Why we like it:
South Mountains State Park is a great option for new backpackers and anyone wanting a quick weekend getaway. I may be biased because this is where I went for my first ever weekend backpacking trip and now I take new backpackers here on their first trip. One of the things that makes it great for beginners is the park’s 24 primitive backpacking sites require reservations, so we can pull into camp and not worry about finding room to pitch tents. The campsites are outfitted with fire rings, privies, and shared bear lockers which is also nice. Inevitably, the bear locker is opened and closed multiple times throughout the evening because new backpackers don’t have their system down yet and will often “find” food in their side pockets. Water is also readily accessible at the campsites where we stay, which is helpful since beginners also don’t always know how much they’ll need for cooking.
The park has a variety of trails from well-maintained and wide, to narrow backcountry. We stay on the wide trails for the most part, but due to a little boo boo hiking in by myself one night, I found the Shinny Trail, so I can attest that there are rugged, single track trails in the park for more experienced hikers and backpackers.
We always see fellow hikers, backpackers and equestrians on the main trails, but not so many it feels crowded. Most people visiting the park are enjoying the waterfall, or swimming in one of the many mountain pools off High Shoals Falls trail.
Our Favorite Route:
When taking new backpackers, we usually do a long loop for three days and two nights of backpacking.
On day one, we arrive around 2-3pm and head out for a four mile hike to camp. We start on High Shoals Falls Trail until we reach Headquarters trail. This is a nice and easy half mile to get everyone warmed up and in good spirits. About a half mile in on Headquarters Trail, the happy faces start to twist as leg burn sets in. Even though we mention most of the trek in is uphill, people are often surprised by how challenging it is. I had one backpacker stop and turn to me, “are you sure you didn’t accidentally take us to the Appalachian Mountains?” Well, in a way we are in the Appalachian Mountains, but not by accident. Even though there are no other mountains in the area, the South Mountains were once part of the Blue Ridge Mountains which are part of the Appalachian Mountains. Don’t let the location fool you, the climbs are challenging.
When we finally reach the intersection with Upper Falls Trail, things improve. It’s still a hill, but the incline is less steep and at this point, even a small win is success. When the front group reaches the sign for the Jacob Fork campsites, I usually hear their cries of victory. Although once I heard the cries a little too early. It turns out they encountered the sign for the Jacob Branch Trail. Sadly, the Jacob Branch campsites are not off that trail. We had more hiking to do.
There are three campsites, each allowing up to six people. We find the ones we reserved and I head to my favorite spot before anyone grabs it. After setting up camp, some of the group usually heads down to explore the creek and top up for cooking. The creek is a beautiful babbling brook with rocks to sit on as you grab your water and filter. Some folks like to take off their shoes and socks and let their feet enjoy the cool water. One member of the group reminded all the foot soakers to please be down river of those filtering water. No one wants foot sweat in their Teriyaki Chicken.
After dinner, we identify our fire pit manager, trust me, there’s one in every group. In the evening we all watch the fire and stretch out our legs. Occasionally there’s a giggle or smile when the silence is broken by the squeak of the privy door. It doesn’t take long to figure out it squeaks regardless of how gently or slowly you maneuver the door. By the end of the evening, everyone is just letting it do its thing. As we try to sleep, I patiently wait for the little whippoorwill living in the area to start up. It’s been almost three years and he shows up every time around 10pm. He’ll start to fade out and you think he’s gone, but he’s just flying a really big circle and comes back every 20 minutes or so. Sometimes it sounds like he has company. Little guy keeps it going all night.
Everyone, except for me (because I was listening to the whippoorwill all night), is usually feeling rested and ready to go in the morning. Once we’re packed, we head back out on the Upper Falls Trail. Our route creates a large semi-circle around the park by turning on Lower CCC, Horseridge, and Sawtooth trails. The question, “is this the last hill” is asked a lot on day two. I have to admit that I get confused myself on how many hills there are and have a tendency to say “I’m pretty sure”, but I’ve learned over time that the real answer is “no”. The answer to “is this the last hill” is always “no” when it comes to South Mountains.
