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. 

Upper Falls Trail at South Mountains State park.

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.

Shinny primitive site number three.

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 Trails

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. 

The Diverse EcoSystems

As I wander through South Mountains State Park, I’m always surprised at how different each trail can be. You’ll find yourself wandering through evergreen forests, then dipping into heavy rhododendrons almost looking like a tropical rain forest.

Near the top of Shinny Trail, there’s a bit of a Saharan vibe.

Even walking along a single trail like Horseridge Trail, you’ll see the environment change.

The top of Shinny Trail with dried grass and small trees.

Our Favorite Backpacking 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.   

Horseridge Trail transitioning to a hill with many plants.

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 where we make a right, 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. 

The campsites are marked with a small sign on the left of the trail. There’s a small 0.2-mile spur you will walk down to reach the meadow.

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, a few people usually head 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 and make a left.  Our route creates a large semi-circle around the park by turning right on Lower CCC Trail which merges seamlessly into HorseridgeTrail. We’ll then make a right onto Sawtooth trail. 

There’s a point where the trail makes a 90-degree bend to the right, if you continue straight at this point, you’ll be on the 0.3-mile spur trail to the Sawtooth campsites. There’s a sign at the bend so just keep an eye out.

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.  

The Views

While it’s a workout, the advantage of a steep climb is the view.  Every now and then someone will stop and say “wow’ as they turn their head and catch a glimpse of something beautiful. 

We stop 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 back on Sawtooth where we make a left, then a right onto Upper CCC trail which merges into Little River Trail. We arrive back at the parking lot wondering where the time went.

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. We follow the trail straight to the waterfall.

High Shoals Falls waterfall is gushing and full after a good rain.

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. 

High Shoals Falls waterfall is barely a trickle after a month with limited rain.

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, but 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.

If you’re interested in an activity not available here, you can view all NC State Parks by Location and Activity.

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  1. I’ve been hiking and camping at South Mountain for over 25 years. Very little use back then. Now it’s known by many as a fantastic park. Great cold weather camping at Jacobs fork and sawtooth.

    1. I just love the park and agree that winter is the best. We typically wind up at Jacobs or Sawtooth sites. The trails are great too. Once you head up to the rim, it’s less crowded. Once I accidentally went up Shinny. It was challenging with full pack and in the dark (total boo boo on my part). Hope to see you out there.

  2. Thank you so much for the valuable info! My husband and I are taking your advice and camping at South Mountain for our first official backpacking experience. I was wondering what campsite # you prefer to use for tent camping at Sawtooth Campsites (we are also staying there our 2nd night)??

    1. I’m so glad — you’ll love it there! The entire area at Sawtooth is slanted so it’s hard to find a level spot. If it’s just one tent, campsite 1 is decent – there’s a flat area most people use right next to the picnic table. Also – the woods behind it have a couple of spots. Campsite 3 has the flattest space, but it’s also home to the bear locker which is shared by all 3 sites. It’s a little squeaky. Have fun! It’s a challenging hike at times, but perfect for your first backpacking trip.

  3. Hey there – what is the mileage per day from this itinerary? Trying to plan a getting-back-into it backpacking trip. Thanks!

    1. Hi Ashley — That’s awesome! You’ll have a great time. This may be too much info – but here you go:
      Day 1: 3.9 miles total
      Day 2: 5.3 miles (6.3 if you go to the overlook)
      Day 3: 3.7 miles

      If you go in the reverse (Sawtooth the first night, then Jacob’s branch) – it’s a LOT more difficult. The hills just seem harder.

      We generally hit the trail at 2 pm.

      The park has free maps at the visitor center when you check-in. They also sell a really nice map for $5 that has the mileage for each trail by section which is super helpful. Overall, it’s a great place for new backpackers, anyone wanting a quick getaway, or to test new gear.

      There are so many great trails in the park and most of the campsites are really nice. I hope you get the opportunity to explore. Possum trail is beautiful and shinny is pretty hard.

      I love that you’re getting back into backpacking. Have fun!

