South Mountains State Park – Why we like it
Great For First Time Backpackers
South Mountains State Park is a great option for new backpackers and anyone wanting a quick weekend getaway. I may be biased though. This is where I went for my first ever weekend backpacking trip and now I take new backpackers here on their first trip.
One of the things that makes it great for beginners is that the park’s 24 primitive backpacking sites require reservations. We can pull into camp and not worry about finding room to pitch tents.
The Primitive Campsites
The campsites have fire rings, privies, and shared bear lockers which is nice. Inevitably, the bear locker opens and closes multiple times because most new backpackers don’t have a system down yet. People often “find” food in the side pockets of their packs.
Water is also readily accessible at the campsites where we stay, which is helpful since beginners also don’t always know how much they’ll need for cooking.
The park has a variety of trails from well-maintained and wide, to narrow backcountry.
We stay on the wide trails for the most part, but I can attest to the fact the park has rugged trails too. Thanks to a little boo boo hiking in by myself one night, I found the Shinny Trail. I would only recommend this for intermediate to advanced backpackers.
We always see fellow hikers, backpackers, and equestrians on the main trails, but not so many it feels crowded.
Most people visiting the park are enjoying the waterfall, or swimming in one of the many mountain pools off the High Shoals Falls trail.
Our Favorite Route
When taking new backpackers, we usually do a long loop for three days and two nights of backpacking.
Starting Out – Day 1
On day one, we arrive around 2 to 3 pm and begin the four-mile hike to camp.
We start on High Shoals Falls Trail and hike about a nice and easy half-mile until we reach Headquarters trail.
Headquarters Trail is where the climb begins. The happy faces turn to concentration as leg burn sets in. Even though we mention most of the trek to camp is uphill, people are often surprised by how challenging it is.
I had one backpacker stop and turn to me, “Are you sure you didn’t accidentally take us to the Appalachian Mountains?” Well, in a way we are in the Appalachian Mountains, but not by accident.
Even though there are no other mountains in the area, the South Mountains were once part of the Blue Ridge Mountains which are part of the Appalachian Mountains. Don’t let the location fool you, the climbs are challenging.
When we finally reach the intersection with Upper Falls Trail, things improve. It’s still a hill, but the incline is less steep and at this point, even a small win is a success.
When the front group reaches the sign for the Jacob Fork campsites, I usually hear their cries of victory. Although once I heard the cries a little too early.
It turns out they encountered the sign for the Jacob Branch Trail. Sadly, the Jacob Branch campsites are not off that trail. We had more hiking to do.
Settling in for the Night – Our First Campsite
There are three campsites circling the large meadow at Jacob Fork. Each site allows up to six people. We find the ones we reserved and I head to my favorite spot before anyone grabs it.
After setting up camp, some of the group usually heads down to explore the creek and top up their water for cooking. The creek is a relaxing brook with rocks to sit on as you grab your water and filter.
Some folks like to take off their shoes and socks and let their feet enjoy the cool water. I had to laugh when one member of the group reminded all the foot soakers to please be downriver of those filtering water. No one wants foot sweat in their Teriyaki Chicken.
After dinner, we identify our fire pit manager, trust me, there’s one in every group. In the evening we all watch the fire and stretch out our legs.
Occasionally there’s a giggle or smile when the squeak of the privy door breaks the silence. It squeaks regardless of how gently or slowly you maneuver the door. By the end of the evening, everyone is just letting it do its thing.
As we try to sleep, I patiently wait for the little whippoorwill living in the area to start up. It’s been almost three years and he shows up every time around 10 pm.
He’ll start to fade out and you think he’s gone, but he’s just flying a really big circle and comes back every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes it sounds like he has company. Little guy keeps it going all night.
Continuing the Trip – Day 2
Everyone, except for me (because I was listening to the whippoorwill all night), is usually feeling rested and ready to go in the morning.
Once we’re packed, we head back out on the Upper Falls Trail. Our route creates a large semi-circle around the park by turning on Lower CCC, Horseridge, and Sawtooth trails.
I hear the question, “Is this the last hill” a lot on day two. Admittedly, I’m never sure many hills there are and have a tendency to say “I’m pretty sure”. Over time I’ve learned over time that the real answer is “no”.
