22 Oct Foothills Trail
The Foothills Trail extends 77 miles as it crosses the highest point in South Carolina and crosses numerous rivers and creeks along its course from Table Rock Mountain State Park to Oconee State Park. Along the way, backpackers see a number of waterfalls including two of the highest east of the Mississippi. There are many opportunities to swim and fish in Lake Jocassee and a variety of frigid rivers and creeks. Many of the improved campsites have signage, benches, and fire pits. Here I describe my 5-day thru-hike of the Foothills Trail over 72 miles from Table Rock Mountain State Park to roadside parking at Jumping Branch Trailhead.
October 6th, 2020. Hiked 13.2 miles.
Sometime after 11 AM, my shuttle driver “Taz” dropped me off at Table Rock Mountain State Park and pointed in the direction of the trail. Taz is one of several people that the Foothills Trail Org lists as volunteer shuttle drivers on their website. Since South Carolina doesn’t offer long-term parking at their State Parks, I decided to leave my car at the first roadside parking short of Oconee State Park. South Carolina should take a clue from Georgia which offers “long-term parking” for multi-day hikers starting from Amicalola State Park. For a one time $6 fee hikers of on the Appalachian Trail can park at Amicalola using a hidden away gravel parking lot.
Taz and others in the area are very dedicated to the Foothills Trail. On the ride to Table Rock, he took time to show me a number of trail crossings. Taz was very recognizable with his red pickup truck, his orange hunting blazer and his Tasmanian Devil tie. As I later learned, he seemed to be constantly roaming the roads and trail crossings between Table Rock and Oconee, dropping off and picking up people and food caches. Thanks Taz for the lift!
Notice the blue foam in the photo above. I also carried a NeoAir mattress. My idea was to get me off the ground some in case I had water running under my tarp.
After 4 miles of climbing, I finally topped out near where a yellow-blazed side trail leads 0.2 mile to the top of Pinnacle Peak (elev. 3425 feet). Since there is no view from the top, I chose not to take this steep side trail.
At 8.6 miles is one of the nicest campsite on the Foothills trail. The Cantrell campsite has a small stream and an impressive fire ring surrounded by Adirondack chairs. If traveling with a group, this spot is worthy of a relaxing campfire night.
At 9.8 miles, I crossed the peak of Sassafras Mountain (elev. 3560 feet). This is the highest point in South Carolina. Did you know that the highest peaks in South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina are in North Carolina? Those are Sassafras Mountain, Clingmans Dome, and Mt. Mitchell. The first two share state lines. The highest point in Virginia, Mt. Rogers, is only 5.25 miles from the North Carolina state line and the highest point in Georgia, Brasstown Bald, is only 7.8 miles from North Carolina.
After 13.2 miles and a lot of climbing with my fully loaded backpack, I was glad to call it a day. I camped at Chimney Top Campsite. Although I regularly met other Foothills Trail thru-hikers coming from the other direction, over my 4 nights, I never shared a campsite.
October 7th. Hiked 14.5 miles.
Several other hikers coming from the other direction advised me not to take the trail closure detour around Virginia Hawkins waterfall. This was good advice. The detour was due to a broken bridge; however the creek was small and easily crossed over rocks without getting my feet wet. In my mind, it was laughable to detour a trail around such an easily crossed creek. I couldn’t help but make a comparison with Wright Creek in the Sierra in June 2019. No closures or detours there. Only prayers.
Before camping, I had a 0.7 mile climb up and down the hundreds of steps that is Heartbreak Ridge. I was soon off the ridge and on the shore of Lake Jocassee where I cooled off with a relaxing swim. After another mile or so of hiking, I reached my campsite.
After the 14.5 mile day, I camped early with a beautiful view of Lake Jocassee and a picnic table. This was the only campsite on the Foothills Trail with a picnic table. I took my second swim of the day in the lake and sat at the picnic table enjoying my dinner and the sunset.
October 8th, Hiked 15.5 miles.
The next morning it was a short walk to this 225 foot suspension bridge spanning the Toxaway River.
By 11:30 AM, I had reached the Horsepasture River where it flows into Lake Jocassee. I stopped for an early lunch and swim break. Each day lunch is tuna in oil with sundried tomatoes in a tortilla wrap. I add Sun Chips to give it a little crunch and I usually have a cheese stick. The tuna in oil is a real find because it adds more calories without adding pack weight and it has become hard to find tuna in oil. Everything seems to be tuna in water.
It wasn’t long before a pontoon boat pulled up at the boat access here and a couple disappeared on a short hike. I slipped into the river near the bank where lake water mixed with river water, making the cold river more bearable. Swimming into midstream, the river’s frigid water took over.
The third night I made my 2nd campfire. I found that it was easy to start fires by shaving a stick with my knife. Little piles of curled wood shavings easily caught fire from my lighter. Tonight I ate Idahoan Instant Mashed Potatoes for the 2nd time. I mixed in some vegetarian sausage.
The next morning (4th day), I found that the spur trail to Lower Whitewater Falls was a short walk from the Whitewater campsite where I had camped the night before. I wished that I had known this because I would have hiked from my campsite to Lower Whitewater Falls and back the day before. Instead, I had sat around my campsite with plenty of time on my hands. The spur trail to Lower Whitewater Falls was 0.9 miles, so with the extra 2 miles off the Foothills route, it didn’t seem like I really got on the trail until about 9 AM. You don’t really get near the falls because Lower Whitewater Falls is viewable from a platform at least a couple hundred yards away.
After Whitewater Falls, the trail climbs and levels out above 3000 feet where there are a some nice views and a pleasant high elevation walk with rhododendron.
Dinner was couscous with gravy and vegetarian sausage. My special treat was a cup of hot chocolate. My final night was spent camping in the rain along the Chattooga River. As old as it is, my tarp kept me mostly dry. There was one drip from a seam that occasionally landed on my face. I used window wrap plastic for a ground cover and blue foam kept my sleeping bag further elevated away from any wandering water. On top of the blue foam, my NeoAir mattress put my upper body another 3 inches above the wet ground. It rained all night long.
Hiking through the rain using my umbrella most of the time. I met a group of about 15 men who had just broken camp and were going in my direction. I moved ahead because it is hard to pass that many people on a narrow trail. I was surprised to see such a large group. Those numbers can be hard on a campsite. As for me, I hiked this entire trail without ever having shared a campsite. It was actually kind of lonely.