    1. Hi Elain — I only mentioned a couple of the sites. I’ll be updating the post with more information including all the primitive sites and more routes. You are correct — the Shinny campground is only about 1.2 miles in. You would take the High Shoals Falls trail from the parking lot and then make the right on Headquarters trail. The Shinny sites are on your left about 0.75 miles up HQ. These are really nice sites along water with a picnic table and fire ring at each site and a shared privy. There’s almost always chopped wood available too — oh, and a trash can.

  4. I stumbled onto this after beginning to plan my first backpacking trip and its exactly what I was looking for! Thank you for all the time put into sharing this. I do have a couple of questions for you though. 1. I have a 4 year old lab that does some day hikes with me. Are these trails suitable for a pup? 2. Any tips on a good campsite for Murray or Fox Trail? Or would you recommend sticking with the ones you mentioned earlier?

    Thanks again!

    1. Hi Parker — thank you for your kind words. South Mountains is great for dogs. The trails I mention are mainly dirt and gravel, but even the ones more “trail-like” are in good shape. There are horseback riders along some so that may be something to watch for. We’ve never had an issue — we just pull over and let the riders through. I absolutely LOVE the Fox Trail campsites. They’re near Crott’s cemetery with the WWII soldier’s grave. My favorite is site 3 – it’s back in the woods as you head to the water. Site one also looks popular, but it’s right up against the trail. Site 2 is Meh. The Murray’s Branch campsites are near the Gamelands and are the most primitive. There are 2 sites and not a lot of room. Last time I was there (about a year ago) there was trash everywhere (including toilet paper), and the water wasn’t flowing well. All sites must be reserved and they tend to fill fast. I would highly recommend the Fox Trail Sites for you and your pup. Have a great trip!

      1. Just did my first backpacking trip using the same route you posted! It was incredible! Thank you again for sharing . I will say … the relentless uphill was a bit daunting but with a few breaks for me and my pup it was all good . I stayed at jacobs fork 2 and sawtooth 1. Loved them both but it will take time getting used to not always having a flat spot to sleep. Plan to do this again with my partner in the near future !

        1. I’m so glad you had a good time! Sawtooth is a little tricky for flat spots – they exist, but it takes some hunting around. If you’re ever short on time Friday – you can camp at Shinny which is 1.2 miles in. In the morning, cross the path and take Shinny which splits into Shinny and Possum about 0.6 miles in – very clearly marked. Possum is a beautiful trail – a real trail, not gravel. It’s a long climb, but really beautiful and your pup should love it!

  5. Hey Alison, not sure if you remember me but I believe I was on the hike you came up shinny by accident. My brother in law is geared up and ready for his first trip. I’m looking forward to us hitting the trail and needed a quick reference for the trip. A quick goog’s of south mountain backpacking brought me to your site. Thanks for the guide and really happy to see you’re still hard at it and sharing for others to enjoy😀

    1. Hi Nick! Of course I remember – not just that wonderful reminder of Shinny, but also all the other trips 🙂 If you’re both up for it – you could head up Chestnut knob trail to sawtooth and then head to Jacob’s branch or Fox Trot the next night. Or – you could take the usual route up HQ to upper river and then head up Jacob’s Branch Trail to Fox trot. I’m a huge fan of the Fox Trot campsites but avoid site 2 if you can. Don’t bother with the new Little River campsites, they’re junky and water is 1 mile away downhill so it’s uphill with all the water. Have a great time and thanks for the kind words!

  6. For beginner’s do you have your favorite recommendations on equipment, gear, food, clothing, tactical gear in case you come across a mountain lion, bobcat, bear, etc? I have ADHD really badly and it’s hard for me to read a book or do research, but I would love to get out there and see what nature’s beauty has to offer and stay alive while doing it. Thank you

    1. Hi Dre. Everyone is different and it’s hard to make a personal recommendation. I would go to a local outfitter and try on packs to see what brands fit you best. For a sleeping bag – the Marmot Trestle Elite is one of my favorites. I’m still working on the best sleeping pad. There are places that rent gear which is a good place to start. You don’t really have choices when renting which could be a benefit and you’ll get the chance to see what you do and don’t like. Try googling “backpacking gear rentals in (add your town here)”. If that doesn’t work – try searching for (add your state here). Also – Moosejaw has rental gear and will ship it to you with free shipping back. Some REI stores rent gear, some don’t. But you can call to find out. Good luck!

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