Great Backpacking Routes at South Mountains State Park, NC

With nine campgrounds and over twenty trails, you can create a lot of great backpacking routes in South Mountains State Park.

If you’re new to backpacking in NC or nearby, this is one of the best places to start backpacking in the southeast.

All campsites, including the primitive backcountry sites, must be reserved so you know you have a place to camp. In addition, there are bear lockers at all sites for easy and safe food storage.  

With water usually readily available, you can stay hydrated and have plenty for cooking.  

It’s a busy park so you’ll often have neighbors at the campgrounds, many of whom are locals. You’ll also run into day hikers throughout your hikes.  

The trails are well marked and easy to follow. You can download a map from the park’s website, or grab a free one when you arrive. They also sell a really nice map for $5.

If you’re looking for a little inspiration, here are a few of my favorite routes.  

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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Easy Base Camping Route 

On this trip, you will set up camp at the Shinny primitive campground. During day two, you will leave camp standing and explore the park with a day pack. You’ll camp at Shinny again on the second night.  

This weekend route will take you on a loop that features the High Shoals waterfall and the western rim of the park. Families with smaller children and anyone with limited time will enjoy this route.  

All trails on this route are well blazed and there are signs at each intersection.  

Total mileage: 6.4 miles (Does not include Add-ons) 

Day 1: 1.2 miles 

Day 2: 4 miles 

Day 3: 1.2 miles 

Day 1:  Given the short, easy hike to camp, you can arrive later in the evening on the first day. 

From the Jacob’s Fork parking lot, hike down High Shoals Falls Loop 

In 0.5 miles, make a right on Headquarters Trail 

Hike 0.7 miles to arrive at Shinny Campground on your left  

Day 2:  In the morning, leave camp standing and take a day pack.  

From the campground, make a right on Headquarters Trail 

In 0.7 miles make a right onto High Shoals Falls Loop (There is a T intersection) 

Continue towards the waterfall, keeping the river on your left as the trail splits  

Hike up to the first platform and enjoy the waterfall  

Continue climbing up to the top of the waterfall on the High Shoals Falls Loop  

As you leave the viewing platform, you’ll see the trail leading up about twenty feet on your right  

You’ll cross the top of the waterfall on a bridge  

Continue on High Shoals Falls Loop until you reach the intersection with Upper Falls Trail 

Make a right on Upper Falls Trail  

In 0.2 miles, the trail splits with the second half of the High Shoals Loop 

You will make a left to stay on Upper Falls Trail   

Turn right onto Headquarters trail in 1 mile  

You’ll reach the Shinny Campground on your right in approximately 1.2 miles  

Add-on for Day 2:  When you come up High Shoals Falls Loop and reach the intersection with Upper Falls Trail, you can make a left and head to the Upper Falls Campsites which have access to the river. This is a good place to splash around and take a break. It will add approximately 0.2 miles to your trip total.  

Day 3:  Break camp and make a right on Headquarters Trail.  

You will intersect with High Shoals Falls Loop in 0.7 miles 

Make a left on High Shoals Falls and head back to the parking lot to offload your gear 

Add-on for Day 3: After stowing your gear in the car, enjoy the River Trail and Hemlock Nature Trail. The trailheads for both are off the Jacob Fork parking lot to the left of the High Shoals Falls Loop entrance.  

Intermediate Base Camping 

On this trip, you will set up camp at the Shinny primitive campground. During day two, you will leave camp standing and explore the park with a day pack. You’ll camp at Shinny again on the second night.  

This weekend route will take you on a loop that features two of the more difficult and beautiful trails in the park, Shinny Trail and Possum Trail.  

Strong hikers will enjoy this route as it covers 7.3 miles with a few elevation gains on day two.  

Total mileage: 11.7 miles  

Day 1: 1.2 miles 

Day 2: 7.3 miles 

Day 3: 3.2 miles 

Day 1:  Given the short, easy hike to camp, you can arrive later in the evening. 

From the Jacob’s Fork parking lot, hike down High Shoals Falls Loop 

In 0.5 miles, make a right on Headquarters Trail 

Hike 0.7 miles to arrive at Shinny campground on your left 

Day 2:  In the morning, leave camp standing and take a day pack. 

Pick up the Shinny Trail directly across Headquarters Trail from the Shinny Campsites 

In 0.4 miles, you will arrive at the split with Possum Trail  

Head up the 1.4-mile Possum Trail until it intersects with Horseridge Trail (This is T intersection) 

Head left on Horseridge Trail 

In 1.6 miles, Horseridge Trail merges into Lower CCC Trail, you are now following a blue square blaze.  

