Friday, November 14, 2014

Foothills Trail Thru Hike

While I’ve section hiked the Foothills Trail repeatedly, this was the first time I’ve completed the entire trail in one continuous trip.  I was thrilled to do this hike with my friend Susan (“Rewind”) who you might remember I started the PCT with (check out her blog here).  The really great thing about hiking with Susan is that she shares a fondness for the natural world and for plants in particular.  Perfect hiking partner for this trail with all the fall color!  We spent time examining colorful fall leaves, pulling apart seeds and fruits to figure out what they were, and lifting up rocks to look for salamanders.  This was quite a different mindset that I used to have on previous trips on the Foothills when I’d do over 25 mile days, back when I had something to prove.  But it was a fabulous way to enjoy this exceptionally beautiful trail.
Susan on the Foothills Trail.
Overview of the Foothills Trail
The Foothills National Recreation Trail extends 77 miles from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park along the South Carolina/ North Carolina border.  Highlights include the Chattooga Wild and Scenic River in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Gorges State Park, Lake Jocassee, Sassafras Mountain (the highest point in South Carolina at 3554 feet), and Whitewater Falls (second highest falls in the east). 
Whitewater Falls.  Photo by Susan.
Time of year
Our trip took place in mid-November, and we caught the BEST EVER fall leaf color.  I’ve section hiked the Foothills Trail pretty much all months of the year and do tend to like the spring flowers, but the leaf color made November a close contender for best time to hike.  The Foothills Trail stays at a lower in elevation than the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and North Carolina, so the weather remains relatively moderate during winter.  We had a few days warm enough to go swimming, but by the end of the trip a front came through that brought rain and then freezing temps.
Horsepasture River.
Trip duration and direction
I highly recommend allowing extra time to hike this trail.  We spent 5 nights which allowed for a very relaxed trip.  Sure we could have finished quicker (being the badass PCT hikers that we are- haha), but neither of were eager to get back to town.  So we dragged out our trip, exploring side trails that took us to additional waterfalls.  Because the days are short this time of year and evenings got cold, we also ended up going to bed quite early.  Like around 6 PM.  So even though we’d get hiking before the sunrise, we were glad to have planned extra days to account for these shorter days.  

We choose to start at Oconee State Park so that we could do the part of the trail with the least amount of elevation change at the beginning of our trip when our packs were heaviest with food.  It also allowed us to save the dramatic views at Sassafras and Table Rock for the end.
Susan and I at the Oconee State Park Trailhead.
Wonderful waterfalls
What makes the Foothills Trail really stand out are the waterfalls- more waterfalls than I’ve ever seen anywhere else.  This is because the trail goes along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, which is the 2,000 foot drop-off between the higher Carolina Mountains and the lower Piedmont.  This is an area that gets more rainfall than most other places east of the Mississippi, and all that water flows down a series of gorges.
Virginia Hawkins Falls.
One of the distinguishing features of this trail are all the steps and bridges.  Big iron bridges, and wooden bridges of all shapes and sizes.
Over the Laurel Fork.
 Parts of the trail are along the fall-line, and steps lead steeply up and down, providing quite a stairmaster workout.  Footing is often technical, the trail being rocky and rooty, and we had to adjust our pace and ended up going slower than we would on the PCT.
Endless stairs.
Water is plentiful along the route.  The longest water carry is over Sassafras Mountain, which is also a steep section so watch out that you don’t get complacent expecting water every few miles and run out here.   Also while it may be tempting to camp along the gorgeous streams and rivers, in winter these areas turn especially cold and damp at night, and we stayed much warmer by camping up on the ridges where the views of the sunrises and sunsets were better anyway.

Flora and fauna
The Foothills Trail passes through many botanically rich areas and the wildflowers in April and May are exceptional.  One of the most exciting botanical highlights of the Foothills Trail are the endangered (but locally abundant) Oconee Bells, which are endemic to the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains.  They grow along streams, are related to the more common galax, and bloom in March and April (see my photos of them here).  The famous French botanist Andre Michaux collected the Oconee Bell in 1787 and the famous American botanist, Asa Gray, found Michaux’s record of the plant years later, and kicked off a several-decade long hunt for the plant which wasn’t rediscovered until 1877 (read the full story here).
Witchhazel blooms in November.
The Foothills Trail also has a fair amount of wildlife.  One evening, we got to see a small black bear scamper up the far hillside one after we’d set up camp.  Fortunately, it didn’t seem to be interested in us and didn’t return to our camp.
Susan hangs her bear bag.
Overall, this is a gem of a trail and fall is a great time to visit.
More information and Maps

Foothills Trail Conference- information and maps/ guidebooks.

Allen Easler- overview and more information on the waterfalls

The Foothills Trail Map (by the Foothills Trail Conference)
(Edit: the new 2014 map from the Foothills Trail Conference is suppose to be a big improvement- see comments section below)
Unfortunately, this is a very difficult map to read and use.  All the information you need is here, but it is not organized in a way that makes sense or that is standard for other long trails.  The use of a numbering system instead of place names is particularly confusing.  Distances between these numbered waypoints is given in a chart, but then you have to reference another chart explaining what the numbers mean.  The elevation profile doesn’t show mileages on the x-axis either.  I solved these problem by taking a perminant marker and writing mileages directly on the map and replacing the numbering systems with actual names of waypoints and trail junctions to make a functional map.  On the upside, sales of this map benefit the FTC and go towards trail maintenance and construction.  Some people like the FTC Guidebook, which has more detailed descriptions, but I’ve hiked the trail before so I didn’t find that information necessary.  The trail is very well signed, blazed, and generally easy to follow.

