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Foothills Trail

LAURAL FORKLENGTH: 82 miles  

Difficulty: Strenuous

PROS: Wildlife, rare plants, waterfalls, solitude

CONS: Very rugged in some sections. 
WATER: Plentiful  NOTES: This is as good as it gets!

Trail Map>>>>

This covers the section from Eastatoe Creek to the Toxaway River.

South Carolina's "A.T."

Tucked away in a seldom traveled section of South Carolina, the Foothills Trail holds many hidden treasures. The 80 + mile trail travels from Ceasars Head State Park to Oconee State Park along the North Carolina Border. 43 miles of this trail was built  and maintained by Duke Power Company as part of a licensing agreement for the construction of Lake Joccasee. This section of South Carolina was never heavily populated or developed. This is truly some of the best backcountry wilderness that the Southeast has to offer, complete with numerous patches of "Old Growth Forest". The section of the trail from Laurel Fork Creek to the Whitewater River is often referred to as the Gorges Section and is little known by hikers. The bio-diversity of the plant life in this area is unparalleled in the East. 81 rare plant species have been recorded so far and more may be found. Be sure to keep an eye open for the Oconee Bell, first cataloged in 1788. The Oconee Bell frequently occurs throughout this hike and is only found in the Jocassee region. 

Oconee bells line the trail in the spring.

No trace camping in the Laural Fork Gorge.

This region is where the highland plateau of North Carolina changes to the rolling hills of South Carolina. This change occurs in just a few miles, resulting in a collection of some of the most spectacular waterfalls in the East. Because of the sudden change in elevation deep gorges have been cut into the mountain sides. A quick look at the Foothills Trail map shows that the trail is at the bottom end of these Gorges.

Laurel Fork Creek.

Waterfalls punctuate this hike.

The waterfalls that fill the rivers and creeks are spectacular. They are fed by the 80 + inches of rainfall that this area receives annually. The Toxaway,   Horsepasture, Thompson and the Whitewater Rivers are some of the more well known rivers that the trail crosses . Whitewater and Laurel Fork, the tallest falls in the Southeast, are both over 400 feet in height. As you hike through this section of trail hikers are never far from the sound of water.

One of many bridges built by Duke Power engineers. Click to enlarge

This hike begins in the Eastatoe Creek parking lot, located near the North and South Carolina border on Rt. 178. After  traversing a dry ridge for 3.5 miles, the trail descends into a gorge. At this point the trail never strays from the sight or sound of water. You are now hiking along Laurel Fork Creek. The trail follows an old road that is used by hunters and fisherman. Luckily this road is only open for a few months, during hunting season.  

The trail follows old roads in sections. Notice the silt from recent floods.

At the top of Laurel Fork Falls are excellent camping areas. Firewood and space are plentiful. Short trails lead to the top and to the side of the falls but are not recommended. The moss covered rocks are slippery and have claimed several lives in the past.

Some of the rare tropical plants that this area is known for, grow on the wet rocks of Laurel Fork Falls. Because of the continuous mist from the falls and the mild low elevation climate, the very rare Gorge Moss is found here. It is found in only six sites on earth. Before the turn of the century the Carolina Parakeet was flourishing in this area. Unfortunately the bird was declared extinct by the 1930's. The Jocassee Gorge area was one of the last strongholds for the colorful bird. Turn over a few rocks and you may find the rare Green Salamander. Look skyward and you may be able to spot the uncommon Swainson's Warbler. Look into Lake Jocassee and you may observe some rare species of fish !

Top of Laurel Fork Falls.

The 400 foot Laurel Fork Falls from the Foothills Trail. Click to enlarge

Another oddity that is found here and usually associated with tropical climates, is the scorpion. On a recent trip we found one after taking a morning "dip". It was crawling on our towel. Now, shaking out my boots before putting them on, is standard operating procedure for hikes in this area.

The trail is now within sight of 7656 acre Lake Joccasee. Lake Joccasee was built by Duke Power in 1973 to feed a hydroelectric pumped storage station. This part of the trail is well traveled due to easy access by boaters.Even though the campsites here are heavily used, Hikers seldom visit this section because the trail heads are so far away from roads. 

Lake Joccasee from the Foothills Trail.

The 5.7 mile stretch between Laurel Fork Falls and Cane Brake (The Toxaway River)follows the shoreline of Lake Jocassee. Shortly after leaving the falls the trail begins the steepest ascent and descent on the Duke Power section of trail. Small potatoes compared to some of the huge climbs in the Smokies.  After leaving that strenuous climb behind you, the grade of trail becomes much less demanding. Aside from a few small "ups and downs" the trail is easy. The hike on the shoreline is pleasant and has many side trails that lead to the lake. Perfect for a summer swim.

At the junction of the trail and the Toxaway Creek is an excellent camping area. Many campsites are on the Lake as well as the creek. Large Hemlocks shade the campsites. The very same Hemlocks provide a good place to hang food-bags. This is necessary due to the frequent visits to this campsite by Bears.

The trail crosses two bridges here. The first one is a small span that crosses the Toxaway Creek. The second, much more impressive, crosses the Toxaway River. Between the two bridges another trail joins the Foothills Trail from the right. This old road climbs about 5 miles up to Augerhole Road. Access to Augerhole Road is possible from Frozen Creek Road, off of US 64 near Highlands.

The view from the bridge takes in the delta of the Toxaway River. The flow over the rocks as it joins Jocassee is a popular swimming spot for boaters and hikers.    

The bridge over the river Toxaway.

The Toxaway River.

After crossing the second bridge, and enjoying the view, the trail descends to the Lake. This area is known to the locals here as Cane Brake. At this point we'll end this hike and pick it up in another piece. This land of  bio-diversity, waterfalls and wildlife is enchanting and must be preserved for future generations.

Gettin' There

From the intersection with Hwy 11, drive north on US 178 to the bridge over Eastatoe Creek (approximately one mile past the community of Rocky Bottom). Cross the bridge and turn left at the Laurel Valley Lodge sign. Immediately bear right onto the unpaved fork and continue to the Foothills Trail parking area about 0.3 mile on the left. Park here, and hike another 0.2miles up the unpaved road. The Eastatoe Creek Trailhead will be on your left.
The parking for the exit at Augerhole Road is on Frozen Creek Road. It can be reached from US 64 near Highlands

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