Visit South Mountains State Park Anytime of the Year


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.

IMG_1986While 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


Elk Knob State Park: My Last Stamp

By:  Catherine Locke, Marketing Director, N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation

This summer my co-worker and North Carolina State Parks Public Information Officer, Katie Hall, wrote about her trip to Elk Knob State Park. It was one of her first official trips after assuming the role in May. She experienced the park during the spring when the air was warm, the trees were green, and she had plenty of company on the trial.

My experience over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in mid-January was just as spectacular but totally different. For me, my visit to Elk Knob State Park was the final stamp in my North Carolina State Parks Passport not to mention more miles to log into the NC 100 Mile Challenge for 2018.

Elk Knob State Park had been on my “must see” list for several years. In fact, it was supposed to be my first trip after starting with Parks. Sadly, it remained elusive for nearly three years. However, this weekend would be different. Despite the snowstorm in the forecast, my instinct said the weather would move through quickly. I called the park office when I left Raleigh and the park was indeed open. However, I was advised by the ranger to delay my visit due to icy roads. Taking her advice, my son and I took a side trip to South Mountains State Park to see the waterfall, which had been frozen only a few days earlier. I did not want to acknowledge the thought I may not make it to the park again!


South Mountains High Shoals Falls
High Shoals Falls at South Mountains State Park


The next day the snowstorm had moved through, the sun was bright and the temperatures were warmer (if you call low 20’s warm). I called the park. It was open and the roads from Boone were clear. For months leading up to the visit, I had promised the superintendent I would make the journey only to be side-tracked by weather, work or other commitments.

After a quick stop for gas, coffee, and snacks, we headed out. When we arrived, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had finally made it to Elk Knob State Park, my forty-first state park! I got out of the car and took several snapshots to celebrate in front of the park sign. Many state park employees have intentions of visiting every park, for some, it never happens. I felt grateful that my position allows me the flexibility to visit all the state parks, to see the variety and get to know them and their staff on an individual park basis.


Elk Knob State Park January 2017
That’s 41 parks!


We drove up to the park office, got our passport stamped and hit the road into the park. Knowing that daylight was fleeting and my opportunity in the park was limited due to the snow and ice, we decided the Summitt Trail would be our destination for the day. The 1.9-mile trail took over 6,000 hours and five years to construct. We were optimistic we could do the hike in less than 4 hours.

When we arrived at the parking lot there were only a handful of cars. Like most ten-year-old boys, my son enjoys exploring and basically being a goof-ball. We are normally passed on trails as people hike up. As we worked our way up the trail we were passed by more people coming down on the switchbacks than going up. I did the math on my fingers.  Less than five cars left in the parking lot. I questioned my decision and the advice I routinely give others: hike early.


The trail was blanketed with snow. The trees seemed to be nestled in for a long winter’s nap. It was extremely quiet. The only noise was my son and I giggling and sharing stories or the crunch of our boots on the snow. The air was crisp and cold but not unbearable. We had dressed like onions with thermal underwear, long-sleeved shirts, fleece and our ski jackets. At one point on the way up, my son wanted to remove his coat. The inclines can be tough if you don’t take them slowly.

Elk in the winter
The climb can be steeper than it looks


We planned on the hike taking four hours total and we had just passed the two-hour mark. The group that started at the same time we did was now coming down. We asked them if we should continue or if the trail ahead had more ice than we can handle. They assured us it was safe and well worth the time. We pressed on. We only encountered a few slippery spots and I reminded my son to “be careful.” Of course, wouldn’t you know, I’m the one who slipped. He asked “How much longer?” and I responded, “We are almost there,” even though I had no clue.


Left behind
Don’t get left behind


If you ever question whether the teachers in North Carolina are doing their jobs, let me give you an example they are (or at least my son’s current fifth-grade teacher is). As we came around a bend after the 30th time of him asking, “Are we there yet?” he proclaimed, “Mom, we are almost there.”  Tired, I asked, “How can you tell?” He said proudly, “The trees are shorter. I learned that at school.”


Short trees
“The trees are shorter.”


We were alone at the summit for what seemed like a lifetime as we took in the views of The Peak, Three Top and Bluff Mountain, Mount Jefferson, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell and the Iron Mountains in Virginia and Tennessee. Then, out of nowhere, a trail runner came up behind us and asked if we wanted our picture taken.  We did.


Made it
We made it to the summit of 5,520 feet


In one afternoon I had completed my journey of visiting all North Carolina State Parks. We hiked the tallest peak in North Carolina’s High Country at 5,520 feet in the winter and reached the Top of the Knob.


Top of the Knob
The view from the top of the Knob


My passport may be complete but my journey has only begun. The year 2018 has a lot in store for me and other park visitors: the new Passport Program, more 100 Mile Challenge badges and the Amazing Adventure.

“Never give up, stay focused, stay positive and stay strong.”


Written by Catherine Locke, Marketing Director of the North Carolina State Parks. Catherine is close to her third year with Parks, hired in the newly created marketing position in March 2015 to execute the 100th Anniversary of the North Carolina State Park’s centennial marketing campaign in 2016.  Now she works to promote the parks, programs, and staff as well as create awareness and support for the North Carolina State Park System. On weekends, you can find her on the trails.