The Foothills Trail is a 76 mile long stretch of handcut trail that is really a jewel, and not many people know about it. It is often overlooked in favor of big mountain hikes, but the Foothills Trail makes up for lack of majestic views and elevation by being a true back country experience, where you will see few others, if any.
What Makes It Great
There are plenty of views to be had on this hike through the Nantahala National Forest and Gorges State Park where you will cross four large rivers that make their way out of the higher elevation mountains and spill down the four gorges, giving the state park its name. They are the Whitewater River, the Horsepasture, the Toxaway, and the Thompson. Each river has large waterfalls all the way down them, and the adventurous can rock hop, bushwhack, or hike the goat paths that may or may not be easily accessible paralleling the rivers.
This 18 mile stretch from car to car will take most people a full two days to complete, but if you play up and down the rivers and take your time, it might take you three days. The trail plunges from the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Whitewater Falls, and eventually makes its way across each gorge. This is an amazing part of the country, and Gorges State Park is among my favorite spots in Western North Carolina.
Note: The waterfalls are dangerous! They can be slippery and currents can be strong. People die every year above or below some of these falls. Please be careful!
Who is Going to Love It
For the most part, the trail is an easy hike, and the foot tread is largely benchcut/side sloping trail, but around some of the creeks and rivers the trail turns steep, and steps have been put in and suspension bridges have been built across the bigger rivers.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
You will need to set a shuttle, or arrange for a ride. This hike is best done from west to east, and you will leave the first car at the Frozen Creek access to Gorges State Park in Rosman, NC. The car you start from will be left near the North and South Carolina state line on NC 281, this where the Foothills Trail crosses the road.
From town, drive west on US 64 towards Lake Toxaway. In about 20 minutes you will see Frozen Creek Rd on your left, it is well defined on the National Geographic #780 map as the access point for Gorges State Park. Make this left, and drive until you see the parking area on your right. The gates are closed at night. This is where you will end up after the backpacking trip.
Make your way back to US 64, and make a left and head west. You will go past Lake Toxaway, staying on US 64 all the way to Sapphire, where you will take a left at a gas station. This left is clearly marked with signs to Gorges State Park and Whitewater Falls. Continue past the main entrance to Gorges on your left, and continue down the hill past the parking lot for Whitewater Falls. On your left you will see the parking area for the Foothills Trail.