Exploring the Crown Jewel of South Carolina: A Trek Through the Foothills Trail with Andrew Gleason

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Today we speak with Andrew Gleason, Chairman of the Foothills Trail Conservancy, in this comprehensive exploration of South Carolina’s Foothills Trail. Andrew discusses the trail’s highlights, including striking views from Bald Knob, Drawbar Cliffs, and King Creek Falls, and assures prospective hikers of accessible sections for beginners. We’ll also discuss the importance of public-private partnerships and the critical roles that Duke Energy and devoted volunteers play in maintaining this natural wonder. Tune in for practical information about amenities along the trail and a glimpse into the trail’s rich history. Whether you’re a beginner hiker or a seasoned backpacker, this 76.2-mile-long trail offers a unique adventure for everyone. Happy hiking!

Learn more about the Foothills Trail Conservancy.

Foothills Trail Hiking Facebook group.


Katy Smith: You’ve heard of the Appalachian Trail, and you’ve probably heard of the Pacific Crest Trail, but there are folks who have lived in this area their whole lives and don’t know that we have a gem of a hiking trail right here in the upstate that attracts visitors from around the country. And that can put you in some of the most ecologically special places in the world.

And it’s just an hour’s drive from downtown Greenville. The Foothills Trail is a 76 mile trail running through the beautiful mountains of Pickens in Oconee counties that includes some gorgeous area of Jackson and Transylvania counties in North Carolina. I’m Katy Smith with Simple Civics: Greenville County, and today we are talking about the Foothills Trail because it’s a fantastic example of public private partnerships bringing together state and federal government, the private sector, nonprofits, and so many, many amazing volunteers and donors.

Today you’ll hear from Andrew Gleason, president of the Foothills Trail Conservancy. He’ll give you an overview of the trail, some of the history, and what you can expect if you get out into the woods there yourself. We’ve put links to helpful resources on the episode page.

I’m so delighted to be here today with Andrew Gleason, who is chairman of the Foothills Trail Conservancy. Thanks for joining me today, Andrew.

Andrew Gleason: Sure, Katy. It’s good to be here.

Katy Smith: Can we begin by you giving folks an overview of the Foothills Trail if they haven’t yet experienced it for themselves?

Andrew Gleason: Absolutely. The Foothills Trail is located in the upstate of South Carolina. It’s 76.2 miles long. It starts or ends, whichever your perspective is, at Table Rock State Park and travels up into North Carolina for a distance back down into South Carolina. The other end of the trail is at Oconee State Park in Oconee County. There’s a number of spur trails that are connected to the main trail, and I think altogether we have about 120 miles of trail that we care for and, and lovingly look after.

Katy Smith: There are some gem experiences along the Foothills Trail. Can you go a little more detailed and you know the trail more than almost anyone, I have to imagine, because you’ve made an incredible interactive map. Can you give a couple of highlights of maybe your top five things to experience along the trail?

Andrew Gleason: Oh, the trail is just so beautiful and over the 76 miles it gives you so many different things. If you start at Table Rock, you know, you get all the beautiful views from like Bald Knob and Drawbar Cliffs working your way towards Sassafras, the highest point in South Carolina with the beautiful observation overlook that SEDR put up a few years ago.

And you just worked your way along the trail through these beautiful remote areas about numerous, uh, waterfalls and creeks and wild rivers. You know, Virginia Hawkins Falls and Laurel Falls, Lake Jocassee goes along side it, Laurel Fork Creek, through the Heritage Preserve, the Jocassee Gorges, it traverses it, and you just get out in places where you’re miles and miles from anyone.

And it’s just, uh, it’s just such a great place to go and, and be along with nature and be along with yourself or your hiking partner or whoever and just kind of reset and, and beautiful waterfalls. I just mentioned a couple of ’em as Hilliard Falls named Dr. Glen Hilliard, who is our original chairman of the board and a wonderful man.

He’s still alive with us and, and very active with the conservancy. Then you just travel along a little bit farther and you’ll get to see, of course, White Waterfalls. There’s the lower falls that a spur trail goes to and the upper falls that the, uh, main trail goes right by an overlook that you go to, to see the upper falls.

Right in between those two is a small waterfall that most people don’t pay much attention to, and that’s Corbin Creek Falls and it’s kind of set back to the right of the trail, but it’s as breathtaking in a lot of ways as White Waterfalls, it just gets eclipsed because it’s kind of tucked in between the two big falls.

