There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Saluda, North Carolina. If the tiny town (population 703) is famous for anything at all, it’s the ridiculously steep, but closed, Saluda railroad grade, the steepest main line railroad in the U.S. So steep it was too expensive and dangerous for passenger trains. It’s a near-mythical stretch of track amongst rail enthusiasts. So yeah, you’ve probably never heard of Saluda. But that’s about to change. The once-quiet downtown is now thriving, and adventurers from all disciplines are finally discovering the gems hidden inside the Green River Gamelands, an 18,000-acre tract of wilderness that’s packed with waterfalls, steep creeks, and lonely trails just a few minutes outside of town.
“Two years ago, it was exciting to see a kayak on top of a car in downtown Saluda,” says Sara Bell, owner of Green River Adventures and local Saludian. “Now, we see tons of road bikers in town, you see mountain bikes on cars, kayakers everywhere—you can judge a town by the roof racks you see.”
Kayakers have passed through Saluda on their way to and from the class V Green River Narrows, arguably the most well-known stretch of whitewater in the country, for years. Now, with live music and Southern fare sprouting up in downtown, they have a reason to stay. Meanwhile, mountain bikers and hikers are showing up for the newly-buffed singletrack in the Green River Gamelands. And road cyclists are geeking out on the low-traffic pavement that rises and falls along the Blue Ridge Escarpment that divides North Carolina and South Carolina. And everyone is digging on the live music and Southern fare that’s sprouted up recently downtown.
Here are six reasons why Saluda should be on your radar for next year’s Best Mountain Town.
The Purple Onion
Live music, heavy on the bluegrass and Americana, happens Thursday through Saturday. Otherwise, there’s a Mediterranean-heavy menu with tons of local goodness. purpleonionsaluda.com
Green River BBQ has been a staple in Saluda since the ‘80s. The Piglets (BBQ sliders with Green River’s signature slaw) are still winners (greenriverbbq.com). Expect comfort food staples at Saluda Grade Café, but notice the locally sourced ingredients like Sunburst Farms trout (saludagradecafe.com). The Wildflour Bakery is a mainstay for cyclists on their way up from Greenville. You can’t go wrong with a mid-ride cinnamon roll. wildflourbakerync.com
Saluda is surrounded by low-traffic mountain roads that pass through protected lands, like the Gamelands and the Greenville Watershed. The small town’s proximity to Greenville makes it a common destination for South Carolina cyclists making their way up into the Blue Ridge. George Hincapie’s Gran Fondo (every October) even crosses Saluda three times. A choice 25-mile route takes you through the Gamelands along the Green River and climbs the brutal Green River Cove (1,000 feet of gain in 2.4 miles). All the while you’ll get gorgeous views and rarely see a car (go to jerrysbaddle.com for a map and cues).
Green River Adventures
What started as a kayak instruction clinic has blossomed into a multi-sport adventure guide service that uses the 18,000-acre gamelands and a choice parcel of private land that drops into the Green River Gorge. Sara Bell and her husband will still teach you how to roll, but you can also hop into a ducky for a killer class III+ paddle down the Upper Green, rappel off a 150-foot waterfall, or fly along the steepest, fastest zipline in the country. greenriveradventures.com
Green River Gamelands
The 18,000-acre forest is known for its torrential white water and rugged, rocky landscape. But it’s predominantly only known by hunters and anglers, as the land is managed by the Wildlife Resources Commission, and the trail system has been in disrepair for decades. Local boater and race producer John Grace and a team of volunteers put in 300 hours of blood, sweat and tears building 14 miles of singletrack to get ready for the ambitious Green River Games. “It’s truly technical singletrack,” Grace says. “These trails aren’t on old road beds. We’re talking legitimate singletrack that’s more technical and tighter, than Pisgah.” In addition to the singletrack, which accesses bluffs with gorge views and drops down to the Green River, the gamelands is also home to Big Bradley Falls, a picture-perfect 150-foot waterfall. Hook up with Green River Adventures (greenriveradventures.com) or Pura Vida Adventures (pvadventures.com) for a wet waterfall rappel. If you explore the gorge solo, keep hunting seasons in mind and be respectful of hunters and anglers.
Green River Games
Picture the Teva Mountain Games, but fewer sponsors and tougher terrain. In the event’s first year, more than 100 athletes chose from seven different events, from a technical 13-mile mountain bike ride to a class III stand-up paddleboard downriver sprint. There were trail runs and road runs and kayak races and big parties. But the signature event had to be the Silverback, where athletes kayaked eight miles of whitewater, including the famous class V Narrows, then mountain biked eight miles, then ran eight miles of trail. It’s billed as the most technical multi-sport race in the country. Expect the Games to blow up as soon as the world discovers what’s up. greenrivergames.com