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.