What do you do when the forecast is for rain and low-lying clouds all day? If you’re like me, you look for a hike featuring water. Views are secondary to the power and majesty of mountain streams and waterfalls, and no matter what the conditions you’ll be able to see these things up close. I had only visited South Mountains State Park once a few years prior, so I picked this as my destination. On my first foray I did a popular loop that included Chestnut Knob, Shinny Creek, and High Shoals Falls. This time I eliminated Chestnut Knob since it would socked in by clouds, and instead include the central ridges dividing the Jacob Fork River and Shinny Creek watersheds.
South Mountains State Park is the largest park in North Carolina and contains a huge variety of trails. The South Mountains are an isolated range with peaks between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. What they lack in height, they compensate with deep gorges and lots of water. This loop is what I would call a frontcountry option since it stays relatively close to the parking area. At 8 miles it is doable in a few hours, and you can easily shorten or lengthen the hike as desired. If you only have an hour or so, you can still enjoy the beautiful High Shoals Falls and many sights along Jacob Fork.
Even though this is a state park, getting there can be quite confusing. Each time I’ve driven here I’ve taken some wrong turns on account of a lack of road signs or my GPS acting up. There’s also endless road construction making direct routes to the park sometimes impossible. The full address is 3001 South Mountain Park, Connelly Springs, NC 28612 but you can simply enter South Mountains State Park into your GPS. Eventually you’ll probably see brown street signs directing you to the park. Hopefully your GPS signal won’t quit on you and you’ll make it there without too much frustration!
Max elevation: 2306 ft
Min elevation: 1129 ft
Total Time: 03:48:25
Follow the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail (blue circle blaze) by the restrooms and picnic area. This is a wide, flat road and easy for any age. You can also choose to follow the Hemlock Nature Trail beside the river, but I chose to do this on the return trip. After 0.3-mi the Hemlock Nature Trail reconnects with the road and you’ll see the Chestnut Knob Trail (white diamond blaze) branch off to your right. If it is a sunny day I highly suggest heading to Chestnut Knob first to get excellent views of the South Mountains. This trail is steep at the beginning but gets easier, then you can take the Possum Trail down to Shinny Creek and visit High Shoals Falls at the end of your hike. Since it was 100% overcast, I went straight and crossed the bridge over the confluence of Shinny Creek and Jacob Fork. Here the Headquarters Trail turns right and then the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail splits. A lot of people think this would be a nice, short loop to take but let me dissuade you. Everything interesting you can see on this loop is on the left side. Going right is a surprisingly steep forest road track up the mountain with no views. If you’re doing a shortened version of my hike, I’d suggest going left then taking the Headquarters Trail down to Shinny Creek.
Along this route there will be multiple spots to step out and enjoy views of the powerful Jacob Fork River. Considering the relative low elevation of the South Mountains, this river is impressive and picks up a considerable amount of water on its short journey. On the right side of the trail is Hugo Rock, an enormous face generated by erosion during Hurricane Hugo. There was a family here checking out the rock so I didn’t bother with any pictures. Shortly after you’ll come to an impressive wood bridge that climbs up and over the river. What you’ll immediately notice are the gigantic boulders stacked haphazardly in front of the bridge with water gushing over and through every nook and cranny. Is this High Shoals Falls? No, it isn’t. Or at least it isn’t the main waterfall. You are at the base of the gorge, and on most days (not this one because of the fog) you can see High Shoals Falls high above you in the distance. Jacob Fork tumbles over the falls then plunges hundreds of feet through this boulder-strewn gorge. Many of these boulders are bigger than cars and there is no flat stretch of river here, which is why it is possible to consider this all one waterfall. I stopped here and imagined what kind of torrent could erode and move all these rocks from the mountains above.
The trail on the left side of the river climbs through a wonderland of mossy rocks and azaleas. The state park did some truly impressive work along this section, constructing natural and wood staircases up the gorge providing safe access to the waterfall. High Shoals Falls is said by the park service and multiple publications to be 80 feet high, but who knows where they got that figure. It is closer to 50 feet including the upper drop, but it is still a majestic waterfall. There is a nice viewing platform near the base of the falls. I caught this waterfall on a day with moderate flow and fog all around, it was a mystical atmosphere.
Above the waterfall the path follows a narrow staircase built between the river and a rock wall. Azaleas were blooming all around me as I climbed the stairway into the clouds, literally. It looked like something out of a medieval fantasy movie. At the top of the stairs you’ll notice an eroded scramble path down to the brink of the falls. Please do not take this trail, it is potentially very dangerous. The “trail” is used to get a base view of the upper falls, but in my opinion the view from the boardwalk is sufficient. The upper falls is just a ledge drop less than 10 feet high, nothing worth contributing to erosion and potentially falling off the main falls. The trail continues across the river on a bridge, where you would have nice views north of the mountains across the valley if there weren’t clouds everywhere.
