Falling for Leaf Peeping in the Upcountry

From the mountains near the North Carolina border off of Cherokee Foothills National Scenic Byway (known around here as Scenic Highway 11) to the tree-lined lakes that make up the areas to the west of the Upcountry, there is no shortage of gorgeous places with waterfalls to drive and hike to go leaf peeping! We’ve compiled a list of some of the best waterfalls to check out fall foliage this year and when to visit to catch the best views.

The 2023 Fall Foliage Prediction Map, credit to SmokyMountains.com

Based on the 2023 Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction Map, we can guestimate that the best time to leaf peep in the Upcountry will be between October 9th (Partial/Near Peak change) and October 23rd (Near Peak/Peak change). 

The entrance to Stumphouse Tunnel Park in peak leaf-peeping season in Walhalla, SC. 

For the best SC State Parks for leaf peeping in our area, we have plenty that allow you to not only enjoy a hike with family or friends of various difficulty levels but also some great water views! Start by checking out  Issaqueena Falls (shown at the bottom of this article) at the Stumphouse Tunnel Park in Walhalla, SC. This is a great beginner’s hike for the whole family, as it’s an easily accessible 10 minutes to the base of the falls. There is a trail that leads from the parking lot to an observation platform where you can view the 100-foot-tall Issaqueena Falls. This is named after a Native American who hid on a ledge of the falls to avoid capture while fleeing to warn her English lover of a Native American attack.

The view looking out of Stumphouse Tunnel.

You can also check out the Stumphouse Tunnel from here, which was originally meant to be a railroad tunnel through the mountain but was never completed. You may need flashlights inside to find your way around this 25-foot-high, 17-foot-wide tunnel that extends 1,617 feet into the mountain.

Raven Cliff Falls in Caesar’s Head State Park.

Next, head to Cleveland, SC to Raven Cliff Falls in Caesar’s Head State Park. This waterfall is named for the over 150 species of ravens identified in this region and spotted making nests around the falls. The waterfall cascades 400 feet into Matthews Creek below. There are two ways to view the falls – the official viewing deck a quarter mile across from the falls, or from a rocky outcrop near Dismal Trail, where you can view the upper portion of the waterfall. It’s 2.2 miles to the first view and an additional 0.5 miles to the second view on Dismal Trail.

Autumnal view of the Oconee State Historic Site in Walhalla, SC. 

An easy 30-minute hike will take you through some great leaf-peeping at Station Cove Falls at the Oconee State Historic Site. This stepped 60-foot waterfall is about 1 mile from the Oconee Station Historic Site, which this county’s first European settlers built in 1792! The boulders at the base of the falls are great for picnicking, and folks are encouraged to donate to help keep up the historic site instead of paying the usual entry fee to get into the park in Walhalla, SC.

Rainbow Falls in Jones Gap State Park.

We’ve saved the hardest for last with Rainbow Falls, which can be found in Jones Gap State Park, ending our list with a strenuous 5-mile round-trip hike. Rainbow Falls has a variegated stone structure behind the falls, with layers of granite gneiss, mica schist, and amphibolite gneiss in black and tan bands of color. The view of Jones Gap Valley from the falls in Marietta, SC, makes this the perfect spot for leaf peeping and photo opportunities from its taller elevation of 100 feet.

We hope you’ve fallen for some of the great state parks and waterfalls for leaf peeping in the Upcountry and now know when to visit to catch the best views. Enjoy some of these other great articles: Fall Foliage in Upcountry, SC and Jump into Fall Color in Upcountry, SC.

Issaqueena Falls in Autumn at Stumphouse Tunnel Park in Walhalla, SC.

By Sarah A. (Moore) Gross, Pimento & Prose Media

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