Normally, I seek the grand vistas of mountain ridges as my hiking reward. How, then, to explain hiking into Ellicott Rock Wilderness to look for stones underfoot? The answer is easy: I wanted to see some of the beauty Andrew Ellicott experienced when he visited the area in 1811. I also wanted to find a piece of history.
Although the area is not the pristine wilderness Ellicott saw 189 years ago, it's still perfect for rejuvenating the spirit. Miles of footpaths lead through land once scalped by logging companies, but today the hemlocks, birch trees, and rhododendrons have reclaimed their rightful place. Trails drop into the Chattooga River gorge from the north, east, and west, linking with the Chattooga River Trail, which heads south into South Carolina's Sumter National Forest.
You'll hear the trail's namesake, the Wild and Scenic Chattooga, long before you see it. Even though the river is almost a mile away, the sound is so invigorating you'll forget about your aching knees long enough to make the downhill haul toward water's edge and a history lesson.
Settlers were fighting over the precise intersection of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, near the Chattooga headwaters, when Thomas Jefferson sent Ellicott, the day's foremost surveyor, to chart a map that would end the dispute. Ellicott chiseled a mark on a rock in the river, but he was off in his calculations. Two years later, another survey party placed the true intersection some 10 feet away, and they, too, chiseled a rock.
Both stones are still on the east bank at the end of the Bad Creek Trail. If you hike down to the Chattooga after heavy rains, as I did, finding the stones isn't easy. With the water running high and swift, foam obscures the marks. Persevere, however, and you'll discover Commissioner Rock. Etched with LAT 35 AD 1813 NC + SC, it glistens at the river's edge near a stand of hemlocks. Ellicott Rock, harder to find, is about 10 feet upstream.
ROAD TRIP: Ellicott Rock Wilderness is about 140 miles north of Atlanta, Georgia, and 80 miles southwest of Asheville, North Carolina.
THE WAY: From Cashiers, North Carolina, drive south 7 miles on NC 107. Look for County Road 1100, also called Bull Pen Road, and head about 2.5 miles down this gravel road. Bad Creek trailhead is on the right, just before Fowler Bridge.
TRAILS: Bad Creek Trail (3.1 miles), Fork Mountain Trail (6.4 miles), and Ellicott Rock Trail (3.5 miles) drop into the gorge and join the Chattooga River Trail near Ellicott Rock. The Chattooga River Trail intersects the East Fork Trail (4.8 miles) and Foothills Trail (8.5 miles) while paralleling the river 16.7 miles to SC 28.
ELEVATION: The high point is Ellicott Mountain at 3,720 feet; the low spot is the rocks along the Chattooga at 2,160 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Pools upstream from Ellicott Rock, which are great for cooling your feet.
CROWD CONTROL: Early fall is the best time to explore-summer crowds have left and autumn leaf-gazers have yet to arrive.
GUIDES: Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River Recreation Guide (USDA Forest Service) is available from the ranger station (see Contact below). The best trail book is North Carolina Hiking Trails, by Allen de Hart (AMC Books, 800-262-4455; www.
PIT STOP: At Tommy's in Cashiers, North Carolina, where the burgers can't be beat.
WALK SOFTLY: It's tempting to cut switchbacks on the trails that descend to the river, but always stay on marked paths.
Contact: Highlands Ranger Office, (828) 526-3765.