South Mountains State Park is probably the most underrated State Park in North Carolina.

I have no idea why because it’s one of my favorite parks to visit.

Whether you just want to hang at the river, go hiking, spend a weekend testing out new backpacking gear, or really test yourself, this is the best place to go.

Woman sitting on rock by Jacob Fork River in the morning.

Backpackers who think it’s too easy haven’t tried heading up Shinny Trail in full pack. I’ve trained for big backpacking trips here and trust me, you can create some tough routes.

On the flip side, if you’re new to backpacking or maybe need a quick trip to try out new gear, there’s a safety net here. You can create a route where you’re never far from your car, just in case something goes wrong, or you want to pack backup gear.

And this is why it’s perfect. No matter your goal, you can accomplish it here.

If you need another reason – let’s talk Shinny Trail. It’s pronounced “Shiny”, as in moonshine, because the area played a role in prohibition, and later the creation of NASCAR. If history like that doesn’t catch your attention, I don’t know what will.

How to Enjoy South Mountains State Park

Hiking and Relaxing

Not up for hiking? That’s okay. You can enjoy a day by the river which is mere feet from the parking lot. Partnered with the picnic area, complete with grills, you can make it an entire day of being outdoors.

Up for a bit of a challenge? Hike the 2 miles (round trip) to the 80 foot High Shoals Waterfall and back. The last bit of the hike to the viewing platform can be a little touch on the legs, but it’s well worth it.

There are hiking trails for all levels, from easy level trails to rugged climbs.

Camping and Backpacking

The family campground is perfect for car camping. The sites are well maintained and there’s a bathhouse with showers. Several of the campsites are along the river which is a treat in the hot summers.

New backpackers will find plenty of routes and primitive campsite options. Shinny (pronounced Shiny) Campground is the shortest hike in at 1.2 miles.

Experienced backpackers can put together advanced routes and go deep into the park. If you’re looking for adventure, head to the Murray Branch Campground which is the most primitive of the sites.

Tips for Visiting South Mountains State Park

Checking the Weather

For reasons I still can’t figure out, the park’s address says it’s in Connolly Springs but that’s not near the park. Your best bet for weather is to check what’s happening in Morganton, NC.

If you plan to be up along the rim of the park, subtract three degrees from the Morganton weather. While not a foolproof system, this has worked reliably over the years.   

Grab a Map

The free maps at the Visitor Center are the best I’ve seen at a state park. Even if you have an app on your phone, it’s helpful to have the entire park with all the trails in one location.

You can also take it a step further and pay $5 for the fold-out map available at the Visitor Center. This is a win-win as it helps support the park by buying a great resource. The purchased map has mileages broken down from intersections and points of interest, making it a handy tool for trip planning.

Avoid the Crowds in the Summer

In the summer, arrive early to ensure you get a parking spot and avoid the crowds. The park tends to be the local swimming hole for the area and gets crowded on hot days.

Always Read BOTH Trail Signs

This is a little unique to South Mountains State Park, but before you make a turn on or off a trail, stop and look. There is likely a second sign perpendicular to the one you’re looking at. Be sure to read both signs and verify you’re about to make the correct turn.

The top of the sign indicates the trail and the signs tell you what trails connect and how many miles to the intersection.

Most of the trails are one way and several of them lead to the same trail, just in very different locations. It’s important to make sure you’re taking the trail you want to be on to the location you want to be.

I’ve also noticed that the campgrounds aren’t always on the signs. They tend to pop up sporadically. This is where the map comes in handy.

Always Yield to Equestrians

Horses always have right of way, period.

Trail etiquette goes horses, hikers, bicycles. Always, always, always, stop and let equestrians pass. No one wants a spooked horse.

If you’re using hiking poles, stop and keep your poles down and still. Also, if you’re wearing a backpack it helps to stop and stand still.

Dress Accordingly

Many of the trails are under a thick canopy of trees, especially down at the bottom near the parking lot and river. The sun doesn’t penetrate far.

I would recommend bringing an extra layer just in case you get chilled.

Ask for Help

Don’t hesitate to ask if you become confused or aren’t sure where you are.  You’re likely to run into people on the trails and most people visiting the park know their way around and are happy to help.

And don’t forget to Have fun!

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