Camping At South Mountains State Park

When I’m itching to get outdoors, South Mountains State Park is on the top of my list. One of the reasons I recommend this park is the multitude of campgrounds.

Family campground bath house at South Mountains State Park.

Whether you are taking the family car camping and hot showers are a necessity, getting started backpacking and looking for a safe, easy location, or testing out new gear and prefer somewhere familiar, this is your park.

With a whopping nine campgrounds, including seven primitive locations, South Mountains State Park has an option for every type of camper.

You’re never more than a few miles from your car, and even the furthest campgrounds are an easy (mostly) downhill hike out. Also, several of the trails are dirt and gravel roadbeds the rangers can drive on, making help in a serious situation much faster than in other areas.

The trails are well marked with signs and blazes, and it’s a popular location so you’re sure to run into a few other hikers or horseback riders throughout the day.

To avoid confusion, I’m using campground as the location with the name. Each campground is comprised of multiple campsites. You would reserve a specific campsite within a campground.

All sites require reservations which you can do ahead of time through Reserve America. You can try for same-day reservations when you show up at the park, but this is a gamble as the sites are often booked.

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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Car Camping

South Mountains has a family campground with 18 reservable campsites. Each site can accommodate up to 6 people. Two of the sites have electrical hookups for RVs. Site 12 is wheelchair accessible.

When reserving your site, verify the size of the driveway before booking. Driveways differ in length from 15 to 50 feet.

The campground is right next to the River Trail, providing easy access to the river and the trail system.

Some of the sites have a little bump out for the picnic table which allows for more tent room on the pad, others do not. When you book your site, make sure to take a look at the photo provided.

Site limits: Sites are limited to 6 people and tents must fit on the pads. The tent pads are large, most would fit at least two 2-person tents. The sites with the picnic table off to the side could fit three 2-person tents.

Amenities: There is a shower house with hot showers, flush toilets, and sinks. Each site has a fire ring with a grill top and picnic table.

Water:  There are water spigots with potable water throughout the area.

Location: About a half-mile drive down a paved road from the Visitor Center.

Great for:  This is a great option for families or outdoor enthusiasts with a family that doesn’t exactly want to give up that hot shower.

Primitive Campgrounds

Seven primitive campgrounds are located throughout the park. These require you to pack in all your gear. Each area has 3 to 5 individual campsites, depending on the location.

All sites have a shared privy, bear locker, and fire ring. Except for Murray Branch, they also all have picnic tables.

Sites are limited to 6 people.

Shinny Creek

Shinny Creek has 4 primitive sites, all along the creek. They’re not as well separated as some of the other sites, but you will have space from your neighbors.

One of the campsites at Shinny Primitive Campground

Kids will love playing in the creek, and you’re less than a mile from the High Shoals Falls waterfall.

Strong hikers can head to Chestnut Knob Overlook for sunset. Be sure to bring a headlamp. While it’s a fast hike back down to camp, in the winter you may find yourself hiking that last quarter-mile in the dark.

Amenities: Privy, bear locker, picnic table, trash cans, usually chopped firewood.

Water: Shinny has water via a small creek right behind the sites. It’s usually reliable.

Location: Easy 1.2 mile hike from the parking lot.

How to get there:  From the parking lot, follow High Shoals Falls Trail, in 0.5 miles turn right onto Headquarters Trail, in 0.7 miles you’ll see the campsite on your left with a small sign.

Great for:  This is a good option if you have kids or a lot of gear.

Best campsite:  The campsites are similar.

Upper Falls

Upper Falls has 5 separate campsites spread far apart. The sites are along the top of the river just before the High Shoals Falls waterfall. They’re large and mainly flat.

Many day hikers following the High Shoals Falls loop like to take a detour to this area and play in the river. This means the privy is often out of hand sanitizer and toilet paper.

Another con to this site is the location itself. While it sounds ideal at only 1.4 miles in, it’s not that easy to reach.

In less crowded months, like winter, this could be a good site. You would have the waterfall to yourself in the evening and early morning.

Amenities: Privy, bear locker, picnic table.

Water: Water is right next to the campground, readily accessible and reliable.

Location: A 1.4-mile hike from the parking lot.

How to get there:  From the parking lot follow High Shoals Falls Trial. At the split, you can either go counterclockwise (right) up the side for backpackers, or you can try to go clockwise (left) with everyone else heading to the waterfall. Either way, it’s not ideal in full pack.

Regardless of which way you decide, when you reach a T intersection head left on Upper Falls Trail until you reach the campground.

The second option is to head up the River Trail from the parking lot, then go right on Raven Rock Trail, then right again on Upper Falls Trail. This requires hiking a long uphill, short downhill, and a water crossing.

