Foothills Trail Thru Hike: The BEST backpacking in South Carolina

Sunrise from Sassafras Mountain on my Foothills Trail thru hike

Towering waterfalls. Thunderous river gorges. Wildflower fields. The highest peak in South Carolina. And stairs. So many stairs. This is your life when you attempt a Foothills Trail thru hike.

The Foothills Trail runs 77 miles from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park in South Carolina, crossing briefly into North Carolina twice along the way. It earned its name from its location in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

If you’ve ever dreamed of thru hiking a long trail, the Foothills is a good trail to dip your toes in or train. And if you’re a weekend backpacker looking to up your hiking game, it’s a comfortable intro into longer backcountry trips. In this post I’m sharing my complete Foothills Trail guide to help you prep for your time on-trail.

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Foothills Trail Thru Hike Basic Stats

If you look at a Foothills Trail map, this was from pretty close to the end - just above the Table Rock entrance.
My hiking buddies and I on our last day on-trail
  • Starting/ending location: Oconee State Park and Table Rock State Park
  • Total length: 77 miles, not including side trips
  • Elevation gain: Approximately 10-11,000 feet, depending on which direction you hike in
  • How many days: 5-7 is pretty typical
  • Highlights: Whitewater Falls, Gorges State Park, Sassafras Mountain, the many rivers
  • Difficulty: Most of the trail is moderate, but there are lots of steep stairs

Which direction should you hike the Foothills Trail in?

The many river gorges are a top feature of South Carolina hiking
If you take a Foothills Trail shuttle run by a volunteer, you can be along the Chatooga River by 2 pm on your first day.

You can either thru hike the Foothills Trail from Oconee to Table Rock State Park, or from Table Rock to Oconee. It depends on which scenery you want to end with and how hard you want to make the trail.

The elevation gain is comparable in both directions — Oconee -> Table Rock is only about 100 feet less. But if you start at Oconee, you’ll have an easy and flat first few days. If you start at Table Rock, you’ll be climbing steeply right at the beginning.

I hiked Oconee -> Table Rock and would recommend that direction. The flat start was a huge plus. Additionally, this direction has more of a sense of journey — you start along a river gorge and end at the highest peak in SC. And because there’s a campsite right below the Sassafras summit, it gives you a chance to see the trail’s only nice sunrise.

If you want to challenge yourself or prefer to climb on fresh legs, Table Rock -> Oconee is a perfectly viable option. (This isn’t like the Art Loeb Trail where one direction is dramatically harder.) The nice thing about this direction is you’ll spend your last night at a super-luxurious campsite with toilets, garbage cans, a river to swim in, bear cables, and perfectly flat, developed tent pads. The downside is the scenery is anti-climactic. The last major landmark you’ll pass is Whitewater Falls, and you have a full day and a half of hiking left afterwards.

Best time of year to go backpacking in South Carolina

Crossing Whitewater River while hiking the Foothills Trail.
Early spring is one of the best times for hiking in SC — the weather can be chilly and wet, but there isn’t much overgrowth and bugs aren’t an issue.

Your enjoyment of the Foothills Trail depends very much on the time of year you decide to go.

Early spring — like, March-April — is the best time to hike in upcountry SC. The wildflowers will be just starting to peek out, and the early-spring buds and yellow-green growth fills in at lower elevations. Plus, spring is waterfall season in southern Appalachia. The rivers are at their most spectacular in mid-April. Expect cold nights and warm days.

May-September is the worst time to attempt a Foothills Trail thru hike. The temperature is hot, the humidity is high, water levels are low, bugs are out in full force, and overgrowth can be intense. The only reason to attempt this hike in summer would be if you intend to swim every day.

Autumn is a lovely time to backpack the trail, except the waterfalls may slow to a trickle. It really depends on the year, and how much rain has come in the week before your hike. Additionally, the trails all around SC are mobbed in late October when the leaves change colors.

