Less than 90 minutes east of Asheville is South Mountains State Park, home to High Shoals Falls and the hiking trails leading up to stunning cascades of water. You can tailor the experience to fit your plans. Hike the trail in under three hours and call it a day or take advantage of one of the 20 backpacking campsites nearby to make a weekend of it. If you’re angler you will appreciate the fact that the drive-to campsites sit next to the trout-rich Jacob Fork River. There are also picnic areas with shelters available.
If you have never had the opportunity to enjoy the South Mountains, you’re in for a treat. Millions of years of erosion have helped create a steep, rugged mountainside alive with wildlife and full of things to do, see, and learn. Sometimes a hike is just a hike, but a trip up to High Shoals Falls is like a walk through history. At one time, the entire area was a major travel route and the South Mountains considered a buffer zone between two warring tribes of Indians – the Cherokee and Catawba. It was along the Catawba River that the first Europeans began to settle the area.
Be sure to tell any children on the hike the story of nearby Brindle Creek. Legend has it that in 1828 homesteaders begin to find flakes and grains of gold in the mud they used to seal their log cabins. Before long a gold rush ensued with mining companies and immigrants pouring in to strike it rich. In fact, gold was mined in the region into the early 20th century.
Stop by the visitor’s center on the way into the park to pick up a map of the trail leading up to the falls. The road into the park dead ends at the parking lot for the climb. You’ll find a picnic area with grills there, just in case you’d like to enjoy a meal prior to your climb.
The trail offers two options to the falls. You can simply hike one mile to the 60-foot waterfall or make the entire 2.7 mile loop and climb stairs, lots and lots of man-made stairs. The stairs may seem incongruous in the middle of the forest, but the stairs do serve the purpose of leading to the viewing platform for the falls. While the 2-mile hike is moderately challenging, the 2.7 mile loop leaves you with a sense that you have had a true workout.
Whichever path you choose, the last half mile up the mountain is breathtakingly beautiful, leading you through a rhododendron forest, across a boardwalk over river cascades, and by ancient, rugged cliffs.
It is important to stay on the marked trail. Unlike some hiking trails where wondering off onto small side paths is part of the adventure, unmarked parts of this trail can be treacherous and deaths have been reported.
For more great views of the river (and the chance to read some interesting educational signs), take the Hemlock Nature Trail on the way back to the trailhead.
- Bears on the trail are rare, but do occasionally peek out.
- Watch the trail ahead for snakes and have a plan in place if you see one.
- The trail is considered dog friendly, but keep your best friend on a leash and make sure to pick up after him. Waste bags should be carried out.
- If you can plan your trip in advance, try to make the hike following a good rain. The sights and sounds of rushing water are spectacular after a storm.
- Hikers claim that trails are still beautiful for days following a snowfall. Remember that wintertime can be a great time for hiking.