National Geographic Trail Illustrated Map #785 of the Nantahala and Cullasaja Gorges
If you are section hiking the Foothills Trail, the NatGeo map shows roads and is helpful for getting to the trailsheads.


  1. Fantastic pictures! Say hi to Rewind for me. -GoalTech

    1. Thanks, GoalTech! Will do! We did lots of reminiscing about the PCT and sharing stories.

  2. How neat to learn you were around my neck of the woods!! I just love the FHT, and your post really described it well. And yes ... the colors this year .... weren't they just something??

    Sorry to be gone from your blog for so long .... I've still got tons of catching up to do on your PCT posts. Haven't had much opportunity for "discretionary" computer time of late!

    1. The FHT really is so wonderful! I thought the leaves were even more spectacular than usual- I was just looking at my photos from last year and they weren't nearly as bright and vibrant. Wonder what sort of weather and conditions made them so incredible this year.

      Hope you've at least had some time to get out and hike!

      All the best!

  3. I continue to be amazed at you Joan. 77 miles in 5 days does not "allow for a relaxed trip" you're a machine!
    The pictures are beautiful and I loved your report.
    Where did you make camp?

    1. Well... it sure felt like it was relaxed. :) Or maybe that was also because the days were so short and the evenings so cold that I ended up spending 12 or 13 hours in the hammock, so definitely had plenty of rest.

      We ended up camping mostly along ridges. I think my favorite campsite was right before descending (i.e. west of) to the parking lot near Whitewater Falls. We did camp near the Laurel Fork at a big open space before (west of) the climb to Virginia Hawkins Falls- that's where we saw the bear. As you know, really great hanging all along the Foothills. :)

  4. Awesome! I camped at that same spot below Virginia Hawkins in October with my son and his wife. We hiked in there on a Thursday and stayed two nights. We day hiked down to Lake Jocassee on Friday. It was a pretty lazy weekend compared to your trip. Even had an afternoon nap.

    1. That's so cool that you were at that same spot too! Sure would make a nice place to base camp and hike around. Oh nothing like an afternoon nap! :)

  5. Great post. I agree that the trail can be hiked much faster, but to truly appreciate the natural beauty and wonder, it is nice to take your time. This is a beautiful time of year to hike the trail.
    Have you seen the AntigravityGear Pocket Profile for this trail? I use it every time I go out on the FHT. It has all the information of the guidebook and most from the map in a much more easy to read format.

    1. Nope haven't seen the Pocket Profile map of the Foothills. Sounds great. I'll have to get my hands on one of those sometime. Thanks!

  6. Nice post Joan! I like the way it's organized and gives just the right amount of information and details. Great teasers. Might be one I need to visit when I head that direction.

    1. Thanks so much, Jan. Yeah, I wanted to share a more general overview of the trail. Now that I've done more trails in the southeast, I can highlight the key features of each trail and point out what is special and unique about each. Think you'd definitely like this one if you are ever in the area!

  7. FYI to all. The FTC just came out with a new map, and it is awesome. Available on their web site. Great trip report.

    1. That's such wonderful news! Thank you so much for posting. I can't believe I missed this. The website says it has elevation profiles too. I'll have to check it out. Here is the link for others:

  8. Hi! Thanks for letting me in on this 'secret'. I live in Asheville and had not heard of it. I'm thinking about hiking it next week as a thru hike, same direction as you. I have the natgeo map already and would use it. Don't think I have time to get the foothillstrail map. I'm sort of relying on your opinion that the trail is well marked and blazed.
    You mention that the longest water carry is Sassafras Mt. How long is it?
    Thanks for your write up!

    1. Glad to spread the word about this great trail! Unfortunately, I can't say exactly how long the water carry was- my best guess is around 8 miles, but it really depends on which of the seasonal streams are flowing, and how much you want to work to collect water from dripping seeps and mudholes. Water was sparse going over Sassafras Mountain- I don't recall seeing any between Laurel Valley Parking area and after making it down the other side of Sassafras, almost nearly to Table Rock State Park.

    2. There is a really nice campsite about a mile east of Hwy 178, (Laurel Valley Access). Going east, it's on the right hand side of the trail on Abner Creek.(N35 03.328 W82 48.224) I had lunch there in March and had plenty of water.
      The old Cantrell home site is about a mile east of Sassafras Mtn. Part of the chimney is still visible and there is a lot of stone furniture. There is a water source there as well.(N35 03.099 W82 46.160). The guide book says it is "75 yards ahead and down to the right after you pass the chimney."
      I marked another campsite with water on my GPS maybe a mile before you get to Pinnacle Mtn. (N35 02.319 W82 45.197)
      As you said, some of them may be seasonal, but spring time was good.


    3. Thanks for this excellent information on water sources, Larry!