Thursday, April 30, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Oconee Bells & Heartbreak Ridge

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 3 - 3/25/15 – Thompson River Campsite to Rock Creek Campsite – 15.6 Miles

This morning our tents and groundcloths were bone dry.  Good omen?  One of my hiking poles (which double as tent poles) wouldn’t lock and I spent 15 maddening minutes fiddling with it, finally taking it apart and working with the screw inside.  Bad omen?  Charles left out a bit ahead of us, maybe we’ll see him at the end of the day.  The trail headed uphill right from camp so we started out in shorts and short sleeves.

Cathy is a waterfall fan and has hiked around the Foothills area a bit, but on today’s section we took the short side trail to a new one for her (they are all new to me). 

Hilliard Falls, named for Glenn Hilliard, first chairman of the Foothills Trail Conference.  Great swimming hole for a warmer day than today.

We backtracked the .2 miles to the FT.  While standing by the Hilliard Falls sign, we felt tiny raindrops and put on our pack covers – 9:15 a.m.  The drops soon became steady rain and we slipped into our rain jackets.  Rain jackets are hot, so either you are wet from sweating or wet from the rain.  Sitting down to eat breakfast wasn’t appealing and we kept hiking, hoping for the rain to slow down, but we finally had to stand still and choke down a few bites.  This is the character-building part of backpacking!  The rain really isn’t so bad if you embrace it and keep on walking.

Even when it rains for 4 hours as the trail winds in and out of the dripping forest onto old logging roads and there are few flowers or views or points of interest

Okay, one sweet Robin’s plantain

Interesting bark on a tree blocking the trail

The rain relented, although the sky remained overcast.  Focused in my own little hiking zone, I rounded a curve and came upon…people!  Lots of them!  A crew of students from Auburn University out for a spring break adventure.  They were moving slow, as large groups tend to do, taking about 10 days to hike the FT as compared to our 5 days. 

I thought the group was pausing to descend steps down to the bridge over the Horsepasture River (come on, get outta my way, I’ve got miles to go) and then one of the guys pointed down.  Along the sides of the trail and all down the mountainside, intertwined in ivy, were Oconee Bells, millions of them.  The natural range of Oconee Bells is the river gorges that feed Lake Jocassee, meaning they are rare except when they are blooming in profusion from mid-March to early April.  Our timing was perfect. 

Floral explosion

Along the staircase (not a good photo but you get the idea)

A calm section of Horsepasture River flowing under the bridge

Cathy’s photo of me after crossing the bridge and beginning to ascend stairs on the far side

More weaving off and onto logging roads.  Several times the trail veered off into the woods, paralleling in sight of the dirt road, then dumped onto it for a hundred yards, then off into the woods again.  The one time I made a misstep was where the trail actually crossed the road but I turned onto it.  I quickly realized my mistake and retraced my steps. 

Note to future hikers:  Do not confuse Bearcamp Creek with Bear Creek.  They are about 5 miles apart on the trail and both have designated campsites.   Both are crossed via 35-foot wooden bridges.  Make sure you are where you think you are.  Just sayin’.

“Wherever you go, there you are.”  Helpful trail signage.

The FT winds along the shoreline of Lake Jocassee for about 1.5 miles and we could see where the Toxaway River pours into the lake.  We crossed the river on the longest suspension bridge on the FT.

After Toxaway the Foothills Trail Guide warns in bold letters with flashing lights that a VERY STRENUOUS section called Heartbreak Ridge is coming up:  hundreds of wooden steps ascend and descend the ridge and great caution is required.  The previous night Cathy and Charles and I had discussed this and planned to camp at the designated area right after this epic section because we would be, you know, exhausted. 

Turns out Heartbreak Ridge wasn’t a big deal, maybe because it was anticipated – 286 unevenly spaced wooden steps up and who knows how many more down - but I walked very slowly, counting as I went.  I looked back and thought, “That’s it?”  I think that people believe they have to quickly power through steep sections, when the real trick is to slow w-a-a-a-y down.

We descended and crossed the suspension bridge over Rock Creek and arrived at the agreed-upon campsite, a huge space alongside Rock Creek.  It was 4:40 p.m. and we had hiked 15.6 miles.  Cathy had seen Charles continue on.  Tough choice - do we keep going?   My legs had a couple more miles in them, but the next campsite was over another climb and 4.5 miles away.  We decided to stay put.

Camping at Rock Creek

Having so much time to set up camp was nice, time to relax, hang up stuff to dry, enjoy a leisurely supper.  About 7:30 p.m. (the time we would have been just arriving at the next campsite) the rain began to pitter-patter again. 

“Smile, breathe and go slowly.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

1 comment:

Nancy said...

I am so envious that you found so many Oconee Bells!! Loved seeing the kids from Auburn, my alma mater. I used to do the same thing (come to these mountains on breaks for backpacking trips) And it is great to read that "Heartbreak Ridge" isn't as horrible as the guidebook would lead you to believe. We're finishing the trail with our kids on Memorial Day weekend and I've been apprehensive about that section, but it sounds like it's okay as long as you take it slow. Great photos and great report, as usual! :-)