Long Distance Trails

Foothills Trail: Experience Breathtaking Views of the Blue Ridge

POSTED ON May 11, 2022 BY Ralph S.


Introduction

Foothills Trail, a national recreation trail, is a must-visit destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Located in the foothills of Table Rock State Park, this 77-mile-long (approximately 124 km-long) trail stretches from Oconee State Park in South Carolina to Pierce County Parks in Washington.

The paved trail winds through stunning scenery and connects cities and towns like King County in the west, showcasing the beauty of the country and its diverse landscapes. Trail users can enjoy challenging routes through lush forests or opt for a stroll along the Carbon River and White River.

With breathtaking views, abundant recreation opportunities, and well-maintained trails, Foothills Trail is a perfect escape into nature for all levels of hikers.

History of the Foothills Trail

Foothills Trail in Oconee State Park

The Foothills Trail is a national recreation trail that has been connecting people to nature for over four decades. The origins of the trail can be traced back to 1974, when a group of outdoor enthusiasts, including the famous hiker and conservationist Ron Strickland, envisioned a recreational path linking Oconee State Park to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The idea was to create a continuous path that would showcase the beauty of the country and provide access to remote sections of national parks.

With support from local communities, Pierce County Parks and Recreation, in partnership with volunteers and local advocates, embarked on the ambitious project of transforming a disused railroad into a multi-use recreational trail.

The Foothills Trail Association was formed in 1979 to oversee the development and maintenance of the trail.

In 1981, the first section of the trail was opened to the public. The development of the trail took significant strides over the years, with a middle portion officially opening in 1995, offering a crucial link that enriched the overall experience for backpackers, cyclists, and nature enthusiasts alike. Over time, additional sections were added, with the completion of the trail in 2017.

While most of the trail is on the west side of Oconee State Park, some of it crosses the eastern section of the park.

Throughout its development, many dedicated individuals and organizations have played crucial roles in creating and maintaining the Foothills Trail. From volunteers who helped build bridges and maintain trails to government agencies that provided funding, their collaborative efforts have transformed the trail into what it is today, a national recreation trail loved by outdoor enthusiasts.

To learn more about the history of the Foothills Trail, visit the official Foothills Trail Association.

Key Facts about the Foothills Trail

Burrells Ford Access

Location: South Carolina to Washington, USA

Total length: 77 miles (124 km)

Time it takes to hike: approximately 5 – 10 days

Trailhead(s): The trail boasts multiple trailheads, with popular starting points at locations like Puyallup, Orting, South Prairie, and Enumclaw

Difficulty level: Moderate to strenuous

Year established: 1981 (first section opened to the public)

Total elevation gain: approximately 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), that is, 13794 feet (4,204 meters) of ascent and 14644 feet (4,463 meters) of descent

Best time/season to hike: Spring and fall

Lowest point: not known. However, the trail’s lowest points are found where it crosses rivers and other water bodies.

Highest point: Sassafras Mountain (location) at 3,554 feet (1,085 meters) above sea level

Trail Overview: Difficulty Levels and Route Options

Foothills Trail Overview

The Foothills Trail has multiple entry points and offers trail users a diverse range of landscapes.

Hiking the entire length of the trail can take around 5-10 days, depending on your pace. However, the trail is divided into different sections with varying levels of difficulty, making it accessible to hikers of all skill levels.

The trail’s terrain mainly consists of gravel pathways and dirt trails suitable for walking, biking, and camping.

Trailhead Options

  • South Prairie Trailhead: Starting at the South Prairie Trailhead, this segment offers a picturesque initiation into the Foothills Trail journey. Cyclists and walkers alike can set forth from this point, with the trail continuing eastward.
  • East Puyallup Trailhead: Another starting point, the East Puyallup Trailhead, provides access to Pierce County Parks, offering a scenic route for both walking and biking enthusiasts.

Difficulty Levels along Popular Sections

Here are some popular sections of the Foothills Trail, with their corresponding difficulty levels and highlights along the way:

Route Options: From Trailhead to Finish

Trail head at Table Rock State Park for the Foothills Trail.

From the trailhead, the trail continues towards Pierce County Parks and the 4.3-kilometer Carbon River. You can then follow the trail along the White River until you reach Oconee State Park. From here, continue towards Prairie Road and McMillin Trailhead before reaching Shaw Road.

Cyclists can also utilize parts of the trail with designated sections suitable for biking. The trail is marked on a map, utilizing the south prairie trailhead sign to help cyclists navigate through gravel pathways and dirt trails.

Spur Trails

Along with the main trail, there are also several spur trails and alternate routes that intersect with the Foothills Trail. These include connecting to the popular Bartram Trail, which joins the Appalachian Trail, as well as various loop options for shorter hikes. The trail also passes through several towns and provides access to amenities such as grocery stores, restaurants, and lodging.

