The Foothills Trail has been on my to-hike list for years.
I'm surprised and a honestly a little embarrassed that I haven't done this sooner. "This" meaning both hike the FHT, and share a story. Let's go.
The FHT is a 76 mile "National Recreation Trail" that straddles the border between North and South Carolina. If you look at a map, it makes a kind of upside down U shape, beginning (for me at least) at Oconee State Park in South Carolina, hooking up into North Carolina to explore Gorges State Park and Lake Jocassee, then back down south again, finishing a bit further east in spectacular Table Rock State Park.
76 miles is a long haul for someone who's out of practice, which is definitely me. I'd read numerous accounts by people who have done the whole thing in 3-4 days. This reminded me right away of the Hundred Mile Wilderness up in Maine. Sure, one could crush it, tearing through at a breakneck pace. But Gigante Verde has a lot of free time on his hands (and feet) these days. So again, much like the Hundred Mile Wilderness, I decided to take my time. There are plenty of side trails and an abundance of waterfalls to explore. Plus, you know I like to sit a lot when I hike. I figured seven days ought to be right.
Logistically there are quite a few options for feeding oneself during an extended stay on the FHT. A day or so (at my leisurely pace) from both endpoints are several trailheads with parking lots where I could have left my car with a cache. As you get into the middle of it, road crossings lose their pavement, turn to gravel and eventually fade to overgrown dusty ditches, making hitch hiking unlikely, or at least a giant pain in the ass. During my planning, one local even offered to boat in and meet me with supplies at one of the river crossings. In the end, I decided to simply load up and carry it all at once.
Somehow, I've never packed 7 days of supplies before. There wasn't room for much else. Here's what fit:
- Pack - ULA Catalyst. Same pack I carried from Damascus to Maine. (My body shrank out of the Gregory I started with...) My ULA is mostly duct tape at this point, however I was amazed by how good it still felt under a max load.
- Tent - Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1. Again, same tent I took on the AT. Well, not exactly. I returned my AT tent to REI to see if they could fix a zipper, but instead they just gave me a whole new tent. So it's a clone of my AT tent. Bah, technicalities. Minus the ground cloth my shelter is under two pounds.
- Sleep System - I brought my down-filled Mountain Hardware 45 degree sleeping bag and used the Gigante size REI Flash air mattress. Either the 45 bag isn't really a 45 bag, or my thermometer needs replaced. More on that later.
- Food - Sorry, I didn't take one of those food-grid pictures. I carried a modified version of standard thru hiker fare which you can find variations of in a million other places on the internet. In short, 6 breakfasts (pop tarts and coffee, but also two Mountain House egg & bacon packs mostly for morale), 7 days worth of all-day munchies (granola, Clif bars, tuna packs, dried nanners and of course Snickers!) and 6 dinners. You guessed it, Knorr sides (and a couple more Mountain House for morale.)
- Miscellaneous - one change of clothes, something to sleep in and spare socks. That, plus basic first aid and a Kindle. No chair, no booze, no fishing pole. This isn't a camping trip. It's a hike.
I decided to begin at Oconee and go from West to East. The elevations are higher on the Table Rock side, and this way the big climbs would come after a couple days of warm up. Don't be fooled by the name, the Foothills will make you work. Even though the elevation ranges from 1100 feet to just over 3400, you'll feel like you're higher up than that. The trail will take you over Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina (still lower than my backyard) via a miles long steady climb that reminded me of Roan or Grayson Highlands at times.
Arranging shuttle was easy. The Foothills Trail Conference official website (https://foothillstrail.org/) has among other things, an excellent list of both commercial and volunteer shuttle drivers. I emailed a dozen or so and received several replies within hours. I chose one of the volunteer drivers who operate by donation. The going rate around here is 50 cents a mile, which for her was a hundred mile round trip. Fifty bucks. Not bad. I decided to give her more though, because unlike arranging shuttle...
...Getting to the trailhead was not easy. At least for me. I'm notoriously shitty when it comes to researching a trip. I believe that you can have an adventure OR a flawlessly executed plan. I've never had a flawlessly executed plan, so my habit has been to avoid it wherever possible. During my skimming I read somewhere that you had to register your hike and pay for parking at the same place. "The Table Rock Park Main Office is 'across the street' from the trailhead, where you'll leave your car" - is how I remember reading it. In reality, the "street" I would need to cross was that divided highway, three left-turns ago from where I stood. The same place where my infinitely patient volunteer shuttle driver would sit and wait while I drove back and got a second look at the park.
