|Susan on 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.|
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.
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.|
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.|
|Over the Laurel Fork.|
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.|
|Susan hangs her bear bag.|
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.