If you don’t mind frigid temperatures, winter would be a good time to tackle this thru hike. The temperatures would be pleasant during the day and chilly but not frigid at night. Plus, you’d have the campsites to yourself.

Whatever time of year you hike, expect very humid and wet weather — this is not a hike to forgo your rain jacket or mosquito repellent on.

I hiked the trail in the second week of April. The hottest day was nearly 90 degrees and the coldest night was below 30. I got rained on, sleeted on, hailed on, and snowed on. But Whitewater Falls was absolutely spectacular, and the wildflower blooms along the rivers were wonderful. It was also nice to see so much green while my local hikes were still super brown.

Trip planning and logistics

Mount Whiteside view on Day 2 of hiking the Foothills Trail in SC.
One of the most convenient Foothills Trail resupply points is shortly after this view of Whiteside Mountain

The Foothills Trail is a point-to-point hike, and it’s on the longer side, especially if you’re not used to big-mile days with a pack. So it requires some advance planning.

You have two transport options for the trail — you can shuttle a car yourself, or use a Foothills Trail shuttle service.

If you shuttle your own car, you’ll have to pay for parking on both ends. You’ll pay $5/day at Oconee and $6/day at Table Rock, but my group swears we were undercharged by both parks. You can pay by credit card if the park offices are open — check Table Rock’s hours here, and Oconee’s here. It takes an hour to drive between the parks, and there are limited services along the way.

For shuttles, you can use a volunteer-run service or a commercial service. The Foothills Trail Conservancy keeps a list of drivers. If you ask a volunteer to drive you, please cover their gas costs and be flexible with your schedule.

Wherever you begin your hike, you’ll need to fill out a registration card. These permits are free, but they’re super important so rangers can find you if you get into trouble.

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Most backpackers can complete their thru-hikes without needing to resupply. But if you’re planning to take more than 7 days, you might want to drop a bear can full of food along the way. The most logical places to do so would be along Route 281 just before Whitewater Falls, or along 178 where you begin the climb up Sassafras. It’s also theoretically possible to hitch into Rosman if you need a grocery store. Volunteer shuttle drivers can help with resupply, but again, be sure to cover their gas expenses.

Water access along the Foothills Trail

Water access on the hiking trails in South Carolina is really good
Crossing one of the many creeks on the Foothills Trail

One of the best parts of backpacking the Foothills Trail is abundant access to water. There’s really only one stretch of trail where you might want to carry more than two liters.

For most of your hike, you’ll cross a stream or creek every half mile or so. You can also collect water in the many rivers, although agricultural runoff and pollution are bigger risks there.

The only area where water is scarce is the upper slopes of Sassafras. You’ll encounter one source shortly after the dry campsite a mile or so up the mountain — there’s a bridge across it. I was able to get 3 liters from there. Big Rock campsite has another source, but it’s harder to fill up from if it’s been dry. On the other side of the summit, you’ll start reaching muddy drainages about a mile down the mountain, but quick-flowing creeks become abundant after another mile.

Remember to always filter or treat your water in the backcountry. I use a Sawyer Squeeze and carry iodine tablets as backup.

Planning your route

The Foothills Trail is one of the most luxurious thru hikes you can undertake in the U.S. The trail is beautifully maintained the whole way. Established campsites often have amenities like bear cables and even picnic tables. But sometimes the campsites can be a bit far apart — and there are few good camping options between the established sites.

Below is my recommended route, including side trips. This is very close to the route I used. I adjusted Day 2 to give you a better campsite.

Day 1: Oconee State Park to Burrell’s Ford

Starting the Foothills Trail from Oconee State Park
Obligatory photo with the sign before hiking 77 miles to Table Rock!

Start your first day no later than 11 am from Oconee State Park. You’ll begin on a wide, flat, ridiculously easy stretch of trail.

Almost immediately you’ll hit your first possible side trip — to Hidden Falls. It’s a ways off-trail, all downhill. I didn’t go all the way to the waterfall but I did descend a bit to a smaller cascade on the same creek.

