Hiking a state line offers interesting boundary markers and competing blaze markings. This hike on the Foothills Trail follows the boundary from the highest point in South Carolina
— Sassafras Mountain
— to a convenient end point at Gum Gap in North Carolina. Because of the length, for us this was a two vehicle hike, with one left at each end. Expect a roller coaster trek as you move from mountaintops to gaps on the edge of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Along this forested hike, you will experience outstanding vistas of the South Carolina Upstate from Sassafras Mountain, and the French Broad River Valley from an outcropping known to locals simply as “The Lookout.” This hike occurred on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 from 10:30am to 3:35pm. Our plan was to leave a vehicle at Gum Gap, then take our other vehicle to the trailhead at Sassafras Mountain. The hike follows the SC/NC state line for nearly 10 miles where we would pick up the first vehicle and drive back to the second.
Hike Length: 9.9 miles Hike Duration: 5 hours
Hike Configuration: One way Hike Rating: Difficult, very strenuous
Blaze: Blue and orange Elevation Gain: 2,680 feet Elevation Change: 700 feet
Trail Condition: Excellent, half trail and half forest road.
Starting Point: Sassafras Mountain trailhead.
Trail Traffic: No other hikers, but we did encounter a turkey hunter.
How to Get There: For the Gum Gap end: From Cedar Mountain, NC take East Fork Rd. to Happy Acres Rd. It is then 4.5 miles to Gum Gap. Happy Acres Rd. requires a high clearance vehicle, particularly the last two miles. For the Sassafras Mountain end: Take East Fork Rd. to a sharp left onto Glady Fork Rd. Go 3.1 miles where Glady Fork Rd. bears left and goes another 1.1 miles.Turn left on Continental Divide Road/Sassafras Mountain Road and go 1.5 miles to the parking area.
You need to allocate plenty of time for a two car hike. Even though we left my friend’s home at 8:30 in the morning, we didn’t hit the trail at Sassafras Mountain until 10:30. The region of this hike along the state line is a very remote area, the roads from end to end quite twisty and turny, so the deployment of the vehicles took a while to do.
There are other options. The trail continues beyond Gum Gap another 4.3 miles to Caesars Head State Park making for a 14.2 mile day hike. Not knowing the terrain, this was a little more than we wanted to attempt. As it turns out, a wise decision. This is a hard hike. Also, if you simply wish to use a single vehicle, make it an out and back hike of whatever duration is comfortable for you.
The Foothills Trail is a 77 mile National Recreation Trail in South and North Carolina, extending from Table Rock State Park to Oconee State Park. It passes through the Andrew Pickens Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest, Ellicott Rock Wilderness, Whitewater Falls, and Lake Jocassee. This makes the 2nd time on the Foothills Trail for Meanderthals. We also hiked a stretch in Gorges State Park.
Before you hit the trail at Sassafras Mountain, you might as well go up to the top of the mountain so you can say you’ve been on the highest point in South Carolina. It’s only a couple hundred yards from the parking area. There is also a very nice overlook at the parking area, viewing southwest at Lake Jocassee and the Blue Ridge Escarpment. That’s the photo at the top of this post. Click for a larger image.
There are two trailheads on Sassafras Mountain. One comes from the start point of the Foothills Trail at Table Rock State Park. The other is the one we’re talking about here, with a sign that points to Caesars Head State Park. Once on the trail, within a matter of minutes you will begin a steep plunge down the mountain to Sassafras Gap. The total drop is about 700 feet. Sassafras Gap also marks the tri-county junction of Transylvania County, NC and Greenville and Pickens Counties, SC. Once you reach the bottom, then it’s right back up the western face of White Oak Mountain.
You will begin to notice an interesting trail blaze phenomenon that can be somewhat confusing at first. The trail is marked with both blue, and orange blaze paint marks. I think we eventually figured it out. Since the trail follows state and county lines (you will notice lots of boundary stakes), there are orange markings on the SC side and blue on the NC side. Or, as we came to call it, the Clemson orange, and the Duke blue.
North Carolina is on your left and South Carolina on your right. Additionally, this marks the boundary between the city of Greenville, SC watershed property and the 8,000 acre easement known as the East Fork Headwaters, a conservation project of the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. You will follow the Greenville watershed property for nearly the entire length of this hike, and they ask that you not get off-trail… in order to preserve the watershed.
