Foothills Trail trip report
27-31 December 2013
I've heard nothing but good things about this 77 mile trail that runs along the border of South Carolina and North Carolina. Since I had some time between Christmas and New Years I went down and ended up hiking it as a solo trip. A solo trip is new to me so this was a new experience! I had ample guidance with the map, compass, guidebook, and Garmin eTrex with a preloaded map/waypoints. The trail was so easy to follow I never did crack any of them open other than to log my own way points or review the day while snuggled in my tent.
Summary: 5 days door to door with splits of 11, 22, 18, 23, 5 (with travel to/from on the first/last day).
Travel time was about 7.5 hours from Yorktown, VA (probably 8.5 from DC). I left Yorktown at 4am and got checked in at the Table Rock State Park visitor center at about 11:30. There is a $2 a day parking fee. The trail itself is free to hike but you do need to fill out a registration card and get a tag for your car with your expected return date. Rangers aren't allowed to leave the park if a car with a past-due tag is in the parking lot. I allowed an extra day for my hike in case I felt like lollygagging. I had pre-arranged a shuttle ride from the volunteer driver list. He was waiting for me as I drove into the Table Rock parking lot so I had zero seconds delay before I was back in a car to Oconee State Park about 40-50 miles away. (I gather it's courteous to tip the volunteer drivers about $1 a mile so that's what I did.)
I hit the trail at 1pm exactly on Friday 27 December and hiked at a pretty good clip until I hit the Chattooga River and followed it a bit until I found a lovely camp site right on the river around 4:50 just as the sun was sinking in the sky. It turns out a pair of tents were on the other side of a bushy barrier. I'm not sure they ever saw me. I certainly never heard them given the roar of the river. It was a bit chilly that night (probably in the mid 20's) but pretty humid in the valley next to the river. It turns out that's a recurring a theme on the Foothills Trail - low lying camping spots near water. I slept with the Tarptent Notch flaps wide open and watched the stars and listened to the roar of the river as I drifted off. Daily mileage total was 11 miles and about 2600 feet of elevation gain (and 2600 feet of loss).
I awoke at about 6:30 and packed up and hit the trail by about 7:30 and followed the Chattooga River for a few miles before climbing out of the valley. There was some short but steeper climbs out of the valley (another theme). Water is everywhere. Little springs and creeks and seeps abound. I never carried more than a liter of water and that bottle was rarely full even though I drank regularly. I'd stop once or twice a day to filter/refill and maybe tank up in evening before I hit a camp in case a reliable source wasn't immediately present. I got to see Upper Whitewater Falls which vies with Crabtree Falls (in Virginia!) with tallest waterfall east of the Mississippi (according to Wikipedia). I have to say Upper Whitewater Falls is definitely more dramatic. And loud. Wow! I soaked that in for a while, and not just because I had to climb a bunch of steep steps to get to the overlook. I had brief chat with a young, local couple who had parked above and climbed down for the view.
The descent along the Whitewater river was steep, wet, and slippery. I'm glad I wasn't climbing it. You drop fast then follow along the river. This whole zone is "no camping" and pretty gorgeous the whole way along the river. I finally hit the Bad Creek Access point which is where camping opens up again. I saw a sign for 1.7 miles to Lower Whitewater Falls and panicked since it was already 4:30 pm and growing dark. I hoofed it only to find the official camp site much sooner (in about a mile). I declined hiking the extra 0.9 mile (one way) to Lower Whitewater Falls due to growing darkness and the ominous rain drops starting to fall. I made camp at the large official camp site and got dinner going as the rain got heavier. A trio of guys showed up and camped a bit down the hill near the creek. I crawled into the tent around 7pm and listened to the rain grow steadily stronger. The total for day two was 22 miles for day 2 and 5000 feet of elevation gain (and 4700 loss).
It rained all night, sometimes pretty heavily. I woke up around 6:30 am and hung out in the tent until about 7am when the rain seemed to stop. I got packed up and on the trail by about 7:45. I wore my hardshell (I finally bought a real hardshell after my disastrous rain experience at the Standing Stone Trail trip) but it wasn't really needed. I ended up wearing my fishing shirt the whole day - a thin, nylon button down shirt that dries out in about 10 minutes no matter how wet it is. I also highly value quick-drying after the aforementioned Standing Stone trip. I was moving fast enough I was plenty warm but I passed some boy scouts going the other way who were bundled up and looked at me like I was crazy. There was a fair bit of old logging road (feels like double-track trail - no gravel). A wild turkey startled me by making a huge ruckus and flying off down the valley as I got near it. It's odd to see a bird that big fly (oh, the humanity!)