The trail switchbacks up slightly, then across the road a couple times. Here you’ll hit your first campsite — a great lunch stop. Shortly afterwards, you’ll encounter Harvey Falls right on the trail, followed by the short spurs to Licklog and Pigpen Falls. These two are well worth the short off-trail jaunt.

Back on the main trail, you’ll quickly come to your first major river gorge. The trail follows the Chatooga River for several miles. It’s flat and fairly easy walking, with a number of sandy beaches along the way. The river is super-tempting to swim in.

Eventually the trail cuts away from the river and gets dramatically more difficult. You won’t climb a ton, but the ruggedness slows you down — it’s comparable to the Linville Gorge Trail on the Grand Loop.

Finally, you’ll pass a welcome sign to Burrell’s Ford — the first major campground. It’s an easy walk along a creek that also feeds King Creek Falls, an easy side trip. Camp at Burrell’s Ford and enjoy the amenities. The water from King’s Creek is A+++.

I logged 16 miles on the first day.

Day 2: Burrell’s Ford to Bearcamp Creek

Whitewater Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in NC
On Day 2 the highlight is Whitewater Falls — one of the largest waterfalls in the Carolinas.

Your second day starts with a switchback-y climb out of the river gorge (did I mention this trail is beautifully maintained?? The switchbacks are so gorgeous!). You’ll get a nice view of Mt. Whiteside off to the left at the top, if it’s clear.

You cross into NC for a bit this morning as you meander up and down the foothills. If it’s early or late in the year, you’ll get abundant views through the trees. Eventually you’ll reach the East Fork of the Chatooga River, which has some nice waterfalls off to the left. The aptly named Hiker’s Peril Falls is right on the trail.

More climbing awaits, and you’ll top out on a ridge with through-the-trees views of Lake Jocasee. Then begins the descent toward Whitewater Falls.

Whitewater Falls is far and away the biggest highlight of a Foothills Trail thru hike. Among the highest waterfalls in NC, it falls from the heights of Nantahala National Forest into the Whitewater River, where it then drops some more. You can’t actually see the entire vertical span from one place — partially because the cliff is so steep, it would be ludicrously dangerous to scramble to the base.

The trail goes directly past the Upper Falls viewpoint, where you’ll get the most iconic photos. Then it plunges into the river basin, along a wildflower-strewn slope that feels like the densest jungles of the tropics. When you reach the river you’ll cross it and hug the opposite bank for almost two miles, as you pass another handful of waterfalls along the way.

The typical stopping point is just a few tenths of a mile further — Whitewater Campsite. But I found this campsite to be overcrowded, not super flat, and lacking a decent water source. So if you’ve got gas left in the tank I’d recommend continuing another 3 miles to Glen Hilliard Campsite. However, that would give you an almost-19 mile day.

Day 3: Hilliard Falls to Lake Jocassee

A campsite in Gorges State Park, SC
After a windy, wet, rainy day, we managed to get a fire going at this perfect lakeside campsite in Gorges State Park.

Your hike on the Foothills Trail is only going to get better today. Start your day off with a quick spur trip to Hilliard Falls — one of the prettiest small cascades on the trail. (Note there is a campsite right below the waterfall if you prefer something a little more rugged, less than 0.2 beyond Glen Hilliard Campsite.)

The trail gets a little more challenging on Day 3. You’ll encounter your first major climb after you cross Horsepasture River on a large bridge — welcome to the stairs the Foothills Trail is so famous for! The rest of your morning will be spent traversing the Toxaway Gamelands, which has a deep-backcountry vibe. Be sure to wear orange during hunting season here.

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Once you leave the Gamelands, you’ll spend a good bit of time walking old logging roads connecting you to Gorges State Park. The NC park is marked with a huge, unmissable sign. While Gorges is one of the highlights of Western NC, it doesn’t make the best first impression with its ATV tracks — but before long you’ll descend into one of the greenest stretches of trail, along a rushing creek.

