Tag Archives: Camping

Trail Report: The Foothills Trail

With the COVID-19 issue making a long thru-hike impossible at this time, I thought it might be nice to look at a possible, shorter option to consider once restrictions are lifted. The scenery is reminiscent of the southern AT, but with the lower elevations, the hike is possible at any time of the year. Between the climate, a distance that doesn’t require a resupply and no shelters to congregate in, this trail would be a good, possibly “safer” choice, no matter when life starts getting back to normal.

The Foothills Trail runs from Oconee State Park to Table Rock State Park, both in South Carolina. In between, the path meanders through Sumter National Forest, Nantahala National Forest, land protected by Duke Energy Corporation, and Gorges State Park in North Carolina. While the “hills” aren’t as high as some of the Appalachian Mountains, they are often just as steep. The elevations encountered run from just over 1,000 feet to the highest point in South Carolina, the peak of Mount Sassafras at 3,554 feet.

Every year thousands of people start hiking north from Springer Mountain with every intention of walking to Maine. Sadly, most do not make it. Amazingly, a significant portion quit the trail in the first 100 miles. Some were woefully unprepared and some didn’t realize that thru-hiker life just wasn’t for them. For these folks, a solid “shakedown” hike may have saved their AT attempt or, at least given them the knowledge to not disrupt their life for a walk in the woods that only lasted a week or so.

Part of my background involves being certified as both a personal trainer and a running coach. One of the more useful concepts I took away from that education was the Specificity Principle. Basically, the concept is that the most useful training is directly tied to your goals. Do you want to be a marathon runner? Your base training should be mostly running long. Want to be a better hitter in baseball? Worry less about lifting weights and spend more time in the batting cage. It’s a pretty simple concept but one that best prepares both your body and mind for your goal task.

Based on this principle, what would be the best training for a long backpacking trip on the AT? Why that would be a not quite so long backpacking trip. Specifically, what type of backpacking trip? Why one that in many ways mimics the AT. To that end, I would suggest trying the Foothills Trail that runs mostly in South Carolina with some time spent in North Carolina.

Why Hike the Foothills Trail?

The Foothills Trail is a great hike for a number of reasons. The southern Appalachians are scenic, with plenty of rivers, waterfalls, and some great views. In many regards, much of the hiking is indeed reminiscent of the southern AT. This shorter hike can very much help prepare you for the conditions to come on the AT and let you see what the challenges are, before making that life changing commitment to thru-hike. The 77-mile length is a great test that took me five days to complete, hiking in late February/early March.

Terrain

Do not let the lower elevations fool you; this trail is not easy. Per my GPS watch, I covered a total of 78.8 miles between the trail, a short detour, and wandering around campsites. Walking from Oconee to Table Rock State Parks, elevation gain was 15,433 feet and loss was 14,913. This worked out to an average change in elevation of 385 feet/mile. The AT, as a whole, averages a change of 237 feet/mile. At one point “Heartbreak Hill” climbed at a rate of 1,600 feet/mile. For me, the real heartbreak was giving all that climb back over the next half mile, then doing it all again. That is some great training for the PUDS (pointless up and downs) on the AT.

The footpath itself is well constructed and well maintained. The occasional flattish stretches are a joy to walk, but there is no getting around the power of gravity on the hills.

Even in the damp spring, I was able to rock hop any creek that wasn’t already bridged.

Getting There

The trail can be hiked in either direction, though starting at Oconee State Park puts off the biggest and steepest hills until the food bag has lost much of its weight.

Oconee State Park from Atlanta: take I-85N to US 76W to US 28W to State Park Road.

Table Rock State Park from Ashville: take I-26S to US 25S to SC-11S to park entrance.

Shuttles can be arranged through both local outfitters and a list of volunteer drivers. Both can be found at the Foothills Trail website. Overnight parking is available at either end by paying a $5/night parking fee.

Water

Like much of the southern AT, water is plentiful. There are numerous streams, impressive waterfalls and a large lake along the route. The Foothills Trail Guidebook points out all water options and I rarely carried more than a liter at a time. As always, filter any water before drinking it.

Climate and Weather

First wildflower of the season – March 2.

