April 3, 2015
National Geographic named this area one of the “Last Great Places” in the world.
Beautiful and remote are often mutually exclusive in the South. When I thru-hiked the Foothills in March I got a taste of the Gorge area and was blown away. It is awe-inspiring. There are no roads nearby. It’s only accessible by hiking from Whitewater Falls, Laurel Valley, Gorges State Park or by boat on Lake Jocassee.
Throughout the week my friend Perry and I planned out what we called the Gorges State Loop. We would start bright and early at the Frozen Creek Access, go down Auger Hole Trail for 7.3 miles and then take the Foothills Trail 6 miles to Toxaway River, before heading back via Canebrake Trail for 5 miles.
We only found a dearth of information regarding Gorges State Park, so we really didn’t know what to expect as we started the Auger Hole Trail at 8:30 am. The fog was heavy for the first few miles. What was surprising about the trails, was that they weren’t trails at all, but rather forest service style roads. This makes for very enjoyable hiking as we weren’t confined to a single file line. It is marked and blazed extremely well with orange diamonds nailed to trees. Half a mile in a turkey skirted out of the way as it heard our voices. As you look to the side of the trail White Pine, Mountain Doghobble, Rhododendrons and Mountain Laurel abound.* About 2.5 miles in we heard a small waterfall to our left. None of the waterfalls on this trail are easily accessible and all entail a bushwhack. 3.6 miles into the park we could see and hear a more significant waterfall to our left.
There are 2 creek/river crossings. The first crossing is over the Toxaway River. I could see where this could be a formidable endeavor. If there had been serious storms, this crossing could have easily swept you away, but today it did not rise to our calves. The second crossing barely called for me to take off my shoes. After 5.5 miles the trail starts to ascend slightly and you can see power lines in the distance. At six miles it appears that you exit the park only to then hike beside N.C. Wildlife Game Lands and the Park for a little over a mile. You then go under the humongous power lines (with a pretty view) and exit Auger Hole.
We headed east on the Foothills and descended into the heart of Gorges State Park. Perry called to me: “You’re going to want to take a look at this!” There, as soon as we entered the Foothills were the elusive and rare Oconee Bells. This turned out to be no outlier. The next four miles were filled with these beautiful flowers with astonishing regularity. It was amazing. Several miles in we came to one of my favorite places on earth. Cobb Creek is absolutely astonishing in magnificence. Two creeks flow into one another, the sand from the creek shines in brilliant orange, the stone steps ascend the other side, the rhododendrons and galax are everywhere and on this day Oconee Bells were blossoming.
We caught the very end of their cycle, but we were very happy to be treated to such a rare flower. For several more miles we ascended and descended into ravines with beautiful Oconees. After two hours we came to the huge suspension bridge over the Toxaway River. We stopped at one of the picnic tables overlooking Lake Jocassee to eat lunch. After the break we started up Canebrake Trail. The trail is another forest style road, but unlike Auger Hole, it ascends for 5 straight miles. It isn’t difficult hiking, just steady. The trail reminded me of my grandparent’s backyard with pine trees and shadows.
This was an incredible day hike. The terrain is not difficult and water abounds for drinking, but I imagine it would make an even better two day backpacking trip.
Total mileage is 18.3 miles.
*All plant identification is from Perry.