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If you’re one of those rule-followers who turned away when you found the parking lot gate closed at the Saluda Riverwalk in the past year, or if you hadn’t considered exploring the new Three Rivers Greenway section until it officially opened, you’re in for a treat as the City of Columbia throws open the parking lot gates this Saturday. Before long, this will be the go-to place to take out-of-town visitors to impress them with the beauty of the region and the wisdom of local leaders to invest in outdoor recreation infrastructure.

(Don’t bring up to future visitors that it took 20 years from concept to construction and another year from construction completion to official opening; just be thankful that it got done.)

Here are the answers to some of the questions for first-time visitors:

How do I get there?

If you use an online mapping system, search for 650 Candi Lane in Columbia. As for old-fashioned directions, get off I-126 at the Greystone Boulevard exit, follow the signs toward Riverbanks Zoo. When you get to the end of Greystone, instead of turning left on Rivermont Drive to go to the zoo, turn right onto Candi Lane. The parking lots are just after you cross the railroad tracks. A map of the section can be found here.

Longtime Columbia residents will recognize that railroad tracks bring the possibility of delays. Every once in a while, a train will stop across those tracks on Candi Lane. When that happens, you’re stuck. There’s no other vehicle outlet. Fortunately, stalled trains in that location are rare.

(Pro tip: If you are south of the Saluda River, don’t just ask your GPS-connected device to take you to the Riverbanks Zoo entrance. It very well might lead you to the zoo’s Botanical Garden entrance on the south side of the river.)

Is there plenty of parking?

Probably not enough for nice days that will draw crowds. The main paved parking lot has 40 spaces. An additional lot recently paved under the power line right-of-way just west of the original lot should be able to handle about 85 vehicles. There’s room for about another 100 vehicles in the road right-of-way. The general rule on road parking is to get all four wheels off the pavement and park in the direction of traffic flow in the closest lane. Don’t park too close to where the railroad tracks cross the road, too close to the fire hydrant, or blocking the private road entrance at the end of Candi Lane. That could get your vehicle towed. For now, the parking is free.

What can I do at the greenway?                                                                         

The greenway offers about 2.5 miles of paved walkway or boardwalk along the Saluda River. It (mostly) meets Americans with Disability Act (ADA) guidelines, so the greenway is suitable for walking, running, biking, skating, pushing a baby stroller, or maneuvering a wheelchair. Only “mostly” because a small section at the east end isn’t completely paved yet. Also, if you have a wheelchair or stroller, you will need to park in the paved parking lots. There also are unpaved paths down to the river walkway at several spots along Candi Lane, but those aren’t friendly to wheeled travel.

When you get to the main trail on the river, you can turn right or left (downstream or upstream). Depending on which path you take from the road down to the water, the riverside trail runs slightly more than a mile each direction. Most first-timers will turn left (downstream) to take in the spectacular view from a boardwalk section back toward the Millrace Rapids. That view promises to be the classic Columbia tourist photo for years to come. (Pro tip: If you want to avoid power lines in the photo, stop at the first overlook section on the boardwalk to capture your image. Photographers also could bring a step stool so they can look slightly down at their subjects from the later overlooks, thus eliminating the power lines in the background.)

After the boardwalk section, you’ll pass under the Riverbanks Zoo pedestrian bridge and find a set Civil War-era rock bridge abutments. After about a mile, you’ll see a small sign marking the temporary end of the trail. You’ll also notice that lots of people keep going on a short section of dirt road that then connects to a short section of concrete walkway and a bridge over to an island. There’s a short paved loop trail on Boyd Island with a gorgeous view of the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers. Let’s just say it’s worth breaking the rules and ignoring the temporary end of the trail. Plans are in the works to more formally complete the connection to Boyd Island.

If at first you turn right (upstream) instead of left, you’ll pass along the edge of some private property (look toward the river; it’s a much more attractive view), through a section with more centuries-old granite walls, past a couple of rapids sections less impressive than Millrace, and hit the trail’s (current) dead end where it reaches I-26. Despite that description, it’s a really lovely walk. I prefer the upstream section because it’s usually less crowded.

It’s a little more than a mile either way, so between 2 and 2.5 miles out and back if you walk to one end. Of course, you also can walk the full length of the trail both ways and make it 5.5 to 6 miles. The full length out and back likely will be the favorite trip for cyclists. I prefer a slightly longer ride, so I do start by pedaling upstream to I-26, then go all the way back to Boyd Island, back to I-26, and then back to my car. That translates to about 8 miles.         

On a related note, cyclists should not expect to hit high speeds on this often crowded section of the greenway, and pedestrians should stay alert that cyclists will be passing occasionally. Trail etiquette says cyclists pass on the left, preferably after announcing themselves by voice or bell to pedestrians.

Are dogs allowed?

Yes, as long as they are on leashes. Please clean up after pets. Poop bag dispensers can be found at several spots along the greenway if you forget to bring your own.

The greenway is on the river, so I can swim, right?

Yes. But the proper question is “Should I swim?” And the proper answer is probably not. First, the water is much colder than you would expect year-round because it originates from deep in Lake Murray. Second, the water runs through with a deceptively swift, often dangerous current. Third, there are few pools among the rocks deep enough to really swim. Fourth, the rocks themselves are slippery and have been known to break bones or dent skulls of the fallen.

If you wear water shoes that enclose your feet, and if you are strong and coordinated enough to balance on slippery rocks in swift current, there are many places along the greenway suitable for wading. Especially on warm summer days, lots of people wade out into the river. So here’s another warning: The water level can rise quickly when Dominion Energy decides to produce power by allowing extra water through the turbines of the Lake Murray dam. Lights and sirens along the greenway warn when such a rise is coming, but many people ignore or don’t notice the warnings. Don’t be one of those people who has to be rescued by friendly kayakers from rocks in the middle of a raging river.