The Foothills Trail is not significantly farther north and generally stays 1,000 feet or more lower than the AT does through Georgia. Nearby Pickens, South Carolina, averages a low of 30 and high of 52 in January. By watching the weather, the trail can be hiked in late fall, early spring and even through the winter; perfect for that decision-making tune-up hike. Rainfall totals 53 inches annually and is spread evenly through the year. Snow is rare and typically doesn’t last. Even on Mount Sassafras, less than 9 inches of snow falls in a typical winter.

During my hike, there was a cold snap that brought nighttime temperatures down near 20. Even with that, the days were pleasant.

On the other hand, summer hiking can be hot, humid, and buggy.

Camping

Overlooking the upper reaches of Lake Jocassee.

This is one area where the Foothills Trail and the AT differ significantly. There are 262 shelters on the AT. Other than one small “emergency” cave, there are none on the Foothills Trail. Bring the tent or hammock. There are a number of great spots to camp, though, many designed and built as Eagle Scout projects. Nearly all have flat spots for tents, a fire ring, and a nearby water source. Quite a few have benches and provisions to bear bag your food. I hit the jackpot camping along Lake Jocassee. Gorges State Park maintains campsites with sand tent pads, grills, and picnic tables. Within the national forests, camping is permitted throughout and there were no fees at any of the locations I camped.

The other main difference is that in early spring the Foothills Trail is not crowded with campers. I camped alone at 3 of 4 locations and actually went two full days without seeing another person.

Resupply Options

As a training hike, be prepared to carry all the food needed for the trip. It is possible to cache supplies near a road crossing, but it complicates logistics significantly. Think of the trail as a “short” 100-Mile Wilderness.

Summary

If you’re not sure if you really want to hike the AT, consider the Foothills Trail as a test. If you want to train for an upcoming AT attempt, keep the principle of specificity in mind and try a training hike on the Foothills Trail. Or, if you just want to get out in a beautiful natural area for an early or late season hike you can complete in a week, try the Foothills Trail.

Plan on spending 4-7 days on a well-designed, well-maintained, well-marked trail through some gorgeous, yet challenging terrain. The hike is not unlike the southern AT. The difficulty is similar. The surrounding forests and streams will seem familiar. The white blazes are typically easy to follow. The main difference I found was the lack of other hikers. If you finish this trail wanting more, there’s a good chance a successful AT thru-hike could be in your future.

Of course, for me, the best part of the trail was the seclusion and lack of shelters, so I’ll continue to hold off on the AT for now.

For additional planning information, check out the Foothills Trail Conservancy. In addition to a helpful website, they have created the official map of the Foothills Trail and a Foothills guidebook. At 7 ounces, the guidebook is a tad heavy, but includes maps and turn-by-turn directions in both directions.

Trail Report: Logan Trail at Tar Hollow State Forest, South Loop

Bill, a former co-worker and fellow backpacker and I were trying to plan a short November trip, but the weather doesn’t always want to cooperate at that time of year in Ohio. However, since I wanted to test a new winter tent (Sierra Designs Convert 2), the forecast of rain turning to snow, high wind and a low in the mid-20s wasn’t a deterrent.

We would be hiking the backpack trail at Tar Hollow State Forest. It was pouring rain on the drive out, so a second breakfast at McDonalds was in order. The delay ended up giving us a bit under six hours of light to hike the 10 or so miles we had planned.

Despite the touristy name, Tar Hollow’s trails are fairly rugged for the Midwest. They meander through both 600 acre Tar Hollow State Park and the larger, surrounding Tar Hollow State Forest (16,000+acres). Located in Ross, Vinton and Hocking Counties, east of Chillicothe, Tar Hollow is a rugged landscape originally named after the pine tar pulled from the native pines growing there. The park is not as developed as your typical State Park but does offer a 15 acre lake, trails and a few camping options.

The Logan Trail is a backpack trail which is laid out in a pattern resembling a figure eight. The only trailside camping permitted is within the state park near the center of the eight and a large fire tower. The area consists of five small campsites that share a latrine. There is no potable water at the camp area.

Stopping at the park office we paid the $4/person/night fee for the “backcountry” camping. There are two trailheads typically used by hikers. In an effort to keep things simple and easy, we began from the fire tower as a light rain continued to fall.

Of the two loops, the southern spent more time in the forest and less in the park, so south it would be. Trail intel gleaned from the Interweb stated the trail was marked significantly better if hiking in a counter-clockwise direction, so that’s the way we went. This trail was originally constructed by the Boy Scouts. It is generally maintained well and marked well, but don’t expect to see a switchback. Several sections have been maintained through the use of a small bulldozer however, and were not quite the immersion in nature a singletrack trail provides.

