Thursday, June 7, 2018

Hidden Falls via the Foothills Trail

Hidden Falls is one of those hikes that really has it all: wildflowers and a waterfall, long enough as to be a challenge yet the terrain is moderate allowing for a family hike. It utilizes the western-most section of the Foothills Trail, the 77-mile trail that will take you all the way to Table Rock State Park. And finally, while it originates in Oconee State Park it also crosses into the Andrew Pickens District of Sumter National Forest, showcasing the best of both in a compact day-trip package.

Oconee State Park was established in 1935, and the Foothills Trail was in place by 1981 – a benefit of this longevity is a spacious parking lot and a well-marked trail. The trail to Hidden Falls starts at the Foothills Trailhead, which can be reached by following the Park Road towards Cabins 7-13. Wooden kiosks show the Foothills trail in its entirety and a map of the park, and a kiosk across the road allows visitors to self-register before continuing on.

Although this is a good trail to hike in the spring (higher water flow means the falls are flowing), I would recommend hiking it in mid-June through early July for a very good reason; the blueberries that surround the trail are ripening over this period and provide a great incentive to slow your pace and enjoy the forest as you search for the tiny berries that taste so much sweeter for the miles hiked. We lucked out, with a higher-than usual rainfall in previous weeks along with the needed temperatures for the wild berries to ripen.

The first intersection is with a dirt road, the Oconee Connector of the Palmetto Trail. This trail crosses Station Mountain to connect Oconee State Park with Oconee Station, part of the planned 500-mile trail that will hopefully one day stretch in a continuous ribbon from the mountains near Walhalla all the way to the sea (see more on the Oconee Passage here). Head straight and a little bit further you’ll reach a T in the trail; the Tamassee Knob Trail heads 1.6 miles east to a scenic vista, while the Foothills Trail continues west, to the left.

Hickories and pines dominate the overstory on this side of Station Mountain, mountain laurel and rhododendron providing splashes of color here and there. After descending a few steps hikers emerge on an old road bed (at 1.3 miles), the next trail junction. To the left the old road continues to Long Mountain where it once serviced the closed lookout tower, and you can see the Foothills Trail re-entering the forest on its way on to Table Rock and Jones Gap State Parks. Meanwhile Hidden Falls Trail takes a right and follows the roadbed for a short distance before veering back into the woods.

This section is my favorite, a lush carpet of ferns covering the forest floor and the sound of water trickling along in a creek that eventually spills over the falls. You’ll hear the stream paralleling the trail as you walk, and a short spur trial to the right just after the ferns leads to a curious waterslide; the water disappears into the ground at the base of a rock slab to continue a short distance underground.

The last stretch of Hidden Falls Trail is skirting the ridgeline to descend to the waterfall. You’ll reach the falls about 2.5 miles into your hike, making for a round-trip of just over 5 miles. It appears unexpectedly – hence the name “Hidden Falls” – and cascades 60 feet to continue on its way to Tamassee Creek and eventually Lake Keowee.

The trail ends at this point, although erosion bears witness to hikers continuing up closer to the falls. While tempting, be aware that multiple people have died here, just as at many waterfalls in the Upstate. The damage to sensitive plant communities should also be mentioned, and if that doesn’t keep you from pursuing that selfie, maybe the poison ivy will.

Striped wintergreen was flowering everywhere!

Retracing your steps to the parking lot remember to take it nice and slow – to better spot the ripe blueberries, of course. Upon reaching the trailhead drive back to the main parking area near the Park office, and head to the swimming area to rinse off. If you’re not completely done for the day you might consider a stop at Stumphouse Tunnel, Issaqueena Falls or Yellow Branch Falls. Another option is to head to Walhalla, Clemson or Pickens and choose one of the many restaurants to rest and refuel. Although it’s a long drive back to Greenville (about 1 hour, 20 minutes), the drive provides plenty of captivating scenery and time to start planning your 77-mile Foothills Trail hike…

Can you spot the cricket frog? 


You’ll find a topo map and detailed description of the hike in the book “50 Hikes in South Carolina” by Johnny Molloy. It also contains a description of the Tamassee Knob hike and multiple other Palmetto Trail and Foothills Trail options, and is a favorite resource of ours when planning new adventures.

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