hoping for a safe, public way to access the river above the zoo. In fact, funding the Saluda Greenway became a key part of the lobbying force behind the 2012 penny tax after county residents voted down the tax in 2010.
The greenway will do more than restore Saluda access by the zoo, though, opening up parts of the river upstream that few people have ever seen.
It could also provide a prime viewing spot for whitewater races and activities. A boardwalk will wrap along the bank next to Millrace Rapid, which runs over the remains of a historic dam dynamited during the Civil War, now popular with kayakers.
In planning the Saluda Riverwalk, Dawson has also run across sections of the historic Saluda Canal. Built and abandoned in the early 1800s, the canal allowed boats to bypass rocky sections of the river north of Columbia. The River Alliance is planning to have signs related to the historic waterway.
The Saluda Riverwalk project has been a long slog, Dawson admits. The route where the paved pathway will go is marked with flagging; Dawson says this is the third time he's flagged this section over the years.
In addition to getting funding, buying up the property for the greenway was a big hurdle.
"Private property owners are concerned with the impact on their adjacent property potential," Dawson says. "They want to be sure the owner, in this case the City of Columbia, is bringing the greenway into the park system."
After the county completes the greenway, the city will take over operating it, providing park staff, maintenance and law enforcement.