Then it’s back on logging roads, up and over another ridge until you see Lake Jocassee far below. From here it’s down, down, down — the ridge is called Relentless Ridge and you’ll completely understand why.

The epic Lake Jocassee campsites begin as soon as you hit the lakeshore. But you should keep walking; they only get better. You’ll eventually cross a huge suspension bridge, and then a smaller suspension bridge. Here, there are about 15 campsites with picnic tables and lakefront property.

By far the best one is the last one — about 0.2 miles past what you think is going to be the last one. It has a private lakefront picnic table, its own beach, and complete privacy. Pure heaven. If you camped at Glen Hilliard Campsite, this’ll be an 11 mile day.

Day 4: Lake Jocassee to Sassafras

Laurel Fork Falls, one of the scenic highlights of Day 4
Day 4 is the hardest day, but at least there are some nice waterfalls.

If you thought backpacking the Foothills Trail was easy up to this point, you’re in for a rude awakening. Brace yourself, because today is going to be brutal.

The day begins with a climb up — and immediately down — Heartbreak Ridge (so named because there’s nothing better than gaining and promptly losing 800 feet on steep steps when you know you have 2,500 feet of net elevation to gain that day). Then you’re on logging roads for a good long while, climbing gradually.

The next major landmark is Laurel Fork Falls. You’ll get a great view from directly off the trail. From here, it’s only about 0.2 miles to a major road intersection, where you’ll begin following a flat trout stream.

Where Laurel Creek takes a sharp left turn, you’ll quickly spot a large campsite, and shortly thereafter Virginia Hawkins Falls. This is the ideal lunch stop before your day gets really miserable. It’s also the last great water source until you’re on the other side of Sassafras.

Next up: Climb 2,000 feet, using stairs the whole way. Then — drop 2,000 feet, using stairs the whole way. Next: Climb another 1,500 feet, and yep, you guessed it, drop about 1,800 feet this time. If you aren’t feeling shattered through and through by the time you get to the Pickens Highway crossing, you’re a stronger person than I am.

You’ll be at about the 15 mile mark at this point — and just beginning the 3.7-mile climb to Sassafras. It’s the longest, most relentless climb of the trip. If you’re running out of gas, the last established campsite is about half a mile up.

But if you think you can make it, you won’t regret hauling yourself up 3.2 miles to Big Rock Campsite. Well, ok, you might regret it when you see the slope-y, mostly dry campsite. (If you’re desperate, you can eke out a bit of water by the creek all the way down the hill, which I promise you will not feel like walking to.) There are no bear cables and it’s definitely not as nice as the developed campsites. So after a soul-crushing, 18.5-mile day, scarf down dinner and crash as early as possible so you can set your alarm for an hour before sunrise.

Day 5: Sassafras to Table Rock

Sunrise from Sassafras Mountain - the highest point in SC
Views of Black Balsam Knob and Mount Pisgah from this chilly mountaintop at sunrise.

Wake up before dawn and quickly pack your stuff. Haul yourself up the last 0.5 miles of Sassafras Mountain. It’s totally worth it to see the sunrise on your last morning on the Foothills Trail.

The observation deck will be completely empty at this hour, giving you the iconic views of the Great Balsams to yourself. Black Balsam Knob is the most visible peak. Behind you, the many lakes of Upcountry SC and North Georgia are easy to spot. It’s a great spot for (a bit of a windy) breakfast before you start the long descent.

The good news: Your last 10 miles are ~mostly~ easy. You’ll start dropping from Sassafras through a rather uninteresting forest, but a few good streams provide the opportunity to refill your depleted water supplies. Then, you’ll cross some rocky cliffs below Pinnacle Mountain. Thus begins the final climb — not quite to the summit, but pretty darn close. If you have another spur trail in you, a short trip to your right onto the rocks brings you to ancient petroglyphs.

