No easy public access to Saluda River rapids this summer

jholleman@thestate.comApril 5, 2013 

— As the weather turns warm and people flock to area waterways this spring, they will find public access hasn’t improved around the Saluda River rapids.

A plan pushed by Columbia City Council member Cameron Runyan for a small parking area just below the rapids evaporated when Richland County voters passed the penny sales tax in November. Runyan said the city shouldn’t spend money for something that now is part of a planned county project, the Saluda River greenway.

Among the projects planned to be built with sales tax money is a greenway section around the zoo. Construction documents were drawn several years ago and could be dusted off with minor changes, according to River Alliance director Mike Dawson. Greenway backers hope it’ll be included in the first phase of penny tax construction projects. But even the best-case scenario for completion of that project is summer 2014.

The only way to get to the river in that area this year is to park along Candi Lane and walk across railroad tracks. Depending on location, both parking and crossing tracks could be illegal. River users are distraught that they have to go through another summer of potential law-breaking just to get to the rapids.

“I am disappointed that public access to this phenomenal natural resource will not be restored this season,” said Bill Stangler, who in his position as Congaree riverkeeper advocates for the waterways in the area.

Riverbanks Zoo for decades allowed river visitors to use its parking area. But the river crowd had grown rowdier in recent years, leading to fights, drunk driving and thefts in the zoo parking lot. To protect its paying customers, the zoo built a fence that cut off access to the river from its parking lot.

Riverbanks CEO Satch Krantz said the parking lot problems have basically disappeared since the fence went up late last summer.

Only a handful of incident reports have been filed by the Columbia Police Department along Candi Lane since the zoo fence went up, according to police records. Those incidents have involved underage drinking, public drinking and larceny.

The few businesses on Candi Lane noticed an uptick in traffic late last summer. Outfitter Get Your Gear On has allowed customers to park at its store on Candi Lane. Carpet One, also on Candi Lane, has allowed parking after it closes for the day. Mabry Law Firm began towing non-customers last summer after river users trashed its parking area, owner Ben Mabry said.

“It’s a shame,” Mabry said of the access dilemma. “That’s one of the prettiest places in the state.”

There are a few legal alternatives. The zoo allows outfitters who pay a fee to use a gate in the fence to launch kayak or tube trips on the section of the river below the Mill Race rapids. Check with local outfitters for trip schedules and costs.

Also, there are plenty of other access points on rivers in the area. Those river sections don’t all match the beauty of the Saluda River rapids, but they have their strengths.

River fun

Details on public access points on local rivers:

Saluda River access

Saluda Shoals Park: There’s a $5 per vehicle entry fee at the park at 5605 Bush River Road. In return, you get access to a beautiful park with trails along a less turbulent section of the Saluda River. Kayakers can paddle upstream through one shoals area to the Lake Murray dam and back to the park, or they can paddle downstream an hour or two (depending on river levels) to the Gardendale Landing.

You can rent canoes, kayaks or, as the weather heats up, tubes from the park. The tube rental trip goes from the main launch to the other end of the park. (The water in the Saluda coming out of the bottom of the lake is always cold. Tubers might want to wait for hot weather.)

Metts Landing: Just across the river from Saluda Shoals, use of this public landing off Corley Mill Road is free. You need to bring your own boat or tube.

Gardendale Landing: This public landing about 3.5 miles downstream from Saluda Shoals and Metts landings has a dirt parking lot at the end of a short, rutted dirt road off Garden Valley Road on the Irmo side of the river. Coming downstream, look for the blue, yellow and red pole on the left.

If you launch here and go downstream, you’ll encounter several slightly tricky shoals before reaching the dangerous Mill Race rapids. Only skilled paddlers should try to get through Mill Race. There is a portage trail on the right side of the river for novices to walk their boats around the rapids. Of course, novices might want to avoid the section downstream of Gardendale altogether.

Broad River access

Upper Broad River: There’s a public access point in Newberry County below the S.C. 213 bridge. It’s 17 miles downstream to the next public access at Harbison State Forest. That’s a long paddle more suited for overnight trips. Harbison’s canoe launch is rustic and difficult to navigate. The next access is five miles downstream at the Richland County Rowing Center just below I-20. It’s a beautiful section of usually slow-moving river, but the distance of the first leg along with parking and access challenges at Harbison and the rowing center mean this section gets little use.

Broad River at the Diversion Canal: An informal launch area at the northern end of Columbia’s Riverfront Park off River Drive is getting more and more use in recent years. You have to haul gear up the pedestrian walkway over the Columbia Canal then down a gravel hill, and there’s a quick rapid a few feet from the launch that bedevils some novices. The rest of the trip downstream includes several usually benign rocky sections — and in May and June the white flowers of the rare rocky shoals spider lily.

After the Broad and Saluda merge, you can get out at the West Columbia amphitheater on the right side of the Congaree River just past the Gervais Street bridge or keep going to the Barney Jordan Landing at the end of Rosewood Drive on the left side of the river. Be careful to hug the right side of the river just past the railroad bridges. You need to go through the granite locks on the right instead of over the dangerous old dam that stretches the rest of the river’s width.

Congaree River access

West Columbia amphitheater: You can put in along the West Columbia Riverwalk and float down the Congaree to the Jordan landing or a little farther downstream to the Thomas Newman Landing on right side of the river. Some people ride tubes a mile or two downstream, climb back up to the Riverwalk and hike back to the amphitheater. If you go past the railroad bridges, stay right and go through the granite locks to avoid the old dam.

Fishing: You can drop a line anywhere along the rivers (assuming you have a fishing license). The popular areas around public landings are just below the canal diversion dam on the Broad River and around the Saluda Shoals Park/Metts landings.

Just sitting and watching the river glide past: The Cayce-West Columbia Riverwalk and Saluda Shoals Park have the best accommodations for walking, sitting or picnicking along the rivers.
View Accessing the Midlands' 3 rivers in a larger map


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