Gorges State Park was developed as a unique partnership of industry, the environmental community and the state of North Carolina. In 1999 more than 10,000 acres of the Jocassee Gorges in Transylvania County were purchased by the state from Duke Energy Corporation. The transaction created a 2,900-acre Gameland managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, as well as nearly 7,500 acres that has been designated as Gorges State Park. Because the park is so new, it is still in a planning and development phase. The roads and infrastructure project was completed in 2009, and is now open for park visitors. Work continues on the park Visitor Center, Maintenance Facility, two Picnic Areas and two Restroom Facilities. There are presently six finished hiking trails available for you and me. This hike occurred on Thursday, June 30, 2011 beginning at 8:45AM and ending about 4:50PM. Our plan was to start at the Frozen Creek Rd. entrance to the park, take the Auger Hole Trail 7.3 miles to the Foothills Trail, then continue 6.0 miles past Lake Jocassee to the Canebrake Trail. The final 5.0 miles is up Canebrake, the key word being up.
Hike Length: 18.3 miles Hike Duration: 8 hours
Hike Rating: Most difficult, most strenuous; because it’s long
Blaze: Orange on Auger Hole, White on Foothills, Yellow on Canebrake
Elevation Gain: 2500 feet (est.) – three climbs Hike Configuration: Loop
Trail Condition: Excellent Starting Point: Frozen Creek Road
Trail Traffic: We saw one solo hiker on this day.
How to Get There: From Brevard, NC take US 64 west approximately 15 miles, beyond Rosman. 0.9 mile past Hwy. 215 turn left on Frozen Creek Rd. Go three miles and turn right into a gravel parking lot for Gorges State Park. The trailheads are well marked.
View Auger Hole Trail, Foothills Trail, and Canebrake Trail, Gorges State Park in a larger map
BoneheadBefore I get into this trail report, I have an admission to make. I, we, did not plan ahead well enough. We went into this hike knowing we were going to do a loop with the Auger Hole and Canebrake Trails… 12.3 miles. What we didn’t notice on the map was the 6.0 mile connector of the Foothills Trail between the two. Bonehead move! Yes, we are Meanderthals! So we ended up doing more than 18 miles in a hike that took 8 hours to complete. This was the longest day hike I have ever done. All three of us ran out of water
— fortunately with less than a mile remaining. I hope I learned a lesson, and maybe you will too from my mistake. Especially when doing long hikes, or wilderness hikes, or demanding hikes
— ALWAYS PLAN AHEAD! Look on the Internet for resources and information and trail reports like this site before you head out. We were fortunate. We all made it back without problem, tired certainly, but it could have been worse. Don’t be a bonehead.
The first 7/10 mile of the hike the Auger Hole and Canebrake trails are the same. It is a gravel trail that climbs a couple hundred feet to a junction of forest service roads. The Canebrake Trail heads left. We took the right fork for the Auger Hole trail to do the loop counterclockwise. The next few miles is a rather nondescript stroll mostly downhill through forest of soft and hard woods on a road wide enough for vehicles, but only open for hikes, bikes, and horses. We were surprised, though, to not see any foot, hoof, or tire prints. Apparently Gorges is still relatively unknown. The white rhododendron were in full bloom to greet us on this glorious morning. There are a number of other forest roads that take off the trail, but for now they are not in use. I suspect as the park grows and flourishes, these trails will become better documented. The Auger Fork Creek rushes to the left and below. We could hear several waterfalls as we passed them, including the Auger Hole and Maple Spring Branch, but bushwhacking was not on the agenda for this day.
What I will remember most about the first three miles on Auger Hole Trail is the industrial strength spider webs. These webs stood six feet tall and four feet wide. When I walked into one I was covered from head to foot. The surprise of being engulfed in spider silk almost knocked me down. I didn’t so much walk through them as bounce off them. I was spitting and sputtering and snotting and wiping my eyeballecules
¹. Really got my attention, and my hiking buddies too. We each hit at least one. I think I got three or four.
After three miles we reached the Toxaway River. There is a concrete slab across the river bottom here from when there used to be vehicle traffic. This day the water was about 10 inches deep, so we shed our shoes and socks and waded across. I have read that this stretch of the river can really get roaring during spring runoff and that you should not cross on foot. Supposedly the current is so swift it will knock you down and carry you away. Keep that in mind when planning the time of year for this hike. After crossing, it’s then just another 1/2 mile to the next crossing at Bearwallow Creek. This one is not as wide, or quite as deep, but still required a barefoot scramble across loose rocks. After crossing, the trail climbs up and to the right about 1.5 miles to Turkeypen Gap. Here Chestnut Mountain Rd. comes down from Grassy Ridge and we took the left turn and continued to follow the orange blaze markers.