The last big view comes about half a mile later, where you can see the summit of Table Rock and a good bit of Upcountry SC — including Greenville’s Paris Mountain in the distance.

Finally, it’s 3.5 miles of down. The descent is long, boring, relentless, and hot. Cool off in the “natural shower’ about halfway. The last 0.2 miles criss-crosses a pretty creek, but you’ll know you’re back in the frontcountry from the mobs of people crowding the tiny waterfalls.

You’ll eventually reach a boardwalk and see the glorious site of bathrooms with running water and a shop with cold drinks. Grab yourself a lemonade, wash your hands and face, and snap a final picture of the trailhead sign.

Gear for your Foothills Trail thru hike

A backpacking tent at a Foothills Trail campsite
My tent at our amazing lakeside campsite

You don’t need a lot of special equipment to hike the Foothills Trail. The biggest challenge is carrying all your food. Because food is so heavy, you’ll be more comfortable if you can get the rest of your gear down to the lightest weight possible.

Sleep system and essentials

  • Backpack: Gregory women’s Deva 60L. This is not the lightest pack on the market, but since I often carry big loads off-trail, I love the way the weight moves with my body.
  • Tent: Nemo Dragonfly 1P. Weighs less than 2 lbs and packs down tiny, but it has an amazingly spacious interior and vestibule.
  • Sleeping bag: You’ll want at least a 30 degree bag if you backpack in shoulder season, and a 15 degree bag if you backpack in winter. I use an REI Magma 15 whenever it’s below 40 degrees.
  • Sleeping pad: Sea to Summit makes great sleeping pads; I’ll never use anything other than this one again.
  • Luxury items: Inflatable pillow, sleeping bag liner, footprint
  • Bear spray and multi tool: These aren’t essential, but I always feel more comfortable backpacking with them when I’m alone. I don’t believe I’ll ever need to use my bear spray against a bear, but it’s a very effective creepy-human deterrent.
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Clothes

Hiking in April, I did approximately 18,746 wardrobe changes during this trip. The key to staying comfortable while backpacking is to carry as little as possible and rely on layering for warmth and weather protection.

  • Rain jacket: Don’t even think about hiking in South Carolina without one. It’s a total splurge, but since I live and play outside in southern Appalachia where it rains constantly, I am obsessed with this one. I bought it used and in a much older model for about a third of the price. I’ve tried about 10 different rain jackets over the years and this is the only one that’s ever kept me genuinely dry. I wear it almost every day, both hiking and in the “real world.”
  • If you’re traveling in October-April, you’ll want a puffy. This is my winter puffy and this is my shoulder season puffy. The REI one is an incredible deal — I got it on deep sale a few years ago for $40 — but they’re so popular that they sell out within a few days of being marked down each spring.
  • I’ve almost 100% converted to sun hoodies for backpacking. On the Foothills Trail I wore this one from Patagonia. It was warm enough as a base layer that I never needed to wear my fleece, but breathable enough to wear on the days it was 80 degrees and sunny.
  • Hiking pants: I wear the Outdoor Research Ferrosi pants, since they’re lightweight and dry super-fast. They aren’t the most durable, but the Foothills Trail is so well maintained that you don’t need super-durable pants. (My durability complaints are based on a 3-mile bushwhack along a creek in Panthertown, where they snagged on a briar while I was sliding through the mud on my stomach under rhodos down a near-vertical slope and got a small pull. If you aren’t bushwhacking to waterfalls in overgrowth season you’ll probably be very happy with their durability.)
  • Underwear, socks and a change of clothes to sleep in.
  • Shoes: I hiked the Foothills Trail a week after buying my Salomon Speedcrosses and they were gloriously comfortable. They dry super-fast too. If buying your first pair, note that they are considerably over-sized — I went down a full size from my normal hiking shoes.
  • I found myself desperately wanting after-market insoles with arch support. Descending stairs with 5 days of food on your back is brutal on your feet.
  • Trekking poles: Definitely worth it for the descents — the Foothills Trail is harder going downhill than when you climb. I swear by the Black Diamond Distance FL-Z’swhich are a popular choice with many thru hikers.
  • Gloves, beanie, and baseball cap.