The trail descends down to one end of Lake Jocassee and crosses the Toxaway River on a large, bouncy suspension bridge. There's a trail access point (boat access only!). Based on Google Earth, the lake is quite high right now. A lot of the camp sites along the area here were almost right on the water. There's a large camp site near the suspension bridge, and a smaller one right on the water a bit further down that would have had a lovely sunset view across the lake, but I trekked on up and over Heartbreak Ridge (a brutal 45% grade per the Garmin!). I wanted that done with and there was a camp site on the other side. It took about 30-40 minutes for that one mile over the ridge. Folks I've hiked with know I'm not great on the "going up" part. I camped at another large site right next to Rock Creek. It was a bit damp and cool but as good an option as any. It felt odd ending the day at 3:00 pm. It turns out the next camp site was about 5 miles ahead but pretty soggy so no regrets. The totals for day three were 18 miles with 4500 feet of gain and 5400 feet of loss. This was the first night with nobody near me. It was a new experience for me to be solo and "out there". It was comforting to have the creek nearby to sing me to sleep.
I got another later-than-planned start on day four. It was cold in the valley and hard to get out of the tent. I also find I'm lazier when no one else is around that I feel accountable to/for. Day four had a lot of climbs. I climbed up to Chimney Top, crossed a road, and continued climbing up to the tippy top of Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina (at 3500 feet or so). There was some active logging going on and I had to cross a super muddy and very active logging road. As I neared the peak of Sassafras a huge snowy owl flew by me, perched above me, glared at me sceptically, and flew off. Sweet! (It did not delivery me any mail. Darn.) The views from Sassafras Mountain were pretty nice despite the haze in the air. The parking lot at the observation deck was deserted on a Monday afternoon. I forged ahead with an "it's all downhill from here" attitude and quickly came to a brilliant camp site that is the old Cantrell Homestead. Folks have taken great pains over to the years to rearrange large stones into a series of fully functional stone lounge chairs around a fire pit. It's awesome, and completely deserted on a Monday night in December! It was only 3pm and about 9 miles to Table Rock State Park. There was another camp site in 4 miles so I continued on through the rhododendron tunnel hoping for a shorter day the morning of my long drive home.
I hit the "camping spot" per the Garmin but didn't find much flat area to throw down a tent. I dropped my pack and scouted ahead and found a pretty sweet spot (also small) overlooking the valley. I ran back, grabbed the pack and headed to the overlook. It was about 4:30 pm and nearing sunset. I reviewed the guide book and decided (incorrectly) that the official spot was further ahead. In my attempt to read the coveted (to me) "5 mile away spot" I continued ahead up a bit of a climb. After a mile I hit an official "4 miles to go" sign. Bummer! There is no back country camping inside Table Rock State Park (the border of which is 4.5 miles on "to go" on the trail). I had to back track at least half a mile but given the climb I ended up going a full mile back to the previously identified sweet overlook spot. It felt a bit less sweet given the two bonus miles. It was also cooling off fast and now quite dark. I made my last dinner on the trail and watched all the city lights start to light up the valley (ok, it was pretty cool). Day four ended up being 23 miles (including the two bonus miles) and 6700 feet of gain (5200 loss).
I awoke to my driest tent of the trip, despite it being buttoned down to block out the wind. It's nice being up on the ridge and not in a fog-filled valley. I was ready to go by 7am but watched the sunrise and fog flow through low spots below me and let the overcast sky lighten up some before I (re-)climbed the trail. The easy 4 mile descent coincides with the Pinnacle Mountain trail and took a while because there were a lot of really cool things to see. Rocky cliff overlooks, little waterfalls, fun rocky overhangs, slick rock creek crossing, etc. When the trail turned to black top and I started to see bundled up day hikers I knew I was close. That, and the Pinnacle Mountain trail was marked with signs every half-mile. I hit the Nature Center/Parking Lot at 9:30am officially finishing the Foothills Trail.
A quick change of clothes in the over-heated bathroom and I was back on the road by 10 am. As it turns out, the bathroom probably wasn't over heated but by now I was pretty comfortable in my nylon shirt, though the car thermometer said the air temp was 37 degrees. No wonder I got odd looks. It's funny how rapidly your body resets to what is comfortable. I checked in with the visitor center again to let them know I was off the trail. They were appreciative, but the fact that my car (and it's "back no later than" sign) was gone was sufficient. The last day was an easy 5 miles with 1000 feet of gain and 2500 loss.
Over all I logged about 79 miles, give or take, and 20,000 feet gain (and 20,000 feet loss). Given how wet it was in December, I can only assume it can be a real bog in the spring, and probably brutally humid mid-summer. Maybe those cool valley camp site are more pleasant, though I can't imagine they're any drier. I tried to mark way points on the Garmin at each camp site I passed with their relative size (small, medium, large). Overall the trail was basically mine and mine alone. I passed a pair of backpackers on day one heading the opposite direction, two pair heading my way on day two, and a handful of boy scouts on day three heading the opposite direction. Word of minor caution: the guide book is written for travel from Table Rock to Oconee -- opposite of the way I hiked. That made tracking features a little challenging at times. On the plus side, it kept the bigger climbs to where I was lugging along less food (and hence less weight).
