South Carolina's Blue Ridge Scene Stealer

The 76-mile Foothills Trail takes in all of the Blue Ridge's scenic wonders.
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The 76-mile Foothills Trail takes in all of the Blue Ridge's scenic wonders.

Maybe they call this the Foothills Trail for the quandary that backpackers face on this 76-mile ramble through the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. Should you pay attention to the lush display of spring and summer wildflowers at your feet, or the soaring vistas of the rolling Piedmont? If only all of life's dilemmas offered such a win-win dynamic.

Coursing along the state line between the two Carolinas, the Foothills Trail connects two state parks, South Carolina's highest peak, and rivers of national scenic significance. Spur trails lead to deep gorges and peaks with 360-degree vistas. And its tame-sounding moniker notwithstanding, the Foothills Trail passes through decidedly rugged country. Pitches are steep but thankfully short, and nothing like the early days when portions of the trail descended from ridgelines to creeks in grades approaching 30 percent. The trail has since been rerouted to moderate the ups and downs while still hitting the scenic highlights.

And highlights come by the mile on this trail. Along Laurel Fork Creek giant virgin hemlocks tower over dense beds of rare Oconee Bells flowers, which grow only in Georgia and the Carolinas. Near Sassafras Mountain the trail tunnels through a grove of 15- and 20-foot-high American chestnuts that are remnants of a nineteenth-century stand. There are sweeping eastward views of the Piedmont from Pinnacle and Sassafras mountains and to Table Rock, and stirring vistas west of the Blue Ridge palisades.

Much of the land the trail passes through is part of the Jocassee Gorge region, which Duke Power Company-the utility that built and maintains 43 miles of the Foothills Trail-sold to North Carolina as part of a huge public lands project (see Signpost, September 1997).

There is even more good news because the Foothills Trail, like the mountains it traverses, is still evolving. One planned expansion involves a 4-mile spur trail through the waterfall-rich Horsepasture Gorge. Another links the Foothills Trail to the highly popular Art Loeb Trail 40 miles north in Pisgah National Forest. With the completion of the Bartram Trail in North Carolina, which connects with the Foothills Trail beside the Chattooga River, it's possible to hike to the Appalachian Trail.

QUICK TAKE: Foothills Trail, South Carolina

DRIVE TIME: The Oconee State Park trailhead is about 150 miles (3 hours) northeast of Atlanta and 160 miles (3 hours) southwest of Charlotte.

THE WAY: To get to the Table Rock State Park trailhead from Greenville, South Carolina, take US 276 to SC 11. Turn east and continue to the state park. The trailhead is on the north side of the Pinnacle Lake parking lot at the Carrick Creek Interpretive Center. To reach the Oconee State Park trailhead from Greenville, take I-85 south to SC 28. Turn north, continue to SC 107. Turn north, continue on to the state park. Signs for the Foothills Trail lead the way.

TRAILS: The Foothills Trail is 76 miles long, but you can add a 19-mile spur trail that runs from Sassafras Mountain to Jones Gap State Park. A super 18-mile loop can be made by heading west on the Foothills Trail where it crosses the Walhalla Fish Hatchery Road (just off SC 107). Turn upriver on the Chattooga Trail at its intersection with the Foothills Trail, pick up the Ellicott Rock Trail and follow it 71/2 miles east through Ellicott Rock Wilderness to the intersection with Foothills Trail north of where you began. Head south back to your car. In the 32-mile stretch from Whitewater Falls to US 178, called the "Big Middle," there is no public road access but there are four spectacular river crossings via footbridge. A few sections of trail are reached by boat only. For boat and car shuttle service, contact Hoyett's Grocery and Tackle in Salem, South Carolina at (864) 944-9016.

ELEVATION: From the Table Rock State Park trailhead at around 1,500 feet, the trail trips over five peaks above 3,000 feet, including Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina's loftiest at 3,554 feet.

CAN'T MISS: Upper and Lower Whitewater Falls, each of which boasts about 800 feet of cascading water-depending on the season.

CROWD CONTROL: Trail stretches in the state parks are heavily used, but solitude reigns elsewhere.

PIT STOP: Table Rock State Park restaurant plies fried chicken, candied yams, and other Southern staples.

WALK SOFTLY: Between Sassafras Mountain and Lake Jocassee thrives one of the densest black bear populations in the eastern United States. Hang your food and keep a clean camp.

MAPS AND GUIDES: The all-inclusive Guide to the Foothills Trail is full of elevation and topographic maps, detailed trail descriptions, camp and water locations, and historic and cultural background. Available for $12 from the Foothills Trail Conference, address below.

MORE INFORMATION: Foothills Trail Conference, P.O. Box 3041, Greenville, SC 29602; (864) 467-9537. Entrance to the state parks will set you back $2.