James Wilkins, Education and Resource Coordinator from the South Carolina Botanical Garden, recently gave the first in a series of tours of the Clemson Experimental Forest focusing on the former Keowee Heights Plantation and other areas in the North Forest.
The tour started with a drive down Doyle Bottom Road, a 1.5-mile long forest road that starts at Old Six Mile Road and leads to the interior of the North Forest. This road immediately immerses visitors into the rugged nature of the Experimental Forest. While higher-clearance vehicles are best for navigating this road, it is passable for the average car as well. While this road is normally closed to vehicle traffic, a guided tour of the forest will give you access to areas normally reserved only for pedestrians and cyclists.
Soon after leaving our vehicles at the end of Doyle Bottom Road, we found ourselves on the shore of Lake Hartwell. Completed in 1959, the US Army Corps of Engineers’ Hartwell Dam project created this massive lake which flooded many of the low lying areas that today define the boundaries of the Experimental Forest. The former Keowee Heights Plantation sat on the high-ground peninsula at the confluence of the Keowee River and Twelve Mile Creek, which formed the Seneca River to the south.
James explained that in a former time, when the Cherokee roamed the Blue Ridge Foothills, the land that is the Clemson Experimental Forest today would have been a vast grassland prairie populated by buffalo, wolves and other species no longer common to the region. This landscape was the result of strategic burning practices carried out by the Cherokee over thousands of years. During the 18th and 19th centuries, much of this land was converted to cotton plantations which devastated the sensitive topsoil and transformed the landscape into a barren, red dirt wasteland. During the 1930s and 40s, steps were taken to restore plants and trees to the area, and this is why it is referred to as the Experimental Forest.
Remnants of former structures can be found in many locations throughout the forest in the form of brick piles, foundations and stone walls that give a glimpse of daily life on an 18th century cotton plantation. In its heyday, Keowee Heights plantation featured a large main house at the top of the hill with a spring house and slave quarters located along a nearby stream.
Members of the Colhoun family were well-known early settlers of the area. Some members of the family began using the name Calhoun around the same time, which is associated today with many prominent figures of South Carolina history. The City of Clemson was originally named Calhoun because of the family’s influence to the area, and was not renamed Clemson until the 1940s.
Clemson’s Experimental Forest is much more than just woods! It is rich in local history and provides excellent recreational opportunities for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Join James Wilkins on his next tour of the forest and immerse yourself in nature while learning about the culture and history of the Clemson area. A guided forest tour is a great way for people of all ages and skill levels to experience nature and get an educational perspective on historical sites and flora native to the area.
Parking Area: 34.716833, -82.839630
Actual Location: 34.703458, -82.854041