Four Days on the Foothills Trail
It was time again for another adventure – this one a little longer than the last. I had pretty much quit my job in late April to allow for more hiking in my life before buckling down for graduate school at the end of the summer. Spark and I wanted to tackle the Foothills Trail, a long trail that was a short drive from our home place of Asheville, North Carolina. Even though he was exhausted from his last week as an instructor in wilderness therapy he still packed his bag and came with me. It was peak time for spring flowers and the weather showed zero percent chance of rain – a perfect circumstance for a four day trek.
The Foothills Trail runs for 77 miles through the beginnings of the Appalachian mountains in South Carolina and dips into North Carolina a handful of times. It was conceptualized in the 1970’s and finally finished by 1981. There is a non-profit organization, the Foothills Trail Conference, that maintains the trail and publishes guides and maps for the trek. The trail is known for it’s waterfalls and crosses seven of them hidden in the nooks and crannies of the forest. These are a result of the sudden change in elevation from the highland plateau of North Carolina to the rolling hills of South Carolina. We decide to hike west to east, beginning our trek at Oconee State Park and ending at Table Rock State Park, home to South Carolina’s highest peak.
Day 1 – 10 miles
We are slow to get to the beginning, as finalizing the odds and ends of our gear and food takes a little longer than planned. Also, the mandatory giant burritos and beers we consume before hopping in our cars slow us down a speck. Spark and I get to the parking lot at Oconee and throw all of our stuff on the ground, preparing to load our bags. I notice that Spark has brought an obscene amount of dark chocolate espresso beans – it looks like at least two full pounds of them. I had carefully counted out 7 beans per day for myself. I glance again at his serious stash and just laugh, finding amusement in his addiction.
It’s already 4 pm before we actually start hiking but the terrain is so easy and effortless that the first six miles feel like two. Spark remarks “if this is what it’s like the whole way we can definitely do a thirty.” I agree wholeheartedly. He picks up a stick and starts twirling it, having extra limbs to work with since he happened to forget his trekking poles back at his place. We walk the path as it meanders along the side of the mountain and gives us little glimpses of far off hills through the trees.
Another few miles in and I feel a weirdness take over my stomach. I wonder if it has anything to do with the sinfully delicious Girl Scout cookie ice cream sandwiches we ate after our lunch. Any number of those ingredients would give me an instant stomachache. Unfortunately, when I go off into the woods to do my business I realize my time of the month has come early and I’m pissed – there’s nothing like going out in the woods ill prepared to deal with cramps, fatigue and your body shedding part of its interior self for a few days. I love being a woman, though our struggles are real and constant. Woe is me, whatever, I’ll make do – I have to.
The trail drops down into a rhododendron laden forest near a brook where several people are already camped along its edges. It’s the weekend and nearly perfect weather so we are expecting to see a bunch of people out enjoying the area. We hit the banks of the Chattooga River as dusk comes bathing the mountains in a deep purple hue. We eventually find a safe spot to camp and feel accomplished at the ten miles we just so easily walked. There is another family at this campsite and their sweet dog comes over to greet us with kisses. I’m not very hungry but I still consume some chicken meatballs and rice I packed out which significantly lightens my pack weight. Spark reads his kindle for a while but I feel tired and immediately tuck in for the night.
Day 2 – 24 miles
We wake up to another wonderful day, the sun out with just a few clouds in the sky and no rain in our way. The trail continues to follow the river for most of the morning and we take our first snack break on the banks to study our maps. It is beyond glorious with the sunlight shining so brightly on the water that everything is illuminated and glowing. I think that I could just sit here forever, soaking up the radiance.
We continue up and over a few mountains and then are sent by some waterfalls, a few of which are a little ways off trail but still worth it. The woods are cool and dense and feel rich of life. The Foothills trail goes through some patches of forest that are still considered to be “old growth” and contain over eighty rare plant species. The hiking feels good and my muscles ease into the rhythm of non-stop motion. The trail isn’t too rocky or rooty but remains interesting enough for my mind to enjoy the challenge.
