Christy, Saucony, and I met Bob and Laura at the Foothills Trailhead near Rocky Bottom on Saturday morning. Before we started, we all discussed heading to Bob's Place and Roadkill Grill after the hike. We had passed Bob's on the way to the trailhead. Bob's is quite a sight along the roadside, featuring a rebel flag, a sofa in the front yard, and a giant Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. When we passed by, they were already smoking the barbecue, which smelled surprisingly good for roadkill.
Bob and I ran a shuttle up to Frozen Creek Road while the women waited. It was a scenic drive, with some great views of Lake Jocassee from the top of the ridge. We noticed that the state is building a parking lot for the new state park along Frozen Creek Road. It's not finished yet, so I left my car in a wide spot along the shoulder.
We finally started hiking around 11:30. The hike started in traditional Foothills Trail fashion - going up steps. We climbed up to a ridge, and then paralleled the gravel road that we had parked on. Eventually we descended another stairway to meet the road again. It would've been easier to walk the road to this point, but hiking the trail was more pleasant despite the steps. We hiked on, stopping for lunch at a campsite. Later, we descended steeply to the upper end of Laurel Fork. The next portion of the hike was quite scenic as we followed the stream through the gorge. We crossed it several times on footbridges before descending to a view of the upper falls. Christy and I had a short break here, and we noticed the first trillium of spring just beginning to show buds.
We resumed our hike downstream passing a number of nice campsites. We caught up with Bob and Laura, who had slowed down to look for Oconee Bells. We were all hoping that they would be out, though I was afraid that we might be early. Near the end of the hike though, we found the first bed. The foliage was lush, but only a few were blooming. As we hiked on though, we found more beds with blooms. At one point, Oconee Bells covered an entire hillside. This area is virtually the only place in the world that Oconee Bells live, so it was a thrill to see them.
We reached our campsite at the top of Laurel Falls around 4pm. When we arrived, there were two other groups already in the area. This was a bit disappointing, since we had seen only one person all day on the trail. However, it's a big camping area, and we set up camp out of sight from the other groups. It was a great spot, with the thundering of the falls just outside our tents.
While gathering firewood, I found myself in a narrow, overgrown ravine. There, I found a nursery log with Oconee bells growing off of it. Later, we explored the falls, but we could never get a good vantage point for photos. That evening, we enjoyed sausage and jambalaya for dinner. The day was topped off with a spectacular sunset over the crest of the falls. The rest of the evening was spent enjoying the fire and some hot cider.
That night, Christy and I tried out our new sleeping bags. We had a new Moonstone down bag, with a "doubler" zipped to it. The doubler is basically just a sheet that provided extra room for a second person. The whole thing weighs less than one of our winter bags, and provided a surprising amount of warmth despite temperatures near freezing. However, it was all asses and elbows in the bag. There was little room for tossing and turning that night.
We started out Sunday morning with some bland oatmeal and hot chocolate. We packed up early, and we parted ways with Bob and Laura. They were heading back the same way, while we planned to hike the hard way out. We hiked down to an overlook of the falls. From there, it was a gradual climb for several miles along an old logging road. Along the way, we were passed by 2 guys that were hiking all 80 miles of the Foothills Trail. I wish I had that much free time. They were the only people we saw all day.
We descended a steep, eroded road, and then left it for a rickety stairway. At the bottom we reached Rock Creek and some beautiful campsites. From there, it was back up a sharp ridge separating Rock Creek from the Toxaway River arm of Lake Jocassee. From the crest we had nice views of the lake. The trail continued to climb though, in direct contrast to the map. We passed the time by counting steps. It was 172 up to the top, and then 274 steep, irregular and downright hazardous stairs back down. We were relieved when we finally reached the lakeshore. However, we were surprised to find the lake missing. The water was so low that the lake bed was dry. The good news was that the low water had exposed a half mile of the long-lost Toxaway River that I had never seen before. It was fun to check out the rapids that are normally submerged.
We reached Toxaway Creek at noon. We had covered over 5 miles, so we decided to take a long lunch break. After eating, I decided to explore upstream. I was interested in getting a look at the High Falls of Toxaway Creek, which drops well over 400'. Unfortunately, the falls are on private property. However, the boundary is just downstream from the base, and I hoped to be able to see them from a distance.
I bushwhacked up the creek, following signs of an ancient roadbed. This eventually disappeared, but I found a faint track winding through the rhododendron. I reached the bank of the stream, and had my first view of the falls. They were still some distance away, but it was impressive nonetheless. I tried rock hopping upstream, but eventually ran out of boulders. It looked like it would be possible to continue on the far side, but the water was at least waist deep and moving fast. It was also downright frigid, so I decided to save further exploration for another day.
I returned to wake Christy from an afternoon nap. We left our lunch spot at 2pm and began a serious ascent. We climbed the ridge between the Toxaway River and Toxaway Creek, and the roar of the whitewater from each gorge echoed all around us. We hiked up the old Cane Brake Road, which was the main route into the area years ago when it was settled. There isn't much left of the road, but what remains makes a decent trail. The last 4 or 5 miles wasn't terribly exciting, but it was the quickest way out to our car. We reached Frozen Creek Road at 4:30 despite exhausted feet. It had been a great trip, with rare flowers, mountain streams, a fine campsite, and a rarely seen waterfall. We're looking forward to going back, perhaps in the summer when wading Toxaway Creek will be more pleasant.
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