Did you say kayaks?

Yes, the Lower Saluda River is a wonderful place to paddle a kayak or canoe, or float in an innertube. But just as with swimming, paddling on the river can be dangerous. It’s best to head out with others who have experience on the river or take advantage of the various outfitters who set up river trips. If you insist on a river trip without help from knowledgeable friends or outfitters, please, please, please put in below the especially dangerous Millrace Rapids. There’s a well-worn dirt trail to the water’s edge below the rapids just downstream from the greenway’s main parking lot. State law requires personal floatation devices (PFDs, also known as life jackets) for travel on the waterways. The next public landings downstream where you can get out of the river are just past the Gervais Street bridge at the West Columbia Amphitheater or across the river at the end of Senate Street. That’s a relatively short paddle in a kayak or a longish float in an innertube.

Can I fish along the Saluda Greenway?                                                                                               

Absolutely. But you’ll need a state fishing license and knowledge of size and take limits for certain species. The general regulations can be found at the SC Department of Natural Resources website. Newcomers might be stunned to catch brown and rainbow trout usually found only in cool mountain streams. DNR stocks trout in the Saluda below the Lake Murray dam to promote this rare fishery in the cool river. To protect the limited stock, anglers are limited to catch-and-release of trout in the section of the river from the I-20 bridge to the Stacey’s Ledge rapid. There are signs along the greenway that mark where the catch-and-release section begins and explain other fishing regulations. Please pay attention to them.

Are there other facilities along the greenway?

Yes, rest rooms and water fountains at the main parking lot, another rest room at the far western end, several picnic tables where the parking lot connection meets the riverfront trail, and more picnic tables and benches sprinkled along the length of the greenway. So pack a picnic lunch or stop and get takeout at a local restaurant. The coolest picnic tables are on Boyd Island, though that’s a long walk with a bag of food. Please dispose of your trash in one of the many receptacles or, better yet, take it back home with you.

What about security?

The City of Columbia’s park rangers patrol the walkway. Say hi. They’re friendly folks. (There also are security call boxes spread out along the trail for emergency use.)

Are alcoholic beverages allowed?

No. Locals will tell you kids have been flocking to these rocks to drink beer for generations. That tradition will change with the greenway becoming a city park. Those friendly park rangers won’t be quite so nice if you’re hanging out on the rocks drinking beer and carousing.

Can I get to the greenway from the zoo?

No. While there are emergency access gates in the fencing around the zoo, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where it would be worth the expense and effort for the zoo to allow visitors to leave and return through one of those gates. Most folks wear themselves out just walking around the zoo anyway. And if you visit the zoo and want to walk along the river, There’s a beautiful trail along the north side of the river in the Botanical Garden. If you really want to get on the Saluda Riverwalk after visiting the zoo, you could walk up Candi Lane. There’s no sidewalk, but vehicles usually aren’t travelling too fast on that short section of road. But the best bet is to just drive the short stretch from the zoo parking lot to the greenway parking lots.

Can you tell me about the history, geology, and ecology of this section?

Not as well as the wayside signs you’ll see along the way. Stop and read them. The information was compiled by historians and scientists and compressed into sign-sized chunks by the folks who create exhibits at the State Museum. In fact, if you’re really interested in that sort of information, double your normal time for walking whatever distance you plan to cover on your first trip.

Are there snakes along the riverwalk?

Yes, but they don’t blend in with the pavement. Just leave them alone and they won’t bother you. And speaking of things you want to avoid, poison ivy grows in these parts. Another good reason to stay on the sidewalk.

Are there alligators along the riverwalk?

Very rarely, and they would probably be lost. Alligators don’t like the cold, swift water in the Saluda. You are more likely to spot an alligator on other sections of the Three Rivers Greenway, especially the 12,000 Year History Park in Cayce. Just like with the snakes, leave them alone and they are very likely to leave you alone.

What’s up with the travel trailers and construction equipment stored in the open section even further upstream?

That property is privately owned, and that’s how the owner uses it. An easement was negotiated to allow the greenway to pass along its edge. Please don’t wander off the trail or allow your dogs to poop on that property.

What’s up with that funky quonset hut-looking building on the private property?       

That used to be known as the Police Hut. Some of this land used to be owned by a county sheriff. Word is that the hut was a place where law enforcement officers came to unwind along this beautiful bend in the river. This is not the sort of history that’s celebrated on the wayside signs. That sheriff also built a pier anchored on rocks in the river. The round red metal things on a set of rocks just north of the parking lots are remnants of the metal supports. Curious about that old pier? Check out my blog post on it here.

Are there plans to extend the riverwalk upstream or cross the river to connect with Riverfront Park?

Yes. The upstream section eventually will connect with existing trails in Saluda Shoals Park and then continue on to the Lake Murray dam. Downstream, the goal is to turn left under the railroad bridge and I-126 to a bluff on the west side of the Broad River, then build a pedestrian bridge from there over to Riverfront Park’s canal embankment. Funds still need to be raised for those projects, and the refiguring of the I-20, I-26, I-126 malfunction junction might slow the path upstream.

Who do I thank for this beautiful new recreation facility?

There’s plenty of thanks to go around. The River Alliance, the folks behind the Three Rivers Greenway, did the original planning and kept pressure on local leaders to get it done. The actual construction was funded through Richland County’s Penny for Transportation sales tax. (So if you spent money in Richland County, you can thank yourself.) So Richland County was in charge of the construction. But the plan all along was for the City of Columbia to maintain the greenway. Recently, after legal and political delays in the handover from the county, the city welcomed the facility into its park system. Now all you have to do is get out there and enjoy it.