Bravo, Dave! Kudos for going down there and knocking this thing out solo! It sounds like a great trail, and it sounds like you made it look easy.
(And I laughed out loud at your Standing Stone references.)
And I think things are tougher when you're solo like that. I've done some things solo, and have basically concluded that I'd rather be in a group. I know that when I make camp, alone, it's like, "Well, I've eaten dinner. There's nothing to do. Might as well get in the bag."
Also, thanks for scouting this out, I know some gears are spinning for a Memorial Day venture.
Thanks, Dave! The write-up and pictures are great. For future trips (say, over Memorial Day), would you adjust the splits? Or did you like your overall plan?
[quote]Thanks, Dave! The write-up and pictures are great. For future trips (say, over Memorial Day), would you adjust the splits? Or did you like your overall plan?[/quote]
I found the splits very comfortable even with the shorter days. I never broke out the headlamp to hike.
That said, setting it up for a group would be harder.
I'm having a hard time figuring out the logistics for a Memorial Day trip. I think we're looking at 5 days no matter what given the long travel time. I wonder if that puts a damper on the trip for a lot of folks. I think it'd involve taking Friday and Tuesday off.
My 4am departure and prearranged shuttle might become unreasonable with a group from DC. I think you're looking at an 8.5 hour drive plus a 2 hour shuttle-setup. We could probably arrange a van shuttle from a local outfitter ($) but you'd still be looking at a 3am departure from DC to make an early afternoon start. Given that, spending the night at the state park isn't too expensive (Oconee or Table Rock if we go the other way) and may make more sense for a group at the cost of an additional day. Alternatively we could try to hike out of the park then camp, but I didn't note any particularly good, large sites just outside either state park.
Night hiking all/part of the first day if, of course, a possibility. Given the popularity of camping along the Chattooga River on a long weekend, available campsites may be harder to find. Note that I did see a sign near the end of my trip that said "no hiking after dark". That sign was within Table Rock State Park and near a section of trail that would result in death-by-cliff-falling if you missed a turn.
I'll look at my GPX waypoints and see, but something like: travel+car camp, 20+, 20+, 20+, 10+travel may work better for the group, especially if the last day is on Tuesday after Memorial day and hopefully less crowded. That cool old homestead campsite might not be full on a Monday night and it's perfectly placed for a 9-10 mile final day (and so very awesome).
I found the trail pretty easy to walk. It's not technical or rocky. The elevation gains aren't huge. There are a few very steep sections but they're short (I still took multiple breaks to let my heart rate descend from 'hummingbird'). It can be slippery and I slowed down many times to avoid falling and still ended up on my butt a couple times.
The campsites that can support 9-10 tents aren't too prevalent but given our groups ability to do the longer miles I don't think it will be an issue. I think it's an ideal trail for hammocking. If I had bug-proof hammock I'd take one next time, especially as I found the ground to be damp in many of the sites. I didn't see any bugs in December but I have to imagine that mosquitoes would be rampant in the summer.
I don't think the time-off would be a deterrent. Last year's Memorial Day trip involved 1.5 days off (a half day on Thursday, and full day on Friday). If we give enough of a heads-up, people should be able to see if they can get the time off.
I prefer the splits that don't involve death-by-cliff-falling. I happen to be a bit of a klutz. :) And I think for this, we'd like the longer days -- especially if we have people who are signed up for the big trips this summer, and looking to see what back-to-back long days are like.
I agree with Jen that extra time off wouldn't be a deterrent.
There would also be the potential for the DC crew to leave the evening before, drive part way, camp/motel it, then continue the drive down, rather than doing a 10+ hour drive followed by a 2 hr. shuttle and then starting to hike all in the same day that started at 3am. Ouch!
I hadn't considered over-nighting on the way down. In that case I'd propose a Friday noon meetup at Table Rock State Park, pile into vehicle #2 and drive to Oconee and hit the trail. Northern folks could leave Thursday after work and drive half way as they desire.
For night 1, camp along the Chattooga (could be 8-13 miles depending on where we stop). Night two near Lower Whitewater (large camp with water source). Night three at Toxaway (large camp with a second large camp a mile away as backup). Night four (Monday night) at the Cantrell homestead. It's the largest site and can be popular but hopefully empty on a Monday night and there aren't many options on that section of trail. That leaves a 9 mile day + travel for Tuesday. Plus we hit the cliff-falling-off areas in daylight.
That puts the splits at something like 11, 22, 17, 19, 9+travel and taking leave on Friday and Tuesday (since Monday is Memorial Day).
I'm open to alternate versions though if a different schedule would work for folks.
A 4 minute video of some of the sights (artistic license taken in sequencing!)
Great video! One last question, and then I'll check with some people here about timing. Is 10 a manageable size for the campsites you've mentioned? Or do we need to get it smaller?