The quick read on South Mountains State Park is “High Shoals Falls and Everything Else.” This week I went looking for everything else.

High Shoals Falls

Actually I did stop by the waterfall — it’s right on the main route to the interior of the park, after all — but I’m happy to report you can skip the main attraction and still find plenty to like about South Mountains, which is about 20 miles south of Hickory, North Carolina. For instance:

  • The River Trail section right behind the parking lot parallels a very scenic section of creek.
  • Hemlock Nature Trail, which also starts out at the parking lot, is teeming with life, with interpretive panels explaining what’s living there.
  • The Shinny Trail has amazing diversity — distressed sections growing back chaotically along the top of a ridge, and a boulder-strewn creek bed near the bottom of the trail.

Another great thing about South Mountains: the trails are less likely to be obstacle courses. Some are pretty steep, but the boulder scrambling and root dodging is scant compared to other places I’ve hiked.

So about Sunday’s hike: I covered 8.8 miles with about 2,000 feet of total ascent. I started out on the Little River Trail, from the north end of the Jacob’s Fork parking area; no planning went into this choice — I just wanted to get warmed up ASAP (it’s flat cold in that valley first thing in the morning) and I figured all the other trails nearby were flat and shady. I stopped only long enough to take a few pictures.

Leaf in transition

One of the many sprinkles of fall color; the forest here was still 95 percent green.

Sun and leaves

Yeah, I was hiking toward the sun.

So I ended up doing a little loop back down toward the creek running just behind the Jacob Fork parking area. Here’s one shot from that section:

Along the River Trail

I saw about three people on this trail, which was surprising since it was so close to the parking lot. Most people are so busy checking out the falls, they miss this one completely. Their loss.

If you go this way, you cross a bridge over the creek, and can turn left on the Hemlock Nature Trail, which has an impressive array of interpretive panels explaining how all the niches of the ecosystem fit together. Eventually the trail ends at the main route to High Shoals Falls.

The walk up to the base of the falls is full of boulders like the ones below:

Boulders galore

Here’s a look at the base of High Shoals Falls. Note if you’ve never been to the falls: the steps up to it will wear you out in a hurry. Good exercise, of course, if you’re up for it.

Base of High Shoals Falls

After the falls, it’s a short, steep climb to the top, where another bridge crosses the creek and the trail goes to a junction with trails leading deep into the park’s interior. I headed right along the Upper Falls Trail, an old fire road that gets pretty steep as it nears the crest of the ridge.

Still mostly green

One view through the trees reveals the fall color has a long way to go in this section of North Carolina.

After a nice healthy climb I took a right turn along the Shinny Trail.

Veins in a leaf

One leaf I saw along the way.

Porthole in hollow log

I cannot resist the “porthole in the end of the rotting log” shot.

Shinny Trail is light on visual splendor, but there’s plenty to see if you pay attention. It’s all single-track, running from the top of a ridge to the depth of a valley. Some sections of the high part of the trail have survived fires, ice storms or both: forest density decreases dramatically; many trees are broken near their base; undergrowth is sprouting every which way. Not exactly “pretty,” but pretty interesting.

The trail descends to Shinny Creek, which spills through a series of boulders and stone shelves that are too far down a ravine to photograph easily. Later the trail crosses the creek a couple times before intersecting with the HQ Trail, which goes back to the parking lot.

South Mountains shapes up as a great park for hiking purists. It’s a little lean on scenic splendor (aside from the waterfall), but there’s plenty to see if you pay attention.

Links for this hike:

Google map:

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