Chasing Waterfalls and Making New Friends in South Mountains State Park - High Shoals Falls
Waterfalls abound on 5 mile hike outside Morganton, NC
I am still trying to catch up on sleep after this weekend. I always strive to be the type of person who gets up early in the morning and is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and ready to tackle the world, but in reality I'm at my best energy levels sometime after 8pm and before 5am. I have a friend who is the same way and she calls us "morning owls" - we want to get up and do early morning activities, but all the wanting in the world, all the morning long runs, and all the pre-dawn trips to hiking spots simply cannot override our natural body clocks of die-hard night owl. So instead we are morning owls, fighting our natural circadian rhythms just to get a little more mileage into our days even if it wrecks the rest of our week's sleep patterns.
So with that in mind, Saturday morning was an eeeeearly morning for me. I woke up at 5am and had to force myself out of bed, all groggy and groaning and rubbing crusty sleep from my eyes. I'd already woken up early the day before for a pre-work climbing session, so two early mornings in a row was hella hard. But the mountains were calling, and I had a date with a meet-up group.
One of my goals for 2018 was to be more sociable with my activities. Historically my hiking and backpacking time is "me" time - time for meditation, time to unplug, and time to get away from all the noise of other people. It's not unheard of for me to pack up my gear on a Friday night and completely ghost for the weekend: I head to the mountains, turn off my phone, and ramble along ridges as a happy ascetic recluse.
But sometimes you need to quit isolating yourself. For years I ran solo, and finally in 2014 I joined a running group and started doing races. Yes, I still love the feeling of a long run alone on the trail, but by running with a group and connecting to other runners I've found a support network and friendships that I would never have if I hadn't reached out. There are others who share my interest, who can answer questions if I can't figure something out, who have experience in my passion, and who will even join me if I feel a little lonely. And so, seeing what I gained with my local running community, I resolved to connect with other hikers.
Thus I found myself on Saturday morning waking up at 5am (already oversleeping the 4:30am alarm that was first set) and stumbling to my car in the cold with my hiking gear. There was a Girls Who Hike NC meet-up at 9am in South Mountains State Park and by golly I was going to be there! Over five miles of hiking and a 60-foot waterfall and getting to know other awesome hiking women in the state? With a three hour drive each way it was just barely in the realm of sanity, but I was already running late and I needed to get moving.
South Mountains State Park is situated somewhere between Charlotte and Asheville and sits a little ways outside Morganton. The largest state park in North Carolina, it offers over 40 miles of hiking trails as well as bridle trails, mountain bike trails, campsites, and room for other activities. I arrived just after 9am - a little later than I should have been but still barely within the acceptable time frame for arrival - and quickly found the group of Girl Who Hike NC waiting beyond the start sign for a trail marathon. We would not be doing anything resembling a marathon that day, but our hike included a section of the marathon course, and so we saw runners periodically, thigh muscles bulging as they pulsed up the trail, and we'd stop and line the edges of the trail and cheer as the runners passed.
Early morning, trail head, group of people I didn't know, introductions. There, see, that wasn't so bad, was it Liz? Energized and finally awake after an emergency pit stop at a Sheetz along the drive for some gas and coffee, we were on the trail!
Even in winter with ice on the trail and brown barren trees the hike was beautiful. It had rained the day before, finally melting some stubborn pockets of ice, and the Jacob Fork River and waterfalls were swollen and eager. Boardwalks provide access along the cascades to the 60-foot waterfall, and in the early winter morning there were crystals of ice on the boardwalk so that we all tightly gripped the rails and skated beside the river.
At the observation deck the water was so high and the falls were so heavy that mist sprayed across the observation deck and froze into a thin sheet of ice. I ventured out onto the deck, gripping my camera tightly and trying to control my sliding feet, and blinked into the gelid spray.
When we retreated to a section of boardwalk that was free from invisible ice Rachel, the hike leader, turned to me and smiled. "You have ice in your hair," she said, and I shook my head and laughed.
The hike to the top of the falls included steep stairs where we lunged forward, hauling ourselves up one one-legged squat at a time. The lead runners of the trail marathon caught up with us as we paused at a picnic table and snacked and chatted, flushed from the climb and the views. We talked about our favorite hikes, the hikes we want to do, where we're from, and I smiled, glad to be around others who loved the outdoors.
When High Shoals Loop connected with the Headquarters (H. Q.) bridle trail we took a left and climbed the steep grade to the ridge of South Mountains. Views rewarded us - brown and blue and smoky from the Blue Ridge trees - and I sighed and imagined warm summer days with a hammock and a sunrise.
As we hiked away from the falls the camera stayed clipped to my pack and I focused on the conversations - who I was hiking with, where they were from, what they liked to do, how often they got on the trails - and I was glad I woke up at some ungodly hour to hike in a park I'd never seen with people I'd never met. Would I do it again? You bet.
Get there: South Mountains State Park is outside Morganton, NC (between Charlotte and Asheville). Take the main park entrance and drive until you run out of road. The trailhead is at the far end of the parking lot near some picnic tables and bathrooms.
Distance: There are over 40 miles of hiking trails in South Mountains State Park. This hike (High Shoals Falls Loop and Headquarters (H.Q.) trail together) is about 5.4 miles. Check out the trail loop here: https://www.alltrails.com/explore/trail/us/north-carolina/high-shoals-waterfall-and-hq-loop-trail
Difficulty: Difficult. There are some relatively steep climbs.
Dog friendly? Yes, but dogs must be leashed.
Kid friendly? Possibly. It depends on the kid, but I recommend doing just the hike to the waterfall and back or doing the shorter High Shoals Falls Loop (2.7 miles) without linking to any other trails.
Tips: Bring basic day-hiking gear: pack, water, snacks, etc. Be extremely careful around the falls! People have died here. Stay on the trail and you'll be fine.
What else can you do in the area? Camp, fish, or hike other trails in South Mountains State Park, or head over to Asheville or Morganton to explore some breweries. Bonus points with beer nerds if you visit Fonta Flora's brewery, but don't be surprised by the quirky local flavors brewed up by this microbrewery.
Find a Hiking Meetup:
Check out Girls Who Hike nationally: https://www.girlswhohike.net/
And Girls Who Hike NC: https://www.facebook.com/groups/girlswhohikenc