Uh, so that’s a good one. And then, and my personal favorite is King Creek Falls, which is near Burrells Ford Campground. And King Creek Falls is just spectacular, beautiful waterfall that you can literally stand at the bottom of it and a little short spur trail goes to it.

And then the Chattooga River, of course, that you get to hike right along beside it most of the way. Beautiful place to fish and camp. It’s just so many, um, varieties of what you get on the Foothills Trail from the High Ridge lines down in some of those subtropical creek bottoms and river bottoms that you get to hike through. And, and then just the, the space of a, just a quarter of a mile.

A lot of times you’ll go from being in a very lush creek bottom with oconee bells, just carpeting the ground. To up on the ridge and it’s an entirely different ecosystem from one to the other. And you’ll be there in, in just a matter of minutes. Your entire surrounding changes.

Katy Smith: Oh my gosh, you did a great job and clearly you know the trail like the back of your hand. It is so stunning. I mean, there’s so many beautiful waterfalls that people know really well, like Wildcat Wayside Falls just off Highway 276 or the Falls in DuPont State Forest near Brevard. But if folks are willing to venture a little farther onto the Foothills Trail, they can experience these really secluded and stunning falls all by themselves.

Before I became a hiker, as I would drive on some of the roads in this area, I might cross the Foothills Trail and see signage for it, or see signage for it at Table Rock State Park on a day trip, or Oconee State Park. And I felt like this is not for me. This is for really serious people, I’m not qualified to enjoy the Foothills Trail.

What would you say to someone like me who might’ve had that thought?

Andrew Gleason: You know, there are sections that are easier and more accessible than other sections. And so if you’re a first timer or you’re just wanting to, you know, get your feet dirty, so to speak and get in the backpacking or just hiking, you can head over to the Oconee State Park side and it’s a much gentler or hike over there.

And it’s a good place to, to find out, you know, is this something you really want to, you know, get into. But I have to warn you, it’s addictive. So if you get out there and you start hiking, you start backpacking a little bit and you’re gonna come home and you’re gonna want to go back.

If you are a more experienced hiker or backpacker. Maybe you’re someone who’s done the AT. The foothills trail will still give you all you want. It is challenging. It’ll work your body, it’ll work your mind and your spirit. It’ll test your gear. And a lot of the AT hikers who have come and hikeed Foothills Fail, all of them say this trail is very underrated.

I guess to name Foothills, kind of, uh, leads you to think it’s gonna be an easy hike and it’s not. It’s lots of ups and downs. Quick as you get up, you’re going back down and, and it works you.

Katy Smith: I really didn’t understand what a draw it is for people across the country until I joined the Foothills Trail Facebook group and saw there are people that are coming from Florida or coming from New Hampshire or have done the Appalachian Trail and heard how great this is that travel to our up upstate region to experience this asset.

Andrew Gleason: Yes, hundreds and hundreds of people just last year did the surveys that I have out there on the trail that took time to do ’em that were from outta state. It was just mind blowing how many people come to, they travel to our area just to hike that trail and nothing else.

Katy Smith: Well, can you tell us history of the Foothills Trail and how it came to be?

Andrew Gleason: So it started as an idea, basically like most things in the sixties. And so there’s a lot of people who kind of at the same time kind of had the same idea that wouldn’t it be great if we had a, you know, a continuous hiking trail in the upstate? And so there were a lot of ideas tossed around by different organizations.

There were some people at Clemson who had some great ideas. There was some people with the Sierra Club local chapter up here who had a lot of great ideas, but getting it all together was the problem. And so that’s where Mr. Glenn Hilliard comes in. He took kind of the bull by the horns in the early seventies, and in 1974 spearheaded the creation of the Foothills Trail Conference, which is now the Conservancy.

And so they had their inaugural meeting in 1974, it was May of 1974. And with the idea being of let’s bring everybody who has an interest in this and let’s all get at one table. And come up with an idea that we could make happen. And that’s, that’s what they did.

And, and by 1980 it was beginning to become a reality. Mr. Hilliard was working with Duke Energy, Duke Power at the time, and the Bag Creek project was, uh, taking off. For those of you who may not be familiar with the Back Creek Project, that’s that small impoundment that Duke Energy has above Lake Jocassee, and cause of its size, there’s no recreational access to it.

