Trails at South Mountains State Park, NC

One of the things I love about South Mountains State Park is the extensive trail system. There are over twenty trails from easy to difficult, dirt and gravel roads to natural surface, offering an option for every hiker.  

Families can enjoy an outing to the waterfall, then explore the Jacob’s Fork River along the River and Hemlock trails. There are picnic tables available to make it a special day out.  

Experienced hikers looking for a challenge can try the Possum and Shinny trails, or head up Chestnut Knob Trail for the views at the overlook.  

The first section of Shinny Trail at South Mountains State Park.

If you’re in it for mileage, it’s easy to string together trails and make routes as long as you like.  

The park does a great job of noting the difficulty of the trails on the maps. Below, I added a few details on the more popular trails to help you plan your trip.  

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

Rating Scale 

Easy: Easy terrain, most anyone should be able to hike, hiking boots not required. 

Intermediate: More difficult either for terrain or mileage. Hiking boots are helpful. Some hiking experience is helpful. 

Difficult: More difficult terrain and mileage. Hiking boots are strongly recommended. Hiking experience is recommended. 

Strenuous: Difficult terrain and water crossings. Hiking boots are strongly recommended. Hiking experience is strongly recommended.  

High Shoals Falls Loop Trail  

Difficulty: Intermediate for terrain 

Mileage: 2.7 miles for the entire loop  

Mileage to the waterfall:  1 mile (one way) from the parking lot to the main viewing platform 

Terrain: The first 0.5 mile is on paved and a well-groomed dirt and gravel road. As you continue to the waterfall, the trail becomes narrow and rocky. There is a wooden bridge to help cross the river. After this section, it is 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. The terrain can be challenging at times and there is a climb involved to get to the top. Overall, you’ll likely find the most difficult part is moving to the side to let others pass or attempting to pass yourself.  

Doing the entire loop: If you continue past the viewing platform, after a bit of a climb, the trail becomes easier as you cross the river on a well-built bridge. After this, the terrain remains level for the next 0.2 miles.  

The trail forms a T intersection with Upper Falls Trail (the two trails become one for a short bit). You’ll make a right at this intersection and then head up a decent hill.  

After hiking 0.2 miles, the trails will split off from each other at a well-marked intersection. Here, you’ll stay towards the right (it appears like you’re going straight) to continue on High Shoals Falls Loop. 

From here, it’s 0.6 miles as you trend downhill, and the terrain can be rough at times. There are rock steps and a lot of loose rocks in a few places. If the trail is wet from rain, this section is more difficult. On a dry day, it’s much easier.  

The difficult sections mix with pleasant trail that gently navigate you down the hill. 

At the bottom, you’ll see the dirt and gravel trail you were on earlier. Continue straight to head the 0.5 miles back to your car.  

High Shoals Waterfall at South Mountains State Park.

More details: 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.   

In the summer, the trail can become crowded so be sure to arrive early and avoid the masses.  

The trail is what we call a lollipop. It starts straight on the “stem” of the lollipop, then you come to a loop where you can go left (clockwise) or right (counterclockwise). If you opt to do the entire loop, you’ll come back to this intersection and follow the “stem” back to your car.  

With High Shoals Falls Loop, most hikers stay to the left at the intersection (which is subtle and easy to miss), view the waterfall, then return the same way. If you opt for this route, you should be able to see the river the entire time you’re heading to the waterfall.  

Pro Tip

If you’re heading to the waterfall and back, consider getting on the Hemlock Nature Trail for the last 0.3 miles. When you’re on the easy dirt and gravel section of High Shoals Falls Loop, you’ll see a small wooden ramp to your right with a sign for the trail.

River Trail  

Difficulty: Easy  

Mileage: 0.5 miles (one way)  

Terrain: Natural surface, well maintained  

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

A section of River Trail at South Mountains State Park.

River Trail is an easy 0.5-mile (one-way) trail that connects the Family Campground to the Jacob Fork parking lot.  

It can be easily connected to the Hemlock Nature trail for a relaxing, and easy hike.  

River Trail is flat with very few roots and rocks.  

Children will love that it borders the Jacob Fork River the entire way. Parents will love that it’s more of a small creek at this point and the visibility of the trail ahead of you is good at most times.  

In the summer, the canopy of trees covering the trail offers a break from the sun. In the spring, the rhododendrons are beautiful as you walk through patches of them in full bloom.  

To access the trail from the Family Campground, walk down the road towards the campground exit. As you pass the blue dumpster, you’ll see the trailhead sign up ahead on your left.  