We take lunch on the side of a well maintained road that splits through the trail and watch a few cars drive by headed north to the border. Spark and I share our goods with each other and I entice him with some weird energy chews I had recently created and really good jerky from a small producer in Utah. We decide that one of us desperately needs to try dehydrating pumpkin pie filling into leather and I wonder why I haven’t tried that before. Near the end of our break Spark turns to me and says “I challenge you to a triscuit eating contest.” He pops one in, starts his timer and chews like a manic gopher. I am beside him trying not to choke on the saliva-sucking hay in my mouth that used to be a triscuit as my sides split into laughter. If you haven’t tried eating a triscuit in less than ten seconds before, you clearly aren’t living life to it’s full potential.
I’m feeling slower than usual for the second half of the day, maybe because my insides are still cramping and my body is in hyper detox mode, purging layers of both physical and metaphysical impurities. Spark is probably a mile ahead of me but I don’t feel the need to push it. I stop and take pictures of the various flowers that line the trail not only because I want to, but it’s a good excuse to pause every so often. There aren’t nearly as many as I thought there would be at this time of spring, but they still dot the sides of the trail and accompany us the entire way. I finally catch up to Spark a few hours later – he’s lying on a giant boulder across a bridge as some powerful water rushes near him. We are downstream from what sounds like a wonderfully huge waterfall. We don’t see an obvious trail up to it so Spark suggests we just bushwhack and boulder up to the base for the sake of adventure. I’m in.
We cling desperately to the sides of a steep hill, dodge insanely giant thorns and then head into the creek to rock hop up. I decide to follow him, knowing that my shoes will get soaked one way or another but I don’t care. After all, it’s adventure. I’m a little less agile than him because I have my camera tucked under my shirt but I am still determined. I match Spark’s steps and handholds as best I can but at a certain point it’s impossible to move forward without inevitably smashing my camera to little bits on a rock face. I watch him make his way a few hundred more feet up to the bottom of massive Upper Whitewater Falls. It’s a beautiful moment in time and I sit by myself, watching Spark have his own personal connection with the natural world. I am glad that he suggested the idea.
An hour or so later, after completing the treacherous side trip to the falls, we are back on trail to find the next best camp spot. We are both pretty tired. We reach another big stream crossing and tent at a small campsite next to it. Hearing the rush of water below relaxes me and I know it will help lull me to sleep. I put up my tent and then start popping some popcorn with coconut oil – I thought it would be a fun treat. It ends up exploding all over the place, flying here and there and I laugh and try and control it. Spark seems amused at my attempt. I share it with him and then make my usual coconut curry noodles with veggies and tuna while he slurps up his dinner which he calls “Nacho Soup”. It’s sautéed garlic, dried veggies, pepper jack cheese and a whole lot of dehydrated refried beans mixed together with corn chips on top. I think he ate it pretty much every night on the CDT when he thru-hiked last summer. I try not to think of what damage it may have permanently done to his insides, but that’s just me, the nutritional skeptic. I tuck into my tarp tent for the night and Spark cowboy camps amidst stray popcorn kernels leftover from the mayhem.
Day 3 – 26 miles
I wake up and quickly learn a new backpacking lesson: Always eat your avocados the first day. I greet Spark in the morning by saying, “It appears that I have baby poop smeared all over my food bag – look.” Using my food bag as my pillow wasn’t the best idea this time and I pick out the smooshed bits of avocado lining the sides. Live and learn I guess, but laugh at yourself too.
It’s another fantastic morning – I get going before Spark and I hit a waterfall within a few miles. It must be the fifth or so waterfall we’ve come across and is a bit off trail but it is serene and powerful. I try way too many filters on my camera snapping photos of the continuous current before continuing on the main path. At this point, the Foothills Trail runs into a bunch of logging roads before touching down to the Toxaway river that feeds into Lake Jocassee – a large reservoir built by Duke Energy in the ‘70’s. Once there you cross a giant bridge and climb a long staircase on the opposite side. I realize here that I have already seen more types of bridges than I have ever before on one path – each one a particular style and made from different materials. The bridges give the trail a very unique feel and add an element of interest and surprise to what remains similar terrain most of the way.
During the middle of the day it becomes hot, these few days being unnaturally warm for late April. We reach a section of trail that climbs and climbs up into Gorges State Park. It just so happens that we start hiking a stairway to hell during the hottest part of the day – the stairs seem to never end and just when you think there won’t be anymore steps, you turn a bend and there’s fifty. I find it exhilarating but exhausting at the same time considering the humidity and my body adjusting to the miles already hiked.
