Day Hikes at South Mountains State Park, NC

One of the things I love about South Mountains State Park is the extensive trail system. It offers many different day hikes, regardless of experience and fitness levels.

It doesn’t matter if you’re new to hiking, an experienced outdoor enthusiast, or just want a day out with the family. There are options for everyone.

To help get the most from your visit, I’ve compiled a few of the common hikes in the park. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can grab a map and make your own loop.  

Regardless of what you’re ready for, there’s an option for everyone here so let’s get going.

If you’re interested in an activity not available here, you can view all NC State Parks by Location and Activity. You may also enjoy Discover North Carolina’s State Parks.

River Trail at South Mountains State Park.

Most Popular Day Hikes 

High Shoals Falls Loop Trail 

High Shoals Falls Loop Trail is the most popular trail at South Mountains State Park because it leads to the 80 foot High Shoals Waterfall.  

Since the trail runs alongside the Jacob Fork River, many visitors follow the trail to their favorite swimming spot and then enjoy lunch at the picnic area. This causes the area to be crowded in the summer.

High Shoals Falls Loop as it narrows.

Mileage: 2.7 miles for the loop 

Mileage to the waterfall: 1 mile (one way) from the parking lot to the main viewing platform (0.5 miles on paved road) 

Blaze: Blue circle 

Difficulty: Intermediate 

Terrain: The first 0.5 miles is on paved and gravel road. As you continue to the waterfall, the trail becomes narrow, steep, and rocky. There are wooden bridges to help cross the river. Once across the river, it’s all uphill using wooden stairs and rock steps.  

Who can do this: Most visitors will be able to reach the waterfall viewing platform and return the way they came for a round trip of 2 miles. While the trail has difficult terrain in places, it’s a short section and most people will be fine if they go slowly.   

I’ve seen hikers of all ages and fitness levels make it to the waterfall. But you should be aware it’s not an easy hike.  

The entire 2.7-mile loop is also doable for most visitors as long as the weather is good. If it’s been raining and the trail is slick, you’ll need hiking boots for the backside of the loop.  

Reaching the High Shoals Waterfall: If you just want to see the waterfall, follow the signs at the far end of the Jacob Fork Parking lot. The trail is marked with a blue circle blaze and is easy to follow.  

You’ll walk past the restrooms and continue on a paved road which then turns to gravel for about 0.5 miles. It then turns to natural surface and narrows. You’ll pass through a rocky area, then cross the river on a bridge. Be sure to stop and admire some of the smaller waterfalls here.  

Once you’ve crossed the river, the trail continues up. There are wooden stairs and rock steps to help you up.  

You’ll continue to climb until you reach the viewing platform where you can get a photo of yourself with the giant, 80-foot High Shoals Waterfall behind you.  

Most visitors head back the way they came for a round trip of 2 miles.  

Doing the entire loop: From the viewing platform, you can continue going up to the top of the waterfall. There is a bridge that crosses the river at the top, however, it does not offer a view of the waterfall.  

You’ll get a brief respite as the trail remains level for the next 0.4 miles until it merges with Upper Falls Trail where you will make a right and begin an uphill section on a gravel road.   

In another 0.2 miles, the back end of High Shoals Falls Trail branches off to the right. This section is a steep downhill with sections of natural surface and rock.  

As long as the trail is dry, this is a doable loop for most people. While there is some difficult terrain to navigate, it is less than 3 miles with 0.5 on pavement. Just go slowly and watch your footing in places.  

If the trail is wet, the back section can be difficult, especially if you don’t have hiking boots. I would not recommend this section of trail for non-experienced hikers in wet conditions.  

Pro Tip

If you’re heading to the waterfall and back, consider getting on the Hemlock Nature Trail on the way back. While on the gravel road section of the trail near the restrooms, you’ll see a small wooden ramp branching off on your right.

Hemlock Nature Trail is a 0.3-mile, easy hike that leads back to the parking lot. Along the way are information areas where you can stop and learn about the park and ecosystem. The trail is natural surface and easy. Perfect for children, or adults wanting a quieter walk back to the car. 

River Trail 

Mileage: 0.5 miles (one way) 

Difficulty: Easy 

Blaze: Red triangle 

Terrain: Natural surface, well maintained 

Who could do this: This trail is suitable for most visitors. 

River Trail is an easy and fun hike. It connects the Family Campground to the Jacob Fork parking lot, allowing campers easy access to the trail system and river.  

The trail is accessed from the bottom of the Jacob Fork parking lot. As you park, you’ll see everyone heading to the right for High Shoals Falls. Walk in that direction, then look to your left. You’ll see a small hole in the parking spots with a footbridge. That’s the start of River Trail.  

The trail is natural surface and level, perfect for kids. 

In the summer, you’ll see children and adults cooling off in their favorite water spots along the trail.  

Beach area along Jacob Fork River.

Chestnut Knob Trail 

Mileage: 1.8 miles (one way). This does not include the 0.2-mile hike to reach the trail.  

Difficulty: Difficult 

Blaze: White diamond 

Terrain: Natural surface 

Who could do this: Individuals with some experience hiking who are in good shape.  

To access Chestnut Knob Trail from the parking lot, head 0.2 miles down High Shoals Falls Trail, then make the right onto Chestnut Knob Trail when you see the sign.  