To access the trail from the Jacob Fork parking lot, look at the High Shoals Falls trailhead sign at the end of the lot, then look to your left. You’ll see a second kiosk and sign next to the river. This is the entrance to both the River Trail if you head over the bridge, and the Hemlock Nature Trail if you head to the right.  

Hemlock Nature Trail 

Difficulty: Easy  

Mileage: 0.5 miles (one way)  

Terrain:  Flat, hard-packed gravel 

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

A small wooden lookout on Hemlock Nature Trail to view the river.

Hemlock Nature Trail is an easy 0.5-mile (one-way) trail that starts near the River Trail at the Jacob Fork parking lot and connects to the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail.  

As you walk along the river, you’ll find small learning stations that share information about the ecosystem, the history of the park, and fun animal facts. My favorite is the station with the animal prints.  

The trail is packed gravel on what may be pavement offering a firm, even path. This is the easiest trail in the park.  

With a strong covering of trees, Hemlock Nature Trail doesn’t get a lot of sunshine, making it a great place to get out of the hot sun in the summer.  

To access the trail from the Jacob Fork parking lot, head towards the High Shoals Falls Loop trailhead at the end of the lot, then look to your left. You will see another trailhead and kiosk near the river. Head towards that area and make the right onto the Hemlock Nature Trail.  

If you are on High Shoals Falls Loop heading back to your car, it’s about 0.2 miles down the easy dirt and gravel section of the trail. On your right, you’ll see a small ramp leading down towards the river with a wooden bench nearby. This is the entrance to the trail. It is marked, but you can miss it if you’re not looking for it.  

Chestnut Knob Trail  

Difficulty: Difficult for terrain and uphill mileage 

Mileage: 2.1 miles (one way)  

Terrain: Natural surface, can be rugged in places with rock steps and a narrow path 

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.   

It doesn’t look or sound like much at 4.2 miles round-trip, but 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 the overlook.  

The last bit of trail as you head to the overlook is mainly rock and can be challenging. We recommend backpackers leave their packs at the area before the trail narrows.   

All of this makes you wonder, “why do it?”, but the incredible view of Jacob Fork Gorge from Chestnut Knob Overlook makes it worth the effort.   

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

Hidden Cove Trail  

Difficulty:  Easy to Intermediate for mileage and some hills 

Mileage: 3 miles round-trip 

Terrain: Natural surface, easy trail, few rocks and roots 

Who could do this: Individuals with some experience hiking  

Hidden Cove Trail is easy to miss. As you drive past the Visitor Center, there’s a small parking lot on your left with a wooden fence. Most people don’t notice it as they head to the Jacob Fork parking lot.   

The trail is a pleasant 3-mile (round-trip) hike on natural terrain. It doesn’t offer many views, but it’s a quiet trail and a great place to get away from the crowds. I find myself lost in thoughts as I hike this area. 

After coming to its end at the intersection with Turkey Ridge Trail, you can backtrack the way you came. 

There is a section when you first begin that takes you under the park road. It may look scary with all the rocks, but there’s a distinct path and the footing is solid.  

Just past this section, you will make a sharp left and turn away from the river. The turn is not marked, and it can appear as the trail continues straight. If you don’t make the turn, you’ll wind up dead-ending into the river.  

Check out my video of Hidden Cove Trail!

Transcript for video

Possum Trail  

Difficulty:  Intermediate for terrain 

Mileage: 1.4 miles (one way) 

Terrain: Natural surface, easy trail, few rocks and roots 

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

Rock steps on Possum Trail.

Possum Trail is one of my favorite trails at South Mountains State Park. From the bottom, it’s accessed via Shinny Trail, right across from the Shinny Creek campsites. About 0.4 miles in, Possum splits off at a well-marked intersection.

You can also access it from Horseridge Trail if you’re doing a longer hike along the rim.  

Possum Trail is 1.4-miles with natural terrain. There is a water crossing where it splits from Shinny. It’s generally an easy rock hop. 

Note about mileage

Note: While Possum Trail is 1.4 miles, from the Jacob Fork Parking lot, you’ll need to hike 0.5 miles on High Shoals Falls Loop, 0.7 miles on Headquarters Trail, and 0.4 miles on Shinny Trail to access the trailhead. That’s a total of 3 miles from your car to the top of the trail.

At times steep, at others a gentle switchback, it’s one of the most pleasant and scenic trails in the park.   

Enjoy the ridge as you hike through a forested area, an open area with good views, and wind along gentle, sloping, edges. 

While it does gain elevation, I rated it easier than Chestnut Knob Trail because the terrain is less technical. It’s a well-groomed trail with only one section of rock steps that are fairly easy to navigate.  

