It’s the most beautiful spot in the Midlands you can’t get to. That’s about to change.

Each day, thousands of commuters on Interstate 126 pass by this scenic stretch of the Saluda River on their way to and from downtown Columbia.

Most know about Riverbanks zoo, and some may even be familiar with Saluda River features like the Mill Race Rapids or “the rocks,” a popular spot for revelers, sunbathers, paddlers and waders to gather along the banks of the river. But behind a locked metal gate slightly west of those attractions is one of the most beautiful, hidden vistas in the Midlands.

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 where the river flows in shallows over a patchwork of gray, flat boulders. It swirls in eddies and ripples in small falls with wisps of whitewater.

“This is going to knock people’s socks off,” said Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance, an organization pledged to opening up the city’s three rivers to the public. “It’s drop dead gorgeous here, and no one can get to it. Now there is going to be public access.”

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.

It is essentially the lynchpin of the entire greenway system in the Midlands. It will allow a hiker or biker to move from EdVenture Childrens Museum on Gervais Street in Columbia’s Vista, west past the zoo, across the river to Lexington County near River’s Edge subdivision, then on to Lexington Medical Center and down the West Columbia and Cayce riverwalks.

“We are going to try and connect up as many Lexington County neighborhoods as we can,” Dawson said.

Dawson shows off a newly poured concrete pathway along the riverbank, as well as areas where wooden boardwalks and bridges over creeks will be constructed. There are also nearly 200-year-old remains of the old Saluda Canal and the site of a future small parking area, ranger station and bathrooms.

Work will be done in phases.

Construction of the first phase of the 8-foot-wide hiking and biking trail should be finished by July. 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. A completion date for phase two hasn’t been determined.

The two phases are funded with $7.9 million of Richland County penny sales tax money.

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.

Mike Mayo of Palmetto Outdoor runs tubing trips down the Saluda and has opened a facility adjacent to the new greenway near Candi Lane. The business began and is still based at the amphitheater at the West Columbia Riverwalk and the three- to four-hour float runs between the two locations.

Mayo said he can’t wait for the new stretch of the greenway to open.

“This will become a tourist destination very soon,” he said. “I appreciate the serenity of the river now. But we need to find more way to get kids out of their four walls and help them to realize there is more to life than video games.”

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

▪ Limited parking

▪ 20 interpretive signs of environmental and cultural features