SASSAFRAS MOUNTAIN —
Standing on a platform 60 feet above South Carolinas tallest mountain left Mark Hall reflective, and at times, almost speechless.
On a chilly morning last week, the state wildlife biologist rode in the bucket of a utility company repair truck high over the tree line at Sassafras Mountain for a view few people ever see from this forested peak.
In every direction, some of southern Appalachias most significant mountains, cliffs, waterfalls and valleys lay before him. Reservoirs snaked through South Carolinas Piedmont far below. In the distance, Hall could make out peaks in Georgia and Tennessee.
You can see more here than from most places on the Blue Ridge Parkway, said Hall, who is with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. I dont know where else you can get a 360-degree view like this.
If Hall is successful, others will one day witness the same thing.
Hall, who runs the DNRs Jocassee Gorges nature preserve, is leading efforts to build a 65-foot observation tower on Sassafras Mountain. The tower would straddle the SC-NC state line, rising above the trees so that visitors could get the same panoramic view Hall took in Thursday.
Folks could see four states from the observation tower: the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee. And they could look down at places such as Table Rock, the highly visible mountain that anchors one of South Carolinas most popular state parks.
The $1 million tower project will rely on private donations, and if the fundraising campaign is successful, the tower will be ready in about two years. The DNR is selling bricks to pave the ground below the tower and is now actively seeking contributions from sponsors large and small.
Folks wanting to contribute can access the wildlife agencys website and follow the directions. Because of tight budgets, none of the tower project is expected to be built with public funds, although the DNR is in charge of the project and would make decisions such as when to start construction.
Changing the experience
Sassafras Mountain, at more than 3,500 feet, is widely known to children who learn about South Carolinas highest point in grammar school. But it often underwhelms visitors when they reach the undeveloped peak along the state line in Pickens County.
The mountain is so heavily wooded that, aside from a small observation deck and a few rocky openings on the slope, its difficult to see much of the surrounding terrain. And its impossible to get the 360-degree panorama that Hall took in from the utility companys bucket truck last Thursday. Even though the day was cloudy, Hall could see 50 miles.
From the bucket platform, Hall nodded at a string of landmarks. To the north, northwest and east, the Blue Ridge of North Carolina stood tall and violet against an early winter sky. Among the features Hall saw were Whiteside Mountain, near Highlands, N.C.; Rich Mountain near Brevard, and Mount Pisgah, near Asheville.
Hall squinted, looked through his field glasses and pointed out a sliver of Tennessee just beyond North Carolinas Whiteside Mountain. Sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Devils Courthouse peak, both in North Carolina, also were visible.
To the west and southwest were lakes Hartwell, Keowee and Jocassee in South Carolina, as well as Roundtop Mountain and its rare stand of Carolina Hemlocks on the rocky cliff face. To the south and southeast were Pinnacle Mountain, Hickory Nut Mountain and Table Rock Mountain. The latter, well known to drivers along S.C. 11, stood below Sassafras a sight few people ever see.
Georgias mountains shimmered in the distance, far to the west.
Local hunters, wildlife enthusiasts and DNR officials have been discussing the idea of a Sassafras tower for years but were slowed by an array of obstacles, including ownership of the mountaintop and adjacent land in North Carolina.
South Carolina purchased the peak of Sassafras Mountain in 2004, some seven years after acquiring the bulk of the mountain in the 33,000-acre Jocassee Gorges land accord with Duke Energy. But even after acquiring the top of Sassafras, the state needed assurances that land on the North Carolina side of the mountain would not be developed.
No such assurances were given until about two years ago, when conservation groups in North Carolina struck a deal to acquire some 8,000 acres along the state line from former U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C.
Now, Palmetto State officials say its time to build the tower so people can take in the sights of South Carolinas mountains and those in surrounding states.
For our area, it would bring in tourists, said Sam McMillan, a worker with Blue Ridge Electric Cooperative, who drove the bucket truck to Sassafras for Hall to use. With tourists, goes economic development. And most of the folks in this area, we are a neighborly bunch.
While Sassafras isnt tall compared to the mountains in many states, it is special to South Carolina and should be celebrated, said Hall and tower advocate Dennis Chastain, an area naturalist and bear hunter.
They envision the Sassafras tower as an important part of South Carolina, just like the Battery at Charleston, the state capitol in Columbia, and the shores of Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island.
This is going to be one of the icons South Carolina is known for, Hall said.
A conceptual drawing of a mostly steel tower has been completed, and architects will be hired through the DNR as soon as money is raised.
Interrupting the view?
So far, no one has complained about what it would be like with a tower on South Carolinas highest mountain.
Maintaining ridge lines in a natural state has, as times, been an issue in the southern Appalachians. Some folks have complained about seeing radio towers atop mountains.
But rather than clear-cut the mountaintop, a committee has said it would be better to give visitors a permanent vantage point in the form of a tower. It also would not be the only tower of its kind in the Appalachians. Clingmans Dome in Tennessee, for instance, also has an observation tower.
Chastain and Wes Cooler, who spent many days on Sassafras as a teenager in Pickens County, said they believe the tower will blend in with the scenery and wont be noticeable from the ground or other mountains. Its top will be just above the tree line, which is not expected to grow much taller.
If you want to preserve wild spaces in South Carolina or anywhere, you have to give value to as many people as you possibly can, Cooler said. The best way is to provide some sort of access that is compatible with the things youre trying to protect.
Kieran Rowe, director of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, said the tower is a great way to show people the sights of the southern Appalachians. Much of the view from Sassafras is into North Carolina, where Rowe lives.
South Carolina making this peak more accessible to the public will be a great thing, Rowe said.