With the first four days in the books, Leah and I continued hiking south toward the Chattooga River. Once there, we connected with the Southern Foothills Trail. Following the SFT east we explored steep gorges filled with incredible waterfalls and realized the physical challenges of using the Hi-lo Method for Backpacking. After arriving at South Carolina’s highest point, we connected a series of spur trails and gravel roads to bring us to Brevard, North Carolina.
Below, I continue with Part 2 of my journal entries from our hike of the Southern Appalachian Loop Trail.
The morning started with Leah and I piling all of our things into the blackhole, that would be our only pack. After methodically arranging the gear, we managed to fit all of our belongings into the 60 liter pack. We left the hotel and began scouting the best spot to thumb a hitch.
We didn’t have to wait before we got an opportunity to hitch a ride back to Warwoman Dell. Ironically, the husband of the lady who gave us a hitch yesterday saw us standing by the edge of the road and figured we’d be the same folks. What are the chances we’d get a husband/wife hitch!?
Back on the trail, we hiked into the lower elevations, toward the Chattooga River. Arriving at the river, we waved goodbye to the Bartram Trail and joined the Chattooga River Trail that would eventually connected us with the Southern Foothills Trail. There was a campsite right at the junction of the river trail and the Southern Foothills Trail, so we decided to call it a day.
Overall, the first day attempting the Hi-lo Method for Backpacking worked pretty well. We made good time by taking turns with the pack, but by the last haul of the behemoth my legs were feeling the weight of the day. I think that as long as we stay on top of our post hike stretching and massaging, we should be able to make it to Brevard in one piece.. We’ll definitely develop a solid base for our respective ultra-marathons in the fall. Another great thing about the day was that we only saw two hiker - it was the same guy twice. Since leaving the Appalachian Trail, solitude has been the name of the game. I’m alright with that!
Now…time for bed.
June 2nd_8:54PM_25 miles
The morning miles slipped by as we wandered along the banks of the Chattooga River. The sound of swollen rapids echoed through the southern foothills. It was serene. Looking up, we saw a long chain of women and men filtering down the trail. Questioning, we found out that they were all apart of a Make a Wish fundraiser to hike 28.3 miles in a day to raise funds for children in our communities with critical illnesses. We saw over one hundred people participating - cool stuff!
The trail eventually left the river and climbed up to a ridge where buttery smooth trail lay waiting. We cruised along until it was well past lunch. The fish hatchery road suddenly came into view. Not a huge fan of paved lunch spots, I couldn’t argue with a flat surface paired with a cool breeze.
Full of food and feeling the morning miles, I wearily hauled the pack until I was exhausted and then traded it off to Leah until she too was wiped out. By the end of the day, having to carry the pack becomes a vicious cycle. I still think we are walking a fine line between this method breaking us or making us really strong. We’re definitely feeling the work; thus, the short journal entry. So it goes…ZZzzz
June 3rd_9:02PM_26 miles
“On the stairway to tortellini”
Today was wild, beautiful and hard. After a strong cup of bandana filtered coffee, we began a day filled with climbs and descents of steep proportions. We made it to the Toxaway River for our late-lunch. Dining with us on the exposed rock shelf were two large water moccasins. We let the snakes be and enjoyed a long lunch with a swim.
Moving away from the river, we hiked up to a super steep section known as Heartbreak Ridge. We met a father and son earlier in the day that claimed the ridge was ridiculously hard; though, they had never actually hiked it. We had it built up in our heads as really big challenge, but we ended going up over the ridge without any trouble.
The afternoon, on the other-hand, became quite tough. We ended up taking an extended break on a wooden bridge in an overgrown section to refresh a little. I think this trend of the afternoon becoming a grueling event is largely due to the heavy backpack carrying sessions. Tired and hungry, we leveraged the prospects of our favorite dinner to add a few more miles to the day.
After deciding not to stop at our original campsite choice, we hiked a bit more and found a solid campsite a off-trail. By and far, the highlight of the day was a large pot of trail pesto tortellini. I know our pack weight suffers from carrying these little extras for dinner, but I never regret the extra ounces when it comes time to feast at dinner time. Plus, I’m usually not carrying two hikers food and gear, haha.
June 4th_7:48PM_22 miles
We got up and out of camp the early and made our way down to the Laurel Valley parking area. Up next was Sassafras Mountain which happens to be the highest point in South Carolina. I almost forgot we were already in South Carolina.
The climb up Sassafras was standard protocol for hiking up mountains. A couple sections of the climb showed off the steep aspects of the mountain; but overall, the climb was steady and scenic. It wasn’t until we arrived at the top that the fun really began.
No longer on the Southern Foothills Trail, Leah and I took a blue blazed connector trail toward Cesars Head State Park and Jones Gap State Park. The trail that followed was some of the steepest we’ve seen yet. The trail was essentially a jeep road - property boundary for the Greenville watershed. The wide corridor would shoot straight up the side of the mountain. I didn’t think dirt even held on at that steep of a pitch. We kept at it and eventually the trail leveled out to a reasonable grade.We made good time the rest of the day and decided to opt for a slightly shorter day with a creek nearby. The plan is to hike into Brevard tomorrow.
The SALT technically comes to a halt just after Jones Gap State Park. The missing link to complete the loop is right between Jones Gap State Park and Dupont State Forest. I’m curious to see how we connect the next section. The PDF we’ve been using from another’s hike in 2013 hasn’t been the most informative at important junction. Plus, I don’t have the best top maps for this section. Let’s see what happens.
June 5th_7:05PM_20+ miles
“No one cares where you’re going.”