Shinny Trail  

Difficulty:  Strenuous. This is the most difficult trail in the park. Mileage, water crossings, elevation gains. 

Mileage: 2.6 miles (one way) 

Terrain: Natural surface, sections that are steep with roots, three water crossings 

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

Shinny trail is the most strenuous trail in the park. It’s only 2.6 miles which is good because it’s a tough 2.6 miles.   

Note about mileage

Note: To access Shinny Trail from the Jacob Fork parking lot, you will need to walk 0.5 miles on High Shoals Falls Trail, then 0.7 miles on Headquarters to reach the Shinny Trailhead. This increases your mileage to 3.8 miles from the bottom to the top of the trail.

Generally, I recommend this trail for experienced hikers, and I wouldn’t take a new backpacker on this trail for their first outing. That being said, it’s a lot of fun.   

Shinny has what I refer to as “near-vertical climbs”. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, and they’re not long climbs, but they are steep, and the ground can be soft. There are several of them and they can wear on inexperienced hikers or those not in shape.    

The trail also has three water crossings. At one time, a footbridge assisted over one of them, but that was down the last time I was there. All three can be crossed via a rock hop, but two of them were not straightforward.  

Once you reach the top, the elevation levels out and you think you’re almost at the intersection with Upper Falls Trail. But it’s only an illusion. You’ll find yourself winding along the rim for some time. Enjoy it though. The ecosystem seems to change as you hike, offering some of the most interesting visuals in the park.  

Other Trails at South Mountains State Park

Big Bear Trail

Big Bear Trail is the newest trail in the park. You can find it on the PDF map from the South Mountains State Park website, but it’s not on the free printed map I got at the park. Hopefully, it will make its way on those soon.

It’s a short 0.2-mile hike that you pick up off High Shoals Falls Loop, just before the Headquarters Trail Intersection. It leads you to Big Bear Falls.

While not as spectacular as the High Shoals Waterfall, it’s a cute area and a nice little hike.

Headquarters Trail  

Headquarters Trail leads to many of the park areas making it a highly trafficked trail. It’s the means to the Shinny primitive campground, Shinny Trail, Possum Trail, and an easy way to the top if you’re heading to Jacob Fork primitive campground or Fox Trail.  

In addition, it’s also part of the mountain biking loop which is a collection of trails in the park creating a 16.5-mile loop.  

You can reach Headquarters Trail from the Jacob Fork parking lot by hiking 0.5 miles down High Shoals Falls Trail, then making the right when you see the sign.   

The trail is a dirt and gravel road. It trends uphill the entire way.  

Upper Falls Trail  

If you’re heading beyond the waterfall, you’ll likely find yourself on Upper Falls Trail.  

The trail starts at Raven Rock Trail just past the Upper Falls Primitive Campground and ends at Horseridge Trail about a mile from the Jacob Fork Primitive Campground.  

For anyone doing the entire High Shoals Falls Loop Trail, you’ll find yourself on the Upper Falls Trail for about 0.2 miles as the two trails become one for a short bit.  

There’s no way around it if you’re heading to the Jacob Fork or Upper Falls Primitive Campgrounds.  

The trail is a dirt and gravel road the entire way. At times lined with rhododendrons and at others heavily forested, it offers quite a bit of variety.  

Jacob Branch Trail  

Jacob Branch Trail is a hidden gem connecting Upper Falls Trail to Fox Trail. Unless you’re heading to the Fox Trail campgrounds, there’s no reason to venture here, but you should.   

Easy section of Jacob Branch Trail.

It’s a narrow, natural terrain trail that leads to a small creek with a cute bridge. Somehow, you’re transported to a tropical jungle with lush green plants.   

There is a steep, rocky area with iffy footing. While I love this trail, I avoid it if I’m with new backpackers. You need to be confident with your footing, and comfortable with balancing your pack, especially if it’s wet.   

The hike is a short 1.1 miles, but completely worth the effort.   

Fox Trail  

Fox trail tends to float between old dirt and gravel road and natural terrain-like. Generally, I’m only on it between Lower CCC Trail and Jacob’s Branch Trail to get to and leave the Fox Trail Primitive Campground.  

You can hike further up the trail to where it intersects with Raven Rock Trail, however, Raven Rock will be mainly pavement from this point. To be honest, I would rather take Jacob’s Branch Trail to Upper Falls Trail and arrive at Raven Rock Trail that way.  

Fox Trail at the campground intersection.

Horseridge Trail  

Horseridge Trail takes you across the ridgeline around the northern end of the park. It’s a 3.3-mile dirt and gravel road.   

