Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 1 - 3/23/15 – Oconee State Park to Chattooga River Campsite – 14.4 Miles
The genesis of a thru-hike of the Foothills Trail came as an invitation from a long distance hiker friend and her long distance hiker friend who I had not previously met. I was thrilled to jump on board with experienced folks for my longest backpacking adventure to date. However, the original plan for February was abandoned due to a daunting weather forecast of extreme cold. The next window of opportunity in late March was again canceled due to illness and work responsibilities of the other two hikers…
But I had taken time off from work, upgraded some equipment, prepared food and was ready to go. What to do, what to do? Go somewhere more familiar for a few days (hello Smokies!) or try the thru-hike on my own? Jim encouraged me to try the solo. Then I floated the idea to my friend Cathy, and with 3 days’ notice she cleared her schedule and off we went.
Basics on the Foothills Trail: Located in the mountains of upstate South Carolina (yes, they have great mountains), the hiking-only trail stretches between Table Rock State Park and Oconee State Park, including a few miles across the border in North Carolina’s Gorges State Park. The reasons to hike the Foothills Trail include water, water, water features: the Chattooga, Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers, Rock Creek, Laurel Fork Creek, Lake Jocasee and numerous waterfalls and cascades. If you like camping by water, this trail is waiting for you! Blazes are plentiful and easy to follow (2x6-inch white rectangles). The Foothills Trail Conference website is fantastic and the maps and guidebook have about everything you need. Only problem: the guidebook is written from Table Rock to Oconee, and we hiked in the opposite direction. I am terrible at interpreting narratives backwards.
We compressed the hike plan to 5 days and 4 nights - again, the longest fully loaded backpacking trip I have attempted and now it is also high-mileage - and as usual I burned brain cells obsessing about food, water, gear and pack weight. My final pack weigh-in was 28 pounds and I felt every ounce of it.
On a pleasant Monday morning while the rest of the world was at work, we met our shuttle driver at Table Rock State Park, along with another hiker from Florida who had the same general plan, and before you could say “where’s the buffet?” we were standing at the trailhead at Oconee SP.
With Cathy’s old map and my backwards guidebook, we crossed our fingers and got going. (No worries, we discovered that the trail was so well marked that there was little chance of getting off of it, and frequent signage at major intersections even told us how many miles between the two parks and anywhere else.)
A gentle, soft start on pine needles gave us confidence for our long adventure. (We knew the steep climbs were waiting at the other end on Thursday and Friday.) Walking in and out of the contours of Long Mountain and Dodge Mountain, I noticed remnants of a forest fire. New growth sprouted from the bases of blackened mountain laurel. I was shocked to read in the guidebook that the Jumping Branch fire occurred in 1978 – 37 years ago!
At the Nicholson Ford access parking area we spotted this funmobile. How far into the woods did the owners go?
(Answer: about half a mile to the first big campsite)
Footbridges galore, nary a wet crossing on the entire Foothills Trail
Licklog Falls (where we crossed paths with more party people)
We were a little early for spring flowers except for these sweet tiny yellow violets. We were on the lookout for Oconee bells, a rare flower found only in the southern Appalachian Mountains, concentrated in the tri-state border region of Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
The infamous Chattooga River that played a starring role in the movie "Deliverance" in real life is the natural border between South Carolina and Georgia. The FT walks within the sight and/or sound of this designated Wild and Scenic river for several miles, sometimes right alongside it and other times teasing with glimpses of cascades and waterfalls.
In two places along this part of the Chattooga there is a low water route where hikers can have a toe dip or a high water route to avoid going in neck deep. Fortunately for us, the water was low enough to get up close and personal.
Finding a riverside campsite by reading the guidebook backwards isn’t so easy. Is this the one they mean? Doesn’t look like much. Is this the one they mean? Not flat at all. Is this… We kept going just a little bit further, even as our ankles and feet begged for mercy after miles with heavy packs. We chose the last site on the river (although we didn’t know that until the following morning).
Cooking supper by the riverside
When two people go backpacking, each should be self-supporting, i.e. carrying one of everything necessary such as stoves, water filters, headlamps, etc. In a group of 3 or more, two of everything can still be sufficient. On this trip I carried Aqua Mira water treatment drops and Cathy carried her Sawyer Squeeze filter. We discovered on this first night that Cathy’s filter wasn’t working properly, so my water drops became the default for water purification. (Later on in the trip I had a stove igniter malfunction and was glad for Cathy’s Jet Boil.) Lack of ability to purify water is a sure way to cut short a trip and a reminder to me that water treatment drops always work (as does boiling water, but then if your stove doesn’t work…)
My tent site wasn’t so level at this spot either and I rolled sideways downhill all night, but I was oh-so-glad to be lying down. Before I closed my eyes, I inspected my feet and applied magic duct tape to a couple of red areas, hoping to ward off blisters ahead. Not quite 15 miles today and tomorrow will be longer… and that pack sure is heavy… but the woods and water are so beautiful…
“And so each adventure is a new beginning.” ~T.S. Eliot