The Chattooga River

I was describing my experience hiking my first 8 out of 20 miles of the “Foothills Trail” in an area where it runs along a portion of “The Chattooga River Trail”, and the only way I could communicate the feeling I had at my campsite was by elaborately creating a parallel experience in a Penthouse at a Vegas Strip Hotel.

Allow me time to explain. Hiking in the south, even as a born and raised Floridian, is a delicate balance of rain, bugs and temperature. In many parts of the Southeast United States there lives swarms of insects just trying to live by killing you. Rain can happen daily, or go weeks with little to no rain, and then monsoon for a week. Temperatures regularly range from 80-100 in the summer, but putting a hard line on the start and stop date which constitutes “Summer” is becoming a game of roulette considering climate change. I got lucky. If you can secure 2 out of the 3 of these factors you are doing pretty good and I got high marks in all three.

Nicholson Ford Access Trailhead, provides access to the Foothills Trail, Chattooga River Trail, as well as Licklog Falls and Pigpen Falls. The parking lot had no amenities.

May 29th 2019 I arrived at “Nicholson Ford Trailhead” which lies at the end of a decently well maintained limestone road near Mountain Rest, South Carolina. Having determined that I didn’t drive 3.5 hours to turn back now I gingerly drove my hatchback over a few parts of the road where streams had formed and for all I knew had always been there. They were only a few inches deep, and I reached my destination a bit stiff from the drive, but otherwise no worse for wear. Gathering my gear I set off with a goal to reach an appropriate campsite along the Chattooga about 7-8 miles from the trailhead.

First sign at the Nicholson Ford Access Trailhead.

I had the forethought to call the ranger district to see if there were any reports of aggressive wildlife or washed out trails. They had obviously not encountered many hikers with the same forethought. The kind lady who answered the phone was audibly worn out from the traffic of the Memorial day weekend which had ended less than 24hours before, and she just recommended that I make sure I have an itinerary submitted with a friend or family. I had already done this, so I thanked her and attempted to recall any information about the trail I had learned online or in my book that might persuade me to stay at any one particular campsite. “Hiking South Carolina’s Foothills Trail” by Scott Lynch was a useful guide and it had a small note that the best campsites were along a portion of the Chattooga where it doubles over about 7 miles from where I stood. I set this as my goal and set out around 3:30PM.

Mile 10.6
“Section 5” Hiking South Carolina’s Foothills Trail, by Scott Lynch, Milestone Press, 2015.

The hike was gorgeous. As previously mentioned I had high marks in temperature (about 80 degrees peak that day), bugs (the breeze was sufficient to keep most of them moving at least and non-existent in a few portions of the hike) and rain (none was expected day before until the day after I would leave). I stopped frequently to take pictures and make sure my GPS tracker was accurately logging the location data, and from time to time I would adjust my pack or stretch. Initially the trail runs a portion close to “Pigpen Falls” and “LickLog Falls” though neither were very accessible as far as I could tell. It was then that I had the horrible thought that perhaps most of the hike would be along a river and yet the river would be inaccessible, but thankfully after a few miles I turned up on the shores of the Chattooga River.

One of many campsites along the Chattooga, this one featured a sandy shore while others had smooth stone in parts of them, and still others were worn mulch.

All along the Chattooga you are never more than a few minutes from fresh running water. I hiked for awhile and stopped for a snack at one of the many campsites along this trail. Every time I would stop at a campsite I would ask myself, “Is this the one?” “Should I stop here or run the risk of going a little further and see what lies in store further down the trail?” I am eternally grateful that I took the gamble as many times as I did.

Opportunities for photographs abound, and I have a few, but I preferred to absorb many without the aid of an electronic screen.

And so brings us to the Las Vegas Strip Penthouse. I asked my associate to imagine that he had traveled for business to a small town in the middle of nowhere and was obliged to secure, for himself that night, a small and unremarkable hotel room. I asked him to imagine that nothing about his lodging for the night was particularly unpleasant but also nothing to mention to anyone inquiring about his accommodations. Now, I said, “but what if the hotel staff called shortly after you purchasing the room and said that they had upgraded you to the penthouse suite at no extra charge, and that the penthouse suite was equal in every way to a more superior stay at the Bellagio or the MGM Grand.” This was my emotional experience when I found my campsite for the night.

My campsite had a well established fire ring, and branch that looked like it had successfully been used many times as a bear bag hanger, river access for pumping fresh water, or to cool off after a long hike, and a very nice and flat area very close to the trail so I could jump back onto it first thing in the morning. I was not expecting all of these to line up they way they did, but when I discovered this campsite I knew, I had been upgraded to the penthouse suite. The ability to wade into the cool refreshing waters of the river after my hiking exertion was absolutely priceless, and anyone who has ever hung a bear bag in the south surrounded by tall vertical pines or cyprus trees knows a horizontal branch is something you don’t find unless you are looking for it.

I took off my pack and breathed a sigh of elation. I had made it, I took the gamble multiple times and it had paid off with this site. It was about an hour before dark, so naturally I readied my food, but didn’t start cooking it yet, then changed into a pair of trunks, and lay down in the beautifully revitalizing waters of the river. All my toil and the heat from the day were washed away and I felt almost as if I could do another 8 miles right then as long as I could replenish my energy stores in this very river all over again at the end of it.

Exiting the river I started my dinner and attempted to restore my calories for the day. I had a chance before it got too dark to lay in the river again, hang my bear bag, and sip some hot apple cider before retiring to my tent for the evening. I laid on my pad for a few hours that night, but then it cooled off sufficiently and I spent the rest of the night under a blanket a bit warm for the weather but it felt like heaven to me.

Trailhead map of the area. This sign is at Burrell’s Ford.

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