Falling for Greenville: a Blue Ridge Mountain surprise

A waterfall tumbles through the heart of Greenville, a small Southern city packed tight with cultural and culinary distractions. Outdoor adventure is a big draw too, with state parks nestled in the folds of the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains. In downtown Greenville a ten-block stretch of Main Street hums with pedestrian friendly commerce. Twinkling white lights in the treetops and public art on the sidewalks tie the street together with aesthetically pleasing zing. This inviting scene is the result of a downtown revitalization project that began in the 1970s. Its goal? Attracting industry while improving the quality of life. The transformation appears complete – just don’t trip as you take it all in.

Downtown distractions

Ridiculously picturesque Falls Park on the Reedy (fallspark.com) is a 32-acre park hugging the banks of the Reedy River as it splashes through downtown. In the 1800s its shores were a center of industry, lined with mills, textile factories and warehouses. Today inviting trails and manicured gardens are the draw, with shops, restaurants, hotels and office buildings just a few steps away. The centerpiece of the park is 60ft Reedy Falls, best viewed from the graceful Liberty Bridge, a 345ft-long pedestrian suspension bridge just downstream. The big-windowed Lazy Goat (thelazygoat.com), a restaurant overlooking the Reedy River, is known for its Mediterranean-inspired small plates.

Liberty Bridge, Falls Park on The Reedy. Photo courtesy of VisitGreenvilleSC / Jeff Gandy.

Liberty Bridge, Falls Park on The Reedy. Photo courtesy of VisitGreenvilleSC / Jeff Gandy.

From the park, a revitalized stretch of Main Street passes indie-owned shops, craft-beer pubs and a global array of restaurants. Mast General Store (mastgeneralstore.com) sells outdoor gear and an enticing selection of old school candy. Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria (barleysgville.com), just off Main Street, is a popular watering hole – and one of more than 100 restaurants downtown.

But the best part of Main Street? Its offbeat joie de vivre. One whimsical highlight is 'Thoughts on a Walk,' a hodgepodge of humorous quotes emblazoned on the sidewalk. Sharp-eyed travelers will also notice a smattering of small bronze statues – of mice. Nine of them are hidden in different spots along Main Street, all part of the 'Mice on Main' public art display, which doubles as a scavenger hunt.

Upcountry exploring

Tucked between North Carolina and Georgia in the far western corner of the state, the Upcountry is a lush, mountainous region teeming with rivers and waterfalls. The Cherokee Indians called the area 'The Great Blue Hills of God.' It’s also the spot where the Blue Ridge Mountains drop dramatically to meet the eastern Piedmont, known geologically as the Blue Ridge escarpment.

Looking out to Table Rock. Image courtesy of Nature Walk Photography / VisitGreenvilleSC.

Looking out to Table Rock. Image courtesy of Nature Walk Photography / VisitGreenvilleSC.

Six rugged state parks are easily reached from the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (SC Hwy 11), which unfurls gracefully along the base of the escarpment. Table Rock Mountain, the namesake peak at Table Rock State Park, is easily identified by its broad granite face. The 7.2-mile round-trip hike to its summit is a local favorite, and the mountaintop is a popular place to pop the question. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the park and its 14 rental cabins during the Great Depression.

Lofty views of the Upcountry’s rolling foothills are the reward after the twisty drive up to the overlook atop Caesars Head State Park. Birdwatchers gather here September through November for the annual Hawk Watch, when migrating raptors ride the thermals as they head south for winter.

Hot wheels

Greenville is earning kudos for its Bikeville initiative, which supports cyclist friendly policies and infrastructure. Highlights include the Greenville B-Cycle bike share program (greenville.bcycle.com), which kicked off in 2013, as well as the city’s extensive network of bike friendly trails and roads. For bike rentals try Reedy Rides (reedyrides.com) or Pedal Chic (pedalchic.com) downtown.

The GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail (greenvillerec.com) rolls beside the Reedy River on a scenic 10-mile run north from downtown Greenville to the town of Travelers Rest. Used by hikers, cyclists and the occasional geocacher, the trail tracks the route of the old Swamp Rabbit Railroad. More than 500,000 people used the trail in 2013, a mere four years after it opened. The still-growing pathway currently contains 16 miles of contiguous trail.

Feel a need for speed – and safety? Cruise 15 miles east to Greer, home of the BMW Performance Driving School (bmwusa.com/performancecenter). One- and two-day courses here spotlight braking, cornering, stability and control. Hard-core fans of the automaker can complement their coursework with a factory tour and a walk through the Zentrum museum.

Museums and moonshine

Four museums cluster in Heritage Green, just west of Main Street. Works by Andrew Wyeth and South Carolina artist Jasper Johns are highlights at the Greenville County Museum of Art (gcma.org). Next door The Children’s Museum of the Upstate (tcmupstate.org) introduces young museum-goers to the wonders of the Reedy River. Learn about works by Europe’s Old Masters at the Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green (bjumg.org).

The regionally focused Upstate History Museum (upcountryhistory.org), the fourth museum in Heritage Green, explores the stories and culture of South Carolina’s western mountains and adjacent piedmont. The region was dubbed “The Dark Corner” due to the feuds and moonshine operations of the feisty Scots-Irish immigrants who settled the Upcountry’s hills and hollers.

Inside Dark Corner Distillery. Image courtesy of Dark Corner Distillery / VisitGreenvilleSC.

Inside Dark Corner Distillery. Image courtesy of Dark Corner Distillery / VisitGreenvilleSC.

An 1845 gristmill is the draw at Hagood Mill Historic Site & Folklore Center (co.pickens.sc.us) in Pickens, 22 miles west of Greenville. Two restored log cabins, one dating to 1791, and a moonshine still are also on site. For modern moonshine step into the Dark Corner Distillery (darkcornerdistillery.com) in downtown Greenville for a sample. We liked the Carolina Peach. Or was it the Apple-achian?

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