The sign for the intersection with Upper Falls Trail will appear in 0.5 miles 

Make a left on Upper Falls Trail 

You’ll reach the Shinny Trail intersection on your left in 0.8 miles (It’s about 0.2 miles past the sign for the Jacob’s Branch Campsites)  

Hike the 2.2 miles of Shinny Trail down to the bottom where it intersects with Possum (this is where you picked up Possum in the morning) 

Head left to hike the 0.4 miles left on Shinny Trail back to Headquarters Trail 

The Shinny Campground will be in front of you 

Note: You can do the route in reverse where you climb up Shinny Trail and down Possum Trail. This will be more difficult. Shinny Trail is a longer trail with more gains in elevation.  

Day 3:  Break camp and make a right on Headquarters Trail.  

You will intersect with High Shoals Falls Loop in 0.7 miles 

Make a left on High Shoals Falls and head back to the parking lot to offload your gear 

Once your gear is stowed, head back down High Shoals Falls Loop to the waterfall. It is approximately 2 miles roundtrip to the viewing platform.  

Simply walk down High Shoals Falls Loop, keeping the river on your left. The trail will eventually take you over the river on an elevated bridge near smaller waterfalls. The route is clearly marked and there are usually other hikers heading that way.  

Easy Beginner Backpacking Route 

On this trip, you will camp at Jacob’s Branch Campground on the first night and Shinny Campground on the second night.  

This is a good route to get a feel for South Mountains State Park and sample a variety of different trails. It’s perfect for beginner backpackers or those more experienced looking for a quick getaway.  

While the mileage may not seem like much, there are some climbs involved and, if you’re not used to carrying a pack, they can take a bit of effort to climb.  

Total mileage: 13 miles 

Day 1: 3.9 miles 

Day 2: 3.9 miles 

Day 3: 5.2 miles 

Day 1:  From the Jacob’s Fork parking area, head down High Shoals Falls Loop Trail.  

In 0.5 miles, make a right on Headquarters Trail  

Hike up Headquarters Trail for 1.9 miles 

Make a right onto Upper Falls Trail (It is a T intersection) 

Keep an eye out for the Jacob’s Branch Campsite sign on your left in 1.3 miles 

You won’t see the campsites from the trail. There’s a 0.2-mile spur you will walk down. The privy will appear right before you reach the meadow.   

Warning

As you hike down Upper Falls Trail, in 0.6 miles you’ll see a sign for the Jacob’s Branch Trail. IGNORE THIS. The campsites are not down this trail. Continue hiking on Upper Falls Trail.  

Set up camp at the Jacob’s Branch Campground  

Day 2:  Pack up camp and head back down the spur trail to Upper Falls Trail. 

Make a left on Upper Falls Trail 

Continue on Upper Falls Trail for 0.6 miles where it will intersect with the Lower CCC Trail (This is a T intersection) 

Make a right on the Lower CCC Trail  

In 0.5 miles, Lower CCC Trail merges into Horseridge Trail. There’s only one way to go and there is a sign. You’re now on an orange square blaze trail.  

Continue hiking on Horseridge Trail for 1.6 miles 

You’ll see the sign for Possum Trail on your right. This is a good place to stop for a break.  

After your break, enjoy the 1.4-mile hike down Possum Trail 

When you reach the bottom, it will intersect with the Shinny Trail 

Make a left at the intersection and hike 0.4 miles to the Headquarters Trail 

The Shinny Campground will be directly across Headquarters Trail  

Add-on for Day 2:  After setting up camp, head down Headquarters Trail until it intersects with High Shoals Falls Loop in 0.7 miles. Make a right on High Shoals Falls Loop and visit the waterfall which is only 0.5 miles up the trail.  

You can head back to camp by reversing the direction. This will add approximately 2.4 miles to day 2, but it will be without your pack.  

Day 3: Break camp and head right on Headquarters Trail.  

You will intersect with High Shoals Falls Loop in 0.7 miles 

Make a left on High Shoals Falls and head back to the parking lot to offload your gear 

After stowing your gear, head back down High Shoals Falls Loop for 0.2 miles to the Chestnut Knob Trail 

Make the right on Chestnut Knob Trail 

You’ll reach a T intersection in 1.6 miles 

Here you’ll make a left to head to the overlook which is 0.2 miles away 

When you’re ready, reverse your path and head back down Chestnut Knob Trail to High Shoals Falls Loop to your car  

Intermediate Backpacking Route 

On this trip, you will camp at Sawtooth Campground on the first night and Fox Trail Campground on the second night.  

