Most visitors come to South Mountains State Park during the summer months, when High Shoals Falls Trail becomes a kinetic wave of people. Its neighbor, the Jacob Fork River, becomes a haven for those looking to escape the heat. Northern water snakes bask on rocks and are mistaken for Copperheads. Mountain bikers brave the steep, strenuous slopes on the 16.5 mile loop. The backcountry hosts a fun mixture of expert backpackers and those struggling carrying 50-pound coolers. On special occasions, visitors get to see fleeting glimpses of black bears just before they run.
The picnic area bustles with people bringing many cultural traditions, the common denominator being the great fragrance of foods coming from the grills. Fisherman use corn and live bait to try and entice Rainbow, Brook, and Brown trout out of the Jacob Fork River and onto their grills to cook their gills.
The family campground allows novice campers as well as experienced park visitors the beloved novelty of escaping their houses and entering a realm of fresh air, star-filled skies, no ringtones—no service, and the calming sound of the Jacob Fork River. The family campground is accompanied by a nice bath house for those who appreciate the comforts of fresh water and flush toilets. Summer at night is also a spectacle. Natures’ flares, Big Dipper Fireflies, are seen right at dusk.
During days of intense heat, Copperheads become primarily nocturnal and can be viewed relaxing on South Mountains Park avenue (Please don’t kill them with your car!) Raccoons and opossums also take advantage of the increased visitation in summer due to the cheap and easy (human) food sources. They can be seen regularly at night.
While summertime is remarkable at South Mountains State Park, cooler months are just as just as fun—just in a much different way. You will notice once you arrive at the Jacob Fork Parking area—you’ll have no trouble finding a spot to park, you’ll enjoy a hike along the High Shoals Falls Trail without crowds, and you’ll be free from mosquitoes, horseflies, and wasps. Some years, High Shoals Falls is frozen in a crystalline state—beautiful, breathtaking, and ready for the some incredible photos.
The hike to the stunning Chestnut Knob overlook on a mild day makes it a warm day thanks to the effort. On a cold day, the hike makes winter temps more bearable– and it is worth it to see the view! Hikers with good endurance and horseback riders should not miss the wintertime views of the Horseridge Trail. After the Chestnut Knob fire of November 2016, some spectacular overlooks have formed, including vistas of Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock, Hawksbill, and other Blue Ridge icons.
South Mountains State Park is an equestrian playground. Early spring is a perfect time for equestrians to visit—just ask your horse what time of year he or she would prefer. South Mountains State Park includes an equestrian camping area with a horse barn for the exclusive use of those camping with horses. The campsites come with a nice bathhouse, electricity, and running water. The horse stalls are cleaned after use and offer fresh hay.
Sometimes February brings a false spring to South Mountains State Park. For days or even a week, temperatures rise and visitors can experience spring-like weather with views that have not been taken over with blooming vegetation. Horseback riders can enjoy this on the Fox Trail where they can view White Tailed Deer, Turkeys, Raptors, squirrels, and other winter wildlife. The Fox Trail also has an old graveyard, a great viewing area of Table Rock, and great acoustics that echo the sounds of the nearby Murray Branch and Nettle Branch rivers.
Late winter and early spring is a fantastic time to flyfish at South Mountains State Park. The cold but oxygen-rich waters in the Jacob Fork allow trout the comfort to move throughout the river. However, they are very perceptive. Many of them have been previously caught by other fisherman and are continuously hunted by Great Blue herons. Whether you are an avid fly fisherman or a beginner, this time of year is a great time to gear up and come out. You will need a NC fishing license with a trout stamp or something equivalent (i.e. an Inland Waters License).
On most Sunday afternoons, park volunteer Jeff Newton teaches various kinds of fly fishing or fly-tying classes. The regulations of delayed harvest trout fishing can be tricky, so if you have any questions, a ranger will be happy to answer them at the visitor center. There are also many ranger-led programs. Saturdays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Rangers lead programs including “Wintergreen Hikes” and “Knot Tying.”
The first few months of the year are typically the least-visited months at South Mountains State Park. There will be days when the air is so cold it will hurt your skin. But, it is still a time to bundle up and hike. It’s still a great month to view wildlife. There are large flocks of turkeys and six point bucks to be seen. So, if you can brave the cooler months, come see us at South Mountains State Park.
Written by Ranger James Rusher at South Mountains State Park