During the second weekend of the soft opening of the Saluda Riverwalk, dozens of folks excited about the prospect of tubing on the river on a hot summer day left the parking lot disappointed.
The opening of the riverwalk as a City of Columbia park prompted regulations that hadn’t been enforced for the past year, when city park rangers maintained the trail but had no real authority over the facility. The ban on alcoholic beverages might be the new rule with the most impact on long-time visitors, and river launch regulations surprised many visitors that second weekend.
On most days, folks planning a leisurely float on the river will be instructed to launch below the Mill Race rapids, which is the whitewater section you can see from the parking lot. Paddlers in decked kayaks, canoes or dual-chamber inflatable boats are allowed to launch above Mill Race, or continue through the rapid if they launched farther upstream. They are required to wear personal floatation devices (life jackets) and whitewater helmets. Decked boats also must use a spray skirt.
So it seems simple. Those with full whitewater gear (and hopefully, skills) can launch above Mill Race. Those floating in tubes launch below the dangerous rapids.
But there’s an exception, and it happened on the second weekend the park was officially open. If the river water is especially high and fast, launching on a tube is banned anywhere in the park. The magic number is 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs), which people who have spent a lot of time on the river, including the major tube rental companies, deem to be dangerous for tubing.
You can check the Saluda River water levels online at the U.S. Geological Survey website. The river volume can rise and fall quickly based on hydroelectric operation at the Lake Murray dam. Dominion Energy uses hydropower to meet spikes in power usage, and the company sometimes runs extra water through the dam hydro chutes to prepare for extreme rainfall in the forecast. June 19 featured both scenarios — a hot summer day with a forecast for 2-4 inches of rain from a tropical system starting the next day.
Flow in the Saluda River rose to nearly 5,000 cfs late June 18 and stayed above 4,000 cfs through late June 22. Rainfall contributed to some of the high volume during the week. The especially swift water meant Saluda Riverwalk park rangers had to tell people unloading tubes in the parking lot those days that they couldn’t launch at the park. (Please don’t blame the rangers: They’re just doing their job. Oh, and they might be saving your life.)
They offered alternatives. The water level was lower on the Broad River. Tubers could launch on the Broad at the northern end of Riverfront Park. Or they could launch on the Congaree River just downstream of the Gervais Street bridge (either at the West Columbia amphitheater or on the Columbia side of the river at the end of Senate Street.)
Pro tips: On the Broad River trip starting at Riverfront Park, stick to the right side of the river as you float under the I-126 and railroad bridges. Logs frequently get stuck on the bridge trestles on the left side, where they can create safety hazards. Downstream, you can get out just past the Gervais Street bridge, or keep going down the Congaree to either the Rosewood Landing (Jordan Boat Ramp) on the Columbia side or the Cayce Landing (Newman Boat Ramp) on the other side. If you go all the way to the Cayce Landing, be sure to hug the right side of the river to go through the historic locks. A diversion dam associated with those locks covers the rest of the river’s width and can be a safety hazard.
One final safety reminder: Rain runoff (and the occasional sewage spill) can end up in the local rivers, making them unsafe for recreation. This time of year, the Congaree Riverkeeper performs weekly (or more often if needed) water quality checks. Head to this website to see if the bacteria levels are deemed unsafe for recreation in various river sections.
And one more tip: I’ve noticed the main Saluda Riverwalk parking lot is often full while few people are using the secondary lot. My experience is that the secondary lot has more space for pulling in and out of parking spots. There’s a short sidewalk (not visible from Candi Lane) connecting to two lots, making it easy to get to the riverside trail from the secondary lot.