Great for: Experienced backpackers when all other sites are booked.

Best campsite:  Campsite 3 has a nice, wooded area that offers the most shelter.

Campsite at Upper Falls Primitive Campground.

Fox Trail

This is my favorite site. Fox Trail has three primitive campsites spaced around a large meadow. Few hikers come this way, which makes it one of the quietest campgrounds in the park.

Since it’s not close to any of the popular park features and it takes a bit of hiking to reach, you generally find locals looking to avoid the crowds and more serious backpackers.

If you’ve reserved campsite 3, head down the trail towards the water and you’ll see it on your right.

Overall, this is a nice, quiet, little piece of the park.

Amenities: Privy, bear locker, picnic table.

Water: Fox Trail has a water source about 0.1 miles from camp, but it can be dry if there hasn’t been rain.

Location: 4.9 miles from the parking lot.

How to get there:  From the parking lot, follow High Shoals Falls Trail, in 0.5 miles make the right on Headquarters Trail. At the T intersection, go right on Upper Falls Trail, then left on Jacob Branch Trail, then right on Fox Trail.

You’ll see the campsites on your left.

If you go this way, you’ll also pass the cemetery with the rumored grave of a WWII soldier.

Great for:  Experienced backpackers looking for a bit of quiet.

Best campsite: Campsite 3 is away from the others and offers a nice, wooded area for shelter.

Jacob Branch

Jacob Branch is a large meadow with three campsites spaced around it. There are two privies here. A new privy was recently installed, but the old one has not been removed.

As you walk into the campground area, you’ll see a wooden frame on the right. These are the old horse stalls. Jacob Branch was the equestrian campsite before the new site was added.

Jacob Branch primitive campsite number two.

Amenities:  Privy, bear locker, picnic table.

Water:  There is water that runs behind campsites 2 and 3. It’s usually reliable but can be limited or dry if there hasn’t been raining in 1 to 2 weeks.

Location:  3.8 miles from the parking lot.

How to get there:  From the parking lot, take High Shoals Falls Trail, in 0.5 miles go right on Headquarters Trail, at the T make a right on Upper Falls Trail. Keep walking until you see the sign for Jacob Branch Campsites on your left.

Do NOT turn left on Jacob Branch Trail. For some reason, the campsites aren’t on the trail with the same name. When you see the sign for Jacob Branch Trail, just keep walking straight on Upper Falls Trail. It’s another mile or so until you reach the campsites.

Great for:  Experienced backpackers looking for a weekend in the park. This site sets you up nicely for a trip around the northern rim.  

Best campsite: I like campsite 3. It offers the most privacy. As a bonus, if you’re with a group that will be pitching 3-5 tents, there are several good tent sites in the woods behind the picnic table.

Sawtooth

I have a love/hate relationship with this location. The campground is comprised of a meadow with 3 campsites spaced around it. It’s also the least level location.

Campsite 1 is at the top as you enter the meadow, with sites 2 and 3 on the right. While one tent at each site might be able to be pitched on flat ground, everyone else is going to be on some sort of an incline. It’s just a matter of how steep.

But it’s the closest campsite to Chestnut Knob Overlook making it a great option for sunset and sunrise photos.

On hot days, the nearby creek is perfect to dip your toes in, or even sit for a bit – downstream from where everyone is getting water, of course.

Amenities:  Privy, bear locker, picnic table.

Water:  Water is a little further than most of the other sites. It’s a good 0.2 miles down a water trail. On the way back, with everything full of water, it’s uphill. But it’s a fairly reliable source of water. There are a series of rocks creating multiple small waterfalls, great for filling dirty bags.

Location:  3.4 miles from the parking lot.

How to get there:  The best way to reach the campground is to take Little River Trail from the parking lot. Little River is right next to the blue house. As you hike, there’s a gentle bend you must go around where it becomes the Upper CCC Trail. From here, keep an eye out for the left onto Sawtooth Trail.

Once on Sawtooth, there’s a small water crossing which is usually easy, then a hill.  The trail will make a 90 degree turn to the left, but there’s a sign there pointing to the campsites on your right.

A second way is to head down High Shoals Falls Trail and then make the right on Chestnut Knob Trail. At the T intersection go right, and at the next intersection, you’ll walk straight which puts you on Sawtooth Trail. You’ll reach the 90-degree bend in the trail. Go straight to take the spur trail to the campsites.  While this is less mileage, the climb up Chestnut Knob in full pack can be difficult if you’re not in shape.