The morning started so well. Leah and I were fresh and excited for the upcoming time in town. Following the PDF we’d been using throughout the loop we approached the missing link between Jones Gap State Park and Dupont State Forest. Before arriving to the swath of private land that would prevent us from connecting our footsteps, we made a wrong turn. In hind site, it was actually the right turn for our adventure. Let me explain.
We hiked through the Middle Saluda Passage toward the Rainbow Falls Trail at its junction with the Jones Gap Trail, which we were on. If we continued along the Jones Gap Trail, we would arrive at the visitor center/ park entrance. Poor service and inadequate maps for this section left us dependent on the vague digital file. The PDF listed this junction with Rainbow Falls and mentioned a visitor center . 5 miles away for limited resupply options. We interpreted this as a optional turn off for resupply. The next part on the pdf mentioned Rainbow Falls trailhead, not Jones Gap trailhead which is what we would have arrived at had we continued toward the welcome center. I now believe these two trailhead were synonymous. That being said, we figured that there would be an additional trail at Rainbow Falls that would take us to a dedicated trailhead for the falls. Walking up to the base of the falls, we both looked in amazement at the most dramatic falls we’d seen the entire trip. We looked to the left of the falls and noticed a footpath meandering up - out of site. Looking at Leah, I recognized a mutual curiosity. We began climbing the steep path.
The trail became more primitive as we climbed. Skirting the head-wall of the falls, we noticed a white bandana tied around a tree. The path continued past the marker. Continuing the ascent - steep hiking turned into 3rd class climbing. The heavily loaded pack on my back made scaling the wall harder than it would usually be. Wet patches of rock reminded us to continue with control and patience. Halfway up our ascent we came to a 10’ foot wall of wet rock. Wary of climbing the wall with a loaded pack, I scanned for a better route. Turning to the right, I noticed a red strap hanging from a tree above. It was a ratchet-strap tied around the tree. We tested the length of webbing by putting our full body weight on the line. It held. We left the safety of our little platform and continued up the wall.
Past the steep section, the trail gradually began to mellow. Following the trail, I crawled on my hands and knees through the tunnel of rhododendron - finishing the ascent. The woods opened up into a large field. Walking across the field, we noticed stables in the distance. Our path was leading us closer toward them. A host of horses stood quietly in the stables as we passed. We waved hello and continued toward the paved road on the far end of field.
The sign on the gate reaffirmed our suspicions. We had climbed up to the YMCA camp - deviating from our 2013 PDF. Still not certain of our exact location, we had to choose which way to walk - left or right. Sounds of summer camp echoed from the right. We decided to go left.
A bout of cell service allowed the cellphone map to load enough to realize that we were not along or near the old CCC road that would connect us to Dupont State Forest and eventually to Rich Mountain road that was our route to Brevard, NC.
We followed Solomon Jones road to highway 276 and began hiking toward the little community of Cedar Mountain. Once we arrived in Cedar Mountain and realized that the beer hall and sandwich shop were closed, we found the nearest patch of shade and dug into the last of our snacks. Morale was low.
We ate in silence. Slightly irritated by not having paper maps for this particular section, I looked over the map on my phone to better understand what had just happened. I was shoveling the last raisins into my mouth when I found a solution that would allow us to continue connecting our footsteps to Brevard.
The PDF showed that we would eventually connect with Rich Mountain Rd - my map showed that Rich Mountain Rd started only a 1/2 mile from where we were taking a break. We were in the clear! We walked down Hwy 276 until we came to the Rich Mountain Rd junction. We were a few minutes up the road when Leah said she had to stop and would hitch into Brevard. Uh oh…
The result of carry a heavy pack, over mountainous terrain, for over 100 miles had taken its toll. Leahs right calve had locked up. With no rest days planned, a hitch into Brevard would allow a solid block of rest time before carrying on. Plus, the next 8 miles into town was going to be a mix of gravel and paved road - not the most exciting. Leah took the pack and turned back toward Hwy 276. With my trekking poles and camera - I continued on.
The road climbed for the next two miles, turning to gravel toward the top. With so little to carry, I trekked up the climb quickly and with ease. Rounding the top of the mountain, I began to jog the descent. My legs felt light and fast. Cruising along the ridge-line, I walked less and jogged more. Looking out, I could see across the valley. The rugged Pisgah National Forest lay waiting. Between me and those mountains was Brevard, North Carolina.
Lost in thought, I felt the road beginning to descend more and more. Checking in with myself, I felt good and my legs continued to move effortlessly. I decided to continue running.Curious stares prevailed as I ran into downtown Brevard. I’d made it.
Checking my phone, I saw that Leah was waiting for me 1 mile down the road at the Ingles grocery store. Remembering that I hadn’t had any water since we parted ways, I continued to run toward food and hydration.
Leah and I bought our food resupply and then met up with Joe “Goose” at his preferred mexican restaurant. We devoured our oversized meals and swapped stories from the trail.
Full and tired, we are now at Joe’s place lounging on a futon. All in all, the day worked out just fine. Leah’s pack should arrive tomorrow and we will take off on our last long leg of the journey. The plan is to hike up to the Art Loeb Trail, connect with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail until we arrive at Clingmans Dome, and then take the Appalachian Trail home to the Nantahala Outdoor Center.
Sounds easy enough - something tells me that there is plenty of challenge left in this loop. I’m ready!
*Below is a link to purchase my favorite photo from this section of the SALT. I’ll be donating 10% of your purchase to the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy to help further protect and preserve our priceless natural resources.
Picture: Rainbow Falls