While it’s a workout, the advantage to steep climbs are the views. Every now and then someone will stop and say “wow’ as they turn their head and catch a glimpse of something beautiful. We stop and the cameras come out so everyone can grab a picture of themselves in full pack with the vast mountains behind them. This is the point of backpacking, to have these amazing experiences on the tops of mountains deep in the backcountry, and we take our time to savor it.
There’s a large bald on Sawtooth with a picnic table which is perfect for lunch. We take our time, enjoy the cool breeze, and check out the spectacular view. It’s too much further until we see the sign for the Sawtooth campsites. Sawtooth also has three campsites, but the entire area is built on a hill so premium, flat tent sites are trickier to find. One of the privileges of having been here several times is I have two preferred locations and head for one of those. There’s a stream close by to filter water, similar to Jacob Branch Campsites. When camp is set and everyone is ready, we backtrack on Sawtooth until we reach the side trail for Chestnut Knob Overlook. The overlook is a great way to end the day. It’s small but at least eight people can sit on the rocks and relax until it’s time to head back for dinner and another fire. The privy here also squeaks and it still makes people smile. That’s just how privies work in general.
In the morning, the lesson of selecting a good tent site is shared as some folks talk about how they slid all night. We had one backpacker that solved the problem by building a “wall” using her pack and other items. She was sliding sideways, so she stacked the items between her pad and the side of the tent as a buffer. It was semi-successful and a lesson about checking the site before staking the tent was learned. Everyone is in good spirits having completed the hardest part of the weekend and knowing they can survive a weekend in the woods. You can feel the excitement as we pack up and head out to finish the loop.
It’s a quick start on Sawtooth, then Upper CCC and finally Little River Trail to arrive back at the parking lot. The great thing about day three is it’s almost all downhill as we descend to the parking lot. Keep in mind, I said “almost”. The hike is fast and we’re usually at the cars before noon.
For anyone that still wants a bit of adventure, we store the packs and then head back on High Shoals Falls Trail but this time stay on it and head on up to the waterfall. Sometimes we have to talk people into it, but those that come are always surprised by the size and power.
It’s always a great trip. Challenging but doable. Fun yet still a workout. Amazing views, good trails, and a little pain to show for your effort. Coming back time and again, I’m reminded of how much this park has to offer.
A little history:
The South Mountains were once part of the Blue Ridge Mountain chain, but now stand alone due to thousands of years of erosion. This history is evident with some of the climbs and if you take one of the more rugged trails, like Shinny Trail.
The mountains served as a buffer area between the Cherokee and Catawba Indians. Like much of the area, it became part of the gold rush when gold was discovered in 1828 and people flooded into the area. Activity eventually declined in the early 20th century, but thanks to terrain that proved difficult to navigate, the land became a haven for bootleggers hiding their stills during Prohibition. I’ve heard rumors that some locals know the locations of old stills in the area.
Camp Dryer, A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, was established nearby and began developing forest service roads and creating a park-like area in the 1930s. The Upper and Lower CCC trails are mentioned above and it’s amazing they still exist today. Proposals for South Mountains State Park began in the 1940s, funds were not available to purchase the land until 1974. The park started with 5,779 acres.
Today the park boasts over 18,000 acres of land and over 40 miles of trails with options for hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers. Its most visited feature is the 80 foot High Shoals Falls waterfall where I’ve gotten some great photos from the lower of two observation decks. Most of the mountain peaks at around 2,000 feet in elevation, with the exception of Buzzard’s Roost which reaches a respectable 3,000 feet. Both the Catawba and Jacob Fork Rivers run through the park, making it a great option for summer visits. Our group has enjoyed swimming in the mountain pools off High Shoals in the summer and it was a great way to end a trip.
If you’re camping overnight, stop at the visitor center on the way in to register your cars and receive a tag. If the center is closed, they have the clipboards and materials on the wall right outside with well written instructions.
Stop and enjoy one of the local eateries in Morganton or Hickory on your way home.