As glorious as the Three Rivers Greenway trails can be in spring, sometimes I feel the need for a different recreation experience. Lately, I revisited two of the greenway’s rural cousins for the first time in nearly a decade, and I found both of these sections of the Palmetto Trail in much better shape than during my previous trips.
Both the Peak to Prosperity Passage in Newberry County and the Wateree Passage that bridges Richland and Sumter counties are within an hour’s drive of Columbia and well worth the trip. I refer to them as the Three Rivers Greenway’s cousins because the sections I visited have much in common with the greenway trails, and in fact the Palmetto Trail’s trek through downtown Columbia includes the greenway section in Riverfront Park.
The two passages I visited are relatively flat, easy to navigate, and spend most of their course along water. Of course, they differ from the greenway in that they aren’t paved. A baby stroller or a wheelchair would be a challenge on the Wateree Passage, but both could be utilized for long stretches of the Peak to Prosperity Passage. I biked Peak to Prosperity and hiked Wateree, but either mode of transportation works fine at both. Here are a few tips:
Wateree Passage: This section of the cross-state trail runs 11.4 miles from Poinsett State Park in Sumter County to U.S. 601 in Richland County. I walked and biked the entire section in Sumter County several times soon after it opened more than a decade ago, including during my one-day-a-week trek on the entire Palmetto Trail from U.S. 601 to the coast. Back then, however, much of the section that follows a former railroad line over the Wateree River floodplain was incomplete. I balanced on rickety railroad bridges or sloshed through swampy areas in the floodplain to complete the hike back then. In the meantime, the Palmetto Conservation Foundation has completed the bridging of the floodplain, and let’s just say the trip is less messy and even more beautiful.
The Richland County trailhead is near the intersection of U.S. 601 and Farmstead Road. That’s about 3.5 miles north of the intersection of U.S. 601 and Bluff Road. The section that parallels U.S. 601 is less interesting than the rest, however, and parking is available in an open area at the end of Bluff Road. So that’s where I joined the trail on a warm day in late February.
After carefully crossing the highway, just walk into the woods a few yards until you see the well-worn trail. Turn right and follow the trail markers. This section is more suited for hiking, but mountain bikers could manage as it follows the road south for a while then turns left alongside a dirt road back into the forest. After nearly a mile, the trail crosses an active railroad line and begins following a former rail line. From there, it’s about three-quarters of a mile to the river. On the other side of the river, about four miles of rail-trail rise above the floodplain before the trail climbs up to the bluffs that lead through Manchester State Forest to Poinsett State Park.
On this day, I hiked about two miles east of the river and turned around, making it about a seven-mile round trip. The former rail trestle bridges as well as the tightly crushed gravel on the railroad berms provide spectacular views of the floodplain forest. Migratory birds were everywhere the day I hiked the trail.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been on the bluff section, but it wasn’t great for biking last time I was there. Still a cyclist could easily get in 12 miles by riding from the Bluff Road parking area to the bluff section of Manchester State Park and back. Someone looking to get in a long hike could leave a car at the state park, shuttle back to U.S. 601, and walk the entire 11.4 miles. The sections in Manchester State Forest offer amazing views back over the floodplain into Richland County. And the trails in Poinsett State Park are worth a separate trip. Want to make a weekend of it? The state park has a campground and cabins.
Peak to Prosperity Passage: I headed up to the tiny town of Peak on a sunny March day, inspired by a friend’s social media post about biking that section. It’s a rail trail, and when I last biked it nearly a decade ago, the old rail ballast rocks were still loose enough to make the trip a challenge. But the PCF has added substrate and traffic through the years has packed the trail nicely. Riding a bike along this section is only slightly more work than on the paved sections of the Three Rivers Greenway.
There are multiple access points on the passage. I prefer to take S.C. 213 over the Broad River, and turn right and follow the signs to the Alston parking area. That means my ride begins and ends with the bridge over the river. (Lots of people also prefer this starting spot, thus I was lucky to get the last empty space in the small parking lot.) There are a few parking spaces along the trail in downtown Peak, and probably the easiest access is behind Wilson’s grocery on U.S. 176 in Pomaria. I could have just as easily parked in Pomaria and made the ride to the river and back.
The section from Alston to Pomaria is about 6.5 miles, or an ideal 13-mile bike ride out and back. That’s slightly longer than the Three Rivers Greenway ride from the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center to the north end of the West Columbia Riverwalk. There’s about 100 feet of elevation change from the river to Pomaria, but it’s gradual and hardly noticed. The trail crosses back and forth over creeks several times. Portions of the surrounding forest have been planted through the decades for pine harvesting, thus filled with lots of similar-sized pines. But the sections along waterways have plenty of hardwoods. You’ll be tempted to stop in a few places to descend from the trail to check out the creeks.
Want a longer ride? The trail continues all the way to the town of Prosperity. If you bike the entire section out and back from Peak to Prosperity, you’ll cover nearly 23 miles.
What struck me about both of my recent trips was how many other folks were on these trails. Back when the sections were first opened, I seldom ran into anyone else. They’re still not anything close to crowded, but it’s wonderful to see they are being used.