The loop trail continues west joining with the Upper Falls Trail (white square blaze) which comes in from the left shortly after the bridge. In 0.2-mi the High Shoal Falls Loop Trail splits right heading back down to the parking area. You can take this for a short hike. Instead I continued straight on the Upper Falls Trail which immediately climbs steeply up the mountainside. This is toughest climb of the hike, but it lasts only 0.4-mi. At the top of the climb is a wide open view on the left side of the trail to the south where you’ll be able to see the headwaters of Jacob Fork far below Dogwood Stamp Mountain and Benn Knob. You should be able to pick out the communications tower on Benn Knob on the far right. However, on this day I saw nothing. The view was shrouded by clouds. A half mile later you’ll pass the Headquarters Trail (orange hexagon blaze) on the right. This is a good spot to shorten the loop by a few miles if you are tired or short on time.
The Upper Falls Trail continues a westward track into the central interior of the South Mountains. You can use this trail to make many types of big loops in the park which is perfect for trail runners, big day hikers, or weekend backpacking trips. On this day, I was none of those. You’ll pass the Jacob Branch Trail (red hexagon blaze) at mile 3.1 and then reach my turning point at mile 3.6, the Shinny Creek Trail (blue diamond blaze). At first this trail follows a ridgeline gently downhill but as you get closer to the creek it quickly drops elevation. In total you’ll lose about 600 feet in elevation in 1.5 miles. When you reach Shinny Creek the trail turns right crossing a small footbridge over Dark Creek. Shortly after this bridge is the first rock hop over Shinny Creek, which may be a wet ford in high water. After you cross you’ll pass the Possum Trail (red square blaze) on the left while passing through a thick section of rhododendron. The trail then crosses Shinny Creek again on a one-rail footbridge.
Less than 0.1-mi later is the second rock hop over Shinny Creek. Here you’ll have a much higher chance of getting wet even in average water flow. The bedrock here is long and flat with few boulders to assist your crossing. I was dry until I got close to the other side, and it was not jumpable. I took the plunge, the water was a little cold, but this is likely the only place in the hike where you must get wet to cross. In 0.2-mi the Shinny Creek Trail ends at the Headquarters Trail (orange hexagon blaze). The Shinny Creek Campsites are also at this intersection, a sprawling grass field equipped with picnic tables, gravel tent sites, bear lockers, fire rings, and maybe a pit toilet? This backcountry campsite is huge and each time I’ve passed it I’ve seen zero tents. It is the easiest backcountry campsite to reach from the parking lot, so if you are getting a late start to a backpacking trip I highly recommend stopping here.
Follow the Headquarters Trail going left, a right will take you uphill back to the Upper Falls Trail. This trail is now a wide, gravel road and soon you’ll cross a vehicle bridge over Shinny Creek. From here the creek picks up speed passing huge boulders and soon drops into a small gorge. At mile 6.3, 0.2-mi after the bridge crossing is a very scenic stretch of Shinny Creek that is accessible by a scramble path. Ahead to the left the creek drops out of sight from the trail. Safely head down this scramble path and you’ll emerge at the top of a series of small waterfalls downstream. Shinny Creek drops into multiple potholes and then is funneled through a narrow rock chute before cascading out of sight. I did not try to venture downstream to see what the series of small waterfalls looks like, but you can kind of see it from the trail far away and it doesn’t look worth it. This little section of huge boulders, potholes, and chutes is cool enough.
Back on the trail the creek is now 100+ feet below as you follow it downstream. Eventually you’ll also head downhill where the Headquarters Trail ends at the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail. Turn left heading back to the parking lot. After you cross the bridge over Shinny Creek you have the option of taking the Hemlock Nature Trail (white triangle blaze), which I highly recommend. This short nature trail closely parallels Jacob Fork providing easy access to pleasant sights on the river. There are also park information boards, my favorite shows the NC/SC watersheds. This trail is short, but you can continue the river stroll at the parking lot by crossing the bridge and following the River Trail (red triangle blaze) for a few hundred yards. This trail is also flat and easy, I turned around just before it met the Raven Rock Trail.
In total my hike was 8 miles but as I’ve described there are many ways to shorten or lengthen your day. Although many of these trails are forest roads, they are immaculately maintained and are plentiful. There are endless opportunities for day and weekend hikes in South Mountains State Park. For the first time visitor I would try to incorporate High Shoals Falls then build out from there. Adding Shinny Creek and additional walking along Jacob Fork make this one of my favorite “water” hikes in North Carolina. Being the largest state park in the system, you may find many reasons to keep going back and explore the desolate interior of the sprawling mountain range. Since this visit, I’ve done that and I’ll have another trip report soon of some of those trails.