The two loops run together for a bit less than ½ mile, then the South loop splits off. A drop and a few subsequent climbs made me wish that the word switchback had been in the builder’s vocabulary. With the ongoing rain, the slopes were slick. It’s not often a trail is steep enough that I feel I’m hiking face to face with it, but that was the case in a few spots.

Creek crossings were numerous, but even with the rain, were not typically tough to cross. The late fall color was still pretty good and although wet, the scenery was ruggedly beautiful.

Bill trying out Umbrella Hiking

There was one spot where the trail marking failed us. Nearly five miles in, we were walking on a ridgetop on what appeared to be an old service road. An obvious trail, blazed in red, dropped off the ridge. There were no blazes or signs in sight continuing straight, so we followed the blazes. It was one of the steepest drops of the trail and the maintenance level dropped as well, but it continued to be well blazed. After a half hour the forest opened into a meadow that was obviously the Camp Dulen Boy Scout Camp. We were a mile off the main trail. A posted map showed the camp at the end of a loop, so rather than backtrack, we continued onward.

This was quite possibly a mistake as the trail degraded significantly. It seemed as if this portion of the trail had been abandoned. Where the trail “disappeared,” we navigated from one faded blaze to the next until we reached a better maintenance level in time to reclimb the steep slope.

On the plus side, the rain had quit by the time we were back on the main trail. We walked right by our mistaken turn and were reassured that it was poor marking, and not our poor navigation that resulted in our detour. However, the side trip cost us an extra two miles, conditions had slowed us a bit, and with the late start, we ended up hiking in the dark. Despite having to deal with the remains of some timbercutting in the dark, we arrived at the designated camp area without any other issues.

As no one else was enjoying the Tar Hollow camp experience, we had our choice of spots on the ridge and found a nice flat area (area 124) without any standing water or apparent widow makers.

The rain had quit, replaced by occasional showers of ice pellets while we set up our tents by headlamp. The “test” tent went up quickly and my sleeping bag, pack and all my gear fit in with room to spare. The large doorway was waterproof when closed, so my decision to leave the removable vestibule at home was a good one.  I christened the tent, The Palace. For a full review of the tent, check here.

The Palace

There was plenty of firewood in the area, but it was all wet. One plus to having a vehicle nearby was we had brought a little dry wood. This starter supply was enough to get a warm blaze going well enough that careful feeding of the damp wood continued to keep the flames strong. The vehicle also served as a cache for extra water (and other liquids).

We kept a fire going for a while after dinner, but eventually the increasing wind, dropping temperature and ice pellet showers drove us to our respective tents. Since I’d be needing every bit of my 23 degree bag’s warming power, I kept The Palace zipped up tight with the foot area venting closed. It would be a good test of the material’s winter weather breathability.

Night’s are long in November, but I slept through the night, warm and dry. Despite the wind, the Convert’s fly remained taut and quiet. The temperature was in the mid 20s by morning. In Bill’s tent, his water froze. Mine did not. In addition, I had no issues with condensation whatsoever. For cold weather camping, the Convert was an impressive tent.

In the morning, the sky was clear but the cold front had done it’s job. Bill’s socks, which had gotten wet on a creek crossing, were frozen solid. He was able to send of photo of them to his son for his enjoyment. We hiked a few more miles in the park, just to explore a bit then headed back in time to watch a little football.

Trail Info

Logan Trail is located in Tar Hollow State Park and Forest, near Chillicothe. Head east from town on US 50 for less than ten miles to State Rt 327 North. Ten more miles will bring you to the Entrance to Tar Hollow State Park. Camp permits are available at the camp office and signs can direct you to the fire tower.

The South Loop is approximately 9 miles long if you don’t visit Camp Dulen. Per my Garmin, the elevation varied between 680 feet to 1,270 feet. The South Loop is generally rolling with two major drops and climbs of 400+ ft (three if you make the wrong turn). There were several creek crossings, but, even with recent rain, none were overly difficult.

Overall, the South Loop of Logan Trail provides a relatively challenging hike with some beautiful forested scenery. Unlike the nearby trails of Hocking Hills though, there is no need to worry about crowds.