Navigating the Foothills Trail: Maps, Permits, Markers, and Regulations

Trail Intersection Table Rock State Park

Before embarking on your journey along the Foothills Trail, it is important to plan and prepare properly. This includes obtaining the necessary permits and maps, understanding trail markers and regulations, and being aware of important details.

Permits

The Foothills Trail is managed by a combination of county parks and state agencies, including King County Parks and Washington State Parks. Permits are required for overnight camping in designated wilderness areas along the trail.

  • A kiosk registration is required for both the day and the overnight hike. The registration stations are usually located along the trail’s access points.
  • Parking Lot: All users should pay the parking and entrance fees at the State Parks and U.S. Forest Service parking area at Whitewater Falls.
  • For camping on Pierce and King County lands, you will need to obtain a permit from the relevant county parks department. For camping on state park lands, a permit can be obtained through the Washington State Parks website or at designated self-service stations located along the trail.

Maps

  • Detailed maps of the trail are available online at the park’s official page. The map provides information on important landmarks and points of interest along the trail, as well as camping and parking locations.
  • You can purchase a detailed map here for a bigger picture of the trail, including trailhead access maps with point-to-point distances, elevation maps, and designated campsite information.
  • In addition to the official map, the trail is also marked with signs and mile markers along the way. These markers can help hikers stay on track and gauge their progress throughout their journey.

Regulations

There are a few important regulations to keep in mind while trekking the Foothills Trail:

  • Respect designated wilderness areas, and do not camp or leave any waste behind.
  • Stay on designated trails to protect sensitive plant and animal habitats.
  • Bicycles are allowed on certain sections of the trail, but they must yield to hikers and follow posted speed limits.
  • All vehicles parked at trailheads must display a valid Discover Pass or pay a daily parking fee. A Discover Pass can be purchased online or at designated self-service stations located along the trail.

Planning and following these regulations is important for preserving the natural beauty of the Foothills Trail and ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience for all users.

Seasonal Considerations: Best Times to Thru-Hike the Foothills Trail and Weather Conditions

FT in Table Rock State Park

The climate on the Foothills Trail can vary greatly depending on the season. So, it’s important to plan accordingly for any weather conditions you may encounter.

Here’s what you can expect from each season:

Spring (March – May)

During spring, Trail Foothills temperatures can range from 50°F (10°C) to 70°F (21°C), with occasional rain showers. The south prairie at the start of the trail may be muddy due to melting snow and runoff from nearby rivers like the White River and Carbon River.

Campers should also take caution when crossing Wilkeson Creek, as it may be high due to snowmelt from Mount Rainier. Also, King County may still have some temporary closures during this time for maintenance.

Summer (June – August)

Summer on the Foothills Trail brings warmer temperatures, ranging from 60°F (16°C) to 80°F (27°C), with some days reaching into the 90s. This is a popular time for hikers to take on the entire trip, so expect more traffic on the trail during this season.

The map of the Foothills Trail connects to nearby campgrounds and other points of interest, making it a great route for camping trips. However, it’s recommended to check with local authorities for any restrictions or closures before planning your trip.

Fall (September – November)

As the temperatures start to cool down in the fall, ranging from 40°F (4°C) to 60°F (16°C), the trail offers breathtaking views of the changing foliage in the surrounding forests. However, this season can also bring unpredictable weather, so hikers should be prepared for sudden temperature drops and rain.

During this time, it’s important to note that daylight hours are shorter, so plan your trip accordingly.

Winter (December – February)

The winter months on the Foothills Trail can be challenging, with temperatures ranging from 30°F (-1°C) to 50°F (10°C). The trail may also experience snow and ice at higher elevations, making it more difficult for backpackers to navigate.

For those brave enough to take on the Foothills Trail in winter, it’s crucial to have proper gear and be prepared for unexpected weather conditions.

Essential Gear and Equipment for a Successful Foothills Trail Hike

FT THRU HIKE GEAR

Hiking the Foothills Trail requires proper gear to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience. Here are some essential items that every hiker should consider bringing on their trip:

  • Footwear: A sturdy pair of hiking boots or a pair of trail runners is crucial for navigating rugged terrain.
  • Backpacking Pack: A good backpack is essential for carrying all of your gear and supplies on the trail. Look for a pack with adjustable straps and a comfortable waist belt to evenly distribute weight and prevent strain on your shoulders.
  • Tent and sleeping bag: Since the Foothills Trail is a multi-day hike, you’ll need proper shelter for rest and protection from the elements. A lightweight tent and sleeping bag that can withstand colder temperatures are recommended.
  • Hydration System: Staying hydrated is crucial when hiking, especially in warmer seasons. Bring a hydration pack or water bottle to ensure you have enough water for the duration of your trip.
  • Navigation Tools: While there are maps available, it’s always a good idea to bring a compass and map in case of technology failure. A GPS device is also helpful for tracking your progress and staying on the trail. We have a mobile app that keeps track of your activities and those of your friends in real-time. Download it here for iOS or Android.
  • Layered Clothing: Pack lightweight, moisture-wicking clothing suitable for changing weather conditions. You can get some ideas from our post about the best hiking clothes.
  • Nutrition: Bring energy-rich snacks to keep your energy levels sustained throughout the hike.
  • First Aid Kit: Carry a well-equipped first aid kit to address minor injuries and ailments.

Note: Check out our gear tips for comprehensive guides and recommendations, ensuring you have everything you need for a memorable and comfortable journey

Lastly, one of the most important items on a thru-hike beside the shoes are a good pair of hiking socks. Our socks are a favorite among thru-hikers, check them out below:

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Planning Your Itinerary: 6 Days along the Foothills Trail

FT direction

Thru-hikers typically complete the entire trail in 6 – 8 days, with an average daily distance of 12 to 15 miles (19 to 24 km).

Here is a detailed itinerary for completing the trail in 6 days:

Day 1: Table Rock State Park to Sassafras Mountain

  • Distance: 8.8 miles (14.2 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 2,300 feet (700 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: East Puyallup Trailhead

The Foothills Trail begins at the East Puyallup Trailhead in Table Rock State Park. From there, the trail continues east towards Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina. This 8.8-mile (14 km) stretch has a steep ascent of 2,300 feet and offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains. Thru-hikers can set up camp at designated campsites along the trail or stay at one of the front country campsites available at Table Rock National Park.

Day 2: Sassafras Mountain to Laurel Fork Falls

  • Distance: 12.9 miles (21 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,600 feet (487 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: Orting City Park, Carbon River, and White River

The trail continues east from Sassafras Mountain and transitions into a more gradual descent towards Chimneytop Gap. This section of the trail is relatively easy compared to the previous day’s stretch, with a short distance of only 2.7 miles (4.3 km). Thru-hikers can take a break at Orting City Park, which offers parking and restroom facilities.

From Chimneytop Gap, the trail winds through lush forests and crosses over the Carbon River. This section has a moderate elevation gain of 500 feet (152 meters) and leads to Laurel Valley.

The trail continues east towards the White River and follows alongside it for a few miles before reaching Laurel Fork Falls. This section has some steep ascents and descents, but the stunning waterfall views make it worth the effort. Thru-hikers can set up camp at designated campsites near Laurel Fork Falls.

Day 3:  Laurel Fork Falls to Canebrake

  • Distance: 5.8 miles (9.3 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,100 feet (335 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: Ghost Town

From Laurel Fork Falls, the trail continues east towards Ghost Town and then turns north towards Canebrake. This section has steep ascents and descents, so be prepared for a challenging stretch. Thru-hikers can rest at designated campsites near Canebrake or continue to Bad Creek Access.

Day 4: Canebrake to Bad Creek Access

  • Distance: 16.4-mile (26.4 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 2,700 feet (824 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: Ghost Town

From Canebrake, the trail continues north towards Bad Creek Access. This section is the longest and most challenging stretch of the entire trail, with steep ascents and descents. Thru-hikers can take a break at designated campsites near Round Mountain or continue to Bad Creek Access.

Day 5: Bad Creek Access to Sloan Bridge

  • Distance: 7.8 miles (12.5 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet (548 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: Bad Creek Access and Lick Log Gap

From Bad Creek Access, the trail continues south towards Sloan Bridge, crossing the Upper Whitewater Falls. This section has some moderate ascents and descents, with a gradual elevation gain of 750 feet (228 meters). Thru-hikers can rest at designated campsites near Lick Log Gap or continue to Sloan Bridge.

Day 6: Sloan Bridge to Oconee State Park

  • Distance: 23.6 miles (38 km)
  • Elevation Gain: 4,500 feet (1,372 m)
  • Trailhead Parking: Cascade Junction

The final day of the Foothills Trail is the longest and most challenging stretch, spanning over 23 miles (38 km). The trail winds through the Cascade Mountains and the towns of Prairie Road, Wilkeson, and McMillin before ending at Oconee State Park.

Thru-hikers can take a well-deserved rest and celebrate completing the entire Foothills Trail at one of the front country campsites or cabins available at Oconee State Park.

