The South Mountains are an often-overlooked mountain range south of Morganton.Part of the range was protected in 1974 with the formation of South Mountains State Park.Since then, large tracts of land have been added to the park along its western boundary.In addition, some years ago the South Mountains game lands were established to the south and west of the state park.The peaks of the South Mountains arenít the biggest around, topping out just short of 3,000í, but they do include a lot of state-owned property.Now, there is over 38,000 acres of public land in the range.


Despite this, most of the official trails are located in the original state park.Most hikers limit their explorations to the popular areas of the park, such as High Shoals Falls and Chestnut Knob.Meanwhile, it seems that the new sections of the park are largely unexplored.


Last week I got an email from Bob inviting me on a hike in the South Mountains.Joel and Sam were planning to join him, but they hadnít made specific plans.Weíd been talking about exploring some of the less-traveled parts of the range for years, but for some reason, we hadnít gotten around to it.I suggested that this weekend would be a good time to start.


I did a bit of research on Friday and came up with a rough plan.Previously Iíd heard rumors of a waterfall on Sally Queen Creek, in the game lands.I suggested we scout the area to see if we could find a route up Sally Queen Creek.Bob, Joel, and Sam seemed to be up for pretty much anything.


Our first challenge was figuring out a place to meet Saturday morning.We were all completely unfamiliar with the southern portion of the South Mountains.In fact, up until last weekend, it was one of the few parts of western North Carolina that I hadnít seen.I found a listing for the Good Old Boys Grill and Grocery on Google Maps, conveniently near where we were planning to go.We made plans to meet there Saturday morning.


I arrived a little early and found the Good Old Boys Grill and Grocery to be abandoned.I didnít feel like waiting around there, so I decided to do a little scouting.I headed west on route 226 for about a mile, before turning right onto the North Fork Road.This road took me to the North Fork of the First Broad River.Sally Queen Creek is a tributary of this stream, and I was hoping that we might be able to simply head upstream from there.However, I wasnít sure if there was any public access.


I found a dirt road on the east side of the creek that looked promising.However, before long I began passing tattered no trespassing signs on both sides of the road.Before I found a place to turn around, I spotted a house ahead with a rebel flag flying.That was all I needed to convince me to abandon this particular approach.


I headed back out to the highway.Unfortunately I didnít see any other possible routes upstream that didnít obviously cross private property.I doubled back to what remains of the store and found Bob, Joel, and Sam waiting for me.From there we moved on to plan B.That was to access the game lands via the Old CCC Road, which would take us north into the heart of the range.


The road was in good shape, and we made good time winding our way up into the hills.However, we were surprised to see numerous vehicles parked along the roadside.Several miles in we passed two hunters coming out of the woods.This came as a surprise to me.What is in season in late January?


We eventually reached the end of the open road at a gate.This was just below the most remote church Iíve ever seen.The church is several miles from the nearest house.Believe it or not, it appeared that the church is still in use.It features a cemetery in back, along with pair of his and her porta-johns in the parking lot.


We parked near the gate and discussed our options.We were all a little uncomfortable with the idea of hiking in an area swarming with hunters.I was particularly worried about Boone, as he looks as much like a deer as any dog can, particularly when heís running with his bouncing gait.


After a bit of debate, we decided to play it safe and head over to the state park.Weíll save our explorations of the game lands for a Sunday, when hunting is illegal in NC.


I found out later that it is currently small game season.Iím amazed that there were that many people out hunting rabbits and squirrels last Saturday.Iíd hate to see what that place looks like on the first day of deer season!


It took us almost an hour to drive over to the Jacobs Fork entrance of South Mountains State Park.Ironically, from where we were, we probably couldíve walked to the boundary of the park faster.By the time we reached the parking area for the main trailheads it was after 11am.I was shocked to see quite a few cars in the parking lot, too.I hadnít expected much company on the trail on a cloudy, 35 degree day.


We decided to hike up to High Shoals Falls.From there, weíd improvise a route deeper into the park.


The one-mile hike to the falls was quite busy.We passed a steady stream of hikers on their way out.However, by the time we started up the steps along the Jacobs Fork downstream from the falls, the crowds had disappeared.When we arrived at the platform below the falls, the place was deserted.This was a pleasant surprise, and I took advantage of the opportunity to photograph the falls.High Shoals Falls was mostly frozen, despite warmer weather over the last couple of days.It was too cold to loiter there for long though.Instead we headed up to the top of the falls, where we found a pleasant, sunny spot near the stream for lunch.


Over lunch, Joel proudly announced that he had been getting in some good workouts at the YMCA on the catheter machine.


Iím not sure what sort of workout one gets on a catheter machine, but I think Iíll pass.And Iím definitely not interested in using one at the YMCA.


The great thing about having Joel along on our hikes is that he never fails to provide some entertaining material for my trip report.Usually after Joel makes one of these statements we spend a good bit of time trying to decipher what he meant to say.This time, we never figured out what a catheter machine was.


After lunch we continued on the Upper Falls Trail, heading away from the busy part of the park.This was nice, as we only saw a couple of people prior to the very end of the hike.The Upper Falls Trail did provide us with one nice view, encompassing the higher mountains to the north.We spotted Grandfather Mountain, as well as Table Rock and Hawksbill in the Linville Gorge Wilderness.Beyond those peaks, we identified the snow-covered balds of the Roan Highlands.


We eventually headed back on the Shinny Creek Trail.This is one of my favorite trails in the park, though I canít explain why.It certainly isnít because of the excellent trail design.We followed the path along a ridge, enduring numerous steep climbs and descents.Finally we made a dramatic plunge down into the valley of Shinny Creek.We followed the creek downstream, rock hopping it twice and crossing it several more times on bridges.


Shortly before reaching the junction with the trail to High Shoals Falls we passed an interesting run of cascades on Shinny Creek.Oddly, these cascades arenít mentioned in the park literature or in any of the usual sources of information on North Carolina waterfalls.Even more odd is that Iíve passed these cascades many times without investigating them.This time, I scrambled down the bank for a closer look.


I was impressed with what I found.The creek tumbles down through an area of open rock.There are several cascades and slides, and the creek has carved numerous potholes.I worked my way carefully downstream, taking photos as I went.I was about halfway down when I decided to save the rest for another day.Bob was waiting for me back on the trail, while Joel and Sam had continued on to the car.I hurried back, and Bob and I doubled our pace on the way back to the parking lot.We finished up the hike at 4:30, some 5 hours after weíd started.


Our day hadnít gone according to plan, but it still worked out pretty well.We got to see High Shoals Falls encased in ice, and enjoyed some quiet trails deep in the park.Next time though, weíll definitely explore some new territory!

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