The Foothills Trail

North Carolina/South Carolina
Trail at a Glance
Length: 86 miles
States: North & South Carolina
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult (lots of ascents)
Season: Year-round (can get hot in summer)
Use: Moderate to heavy
Condition: Good
More: Foothills Trail Conference

The Foothills Trail may be the most unsung, underused, and underrated long trail in the Southeast. It traverses the Cherokee Foothills of the Southern Appalachians in North and South Carolina, through state parks, national forests, and state-owned preserves. In these lands are high ridgelines, wild and scenic rivers, deep rock gorges, wilderness areas, mountain lakes, clear trout streams, towering forests, and a number of incredible waterfalls stretching from one end of the path to the other. There are so many cascades along the Foothills Trail that I wonder why they didn't name it the Waterfall Trail.

The Foothills Trail is in full maturity. It is well marked, well maintained, and makes an excellent extended trek with ample camping opportunities. Several decades back, locals recognized the sheer number of natural resources found on the North Carolina-South Carolina border, and realized a path connecting these resources would be a great way to both enjoy and protect them. No one knows who exactly started the idea, but several persons and agencies converged to begin a "Foothills Trail." The first miles were laid out in Sumter National Forest back in 1968. (I actually met a former forest employee who was part of this effort.) As time passed, more agencies got involved, culminating with Duke Power Company laying out much of the heart of the trail. Duke Power has since sold their lands to the two states.

Overnight camping opportunities are numerous, with some restrictions. Backcountry camping is prohibited in Oconee and Caesars Head State Parks and the Whitewater River Gorge. (Whitewater River Gorge is an especially attractive area where the namesake natural resource is tightly protected.) Backcountry camping within the Sumter National Forest is by permit only, except in the Chattooga River corridor and Ellicott Rock Wilderness, where you don't need one. The permit system in Sumter doesn't restrict campers to specific sites. Backcountry camping at Jones Gap State Park is by permit only and restricted to specific sites.

Generally, most camping occurs along streams, though some high-country camping can be done. Water is generally accessible throughout the trail. Angling is a very viable option here. And with so much water, hiking the Foothills Trail is a year-round proposition, though summer can be very hot; you will want to be near water as often as possible. The area around Lake Jocassee can be busy with boaters on summer weekends. Spring offers an abundance of wildflowers in the many lush valleys. My most enjoyable moments have been in fall, with the vibrant colors and cooler temperatures. Winter can be variable, with snow in the high country and entire days below freezing a very real possibility, though milder days occur with regularity.

In keeping with the tradition of the Appalachian Trail and all the other trails profiled in this article, the Foothills Trail is described heading south to north, though in this case it is more southwest to northeast. This generally keeps the afternoon sun at your back, making for a cooler hiking experience. Backpackers can extend their end-to-end trek from a week to two weeks or more, if they are willing to bring all their supplies with them, as I have before. Be apprised that access to stores and post offices along the trail is virtually nonexistent. This is due to the remoteness of the trail and the nearly continuous wild lands it traverses, which is ultimately the preferred situation. Road crossings are frequent enough to cache supplies in a car or have others meet you, though the trail passes through a 30-plus mile section without easy road access. Hiking the Foothills Trail end-to-end was one of my most enjoyable outdoor experiences. Hopefully it will be for you, too.


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