Resupply Strategy and Logistics

Gorges State Park Access

Thru-hiking the Foothills Trail requires careful planning and preparation, especially when it comes to resupplying food and other essential items. Here are some tips to help you plan your resupply strategy and logistics along the trail:

Resupply Points

There are several options for resupplying along the trail, including convenience stores, restaurants, and even mail drops. Here are some recommended resupply points for each day of the itinerary:

  • Day 1: Table Rock Park has a store where thru-hikers can purchase basic supplies such as snacks, water, and camping essentials.
  • Day 2: The city of Pickens, located near Laurel Fork Falls, has several convenience stores and restaurants that offer a variety of snacks, meals, and basic supplies.
  • Day 3: The town of Salem, located near Canebrake, has a grocery store where thru-hikers can resupply food and other essentials.
  • Day 4: The town of Pacolet has several convenience stores and restaurants that offer a variety of snacks, meals, and basic supplies.
  • Day 5: The town of Walhalla, located near Sloan Bridge, has several grocery stores and restaurants that offer a variety of options for resupplying.
  • Day 6: Thru-hikers can resupply at Oconee State Park before or after completing the trail. The park has a store where you can purchase basic supplies such as snacks, water, and camping essentials.

Mail Drops

If you prefer to have your resupply items mailed to you along the trail, here are some recommended locations for mail drops:

  • Table Rock State Park
  • Lake Jocassee
  • Keowee-Toxaway State Park
  • Oconee State Park

When planning your mail drops, keep in mind that it may take a few days for your package to arrive, so plan accordingly.

Camping and Overnight Stays near the Foothills Trail

Camping Just outside of Table Rock State Park boundary.

There are several options for camping and overnight stays near the Foothills Trail, providing a variety of experiences for thru-hikers.

Backcountry Camping

Thru-hikers can find designated campsites at each stop along the trail, offering a chance to rest and recharge after a full day of hiking. These campsites are first-come, first-served, and do not require reservations or permits. However, there may be a small fee for staying at some sites.

Some popular backcountry camping options along the Foothills Trail include:

Frontcountry Accommodations

For those seeking a break from backcountry camping, there are several options for frontcountry accommodations near the Foothills Trail. These include:

  • Table Rock State Park: This state park offers campsites, cabins, and a lodge for thru-hikers to stay at before or after their trek on the Foothills Trail.
  • Oconee State Park: Another great option for front country accommodations is Oconee State Park, which offers campsites, cabins, and a lodge.
  • Local Hostels: There are also several hostels located near the Foothills Trail, providing budget-friendly accommodations for thru-hikers.
  • Nearby Towns: Thru-hikers can also find lodging options in nearby towns such as Pickens, Westminster, Salem, Pacolet, and Walhalla. These towns offer a variety of hotels, motels, and Airbnb options for overnight stays.

Getting There: Directions and Transportation Options

Sasafrass Trail Head

Embarking on the Foothills Trail adventure requires careful planning for a seamless arrival and efficient navigation. Here’s how to get there and get around:

Nearest Airports

The two primary airports serving the Foothills Trail are located in proximity to key trailheads:

  • Greenville – Spartanburg (GSP): Located about 40 miles (64 km) from Table Rock Park and 70 miles (112 km) from Oconee State Park, head south on the highway until you reach the South Prairie Trailhead sign. Follow the directions on the trailhead sign to access the trail.
  • Asheville Regional Airport (AVL): Situated 26 miles (about 42 km) from the North Fork Road Trailhead, this airport also offers car rental and shuttle options for reaching the trailhead. Head south on the highway to reach the East Puyallup Trailhead. Look for the trailhead sign for guidance

From the Airport to the Trail

  • From South Prairie, continue south on the designated route until you reach the McMillin Trailhead. The trailhead is well-marked, ensuring a straightforward journey.
  • If you’re arriving by car, the Pioneer Way parking lot serves as a convenient starting point. Head south and turn left at the designated intersection to access the lot.
  • For those aiming to connect to Table Rock State Park, follow the trail as it winds past scenic viewpoints and through wooded areas. Trail markers and a comprehensive map will guide you on this picturesque route.

Conclusion

The Foothills Trail offers a challenging yet rewarding experience for hikers, trail runners, and backpackers alike. If you are looking for a physically and mentally stimulating activity that will leave you feeling accomplished, this trail should be at the top of your list.

By following the tips we have highlighted above, you can adequately prepare, plan, and execute an unforgettable journey on this iconic trail.

Pack your bags, lace up your shoes, and hit the trail for an adventure of a lifetime.


RALPH S.

Ralph S. is the founder of Silverlight, an avid hiker and trail runner he enjoys spending time outdoors, riding his motorcycle and swimming at the beach when he's not busy replying to customers or developing new Silverlight gear.

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