At first, it doesn’t seem so bad, but as you hike, you’ll encounter a hill. Then another. And another. They seem to get steeper as you go, and it doesn’t matter which direction you’re heading.   

The main reason to be on this trail is if you’re doing a loop of the park or need access to one of the trails that spin off Horseridge Trail such as Possum or Sawtooth Trails.  

Sawtooth Trail  

Sawtooth Trail has taken down many a backpacker. It’s named appropriately, Saw – tooth, as in the teeth on a saw. Up and down.   

This 2.2-mile trail is a dirt and gravel road and one of the most strenuous in the park.  

It also offers the best view.   

At the top of one of the climbs is a bald area with a picnic table, horse tie, and mounting steps. This is a great location to stop for a snack and get a few photos.   

Lower CCC Trail  

Lower CCC Trail is a 2.5 miles  easy dirt and gravel road. It connects with Horseridge Trail, Upper Falls Trail, Fox Trail, and Benn Knob Trail.   

Most hikers will find themselves on the trail for a short amount of time as they head between Upper Falls Trail and Horseridge Trail.   

If you continue on the trail heading east, you’ll be hiking toward the Gamelands.   

Unless you’re heading to the Fox Trail or Murray Branch campsites, or the Gamelands, there’s not much here.   

Little River Trail  

Little River Trail is 2.1 miles uphill on a dirt and gravel road. It’s one of the ways to reach the ridgeline from the western end of the park. From the parking lot, aim for the blue house. The trail starts along the right side of the house.   

The Little River Primitive Campground is 1.5 miles up on the trail. However, it’s another 0.5 miles up the spur to the campgrounds.  

Note: The water for the Littler River Primitive Campgrounds is on the Little River Trail. The entire hike to the water is approximately 1-mile downhill. That makes it 1 mile uphill with all your water.  

It intersects with Upper CCC Trail and Turkey Ridge Trails. You may encounter horseback riders near Turkey Ridge which is one of the main ways equestrians head to the ridgeline.   

Upper CCC Trail  

Upper CCC Trail is essential if you’re going to walk the entire ridgeline. It’s a bit odd though as it doesn’t have a distinct beginning and end.   

Little River Trail runs into Upper CCC Trail naturally, there’s no intersection. It’s the same on the other end where Upper CCC Trail simply becomes Horseridge Trail.   

It’s a 1.6-mile dirt and gravel road. The trail also connects with Sawtooth Trail.   

Raven Rock Trail  

Raven Rock Trail is 5.2 miles and goes from the end of the Benn Knob Trail near the Gamelands, merges with River Trail near the Jacob Ford parking area, and then ends at an intersection with Little River Trail.   

It also intersects with Fox Trail and Upper Falls Trails along the way.   

Besides the mileage, there isn’t much to say about the trail. About 3 miles is on a paved road along the edge of the park.  As you re-enter the park, you’ll be back on dirt and gravel road.   

Saddleback Trail  

Saddleback Trail is used mainly by horseback riders. It’s a 3.0-mile, mix of old dirt and gravel road and natural surface leading from the Equestrian parking and Campground to Raven Rock Trail.  

It’s the main access for equestrians to reach the eastern end of the park.  

Turkey Ridge Trail  

Turkey Ridge Trail is 1.7 miles on a mix of old dirt and gravel road with natural surface terrain. It’s mainly used by Equestrians to reach the western trails from the Equestrian parking and Campground area.  

Benn Knob Trail  

If you’ve been to South Mountains before, you’re probably digging through your brain trying to think of where this trail could be. Don’t worry, it’s not you. Benn Knob isn’t a trail most will hike.   

The 2.9-mile (one-way) trail sits right on the border of the park and the Gamelands. It can be reached by the Lower CCC Trail and Raven Rock Trail.   

It’s a dirt and gravel road that trends downhill with no views. Unless you were camping at Murray Branch and wanted to head to the Gamelands, or hunting and using it as a cut-through, there’s really no reason to venture this way.   

Which Trail is Best?  

Most Popular Trail:  High Shoals Falls Loop Trail  

Most Rugged Trail:  Shinny Trail  

Prettiest Trail: Tie. Jacob Branch Trail and Possum Trail 

Best View:  Tie. Sawtooth Trail (there’s an overlook at the top of one of the hills) and Chestnut Knob Trail leading to the Chestnut Knob Overlook 

Best Sunrise/Sunset View:  Chestnut Knob Trail (leads to Chestnut Knob Overlook)  

Easiest Trail:  Hemlock Nature Trail  

Most fun for kids:  River Trail  

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

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