It’s not until four in the evening when Spark catches up to me. He’s tired and takes a nap beside me while I sit, close my eyes and contemplate life for a bit. I watch some tiny bugs do their thing on the earth beneath us and think about how infinitesimally small and insignificant we are in this world. I consider how our brains won’t ever be able to comprehend the enormity of everything. It feels both refreshing and completely heartbreaking to think of it. Ahh, life. Twenty minutes later Spark stretches and states, “I needed that.” I feel like thanking him again for coming with me, knowing that working with emotional teenagers for eight days and then going back out into the woods to hike on his break must take a lot of energy. We discuss my existential thoughts and continue on.
There’s more energy in my bones now and we both haul ass to get to a spot called Bear Camp. We hit the last waterfall of the trail, Laurel Creek Falls and then follow the creek for a ways hopping over many more bridges and heading up through twists and turns of rhododendron covered hillsides. I love these last miles of the day – the sun is just beginning to set and it’s colors splash along the edges of the mountains. I pause many times, turn around and watch this meeting of earth and sky in the distance. How lucky I am to be here, I think.
Day 4 – 17 miles
I wake up naturally at 5:30 and get Spark up soon after to get an early start. We were both hoping to have less mileage on the last day, but with our late start the first day it didn’t end up happening. I can tell it’s going to be another hot day and we get going, climbing up and up for most of the morning. A few hours later we finally reach the highest point of South Carolina, Sassafras mountain. It’s a pretty great 360 degree view but it’s really hot and the sun beats down on us. We find what shade we can and eat our last lunch. Neither of us have much food left to get us through the last nine miles in Table Rock State Park. I have a big handful of snack mix, Spark has three times this (most of it in chocolate covered coffee form) and still thinks he’s going to perish.
I’ll admit it too, I’m ready to be done. I hadn’t expected it to be this hot and it was the first time in awhile taking more than seven pounds on my back for an extended period of time. It’s hard to be out for very long when you know what comforts await you at your car. We continue on and even though it looks like it’s all downhill according to Spark’s profile map it most definitely isn’t. We end up gaining a lot more elevation and walk through a giant boulder field before being spit out onto a cliff-side with a ridiculous view of the entire valley to the west.
I wasn’t expecting such a seriously amazing view and even though I want to barrel through the last few miles, everything inside of me tells me to stop, sit and look at the hundreds of miles lying before me. The area reminds me of the cliff scene near the end of the classic movie the Last of the Mohicans. I know it isn’t the exact place where that scene was filmed but I do know it was filmed pretty close by in Chimney Rock Park in North Carolina. I wish I had time to just stay right here for hours or maybe even days on this precarious ledge.
Alas, obligations await us so we book it to the end, finally descending much of what we had just hiked up. The last bit of trail through Table Rock State Park is really pretty and follows a stream with many small waterfalls and pools all the way to the bottom. It would be a great place to bring little kids in the summer time and watch them run around and look for newts underneath the rocks. I pause several times and splash the cool water on my face and legs enjoying this last stretch.
We end our trek at midday, pick up the other car from Oconee and then stop to eat some tacos. We aren’t satisfied yet so we drive to the nearest Ingles, buy beer and ice cream and sneak into the woods to ingest our goods. It is still ridiculously hot outside and I feel like I am very much in the south and just walked for four days. The small patch of woods we occupy has a bunch of used needles and other paraphernalia scattered around but our own desire to consume sugar and alcohol trumps our less than stellar surroundings. We complete our trip by driving back to Asheville a different way – through a portion of the Pisgah National Forest and I deliberately keep my windows down the whole way. By the time I say goodbye to Spark and get back to my tiny home I feel completely fulfilled and ready to hit the hay.
The Foothills Trail is a little known gem of a trail that is deserving of the thru-hiker crowd, especially if you live near it. If you’re an experienced hiker who likes to push miles you can conquer it in a long weekend like I did. Otherwise, allowing 5-6 days for the entire trail would make sense. Having completed it I would suggest starting at the eastern side – Table Rock State Park, camping on the top of Sassafras to catch the sunset and then hiking west to Oconee State Park. This would mean you have the most energy for what I think is the harder and more epic portion of the trail at the beginning. It would also be a really pretty trail in the fall time with all of the rich colors of the trees. The Foothills Trail is definitely worth the effort and showcases the generous landscape of the area – take as many chocolate covered things as you want and definitely bushwhack to at least one waterfall along the way.
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