It’s a brief climb of perhaps a couple hundred feet to the top of Grassy Ridge where we encountered the Duke Energy power transmission lines for the first time. It does kind of interrupt the mood, however we actually had long distance views for the first time, including Misery Mountain. So the power lines are a mixed bag. The last 1/2 mile to the Foothills Trail junction is without question the steepest along this hike. For us, it was all downhill, but very treacherous. We took it slow and easy. Keep this in mind if you do this hike clockwise, there will be a killer climb the first half mile of Auger Hole Trail. At the trail junction we came back under the power lines again.
The Foothills Trail runs for 76 miles along the North and South Carolina state border and has a six mile stretch through Gorges State Park. We headed the easterly direction toward Lake Jocassee and the Canebrake Trail. The trail blaze switches to white. The next couple miles, as the Foothills Trail winded its way through dense forest, was some of the most beautiful lush, green and rich ground cover I have seen anywhere. There was moss, and ferns, and galax everywhere. And the trail itself was amazing. There are log rims along the edge of the trail and 4×4 steps in the steep sections that have obviously been there for decades. It reminded me of something I imagined when reading Tolkien. What is so incredible is that this section of trail is at least seven miles from any roads in any direction. The Foothills Trail was built way back in the 1960s when some of the forest roads in the area were still open to vehicular traffic.
About half way through the Foothills Trail we came upon the only other hiker we would see. Sitting alone in the forest, leaning against a tree, totally relaxed, reading his Kindle. What a remarkable way to spend the day. Miles from anywhere
— only the birds and the squirrels and a good book
— on electronic media. Half a mile further on it was time for us to relax as well. We took 15 to enjoy our lunch, get the packs off our shoulders, and take a load off our legs. We heard a hawk somewhere above, just reminding us there was a sky up there. The last mile of the Foothills Trail is a steady downhill as it approaches the very northern tip of Lake Jocassee. We could barely make out the lake through the trees, but when we finally reached lake level we could see clearly to the south. Then we had to go up and over one more small, but steep ridge before reaching our reward for 13 miles of hiking. Cool, crisp, flowing water.
There is a 265′ suspension bridge about 40 feet above the Toxaway River as it flows into Lake Jocassee. When I was a kid, it’s what we used to call a swinging bridge, because it indeed does that. Up and down, back and forth, it’s hard to get a rhythm to your stride when there are three loping Meanderthals crossing the bridge at the same time. The center of the bridge does offer a very nice view up the river and down the lake. At this time of year, the river was certainly crossable on foot, but the bridge would definitely be required in spring when the river is flowing faster, or if they do a release from the dam at Lake Toxaway upstream.
There is a great rocky, beachy area just under the suspension bridge. It was a bright sunny beautiful day, so we took to opportunity to go for a swim and soak our feet in the cool water of Toxaway River. That is until we were joined by an unwanted visitor. A mere eight feet away from where I was soaking my feet in the river was a copperhead sunning itself on the rocks. This wasn’t a big critter, maybe two feet long, but that’s all it takes to turn a delightful day into a miserable one. Needless to say, we got out of the water pronto and kept an eye on the interloper for the remainder of our stay. To show you how little I know about snakes, I had no idea copperheads were swimmers, but swim he did… in the pool right next to the rocks. It was still a terrific break from the trail, and the water felt refreshing and gave us the resolve to tackle the five mile climb up Canebrake Trail. I went back up on the bridge for a moment to take a few photos while it wasn’t swinging. One is the picture at the top of this post.
The Canebrake Trail is tough. There’s no other way to put it. Even if you just did a down and back on Canebrake it’s still a 10 mile round trip. The yellow blazed trail climbs about 1800 feet in five miles. Nowhere is it especially steep. It is a gradual but relentless slog up a forest service road that tested our will and drained our water. The forest along the trail is mostly hardwood, maples and oaks and birch. It is similar to the forest on the Auger Hole side of the loop. Throw in a few monster white pines and it is a beautiful forest. I understand this trail is loaded with wildflowers in May and early June. We were just a bit too late, unfortunately. But we did see some awesome mushrooms. Boy, did we! Some of them were 10 inches in diameter and every color in the rainbow. They looked like something out of Lewis Carroll. It took us about two and a half hours to do the full five miles. About 90 minutes into it we could see where Frozen Creek Rd. was paralleling the trail and thought maybe we were close, but no, we still had another hour to go. The last two miles were exceedingly tiresome.
This three trail loop is one I would recommend, in sections. Unless you enjoy long hikes, I think this could be more enjoyable in shorter portions. The Auger Hole Trail to the river crossing and back with some bushwhacking through the forest to the waterfalls would make a nice hike. The Foothills Trail was remarkable in its beauty and its exceptional maintenance. The only problem is getting to it. It’s a long way either direction. And Canebrake would be a nice hike to spend the day at the river and the lake and get some exercise. The touristy trails in Gorges State Park are on the west side of the park, but the less traveled eastern paths will definitely test your trail conditioning.
¹ Hat tip to Jann for coinage of the word.
Update October 2012: The park Visitor Center, Maintenance Facility, two Picnic Areas and two Restroom Facilities are now fully open and operating. The Visitor Center in particular is quite classy and adds considerable ambiance to the park.