Politics & Government

Want to visit SC’s highest peak? The view will soon be spectacular

A puffy cloud blanketed the dome of Sassafras Mountain about mid-day Tuesday, leaving a handful of visitors disappointed they couldn’t take in the Appalachian view they had expected.

But within an hour, those on the mountain smiled as the weather cleared enough to see the hazy blue landscape from South Carolina’s highest point. Deep Carolina valleys and hills as far away as Georgia and Tennessee dotted the horizon.

The change from cloudy to clear is symbolic of South Carolina’s 22-year-struggle to protect — then promote — Sassafras Mountain, a once neglected place that many people had only read about in elementary school.

Next month, state leaders will formally unveil a $1.1-million viewing tower atop Sassafras Mountain, culminating an effort that began in 1997 to protect the state’s tallest peak and surrounding land. The tower is a round stone structure, rising 17 feet high, that the public will be able to access any day of the year at no charge.

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has cleared trees from the mountain top, upgraded an old parking lot, established a trail for handicapped visitors, installed signs and built bathrooms, as the agency prepares for what’s expected to be an onslaught of visitors to Sassafras Mountain and its new tower. Plaques describing which mountains are visible from Sassafras are to be installed on the viewing tower.

“This has been a long-time coming,’’ said Pickens County outdoorsman Dennis Chastain, among those who pushed for two decades to protect the mountain top and build the tower. “This is a cherished view.’’

Located at the extreme southern end of the Appalachians, Sassafras Mountain straddles the South Carolina-North Carolina line, off U.S. 178 in Pickens County, about an hour’s drive northwest of Greenville. Standing more than 3,500 feet tall, it is the highest point in a state more widely known for flat Lowcountry marshes, dark swamps and wide beaches.

Unlike many of the highest mountains in other states, Sassafras once was covered with so many trees it was hard to see the surrounding hills and valleys while standing on the top. Duke Energy, which owned the mountain, never banned people from visiting, but it didn’t do anything special to commemorate Sassafras.

Efforts to change that began in 1997, when the state of South Carolina purchased the 32,000-acre Jocassee Gorges natural area from Duke, which was unloading undeveloped lands it no longer needed for power production.

Hailed as a way to protect the state’s mountains from development, the deal gained the endorsement of then-Gov. David Beasley. The state and a conservation trust paid about $21 million for the Jocassee Gorges in Pickens and Oconee counties.

Storm clouds ahead

As many conservationists and state leaders celebrated, Chastain and a friend, Pickens County resident Wes Cooler, learned of a potential problem.

The top of Sassafras Mountain wasn’t in the Jocassee Gorges land deal.

Duke Energy had kept the peak of Sassafras out of the Jocassee sale for reasons that today still aren’t fully known. The power company said it needed the land because it had a small communications tower there. But Chastain and Cooler, convinced that Duke wanted to sell the peak for a development project, began sounding alarms to their neighbors and the news media.

Jocassee Gorges Manager Mark Hall worked with the Department of Natural Resources to construct an observation deck on top of Sassafras Mountain. Ashlen Renner

“This was to be a million dollar home site,’’ Chastain recalled as he stood on the viewing stand this week with Cooler and Jocassee Gorges manager Mark Hall, who spearheaded efforts to build the tower.

John Frampton, South Carolina’s chief negotiator on the Jocassee Gorges deal, said he realized during discussions with Duke that the top of Sassafras wasn’t included in the 1997 agreement, possibly because U.S. Rep. Charles Taylor, R-N.C., was interested in acquiring it to complement thousands of acres his real estate and land companies owned just over the state line.

Taylor knew “it would potentially be a valuable piece of property because it was the highest point in South Carolina,’’ said Frampton, a retired S.C Department of Natural Resources director.

Frampton said that while power company officials privately assured him they would protect the top, it took the South Carolina agency seven years to persuade Duke to sell the 2-acre peak to the state for $50,000.

No such deal, however, had been struck with Taylor for the land he owned along the border in North Carolina. That raised fears that Taylor would sell off the mountainside in North Carolina for resort development, thus spoiling the view from the mountain top that South Carolina had worked so hard to protect.

“We were all worried at that point,’’ Cooler said.

Then two land conservation groups stepped in.

In 2010, the Conservation Fund and the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy convinced Taylor to sell the 8,000 acres as part of a $33 million land deal. Today, some of that land has become a protected state forest in North Carolina, according to the land conservancy.

Efforts to reach Taylor this week were unsuccessful.

Kieran Roe, director of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, said the deal that helped protect views from South Carolina’s highest peak is good for the entire area.

“In terms of having another amenity for visitors to our region to go out and enjoy, it’s a great thing for North Carolina, as well,’’ Roe said of Sassafras Mountain.

Another hurdle cleared

With Taylor’s land protected, the SC DNR began looking for ways to manage the top of Sassafras Mountain for visitors, ultimately settling on plans for a viewing tower that could provide 360-degree views of the southern Appalachians.

But again, obstacles lay ahead.

As the DNR moved forward with the proposal for an observation tower, officials learned they could not build the more than 60-foot tall structure they envisioned without an elevator to comply with federal rules ensuring access for the handicapped. But an elevator cost too much money, forcing the DNR to come up with an alternate plan.

Officials settled on the stone, 17-foot viewing platform that will be unveiled next month during ceremonies hosted by the DNR. Through donations, a hefty contribution from Duke Energy and charitable groups, they came up with the money to complete the stone tower.

Hall, who has spent about seven years working on the tower project, said people are beginning to hear about the viewing platform and are eager to see the changes atop Sassafras.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, about three dozen people were at the Sassafras Mountain peak, looking at the yet-to-be opened viewing tower and peering off the side of the mountain, he said.

“Everybody is ready to check it out,’’ Hall said.

Sammy Fretwell has covered the environment for more than 20 years at The State. He writes about an array of environmental subjects, including nature, climate change, energy, state environmental policy, nuclear waste and coastal development. Fretwell is a University of South Carolina graduate who grew up in Anderson County. Reach him at 803 771 8537.