Wait? Isn’t your mileage off? The sign says 2.1 miles.  

Good catch!

From the beginning of the sign at the Chestnut Knob Trailhead to the top is 1.6 miles. But at the top, the trail makes a T intersection with itself.

It’s 0.2 miles heading left to the overlook, and 0.2 miles heading right to Sawtooth trail. Most people aren’t going to head in both directions, so it’s 0.2 miles shorter than advertised. I have no idea where the other 0.1 miles went. My guess is it got lost in the decimal points somewhere.  

But this is good news because while it doesn’t look or sound like much at 3.6 miles round-trip, it’s a tough hike. The route is almost completely uphill and has difficult terrain, including tall rock steps. Once you reach the top, you’ll turn left to continue to Chestnut Knob Overlook. 

You’ll see a wooden structure used for horseback riders to tie their horses while they head to the overlook. Don’t worry, the horses don’t come up Chestnut Knob Trail, they have an alternate path to the area. 

From the horse tie, the trail becomes narrow and rocky. It’s challenging terrain and even seasoned hikers will want to watch their step. I recommend backpackers drop their packs before the trail narrows.  

All of this makes you wonder, “why do it?”, but the incredible view of Jacob Fork Gorge from the overlook is the best view in the park.  

Sunrise view from Chestnut Knob Overlook.

The great news is that it’s a lot easier heading back down to the parking lot.  

Popular Extended Day Hikes 

Chestnut Knob – Sawtooth – Horseridge – Possum Trails 

Mileage: 7.3 miles (Includes the hike on High Shoals Falls Trail to and from the parking lot to the trailheads). 

Difficulty: Difficult 

Blaze:  White diamond – Blue hexagon – Orange square – Red square 

Terrain: A mix of natural surface and gravel road 

Who could do this: Strong hikers in good shape. 

While 7.3 miles may not seem like much to experienced hikers, this is a strenuous route, and you’ll need to be in good shape to complete it.  

I’m hard-pressed to think of another loop with more ups and downs.  

To complete the route, from the Jacob Fork parking lot you’ll start on High Shoals Falls Loop, then make the right on Chestnut Knob Trail.  

At the top, head left to visit Chestnut Knob Overlook then come back and keep going straight. You will naturally merge into Sawtooth Trail.  

Sawtooth is a gravel road and named because it goes up and down, like the teeth on a saw blade. Even though you’re only on it for about 1.1 miles, as you hike up and down the fifth hill, you’ll be thinking that it’s appropriately named.  

There’s an incredible view at the top of one of the hills. The area was cleared and is now a bald with a picnic table, horse tie, and horse mounting step. In my opinion, this is the second-best view in the park and a great place for some photos.  

When Sawtooth ends at a T intersection you’ll head left on Horseridge Trail, another nice gravel trail. There may be a hill or two, but you’ll miss the worst part when you turn left on Possum Trail after 0.8 miles.  

Possum Trail is one of the prettiest trails in the park. With pleasant natural terrain, the first portion has few trees allowing nice views and sunshine. As you begin to descend, you’ll enter a more forested area.  

Possum Trail at South Mountains State Park.

While it can be steep in places, there are occasional switchbacks to help ease you downhill.  

At the bottom, just after you cross a small stream, Possum will merge with Shinny Trail.  Follow the shared spur for 0.4 miles until it ends at Headquarters Trail by the Shinny Creek Campsites. Head left on Headquarters Trail and continue down until it ends at High Shoals Falls Loop.  

Here you’ll make a left and join everyone else heading to their cars.  

Be sure to stop in Morganton for a burger. You’ve earned it.  

Get Away from the Crowds Hike 

High Shoals Fall – Upper Falls – Raven Rock – River Trails 

Mileage: 3.8 miles 

Difficulty: Intermediate 

Blaze:  Blue circle – White square – White circle – Red Triangle 

Terrain: A mix of natural surface and gravel road 

Who could do this: Individuals who are in good shape. 

This route takes you past the High Shoals Waterfall but then returns you to your car on lesser-traveled trails, away from the crowds.  

From the Jacob Fork parking lot, take the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail up to the waterfall. This is the most difficult part of the route.  

Stop at the viewing platform to check out the High Shoals waterfall and get a great photo. Continue to the top of the waterfall and head across the river on the bridge.  

At the T intersection, go left on Upper Falls Trail, a nice downhill on a gravel road. You’ll wander through the Upper Falls Campsites with the river in front. You’ll need to cross the river to stay on Upper Falls Trail, but this is usually an easy walk on exposed rocks.  

If the water levels are too high, you may have to remove your shoes and walk through the water, but this is rare.  

Once across the river, you’ll have to finish a steep climb to the top of the hill, but this is the last one. At the top, the trail forms a T intersection with Raven Rock Trail. Here you’ll head left.  

Raven Rock is a pleasant gravel road that will gently wind you down towards the river. It’s a long section of trail, but not widely used so you’ll have it mostly to yourself. Enjoy the views that peak out every now and then on your left as you treasure your quiet, gentle hike down.  

At the bottom, near the river, you’ll head left on River Trail and rejoin civilization.

Continue following River Trail, until it gently deposits you back at the parking lot.  

Something for Everyone

There are several routes you can create at South Mountains State Park. Regardless of your experience and fitness, there are options.

Take a look at the map and head out to one of North Carolina’s hidden gems.

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