Backpack the Foothills Trail through the Southeastern Appalachian Mountains

76.2 miles 11036 ft gain  - Point-to-Point Trail

Added by Brett Kelly

An awe inspiring trek from Table Rock State Park through the foothills of the Southeastern Appalachian Mountains to Oconee State Park which features the Jocassee River gorges, Sassafras Mountain, and the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River. Hikers can expect to find blue line trout waters, suspension bridges, wildflowers, and star-filled nights from peaceful campsites which are numerous enough to never crowd any group.

Starting at Table Rock State Park (South Carolina) and working your 76.2 miles way towards Oconee State Park (South Carolina) is the most popular route, with a few spur trails that lead to places like Raven Cliff Falls in Cesar's Head State Park. The trail gains ~11,036 feet in elevation with another ~10,000 descending along this route.  This trail, depending on pack weight, can be through hiked in 4-6 days, or has multiple access points to allow for section hikes (which are much more popular). All trails and campsites are open year-round, but liable to closings during burning season or potential trail maintenance. The trail is dog and family friendly, which was evident as we saw plenty of both throughout our trip. Fishing is open in all sections with proper SC/NC fishing license, and make sure to heed any special trout fishing regulations.

 My uncle and I decided to travel from Oconee State Park back towards Table Rock State Park.Our trip took 5 days from Wednesday morning at 9:30 AM to Sunday at 12:00 PM noon (~100 hours total on trail).

Day 1: Oconee State Park (0.0m) to Burrells Ford Campground (15.9 miles). Starting out with healthy joints and high spirits, we began our hike at 9:30 AM. This section of the hike started around 2000 ft in elevation and stayed roughly around that elevation as it followed the wild and scenic Chattooga River. Due to the proximity to the river, there were ample places to fill water containers. During the first 7 miles the trail crossed a major highway also, in case of emergency or a need to travel to a nearby town. Comfortable campsites were sparse, but the terrain was level enough in most cases that a small camp could be made in a bind during the first 10 miles. Closer to Burrells Ford campground, many camps had been made right on the riverbanks, where the water slowed and had made small beaches. Once we arrived at Burrells ford campground, we were the only people camping and there were more than 10 sites to choose from. Even though we were backpacking, these campgrounds are accessible by road, and therefore had many amenities. Each campsite had clearings for tents, metal poles for hanging food, picnic tables, and a metal fire pit. We watched rising trout in the pool below our camp while eating dinner.

Day 2: Burrells Ford campground 15.9m to a campsite past the Bad Creek Reservoir Parking area 32.3miles (16.4 miles). This day started with mid 30 degree temps, then a ridge climb with views of Jocassee and Bad Creek Reservoir (a Duke Energy project made for hydroelectricity production) below followed by a descent to the Whitewater River Valley which had intense rocky and boulder terrain that turned a single track dirt trail into V0 bouldering mixed with steep descents and block stairs. The overlook trail was out service due to the wildfires last year. A steel bridge was bolted to a massive boulder on either side of the river and after 2 more miles following the Whitewater River through eastern white pines we found a campsite which was in an awesome flat pocket on the side of a mountain ridge that was dead silent, and offered a spring for water access which was built by a boy scout troop. 

Day 3: From the Bad Creek area campsite 32.3m to the Toxaway River Valley campsite 48.6m (16.3 miles covered). This section had multiple climbs and descents that were not long in duration but had a steep slope. It covered the Thompson River then descended into the Horsepasture River valley which is one of the two large headwater rivers feeding into Lake Jocassee. Native Americans termed this valley the horse pasture due to the landscape created natural corrals. After the large bridge over the Horsepasture River, a staircase housing about 70 consecutive stairs begins the climb out of the valley. Once at the top, you follow the ridge for a few miles before beginning the long and steep descent into the Jocassee Gorges in NC. This section ended at the mouth of the Toxoway river, the other headwater river for Lake Jocassee. This was an exceptionally cool section because the river banks were freshwater beaches where many people could camp and watch as the river turned into marsh and then deepened to form the beginning of the lake. The campsite was on the other side of the river which was only accessible by a 100ft+ in length suspension bridge that was 15ft+ over the water. It was another beautiful campsite overlooking the water equipped with a fire pit and picnic table. 

Day 4: Toxaway River 48.6m to John L. Cantrelle homesite on Sassafras Mtn 67.6m (19 miles covered). We were quickly approaching out expected time of completion (Sunday before 2 PM), and we knew that to meet our goal of walking the entire trail, this day would have to be long. So we started hiking on Saturday at 7:45 AM, and reached camp at 6:38 PM. During that time we only took our packs off to rest twice. One half mile after our campsite, we began our climb of "Heartbreak Ridge." This is a very steep ascent which consists of 304 consecutive wooden plank stairs. The slope of the hill was such that I ended up bear-crawling most of the way up. This climb was mirrored by a steep staircase on the other side of the ridge, but the next 10 miles were very mild terrain that followed Laurel Fork Creek, which has a beautiful waterfall. After the Laurel Fork Valley, you begin the steepest and longest climb of the trip; Sassafras Mountain. The peak of this mountain is the highest point in South Carolina reaching a point of 3553 feet. This climb from the end of Laurel Valley is 5 miles which rises 2000 feet. It is dry and only has access to two water sources so take advantage of them! Once on top you can view for miles and miles in any direction, and really appreciate how far you have come (or have to go if traveling the other way). After our respite at the summit, we hiked an additional mile to the John L Cantrell homesite camp. This is a campground made near an old homesite on Sassafras Mountain. 

Finishing day: 67.6-76.2m. We descended the 800 feet of Sassafras mountain to climb right back up Pinnacle Mountain to 3200 feet. Once at the top of Pinnacle Mountain, there are signs every half mile following the Foothills Trail down to the parking lot. At this point, there are 4 miles of pure descent, as the parking lot is only at 1200 feet in elevation. The descent crosses multiple creeks, has a great overlook called Bald Knob around 2800 feet, and maneuvers through various boulder outcrops. We reached the trailhead around 12 PM noon, and had just completed an awesome adventure of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains! 

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Southeastern Appalachian Playground

This trail is exceptionally maintained, and very well marked. Over 76 miles there were very few instances where felled trees blocked the trail. The trail offers everything from wild trout water and suspension bridges, to dry oak ridges and stunning mountain views. With a variety of wildflowers and strong white pines, and amphibians, fish, and other wildlife, this trail offers anything that an outdoorsy individual may be looking for!

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