Well, whenever somewhere like Duke Energy wants to impound water and generate power, they have to go through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And part of the requirements is they have to provide some sort of recreation. That’s where the Foothill Trail come in. But Duke Energy owned all that land across the middle part of the trail where the trail is now.

And so with the efforts of Glen and the then, uh, Foothills Trail Conference, they were able to work with Duke and the two national forests that the trail goes through. And the state parks and everybody to get that route done. And by, I think it was 1983, if my memory serves me correct, the entire trail was open by then.

Katy Smith: Wow.

Andrew Gleason: Sort of like you’d see it now. Okay. So they, they went from let’s have our first meeting in 74 to by 83 it was done. And I mean, you’re talking about 76 miles a trail and two national forests. Another state that the, that was involved. Two state parks and you know, an energy company.

Katy Smith: Right.

Andrew Gleason: So I gotta give Duke energy a lot of credit. Okay. Because their generosity and you know, the fact that they were trying to get the Bag Creek project approved, you know, they built a huge part of the Foothills Trail from the North Carolina Lines or along the Whitewater River all the way over to Pinnacle Mountain.

They paid to have that built and put in place, and they have maintained it. Now, the Conservancy does help them maintain it. Okay. Going out there and really make sure things are, are done, you know, from a hiker or backpacker standpoint.

But it’s just done a great job through the years though of, of keeping that trail open and clear and I can’t give them enough love for doing that. Yeah. So when you pay your power bill, you think about that. Okay. Because those folks really didn’t give back a lot.

Katy Smith: Wonderful. And I mean it’s really, it’s a testament to going ahead and committing to do hard things, which when you’re in the midst of it, nine years of planning seems like a lot. But when you think about how long ago that was and how many tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed the trail, that is amazing.

And then when you think about that, like you say, partnership across government levels, between two states with the private sector with so much love and help from volunteers and donors. It’s kind of the best civic life has to offer. Well, so now that the trail has been up and running for decades, what are some of the things that keeps the trail going and alive?

Andrew Gleason: You know, we’ve got a fantastic volunteer group. And we just, you know, we stay out there hiking and, and repairing and looking for projects and trying to stay ahead of you know, problems before they become bad. When we do have storms and trail gets damaged, we, you know, we jump out there and try to work to get it fixed and coordinate with Duke Energy on their section, on helping them when they need it, reporting to them things that need to be done.

And, you know, again, kudos to them. Whenever I do send something to the you know, the people who are in charge, they usually don’t waste any time getting it taken care of. I mean, it’s a quick response from them. And they give Duke energy credit. They don’t pinch any pennies. When they do something, they do it right.

So that’s, uh, that really, and just thousands, literally thousands of volunteer hours. We’re not even halfway through this year in the conservancy. We already have way over 3000 volunteer hours. Not counting all the hours that get spent behind the scenes just keeping the conservancy operating, just what we do out in the woods, way over 3000 hours.

Katy Smith: Oh my gosh, and you’re all volunteers. I thought that this was your full-time job only to learn that you have a really big full-time job and just do this because you love it.

Andrew Gleason: This is literally just a labor of love. We love the Foothills Trail. Love, you know, that we have that trail up there that, you know, I know that right now if I want to get away, I can pack my backpack and I got a place I can go hike and just disappear for a week if I want to, and, and just get out there and enjoy nature and I’m Just so thankful that we have this uh, beautiful continuous trail right here at my doorstep. I mean, I can, in an hour’s drive, I could be at any access point along the Foothills Trail and just take off.

Katy Smith: Well, if someone is listening and maybe they, they’re, you know, just a beginning hiker. They’ve gone to Jones Gap or Paris Mountain State Park or they have done a lot of hiking but didn’t know about the Foothills Trail. How can people learn more and, and get involved?

Andrew Gleason: Our website’s a great place to start. www.foothillstrail.org, that’s the place to go. There’s lots of information there. We have a store in the website also where you can buy guidebooks and maps. If you want an app on your phone, if you’re a techie person like I am, you can get the Far Out app, which is our app that we partner with.

They have trails from all over on it. And you can get the Foothills Trail for just a little bit of money and put it on your phone. And all the information is downloadable so that when you’re out there in the woods you don’t have to have service for it to work.

And by the way, that, that is the same information that’s on the interactive map, which is, uh, which is free for anyone to use. It’s uh, uh, Google Maps thing, and you can get, you can just Google it and it’ll usually come up a link to it somewhere or another. It’s on the, that Facebook, um, Foothills Trail Hiking group.

