Although trail maintenance and signage are excellent for its entire length, it is very rugged in many places and the elevation gains and losses as it descends into and climbs out of four deeply incised river valleys are formidable. The difficulty of these elevation changes is multiplied by the philosophy of the trail builders, which seems to have been that there’s no sense in wasting time slowly gaining and loosing elevation with switchbacks when you can go vertical and get higher or lower much more quickly. This verticality is accomplished with stairs, stairs, and more stairs.
The Foothills Trail is not a trail of expansive vistas, especially during the seasons when the trees are leafed out. Only twice during the first five days of an end-to-end trip did I have a good view of my distant surroundings. It was not until the sixth and last day when I crossed Sassafras Mountain and Table Rock State Park did I experience great views. What you do experience on the trail is water. The average yearly rainfall at Gorges State Park is over 80 inches and as a result, there are dozens of waterfalls and hundreds of streams and rivers, the majority of which are crossed on excellent bridges, often courtesy of Duke Energy. This abundance of H2O results from what is known as orographic lift, which means that as air masses heavy with moisture move westward across the South Carolina Piedmont, they rise as they encounter the mountains, which causes then to expand and cool. The cooler air can’t hold moisture as well as warm air and this significantly raises the relative humidity, which creates clouds and abundant precipitation.
The Foothills Trail is a National Recreational Trail that covers nearly 77 miles in South and North Carolina. Traveling west to east, the trail begins in Oconee State Park in South Carolina, extends northeastward into North Carolina, re-enters South Carolina and ends at Table Rock State Park. The trail traverses the Blue Ridge Escarpment; a geological feature characterized by the sudden transition from the southern Appalachian Mountains to the Piedmont. Over a distance of just a few miles, the elevation drops 2,000 feet. The trail traverses the drainages of six major rivers: the Chattooga, Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture, Toxaway and Saluda. It also passes through two national forests, the Ellicott Rock Wilderness and parallels the northern shore of Lake Jocassee.
When planning a trip on the Foothills Trail, don’t be deceived by the relatively low elevations, which range from about 1,000 feet on the shore of Lake Jocassee to 3,553 at Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest point.
Left: Lake Jocassee Right: Suspension Bridge over the Toxaway River
In the 1960s efforts began to protect the Appalachian foothills in North and South Carolina and make them more accessible. Discussions by interested people in the upstate, including Clemson University’s Recreation & Park Administration Department and the U.S. Forest Service, initiated the development of the Foothills Trail. The Forest Service began constructing the first segment of the trail in the Sumter National Forest in 1968. Duke Power Company (now Duke Energy) built the middle portion of the trail as a recreational resource in conjunction with its Bad Creek pumped storage hydroelectric project. By the early 1970s, the Foothills Trail effort was gaining momentum and a firm geographic concept of the trail layout was formed with collaboration from the Forest Service; South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism; Pendleton Historic and Recreational Commission; Duke Power Company’s Real Estate Department; and Clemson University’s Recreation and Park Administration Department. The 77-mile trail linking Oconee and Table Rock State Parks was in place by 1981.
As interest in the Foothills Trail increased, the Foothills Trail Conference was established in 1974 as a non-profit organization responsible for promoting and supporting development of the Trail. The Conference has developed a guide book and map, supported trail maintenance, and contributed to publications about the trail.
Maps and Guidebooks
The Foothills Trail Association’s website (foothillstrail.org) has a store where you can purchase an excellent map and guidebook. Both of these items are must haves when you’re planning a hike and actually doing the hike.
The Foothills Trail Association’s web site has information about shuttle services. The page contains contact information for shuttle drivers. There are both volunteer shuttle drivers and commercial drivers available to help with the logistics of your hike. Volunteers are “hikers helping hikers”; they do not charge set fees but should be reimbursed fairly for the number of miles traveled.