High Shoals Falls
2-14-19 - There are still so many places in western North Carolina that I haven't fully explored - South Mountains State Park is one of them. My first visit to the park was in 2001 to shoot the 50' High Shoals Falls, then I made a return trip in 2006 to check out some nearby waterfalls on the Little River just outside of the park boundaries. Since then, more land has been added to the park and a nice new visitor center has been built. Cindy and I revisited the park in February 2019 to reshoot High Shoals Falls and turned that hike into a nice 5 mile loop. The park has over 40 miles of hiking trails some which are shared use with mountain bike and horseback riders.
The trail to High Shoals Falls is probably the most popular trail in the park. It's about a mile to the viewing deck for the waterfall, but includes some very steep steps. More steep steps lead past the waterfall and up to the top for a view of the upper falls. Several people have fallen to their deaths here over the years because they ignored the signs telling you not to leave the deck areas to get out on the rocks above the main waterfall. Please use common sense and obey all park rules and signs! To see what else the park offers and a for a map of the park, please visit the official website.
Directions: From I-40 in Morganton, take exit 105 for NC18. Head south on NC18 for just over 10.8 miles and turn right on Sugar Loaf Road (there's a sign for the State Park here and at every turn). Drive 4.2 miles until the road ends and turn left on to old NC18. Continue another 2.6 miles at turn right on Ward's Gap Road (SR1901). Drive another 1.3 miles, cross a bridge over Jacob Fork and bear right on to South Mountains Park Ave. The park entrance is a mile ahead, the visitor center is 0.2 miles farther on the right, and the parking lot for the High Shoals Falls trail is at the end of this road 1.8 miles from the visitor center.
Begin the hike on the High Shoals Falls Trail which is at the end of the parking lot. (Another good option would be to look for the scenic Hemlock Nature Trail in that same area and take it for 0.3 miles until it connects on to the High Shoals Falls Trail.) Follow the trail for about 0.6 miles and come to a boardwalk next to some nice cascades well below High Shoals Falls shown in the 2 photos below. In the 2nd shot you can barely see High Shoals Falls in the upper left.
cascades below High Shoals Falls
The remainder of the hike to the waterfalls is a lot of up on a combination of rock and wooden steps. Those of you who aren't in decent shape may find this part difficult. Before reaching the viewing platform for the waterfall, you'll pass more steps heading up. These lead up to the small falls above High Shoals Falls referred to as Upper Falls. If water levels are up, the viewing platform for High Shoals Falls might be very slippery from the spray from the falls. Get here early if you hope to get some shots of the falls without people in them. Again, obey the signs and do not go out on the rocks here for any reason.
High Shoals Falls
If you want to see the upper falls or are doing one of the loop hikes, go back to the boardwalk steps heading up and climb another 0.1 miles. The boardwalk will finally level out and a view of the falls will be on your right. Heed the warning signs and don't go down to the rocks for a closer view. The boardwalk crosses Jacob Fork just up stream from these falls to a nice picnic area, then the trails continues on from there. The High Shoals Falls loop trail is 2.7 miles total and follows the blue blazes. On our last visit, Cindy and I continued on the Upper Falls Trail, passed the turn off for the loop trail, and continued up to the Headquarters Trail. The HQ trail brought us back down to the High Shoals Falls loop trail near the parking area and made for a nice 4.8 mile hike.
upper falls at High Shoals Falls
looking towards the top of High Shoals Falls