It’s on there also. You can find it on the top of their page usually. And that’s, so everything you need to do your planning. You can find out what’s out there, how strenuous it’s gonna be, I would definitely start with a guidebook and a map, something paper that’s in your hand. And by the way, all the proceeds from the sale of guidebooks and maps, t-shirts and hats, that’s a, a big part of what funds the Foothills Trail Conservancy is that merchandise that’s why we create it and sell it, is to help the hikers and to fund what we do.

The tools we need to buy and the, and the improvements that get done. That’s where that money comes from. It, it comes from the sale of t-shirts and hats and maps and memberships. You know, if you wanna get involved, the easiest way is to become a member of the conservancy.

If you have been in the past, renew your membership. You know, our memberships are only good for one year from January to January. So, uh, if you are a member three or four years ago, renew your membership’s. It’s cheap. And, but that money really goes a long way for us.

Katy Smith: And it really does. I’m, it’s amazing how well appointed the trail is. You can be miles from humanity, but you’re walking over a beautiful bridge that some volunteers built or great signage to know exactly where your campsite is. So thanks to you and to everyone who’s provided financial support.

Andrew Gleason: Yep. I, I sure do appreciate it. That’s how all that comes about. Because we, you know, we don’t, we don’t pay a bunch of salaries. We don’t have a big staff. We have one lady who’s a part-time position that we pay and she fulfills all of our orders and answers the info@foothillstrail.org email, and sends out all the membership paperwork stuff. Part-time job.

And that’s, uh, that’s the only paid position we have.

Katy Smith: So let’s say I do wanna set out on the trail and I get far out and I’ve got the interactive map on there, or I’ve purchased a guidebook from you guys and I decide to either start at one of the state parks or just park somewhere along the way. What can I expect when I get into the woods in terms of amenities, signage, places to sit, places to make a fire?

What can I see?

Andrew Gleason: We do have some designated campsites and if you get a guidebook or the, any of the, you know, the app or the map there, there are listed in there and also in the guidebook we list what amenities you’re gonna find at those sites. Now I do wanna point out that our trail is basically kind of divided into two sections, so to speak.

There’s the section that is on, primarily on national forest property, so that would be basically the 33 miles from Oconee State Park working its way to the Whitewater River, the North Carolina, South Carolina border, along the Whitewater River. Now since that portion of the trail is on forest service property, the campsites that you’re going to encounter, even though they’re listed as designated sites on the app or in the guidebook and stuff, there’s not gonna be any improvements there.

No benches, no firings, no bear cables, none of that. Right. And that’s just due primarily to the National Forest Service has, you know, their own set of rules and guidelines that we are forced to follow with the conservancy. So there’s no improvements there. Okay. But once you get over into the Duke Energy side from Table Rock State Park, all the way, as I mentioned, the North Carolina, South Carolina border, along the Whitewater River, all the designated sites will have amenities.

There’ll be some benches, there’ll be some firings, there’ll be bear cables. That sort of stuff at all of the designated sites. So there’s the reason for you to want to camp there. You know, you can got a place to take your load off. There’s also water nearby or at least a short distance away for at all those designated sites.

We make sure there’s a water source that’s dependable.

Katy Smith: Well, I love everything about the Foothills Trail for the beauty of it and the ability to get out in nature and unwind. But from a civic engagement perspective, I love it so much because it is the story of cross sector intergovernmental collaboration, and it is a community. I mean, today, you and your fellow volunteers and all the people that get out there and support each other and partner up at campsites and help with food drops and sometimes leave trail magic in the form of like a cold Dr. Pepper and a cooler somewhere along the way. That is the best about civic life, and I’m just so grateful to you, Andrew, for your leadership and helping make it possible and for joining us today to talk about it.

Andrew Gleason: You’re welcome. And it’s actually, it’s just the labor of love for me and my wife. We just, we’re so thankful we have it. It’s, it plenty… the Foothills Trial is the crown jewel of South Carolina.

Katy Smith: I agree. So I hope everyone gets out there if you haven’t already, and, uh, get out in the forest and enjoy what we have to offer.

Catherine Puckett: Simple Civics: Greenville County is a project of Greater Good Greenville. Greater Good Greenville was catalyzed by the merger of the Nonprofit Alliance and the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy. You can learn more on our website at greatergoodgreenville.org. This is a production of Podcast Studio X.

Image via the Foothills Trail Conservancy.

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