Great for:  Experienced backpackers looking for a weekend in the park. This site sets you up nicely for a trip around the northern rim.  You would be going in the reverse direction from anyone starting at Jacob Branch campsites.

Best campsite: If you have 1 tent, site 1 is generally preferred. For groups with up to 6 tents, site 2 is the better option. There are several somewhat level tent sites in the woods.

Little River

These are my least favorite sites in the park. They’re the newest, but I don’t feel they’re in a good location. It’s a meadow with 4 campsites spaced around it.

The options to pitch your tent are not great at any of the sites. There are tough roots, thick grass, and a lot of uneven ground at every site.

Honestly, if you want a campsite close to the parking lot, aim for Shinny Creek instead. If your goal is to be near Chestnut Knob Overlook, just keep going to Sawtooth.

Little River campsite one at South mountains state park.

Amenities:  Privy, bear locker, picnic table.

Water:  Water for this site is a mile away. You’ll need to go down the half-mile spur trail to Little River Trail, make a left and walk another 0.5 miles. All of this is downhill. Which means it’s 1 mile uphill on the way back.

Location:  The sites are 1.4 miles from the parking lot including 0.5 miles up a spur trail to the actual sites.

How to get there:  Simply take Little River Trail from the parking lot and keep going until you see the very small sign for the sites on your left.

Great for:  If you’re desperate and all other sites are reserved. Try to aim for site 3 if possible.

Murray Branch

This is the most primitive site of the primitive sites. It’s similar to camping in a wilderness area.

The sites are small and close to each other. This is a great site for anyone wanting to avoid that “I’m at a park” feeling when camping. It’s also far away from just about anyone visiting the area so you should have some peace and quiet.

Murray’s Branch is the closest campsite to the South Mountains Gamelands.

Amenities:  Privy, bear locker, fire rings.

Water:  Water is right next to the campsites, but it is not reliable.

Location:  5.4 miles from the parking lot.

How to get there:  From the parking lot follow High Shoals Falls Trail, in 0.5 miles make the right on Headquarters Trail, at the T make a right on Upper Falls Trail. At the T intersection, go left on Lower CCC Trail. Continue straight (past Fox Trail intersection) until you see the sign for the campsites.

Great for:  Experienced backpackers that want to get away from the crowds. Anyone that wants to be near the Gamelands.

Best campsite: Campsite 2 has a little more room and better options for pitching a tent.

Pro Tip: Be very careful about your tent location if it’s raining. Even though the sites appear level, the small patches of grass create a Plinko board and your tent can become wet if you’re on top of the wrong chute. 

Equestrian Campground

One of the things I love about South Mountains State Park is it’s horse-friendly. I can’t recall a single time I was there and didn’t see someone on horseback. They make it easier for equestrians by offering an equestrian campsite complete with a barn for your horse.

A horse is required to reserve one of the equestrian sites.

There are 15 campsites and a 33 stall barn. You’ll need to reserve the campsite and stalls separately.

All sites have tent pads and electrical hookups. Sites 14 and 15 are wheelchair accessible.

If you have an RV, verify the driveway size and type before you reserve your site. They are different lengths, and some are pull-through while others are back-in.

When reserving a stall in the barn, also check the sizes. Some stalls are 5 by 10, and others are 10 by 10. The size is hidden in the description below the red Attention line. Another way to tell the difference is the price. The 5 by 10 stalls are less expensive.  

Amenities include hot showers, flush toilets, and water spigots with potable water. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring with a grill top.

The equestrian campground is right next to both Saddleback Trail and Turkey Ridge Trail which are both multi-use. South Mountains State Park has an excellent website with a PDF map available online to identify trails where equestrians are allowed.

Which Campsite is Best?

Best location for an easy hike in: Shinny Creek

Best location to be near the waterfall: Shinny Creek

Best location for kids: Shinny Creek (Primitive), Family Campground (Non-primitive)

Best location for getting away from the crowds: Fox Trial

Best location for making a loop of the park: Jacob Branch

Best location to enjoy Chestnut Knob Overlook: Sawtooth

Best location if you have a horse: Equestrian Campground

Best location for non-backpackers: Family Campground

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9 Comments

  1. I love camping but have never camped in the wild (it’s usually not allowed in Europe). But this is definitely something which is on my wish list. Thanks for sharing your tips for sites in this part of your country.

  2. This looks like a lovely area to go camping and hiking in! I like the sounds of a couple of the trails that you mentioned.

  3. Wow, this post is a treasure for camping lovers. I am not a camping person. I still loved reading your article.

    1. I totally get it. My plans are to list a few places with cabins or “less rustic” accommodations so stay tuned 🙂

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