A quarter mile down a rough and rutted gravel work road under soaring power lines, locked behind a metal gate, is one of the most beautiful landscapes in the Midlands that people rarely see.
A large island splits the Saluda River here. The main channel used by tubers and paddlers is on the Lexington County side of the island. On the Richland County side, isolated from the main channel, is a wide, rocky bend.
Here the river flows in shallows over a patchwork of gray, flat boulders, swirling in eddies and rippling in small falls with wisps of whitewater. On one mild but misty day in November, a large flock of Canadian geese sat regally on the rocks or bob playfully in the eddies, framed by a curtain of Spanish moss hanging from the hardwoods on the island.
“It’s gorgeous,” said Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance, an organization pledged to opening up the city’s three rivers for recreation and residential development. “It’s a scenic river nobody can get to.”
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That is about to change.
A three-mile extension of the Three Rivers Greenway called the Saluda Riverwalk will open up this scenic stretch and others from the Saluda’s confluence with the Broad River to Interstate 26. It will also bridge the Broad River to Columbia’s Riverfront Park and the Saluda River from Richland County to Lexington County.
Construction of the first phase of the 8-foot-wide hiking and biking trail should take only about 12 months, beginning as early as April. It is funded with $7.9 million of Richland County penny sales tax money. The project is set to get out for bid this week or next.
“It’s a fairly simple project,” Dawson said, “except for the 15 years of permitting, land acquisition and funding.”
The new Saluda Riverwalk will be a lynchpin of the Three Rivers Greenway, which has long stretches of trails, boardwalks and bridges on both sides of the Congaree River and up the Columbia Canal from Riverfront Park to the Broad River diversion dam north of River Drive.
The greenway now stretches 11 miles. The new trail will push that to 14 miles.
When completed, the Saluda Riverwalk will connect to the Columbia Canal riverwalk via a pedestrian bridge over the Broad River. It will also connect to Lexington County via a pedestrian bridge over the Saluda River near Interstate 26, somewhere near the River’s Edge subdivision in West Columbia.
“We’re not exactly sure where yet,” said West Columbia Mayor Bobby Horton, noting that the bridge will be funded with a $750,000 S.C. Department of Transportation grant. “But we certainly want to build it, intend to build it.”
When Phase Two of the trail is completed in less than two years, someone could walk or bike from the State Musem on Gervais Street, up the Columbia Canal, across the Broad River, past Riverbanks Zoo, across the Saluda near Interstate 26 and end up at Lexington Medical Center.
“That’s the exciting part of it,” said Rob Perry, Richland County’s transportation director who oversees the penny tax program. “It will link everything up.”
Intrepid hikers and bikers can also trek from the museum across the Gervais Street bridge to the Cayce and West Columbia riverwalks.
“The Three Rivers Greenway includes and is funded by three cities and two counties,” Dawson said. “It is regional cooperation writ large.”
Penny tax project
Phase One of the Saluda Riverwalk project will run from just east of the zoo, west up the Saluda River to the pedestrian bridge near I-26. It will run through the zoo on the river bank, but outside the zoo’s fence.
That phase will be bid first and take about a year to complete. The price tag is expected to be about $4 million to $5 million.
The pedestrian bridge across the Saluda to Lexington County will be funded by a long-standing $750,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant landed by the late U.S. Rep. Floyd Spence, R-Lexington. It is matched by $200,000 from the city of West Columbia.
That $950,000 is not included in the $7.9 million penny tax budget.
Phase Two will run from the end of Phase One east of the zoo down to the confluence of the Saluda and Broad rivers, up the Broad about one quarter of a mile and then across to the Columbia Canal riverwalk.
The budget for Phase Two will be determined by the cost of Phase One, Perry said. Design will begin after the bid for Phase One is awarded, he said.
The bridge over the Broad River will be included in the penny tax budget.
The completion of the Saluda Riverwalk will be the culmination of a decade and a half of advocacy by Richland County Council member Paul Livingston.
“I’ve worked with the River Alliance since its inception,” he said. “I’m delighted to finally see it come to fruition. It never would have happened without the River Alliance. They have brought Richland County and Lexington County, Columbia, West Columbia and Cayce together.”
As a side project, the Darnall W. Boyd Foundation is funding a third bridge. It will link the riverwalk east of the zoo to a four-acre, city-owned island in the Congaree River.
The $500,000 project will include a loop trail in the island, which will be renamed Boyd Island and become part of the Saluda Riverwalk, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said.
“The scenery there is unparalleled,” he said.
The project will be built in conjunction with Phase One of the riverwalk, Dawson said.
As sections of the riverwalk are completed, they will become part of the city of Columbia parks system.
Twenty interpretive signs will explain environmental and cultural highlights, such as remnants of the old Saluda Canal and the unusual presence of mountain trout in that section of the urban river.
There will be environmentally sensitive composting restrooms, call boxes and limited parking. The park will also allow paddlers and tubers to put in or take out anywhere along the park.
The new park will also include the popular Mill Race Rapids, affectionately called “The Rocks” by decades of sun-drenched revelers. The party will end during Phase One, however, as no drinking is allowed in city parks unless permitted, and the riverwalk will be patrolled by city park rangers.
“As this property comes into the public domain, it will be a much safer place,” Benjamin said. “And it’s an amazing opportunity to boost the city’s quality of life.”
Saluda Riverwalk features
Three miles of trails
A pedestrian bridge across the Broad River
A pedestrian bridge across the Saluda River
A pedestrian bridge to an island in the Congaree
Restrooms, call boxes and environmentally sensitive restrooms
20 interpretive signs of environmental and cultural features