Exploring the Carolinas’ Foothills Trail
The Blue Ridge Mountains are well known for their three hundred sixty degree views from their bare summits. But while the Blue Ridge Mountain Balds may be a highlight of the southern Appalachians, they encompass a far greater range of beauty than the view from the tops of the six thousand foot range.
Far below the Blue Ridge, the foothills undulate with as much unforgiving elevation change as the high peaks themselves. Unlike the tall and unforgiving crests of the great range, the foothills are alive and lush. Streams, creeks, and engorged rivers mark the land with deep gorges and sandy beaches. Waterfalls abound, their distinctive rush mixes with sounds of wind and wildlife.
Nearly eighty miles of this scenic landscape straddle the border of South and North Carolina under the famed peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But there’s more to love about this trail than the wilderness it passes through. The Foothills Trail is a remarkably well blazed path, has easy section hiking access, and the unrivaled support of the conference that supports it – even providing volunteer coordinated shuttles.
The Foothills Trail
Length | 77 Miles
Location | Western North Carolina and Northern South Carolina
Highlights | 13 Waterfalls, Gorges, Wooden Steps, Multiple Suspension Bridges, State High Point, Volunteer Coordinated Shuttles
Maps and Guidebooks | Anti-Gravity Gear Pocket Profile ($3.95), Foothills Trail Conference Trail Map ($15.00), Foothills Trail Conference Guidebook ($16.00)
I tackled the Foothills Trail during a three day two night fastpack in early January. I began at the southern terminus, Oconee State Park in Mountains Rest, South Carolina. Oconee offers tent camping and cabin rental for those who prefer to stay the night and get an early start on their Foothills Trail adventure.
The Foothills Trail climbs gently out of Oconee State Park on a wide, flat trail that becomes increasingly tight before transforming into traditional single track. The hiker is treated to their first of many waterfalls at mile 8.2 at Lick Log Creek. The Trail joins the Chattooga River Trail at mile 10.6 and winds along the Chattooga River’s sandy beaches for miles. Waterfalls abound at mile 16.3 via a side trail at King Creek Falls, and another at mile 23.2.
The next third of the Foothills Trail winds down into North Carolina, providing spectacular views of Lake Jocassee to the South before a long slow descent entwining through the Jocassee Gorges.
This middle section of trail bumps along at low elevations and sports spectacular runoff that forms beautiful waterfalls. At mile 28.9 there is a side trail to Whitewater Falls, at mile 30.1 Corbin Creek Falls, a small waterfall at mile 35.5 and a blue blaze to Hillard Falls at mile marker 36.5.
During this middle section of trail, the hiker will also get their first introduction to another essential attribute on the Foothills Trail. Stairs. Lots of Stairs.
These wooden stairs make appearances at many points on the Foothills Trail – most notably on Heartbreak Ridge, where 302 stairs ascend the ridge and 294 stairs descend the ridge.
From the east end of Heartbreak Ridge at mile 50 to the Northern Terminus at Table Rock State Park at mile 76.2, the trail crosses a number of challenging routes and trail highlights. Beginning at mile 50 the trail slowly gains elevation, passing Laurel Falls (54.30) and Virginia Hawkins Falls (57.3) on the way up. The largest climb of the hike begins at mile 62 and gains 1,839 feet in 4.4 miles before topping out at Sassafrass Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina.
The Foothills Trail proper ends at Table Rock State Park, about ten miles from Sassafras Mountain. However from Sassafras Mountain there is a 14.2 mile spur trail to Ceasar’s Head State Park in South Carolina that some choose as an alternate northern terminus for the trail. Along this extended spur lies views of the East Fork of the French Broad River, as well as the sheer rock faces of Raven Cliff Falls.
For those who wish to follow the white blazes of the Foothills Trail, the trail continues down Sassafras Mountain, makes one last climb to up Pinnacle Mountain, and winds its way down to Table Rock State Park.
Table Rock State Park offers a myriad of amenities from camping to cabins, swimming to fishing. The park also has a store and gift shop with limited groceries to fuel your post thru hike hunger.
The Foothills Trail is a dream for section hikers. The Foothills Trail Conference Divides the trail into thirteen accessible sections. The consistent signage makes finding the trailheads easy, and the mileage makes section hiking attainable.
Volunteer Shuttle Service
In addition to the well thought out sectioning, the Foothills Trail Conference has compiled a list of volunteers who provide shuttle service from trail sections. This alleviates the headache of spotting cars or finding rides back to original trailheads after completing sections. As always, take care of our trail angels! Volunteers should be reimbursed fairly for their generous donations of time and gasoline.
Upon the completion of the Foothills Trail hikers can apply for the Peregrine Award to commemorate their hikes. Hikers get a neat patch, a membership with the Foothills Trail Conference and a subscription to Backpacker Magazine.
The Foothills Trail…
may be obscured by the longer and more well known trails in the southeast. But from its well blazed path to its active trail conservancy, it is a trail well worth the walk.
Thank you to Heyword Douglass, Executive Director of the Foothills Conference, for your encouraging emails and photographs!
lead photo courtesy of…
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If you enjoyed the Foothills Trail you should check out http://www.ultimatehike.org. This is a 30 mile one day hike on the trail that is a fundraising event for CureSearch for Children’s Cancer. I have participated for the last 4 years great event!!
It’s a great trail! The FTC could improve their map by adding to it some trails that intersect or at least some labels/notes regarding the other trails. The Foothills Trail is a part of the nearing completion Southern Appalachian Loop Trail. The Bartram Trail can be found (somewhere, I haven’t done it yet) on the other side of the Chattooga crossing the road bridge just up stream of the Burrell’s Ford campground, which leads to the AT in the Wayah Bald area. The rest of the SALT follows the AT to the MST to Art Loeb Trail, from there south is the part that is still in development. The plan is to make a full loop of about 375 miles (I think). I’d like to make that connection to the Bartram and hike it to the AT sometime. Nice article!
What were the generally areas where you made camp each night? I am considering running the entire trial over three days. Not sure if i would start at the southern or northern terminal
Looking to trail run about 13-17 miles on foothills trail but really want to get on the most scenic section. Any suggestions. Thx