The Jocassee Gorges, located in the heart of Upstate South Carolina, features some of the Southeast’s most impressive and powerful rivers. Of the four major waterways, the Thompson River is about as wild as it gets – hosting several breath taking waterfalls, deep swimming holes, and even its own natural water slide!
Many are probably familiar with the upper, North Carolina sections of the Thompson River and the iconic waterfalls there – like Big Falls, Rich Falls, and Standing Stone Falls. After heading downstream from Big Falls, the river remains calm as it eventually passes the Foothills Trail, Seyentoga Falls, and then enters into South Carolina. Shortly thereafter, the river will cross Musterground Road. From there, the remaining stretch of the Thompson is a 0.6 mile section of boulder choked waterfalls and swimming holes before emptying into Lake Jocassee.
During a drought in late September 2019, I was accompanied through this section with Bushwhack Jack Thyen (who has been before), our friend Bob Sedlar, and later my other friends Lauren and Danielle made a guest appearance half way down the river! We went from Musterground Road downstream to Lake Jocassee, then back upstream beyond the road to Seyentoga Falls, and finally back downstream to Musterground.
Musterground is a 4×4 gravel and dirt road that is open during hunting seasons. It starts just to the right of the parking for the Lower Whitewater Falls Trail Access / Foothills Trail Lower Falls Access on Bad Creek in SC.
For reference, here is a Google Maps location for the trail heads.
*Note that Musterground Road is not on Google Maps, but the road is there. It is on my GaiaGPS map and USFS Map.
From the parking lot, we shuttled in my Jeep approximately 5 miles down Musterground Road to where it crosses the Thompson River. Remember, you need 4×4 and high clearance in order to drive this road. If you can’t drive, your options are to road walk the 5 miles (one way), which I don’t think would be worth the effort. Or you could hike about 3.5 miles on the Foothills Trail north to where it crosses the Thompson River above Seyentoga Falls and then head downstream from there, but you’d be looking at a near 10 mile day with that option as well.
Once you reach where Musterground Road crosses the Thompson, there will be a high clearance bridge with three drainpipes in it. Just before the bridge, on your left, will be an obvious pull out big enough for 2 cars to park.
After parking at the bridge, just follow the river downstream. I’ll be honest, there isn’t a play-by-play for this one. The direction to head is simple, so find the path of least resistance for you. It’s just over a half mile to the lake from here and unless you enjoy bushwhacking in thick over growth the entire time, you WILL absolutely be getting wet. In fact, you will have a waist deep (in drought waters) wade within the first 10 minutes of heading downstream. This river walk is best done on a hot day, where you intend and are prepared to swim. Not to mention, it wouldn’t be the same experience if you didn’t ride the infamous Thompson Slide!
The first half of the stretch between the road and lake involves mostly wading and navigating the boulders. It isn’t until about 0.3 miles in that you get to the meat of the good stuff. At about (35* 1.6889’N, -82* 58.9649′ W), the river begins a steep drop off. You’ll cross down an upper ~15ft steep slide before reaching the top of a ~60ft waterfall. On river left, a massive rock wall comes bursting through the forestry.
Pictured above is the upper slide section of the waterfall. In low waters we were able to skirt the river left side, partially walking in the river, until we were able to climb over the chest-high boulder next to Jack. Once we were over, we were on the top of the main drop of the waterfall. This is where the bedrock widens and a huge bluff emerges. Remember, this area has been worn smooth from the gentle erosion of the river and is quite slippery at the upper section.
The scene here is surreal. I would even go so far as to say that it rivals Big Falls. The riverside bluff is a work of art and utter magic with its placement.
Getting down from the top of this one takes a bit more finesse. We made our way to the wall on river left, and from there we shimmied down the waterfall by walking in it. Remember, we had low waters during our visit. The rock surrounding the waterfall’s lower section has a surprising amount of grip as well. Coming down here can be dicey, so make sure to really judge your abilities before proceeding.
Once at the bottom, we waded the shallowest sections around and crossed onto river right. This waterfall is really magnificent, especially with the way the bluff looms above it. Due to the striking rock splitting the river before rejoining at the deep plunge pool, I’ve heard this waterfall referred to as Split Rock Falls.
After Split Rock Falls, head downstream for about 560ft. You’ll scramble over boulders most of the way but the next notable piece on the river is the upper cascade before the Thompson Slide. To make it to the base, we crossed at the top and came down the rock on river left.
This small waterfall was quite scenic, and I was even able to capture a couple swirls in my photos! But despite all that, this drop is unfortunately overshadowed by the epicity that is the Thompson Slide – which lies directly downstream.
The Thompson Slide is a ~60ft chute carved through a massive slab of bedrock. Here, the entire river is funneled through this brilliant feature. You can even slide down the entire chute into the shallow-ish plunge pool at the bottom. The obvious way to descend to the base is river left.
The next major drop is roughly 350ft downstream from the Thompson Slide. It’s a pretty waterfall encased by a rock wall that wraps both sides – ending at yet another riverside wall (but not as stunning as the first one). To get down, you’ll have to head river right. The rock here is wet from the spray coming off the waterfall, and therefore it is slippery.
I think this 25ft waterfall is really interesting and offers a fantastic summer swimming hole. I didn’t test if it was deep enough, but I wonder if one could jump from the top of the rock wall…? Unfortunately, it is hard to get a decent photograph of it and there isn’t really a good “hang out” spot here.
In about 125ft downstream, there is another 25ft waterfall. Stay river right to navigate towards the base.
In another 100ft is a small 12ft waterfall, but it may be the most photogenic on this whole stretch. We crossed onto river left at the top, scrambled down the rock, and crossed back to river right for photos at the base.
At this point, the mouth of Lake Jocassee is only about 160ft further downstream. In this last stretch, you’ll do more boulder scrambling than anything else before meeting the calm waters of the lake.
After enjoying a restful break on the boulders at the mouth of the lake, we backtracked out towards Musterground. Seyentoga Falls is about 0.25 miles upstream from the road and we decided to tack it onto our adventure. Much like the lower sections of the Thompson River, this small stretch consists of deep wades and rock hopping all the way to the falls. The Foothills Trail is relatively the same distance upstream from Seyentoga as it is from Musterground Road, so the out and back approach was much quicker than entering from the Foothills.
Seyentoga Falls stands about 30ft tall and ends in a deep swimming hole. While not my favorite waterfall of the day, I still think it is worth checking out if you’re already out that far.