The general route is the same, however, there are two options for arriving at the Sawtooth Campsites, both are provided below.  

This is a fairly difficult route. Sawtooth Trail is named appropriately. If you think of the teeth on a saw blade, they go up and down. There are quite a few climbs on Sawtooth and Horseridge Trail as you move East to West.  

While the mileage is low, the route can be difficult if you’re not used to hiking with a backpack. Take your time, stay hydrated, and rest when you need to.  

Total mileage: 13.6 miles (or 12.4 miles using Alternate Day 1) 

Day 1: 3.7 miles (does not include visiting Chestnut Knob after setting up camp) 

Alternate Day 1: 2.5 miles (does not include visiting Chestnut Knob after setting up camp) 

Day 2: 5.3 miles 

Day 3: 4.6 miles 

Day 1:  From the Jacob’s Fork parking lot, head up the Little River Trail. The trailhead is to the right of the blue house to the right of the parking lot from the High Shoals Falls Trailhead.  

In 2.1 miles, Little River Trail merges with the Upper CCC Trail. There is a sign, but there is also only one way to move forward.  

You’ll only be on the Upper CCC Trail for 0.4 miles before the sign for Sawtooth Trail appears on your left. It can be easy to miss after all the climbing you’ve done, so keep an eye out. 

Make the left onto Sawtooth Trail. There is a small stream crossing in about 0.2 miles. You can usually walk straight across with no issue. 

From the turn onto Sawtooth Trail, it’s only about 0.9 miles to the campground spur trail  

You know you’re there when the trail makes a 90-degree bend to the left.  There’s a sign at the bend indicating the campsites are to the right.  

Follow the sign and walk the 0.3-mile spur trail to the Sawtooth Campsites  

Add-on for Day 1: After setting up camp, you can head to the Chestnut Knob Overlook.  

Head back out the spur trail to Sawtooth Trail and keep going straight (opposite the direction you arrived). The trail will bend again at the intersection with Chestnut Knob Trail. There’s a good sign to note the trails.  

Continue straight onto Chestnut Knob Trail which will take you to the overlook.  When you’re done, head back down the trail and keep walking straight until you see the sign for the campsites.  

Day 1 alternate route:  From the Jacob’s Fork parking lot, head up High Shoals Falls Trail for 0.2 miles until you see the sign for Chestnut Knob Trail.  

Make the right onto Chestnut Knob and continue to hike for 1.6 miles 

At the top is a T intersection, make a right 

Continue 0.2 miles until the trail intersects with Sawtooth Trai. It is well marked. 

You will hike straight (somewhat right) on Sawtooth Trail to head toward the campground 

When the trail makes a 90-degree bend to the right, check the signs. They will indicate the campsites are straight ahead down a 0.3-mile spur trail.  

Arrive at the campground and set up camp 

Day 2: In the morning, break camp and head out the campground spur trail to Sawtooth Trail 

Continue hiking straight (towards Chestnut Knob Trail)  

In 1.3 miles, Sawtooth Trail intersects with Horseridge Trail 

Make a left onto Horseridge Trail 

You’ll stay on Horseridge Trail for 2.4 miles until it merges into the Lower CCC Trail.  There is a sign, but there’s only one way to move forward.  

Once on the Lower CCC Trail, you’ll hike 0.9 miles until you see the sign for Fox Trail on your left 

Make the left on Fox Trail  

The campsites are 0.4 miles on your right down the trail.  There’s no spur trail this time, you can see the sites from the trail.  

Set up camp and then head further down Fox Trail about 0.1 miles to see Crotts Cemetery  

Day 3:  After enjoying a night at Fox Trail Campsites, pack up your gear and continue down Fox Trail. 

You’ll make the right on Fox Trail out of the campground 

In 0.8 miles, you will see the sign for Jacob’s Branch Trail on your left 

Make the left on Jacob’s Branch Trail 

Enjoy the 1.1 miles on Jacob’s Branch Trail as it takes you through a tropical setting, lush with Rhododendrons  

The trail eventually intersects with Upper Falls Trail (This is a T intersection) 

You’ll make a right and hike 1.6 miles until you reach the intersection with the back side of the High Shoals Falls Loop. It’s a nice trail down, although there’s no view of the waterfall going this way.  