The drive west was lovely. We only crossed a few small roads, which added to the sense of remoteness. My dawdling cost me some daylight and when she dropped me off it was nearly 3PM before I had my pack on and took that first step. Daylight savings time was just around the corner, so I figured I had about four hours of daylight left. I could reasonably do eight miles in that amount of time, I thought, and set my sights on something the guidebook called "Pigpen falls area." Area is a little vague, but the book also mentioned abundant water and camping. What more could you want?
The first mile or so was what I'd call bumpy terrain. That is, plenty of small climbs, a few hundred feet at most, with plenty of twists and turns where the trail is cut into the sides of steep narrow hollers. There were many springs and streams and shadowy places where I imagine mosquitos would thrive in the summer. The air was cool and the sun was shining, low in the bright blue sky. Occasionally I'd get a break in the trees and I could look down into valleys, nooks really. The part felt like its name. Foothills. This is the bottom of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and it felt like a scale model of those. My backyard.
A pileated woodpecker flew overhead, barking at me the whole way. I followed him across the sky until I squinted into the sun. When I looked back down there were purple dots floating among the reds, yellows and greens that surrounded me. It was full on autumn down here and every leaf had something to say about it.
This is exactly what I needed. I had only been in the woods an hour or so and the trees were talking to me. I have plenty of trees where I live, but like old friends we don't say much anymore. I walk among them nodding in recognition but here I am a stranger. There are oaks and maples, white pines and loblollies, but not the ones I know. There are new ones too, beeches and sourwood. I don't have those in my backyard, so I pay extra attention. I'm wandering, but focused. Exactly what I needed.
I didn't make it to "Pigpen falls area", whatever that is, because I spent too much time doing what I do, seeing what I see. It was starting to get dark when I reached my first waterfall. It wasn't listed in the guide book I carried, but based on my calculations (and the sign by the waterfall) I was at Licklog Creek, less than a mile from my goal for the day. In addition to being a lax planner, I'm loose with my goals on a long hike too. That's part of the appeal. I suppose I could hike on and trade this beauty for an unknown falls up ahead, but I did just pass a kickass campsite a few minutes ago. It was decided. I would have coffee here in the morning.
Just Me and the Water
After coffee, Pigpen falls really was just a few more steps down the trail. They were a little hard to get to, and hard to see without me climbing out onto a dangerous rock. What made the rock dangerous in my mind was a combination of my own whatever the opposite of surefootedness is, and the lack of other humans to potentially pull me out. I'm used to seeing other hikers at least every few hours, but here at lunchtime on day two, I hadn't seen a soul. Better to walk by the river than in it, at least for now.
The Foothills Trail stays a few steps away from the Chattooga river for about five miles. Those were five of the best miles of hiking I think I've ever enjoyed. Again, it was a sunny day, and the clear wide river was always close. In many long stretches the trail took me right to the banks, often dotted with sandy campsites, private beaches galore! In others, it carried me up tall bluffs where I could look down on cascades and chundering drops. That same knee deep wading pool a mile ago was fed by a twelve foot whitewater deathtrap right here. Amazing.
When I saw my first human, he was casting flies. The trout are plenty in the Chattooga, and I was nearing an access point, Sloan Bridge. Trail, River and a small road all converge here. There's a small lot where one might leave a car and supplies, but when I arrived it was empty. I wondered where the fisherman came from.
Here's what the rest of that day looked like for me:
Day 2, much to my surprise, ended at a campground. Burrell's Ford Access has tent space for individuals, families and large groups, such as boy scouts. I was worried that it would be loud, especially since it was a Friday night, but the instant it got dark, everyone observed Hiker Midnight and kept quiet. I slept well, not just from being tired, but with the comfort of knowing that my food was hung on a proper Smoky's style anti-bear cable.
One of the most famous landmarks on the Foothills Trail is Whitewater Falls. I really wanted to see it by the end of Saturday, Day 3, but I came up a few miles short. I reached a designated camp site on the spur trail to the falls around sunset, and was happy to rest. So far it had been 3 sunny days, and I was excited to wake up early and get a good view.
I did get a good view the morning of Day 4, but not the one I expected. Lucky for me, I like fog.
Up Next: Foothills Trail Part 2 - Lakes and Waterfalls
I would say that the Foothills Trail is most conveniently divided into three sections. This first part, Rivers and Waterfalls would make an excellent weekend hike, or 3 day trip for those (like me) who prefer shorter mileage. This foggy campsite is 26.4 miles into the trip, roughly a third of the trail. Whitewater Falls is about an hour hike from this spot, and there is ample parking at the overlook for the falls. The next section will take us into Gorges State Park, down and around a massive lake, up and over something called Heartbreak Ridge, and the biggest suspension bridge built just for hikers that I have ever seen.
I hope that you'll come along. And that this fog lifts.