Food

The key to eating well on a longer backpacking trip is to bring a diversity of items. You’ll get super sick of that same flavor of Clif bar every day.

  • Bear can: I hung my food the first night since I knew there were bear cables at Burrell’s Ford. After that, I managed to squeeze the rest of my food in this canister.
  • Breakfast: I alternated between oatmeal and bagels. Pro tip: You can cook oatmeal right in the packets; just pour in nearly-boiling water. I also packed the best instant coffee: Alpine Start.
  • Lunch: Tortillas, which I alternately ate with tuna packets, peanut butter, and hummus.
  • Dinner: Dehydrated backpacking meals. You’ll want something higher calorie for this trip; I like the Backpackers Pantry ones because they have so many veggie options in the 6-800 calorie range. If you want something cheaper, Knorr’s Rice Sides are ok but they don’t have much protein.
  • Dessert: Peanut M&M’s forever.
  • Snacks: I brought a mix of Clif bars, fig bars, dried fruit, a few different nut mixes, string cheese, banana chips, and chocolate covered almonds. I highly recommend the chocolate covered almonds (from Trader Joe’s), but they melt in warmer temps.
  • Water bladder or bottles, Sawyer Squeeze and backup iodine tablets. I also leveled up my water bag and will never go back — this one is 1000% worth the money and you’ll never have to struggle with weak flow from a spring again.
  • Stove: I use the MSR pocket rocket.
  • Cookware: I use the spork and cup that came with the stove linked above. But I’ve downsized my pot; now I use this one. Note if you’re hiking with multiple people this pot can only handle one person’s water at a time.
  • Lighter and windproof/waterproof matches as backup.
  • Medium-sized fuel can.
  • Large ziplock bag for trash.
  • It’s not exactly food, but since it needs to go in your bear can: Hand sanitizer, sunscreen, lip balm with SPF 30 or higher, toothbrush and toothpaste, wet wipes and toilet paper. You’ll also need a trowel to dig cat holes; only the Burrell’s Ford campsite has a privy.
  • If you plan to hang your food, bring a rope and carabiner. There are bear cables at some campsites, but definitely not all, and they’re often damaged.

Electronics

I try not to bring many electronics on the trail, but it is nice to have a couple luxury items.

  • Headlamp: This is essential. You’ll definitely need it for the trek up Sassafras in the dark. No, you can’t safely rely on your phone flashlight.
  • Phone with Alltrails or Gaia map of the trail (but also bring a paper map and compass just in case!).
  • External battery charger.
  • Phone charger.
  • Headphones if you like to listen to music or podcasts at night. Please don’t use external speakers in the backcountry!

I hope this guide has helped prepare you for your Foothills Trail through hike. Enjoy the trail, and please consider making a donation to the Foothills Trail Conservancy when you return!

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One of the best hikes in South Carolina is the 77 mile Foothills Trail. You can thru hike the trail in 5-7 days, following the river gorges and waterfalls up to the highest peak in SC. This trail guide contains everything you need to plan your backpacking trip from Oconee to Table Rock State Park. #hiking #travel #backpacking

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Kelly
Kelly
3 days ago

I LOVE that you also recommended to bring a papers map. I learned this lesson the hard way when in the Canadian Rockies with no cell service and was unable to access AllTrails.

Josy A
3 days ago

Fab post Carrie! This sounds like such a great first longer hike – I am very tempted by it, especially the way you did it  Oconee -> Table Rock. Finishing in the mountains with those views looks perfect!

Bea Pinnegar
2 days ago

I had no idea that South Carolina has so many beautiful hiking trails! A few days in the wild is exactly my kind of adventure, thanks for sharing this wonderful post 🙂

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