Make the left onto High Shoals Falls Loop 

It’s only 0.6 miles down to the bottom and much easier in full pack since you’ll avoid the crowds 

At the bottom, continue straight and head the 0.5 miles back to the parking lot, and your car  

Difficult Backpacking Route 

On this trip, you will camp at Fox Trail Campground on the first night and Sawtooth Campground on the second night.  

This is the most difficult route I could come up with in South Mountains State Park.  It’s the one I use when I’m training for a big trip and need to get in some mileage and elevation. Although the mileage isn’t that high, it is a difficult route. It starts out climbing Shinny Trail, the most difficult trail in the park, in full pack.  You will need to be in good shape to complete this route. 

I would not recommend this route for beginner backpackers or anyone that has not backpacked in a while. 

Total mileage: 17.5 miles 

Day 1: 5.4 miles  

Day 2: 6.7 miles 

Day 3: 5.4 miles 

Day 1:  From the Jacob Branch Parking Lot, head down High Shoals Falls Loop 

In 0.5 miles, make a right onto Headquarters Trail 

You’ll see the sign for Shinny Trail on your right in 0.7 miles 

Make the right onto Shinny Trail and hike 0.4 miles to the intersection with Possum Trail 

Continue hiking straight to stay on Shinny Trail 

Over the next 2.2 miles, you’ll walk through different ecosystems and climb multiple hills. Once you reach the rim, there’s still a ways to go.  

Shinny Trail intersects with Upper Falls Trail at a T intersection 

Make a right on Upper Falls Trail 

In 0.8 miles, Upper Falls Trail will intersect with Lower CCC Trail 

You’ll make a left onto Lower CCC Trail  

Continue hiking until you see the sign for Fox Trail on your left in 0.4 miles 

Head left on Fox Trail 

You’ll see the sign for the Fox Trail Campsites in 0.4 miles on your right 

Set up camp and get some rest, today was hard, but tomorrow is another big day.  

Day 2:  After breaking down camp, continue down Fox Trail. 

In 0.8 miles you’ll see the sign for Jacob’s Branch Trail on your left 

Make the left on Jacob’s Branch Trail 

In 1.1 miles, the trail intersects with Upper Falls Trail (This is a T intersection) 

Make a right on Upper Falls Trail 

In 1.6 miles, the back end of the High Shoals Falls Loop appears 

Make a left on High Shoals Falls Loop 

It’s only 0.6 miles to the bottom where you’ll continue straight 

In 0.3 miles you’ll make a left onto Chestnut Knob Trail  

For the next 1.6 miles, you’re going to climb 

When you reach the top, head to the right at the T intersection 

Continue 0.2 miles until the trail intersects with Sawtooth Trai. It is well marked. 

You will hike straight (somewhat right) on Sawtooth Trail to head toward the campground 

When the trail makes a 90-degree bend to the right, check the signs. They will indicate the campsites are straight ahead down a 0.3-mile spur trail.  

Arrive at the campground and set up camp 

Add-on Day 1: After setting up camp, you can hike to the Chestnut Knob Overlook for sunset.  

Day 3:  While you’ll be heading back down to the car today, it’s not all downhill.  After following the campsite spur back to Sawtooth Trail, you’ll continue straight on Sawtooth (Towards the Chestnut Knob Overlook).  

In 1.3 miles Sawtooth Trail will intersect with Horseridge Trail 

Here you’ll make a left onto Horseridge Trail 

After hiking 0.8 miles, you’ll see the sign for Possum Trail on your left 

Take a break here, then head left down Possum Trail 

The good news is Possum is a gentle 1.4 miles downhill. Enjoy the scenery, this is one of the prettiest trails in the park.  

Possum Trail ends at Shinny Trail 

When you see the signs, head left on Shinny Trail towards Headquarters Trail 

In 0.4 miles, make the left on Headquarters Trail 

At the intersection with High Shoals Falls Loop in 0.7 miles, make the left on High Shoals Falls Loop 

From here it’s an easy 0.5 miles of flat terrain back to your car  

If you still have some energy, you can head back to see the waterfall 

Creek at bottom of Shinny Trail.

More Routes  

There are many different options for hiking and backpacking in South Mountains State Park. Grab one of the free maps at the Visitor Center or buy the $5 map from the store and get planning! The advantage of the $5 map is that it has mileage from point to point which makes it easy to plan a trip. 

You may have to work around campsite availability, but I’ve found this often pushes me to find new routes and explore different areas of the park.  

Get out and explore South Mountains State Park.  

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