High Shoals Falls
South Mountains State Park is located in Connelly Springs, NC, just West of Hickory. This is a very large, and recently remodeled park here in NC. It includes elevations up to 3,000 feet, 40 miles of trails, activities such as camping, fishing, and even horseback riding. However, what brought me to the park was the 80 foot waterfall, known as High Shoals Falls. I had read about this waterfall in Kevin Adams' book North Carolina Waterfalls. While I was a little skeptical about the photographic potential of this waterfall, I knew that it was one that needed to be added to this directory.
Finding the park is easy enough, and complete directions can be found at the official website. I was able to locate the park with no problem following Kevin's directions. From I-40 (near Morganton), you will exit on Exit 105 which is NC 18. You will travel South on this road for approximately 10.7 miles where you will turn right onto Sugar Loaf Rd (SR 1913). You will stay on this road for about four miles until Sugar Loaf Rd ends at Old NC 18. Here you will turn left and continue on for about two and a half miles where you will turn right onto Ward Rd (SR 1901). After 1.3 miles you will come to a fork in the road just past the bridge over Jacob Fork. Take the right fork, which will lead you to the park's entrance after about a mile. The nice thing about this trip is that there are plenty of signs to point you in the right direction from I-40. You actually don't even need directions to get to this park as long as take the right exit from the highway.
Once in the park, you will pass the new visitor's center on the right. I would recommend that you stop and pick up a map of the park, although the trails are well marked. The map contains general information about South Mountains State Park, and provides plenty of information about what is available to you within the property. As you continue down the main road, you will pass camping areas, and equestrian areas. You will stay on the road until it ends in a circular parking lot. As you are locating a parking place, you will see that each of the trail heads are marked with what trails are accessed at those points, as well as distances for the hikes. At the time of this writing, I have only taken one trail, and that is the last trail head that you come to which is labeled High Shoals Falls Trail, 1.0 miles.
You will almost immediately notice that this trail is very well maintained. It is manicured, and has benches at various points. There are also wooden overlooks which can be used to view Jacob Fork River. There are plenty of displays set up to explain things like the difference between Mountain Laurel and Rhododendrons, and what Hemlock is. Like I said, this is a very nice trail, but it is a bit of a love/hate relationship. I personally enjoy trails that are left in their natural state so you don't see the impact of man on the environment. However, there have been many times that I have accidentally wondered off-trail because of the lack of maintenance. There are only a few tricky areas to this trail, and most of that is where you are going over rock, and there just isn't much that can be done to mark the trail.
The trail to the waterfall pretty much ends at a very steep staircase that will take a bit of effort to climb. Had it not been for the stairs at the end, this trail would have rated a moderate at worst difficulty rating. The stair climb, however, elevates this trail to strenuous...but it is only for a short time. Once at the mid point on the stairs, you are at the viewing level for the High Shoals Falls. Again the love/hate relationship pops up again. The observation deck is wonderfully constructed, and allows visitors to get close enough to this large waterfall to feel the spray. I imagine that this would be very refreshing to hikers after the climb. However, the observation deck makes it nearly impossible to photograph the waterfall without including at least the railing.Jacob Fork River
While the main attraction is a bit of a disappointment to me as a photographer, the hike along the Jacob Fork more than makes the trip worth it. There are more cascades along this river than I have seen in most parks. If you are making the trip for the purpose of photography, don't feel guilty about spending some time working these areas. I think that you will find that there are many more possibilities for great images in the river than there are at the waterfall. To be fair, on this particular visit, it was starting to rain pretty heavily which forced me to call it a day before I would have normally. I might have missed a composition or two in the rush.
I will say this...I think that the best compositions are to be had beyond the overlook on several of the boulders near the base. I can see that it would be possible to get to these locations, but with the wet conditions from the rain, I just didn't feel comfortable attempting it. There have been photographers that have fallen to their deaths trying to get a good shot of this waterfall in the past. Honestly, while a very large and powerful waterfall, I don't think that this is a particularly pretty waterfall....definitely not worth getting hurt in order to photograph it. Kevin gives this waterfall a beauty rating, as well as a photo rating of 7. Maybe it was just the conditions on this day, but I would have rated it much lower.
I imagine that during the warmer months, this park is filled sun-up to sun-down. If you want to have a little peace and quiet to enjoy this waterfall, I would suggest going early in the morning, or in the off season. Even in the rain with 50 degree temperatures, I ran into a total of five other hikers which really surprised me. On a pretty day, I can just imagine how many people can be found on the trails.