Once reaching the summit of White Oak Mountain, you’ll get a bit of a breather as the trail flattens out, even making a gradual descent, for the next couple miles. You will pass through remarkable forest changes as you’re surrounded by deciduous trees, laurels and verdant ground cover, then suddenly the trail is cushioned by evergreen needles and the canopy darkens from the tall, old white pines. It led us to ponder the logging activity in this area in the last century.
At the bottom of the next gap we reached a wet, boggy zone that required tip-toeing through muddy areas and a few small creek crossings. Then the next ascent begins. Another steep one, the trail here is heavily lined with galax. Too bad it wasn’t about a month later to see the flowering from these thousands of leathery perennials.
By now we were two hours into our hike and beginning to get hungry. A nice level grassy area on the trail dotted with violets, wild iris and daisies looked like the perfect spot to re-nourish.
Following lunch, we made another gradual descent that ended at a large campsite where we caught our first glimpse of flowering dogwood. This is approximately the halfway point. This gap also marked the end of single track trail, and the beginning of forest road hiking. The campsite is quite remote, a long way from either end, so I suspect it is mainly used by hunters with ATVs.
From here on, the scenery isn’t quite a lovely simply by virtue of being on road rather than trail. Look for blue blaze marks along the side of the road for occasional short forays off the road and into the forest, but mostly you’re looking at rocky road the rest of the way.
Another steep climb begins and the road becomes severely eroded. It wouldn’t be possible for vehicles of any kind, with the exception of ATVs, to navigate this terrain. Speaking of which, we began to hear motorized sounds behind us, and soon a fellow dressed in camouflage pulled up beside us in his. He said he was out turkey hunting and asked where we began our hike. We inquired how far it was to Bursted Rock, an overlook we had heard about. Ah, “The Lookout” he called it. “Well, you’re no more than a couple hundred yards.”
The hunter continued on his search for gobblers, and sure enough, after just a few more minutes of climbing… there we were. “The Lookout” was certainly appropriate. The view north from this rocky outcropping is stunning. The East Fork Headwaters easement is stretched out to the left with the French Broad River Valley directly below. At this time in early spring, the various shades of green in the forest were a verdurous delight.
Peering further into the distance we could see the Pisgah Ridge, highlighted by the tower-topped Mt. Pisgah roughly 15 miles away. We could trace the path of the Blue Ridge Parkway as it hugged the mountaintops of the Black Balsam high country. Between is the full expanse of the Pisgah Ranger District of Pisgah National Forest, and so many landmarks that I am getting to know better and better as I explore this remarkable wilderness.
We hated to leave this beautiful spot, but time was becoming a factor, so onward we pushed. Soon after Bursted Rock, the road makes another very steep descent, dropping 500 feet in the next half mile. Oh no, we thought, more climbing ahead.
By now we were starting to get fairly fatigued with another two and a half miles yet to go to Gum Gap. And unfortunately, that final push is roller coaster to the max… up, and down, and up, and down, and up. While only changing elevation about 450 feet over the next two miles, you actually climb close to a thousand because of the gaps and summits along the way. It really pushed my stamina. I’m not afraid to admit that I was tired. It just seemed like the road would never end. Around every curve was another hill to climb.
The last half mile to Gum Gap is through the western edge of the Watson-Cooper Heritage Preserve, the only montane bog habitat in South Carolina. There are a few confusing trail junctions in the preserve, but if you stay on the road and look for blue blaze marks, both on trees and rocks, you’ll be fine.
The red gate across the road that marked Gum Gap was a site for sore eyes. Just over five hours since beginning our hike at Sassafras Mountain we reached Gum Gap. For what it’s worth, I don’t think I could make it the additional 4.3 miles to Caesars Head, so I won’t be attempting that day hike. Someday perhaps I’ll go from Caesars Head to Gum Gap and back just to complete this section of the Foothills Trail.
It was still another half hour drive back to Sassafras Mountain to pick up my car, followed by the long drive home. On the way, I stopped along East Fork Road to catch some photos of East Fork Falls, a picturesque diversion from my fatigue. If you find yourself on East Fork Road, you should stop. The waterfall is right beside the road. When I finally reached home more than 10 hours after leaving, I knew I’d had a full day.
To summarize, this is a long, hard day hike over remote, rugged terrain that will truly test your stamina. It’s quite interesting how the Foothills Trail hugs the state line between the Carolinas, and the overlooks at Sassafras Mountain and Bursted Rock are fantastic. Otherwise, it’s an ever-changing multi-faceted forest excursion that will push your legs, hips and lungs to the extreme. Combine that with the two vehicle requirement and be prepared for a lengthy day.