The answer to “Is this the last hill” is always “no” when it comes to South Mountains.
While it’s a workout, the advantage to steep climbs are the views. Every now and then someone will stop and say “wow’ as they turn their head and catch a glimpse of something beautiful.
We stop and the cameras come out so everyone can grab a picture of themselves in full pack with the vast mountains behind them.
This is the point of backpacking, to have these amazing experiences on the tops of mountains deep in the backcountry, and we take our time to savor it.
Continuing Day 2 – Lunch on a Mountain
At the top of one of the climbs on Sawtooth Trail, there’s a large bald with a picnic table that is perfect for lunch.
We take our time, enjoy the cool breeze, and check out the spectacular view.
It’s not much further until we see the sign for the Sawtooth campsites. Sawtooth also has three campsites, but the entire area is a hill so premium, flat tent sites are trickier to find.
One of the privileges of having been here several times is I have two preferred locations and head for one of those.
There’s a stream close by to filter water, similar to Jacob Branch Campsites.
Chestnut Knob Overlook
When camp is set and everyone is ready, we grab water bottles and backtrack on Sawtooth until we reach the side trail for Chestnut Knob Overlook.
The overlook is a great way to end the day. It’s small but at least eight people can sit on the rocks and relax until it’s time to head back for dinner and another fire.
Finishing the Journey – Day 3
In the morning, as some of the campers talk about sliding all night, we discuss what to do when you can’t find a good site.
One backpacker solved the problem by building a “wall” using her pack and other items. She was sliding sideways, so she stacked the items between her pad and the side of the tent as a buffer.
Everyone is in good spirits having completed the hardest part of the weekend and knowing they can survive in the woods. You can feel the excitement as we pack up and head out to finish the loop.
It’s a quick start on Sawtooth, then Upper CCC and finally Little River Trail to arrive back at the parking lot.
The great thing about day three is it’s almost all downhill as we descend to the parking lot. Keep in mind, I said “almost”. The hike is fast and we’re usually at the cars before noon.
A Quick Trip to High Shoals Falls
For anyone that still wants a bit of adventure, we store the packs in the cars and then head back on High Shoals Falls Trail. This time we remain on the trail and head to the waterfall.
Sometimes we have to talk people into it, but those that come are always surprised by the size and power.
It’s always a great trip. Challenging but doable. Fun yet still a workout. Amazing views, good trails, and a little pain to show for your effort.
Coming back time and again, I’m reminded of how much this park has to offer.
A little history
The South Mountains were once part of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain but now stand alone due to thousands of years of erosion. This history is evident with some of the climbs and if you take one of the more rugged trails, like Shinny Trail.
The mountains served as a buffer between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians.
The Gold Rush and Bootlegging
Like much of the area, South Mountains became part of the gold rush with the discovery of gold in the area in 1828, People flooded into the area.
Activity eventually declined in the early 20th century, but thanks to terrain that proved difficult to navigate, the land became a haven for bootleggers hiding their stills during Prohibition. I’ve heard rumors that some locals know the locations of old stills in the area.
The Beginnings of a State Park
Camp Dryer, A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, became established nearby. They began developing forest service roads and creating a park-like area in the 1930s. The Upper and Lower CCC trails mentioned above still exist today.
Proposals for South Mountains State Park began in the 1940s, funds were not available to purchase the land until 1974. The park started with 5,779 acres.
South Mountains State Park Today
Today the park boasts over 18,000 acres of land and over 40 miles of trails with options for hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers.
Its most visited feature is the 80 foot High Shoals Falls waterfall where I’ve gotten some great photos from the lower of two observation decks.
Most of the mountain peaks at around 2,000 feet in elevation, with the exception of Buzzard’s Roost which reaches a respectable 3,000 feet.
Both the Catawba and Jacob Fork Rivers run through the park, making it a great option for summer visits.
Our group has enjoyed swimming in the mountain pools off High Shoals in the summer and it was a great way to end a trip.
If you’re camping overnight, stop at the visitor center on the way in to register your cars and receive a tag. After hours, the materials hang outside on clipboards with well-written instructions.
Stop and enjoy one of the local eateries in Morganton or Hickory on your way home.