Christy and I hiked with a large group for the first time in months last weekend. We opted for a trip close to home, as we headed to South Mountains State Park south of Morganton. We brought Christy's 6-year old nephew, Nathan, along for his first hike since we bought him new boots for Christmas. Myron and Wayne had just started a 9-day trip canoeing the length of the Lumber River. Dorcas and Linda joined us for the hike though, along with Jim & Ann, Bonnie, and Colleen. Of course, Saucony came along, too.
We all met at the main parking area at the end of the road along Jacobs Fork. Past hikes in the park had always focused on High Shoals Falls, perhaps the park's most famous feature. Today though, I had something different in mind. We planned to hike the less-traveled northern section of the park around the Little River.
We followed the Short Trail uphill, which came as a bit of a surprise for some hike participants who had been anticipating an effortless hike. This trail, like many in the park, is really just an old roadbed. It connected to the Little River Trail, which was similar. We followed it uphill as well. The total climb was insignificant, but the road was poorly graded, resulting in long stretches of flat hiking interrupted by the occasional steep hill. The roadbed alternated between rocky and muddy and showed signs of heavy horse use. Finally we crested the ridge and descended rapidly to the Little River.
The Little River is well named. Actually, it's a stretch to call it a river at all, even by Appalachian standards. We crossed it on a sturdy bridge and followed it downstream. Soon we reached an obvious side trail to the right, blocked by a newly constructed fence. There weren't any signs to indicate that the trail was closed, but that message was somewhat implied by the fence. I thought about going around, as the path ahead led to the Little River Falls. However, I had my doubts as to whether it would be worth the trouble, given the size of stream. Plus, I wasn't so sure about leading our group, including Nathan, down a steep, exposed path. We decided to save it for another day and continued on.
We reached a junction and turned left on another ugly roadbed. I was beginning to loose my enthusiasm for the hike. Even Nathan seemed subdued. I studied the map, and called for a change in plans. Originally we had planned to hike the Old CCC trail around to another horse trail before returning over Chestnut Knob. Instead, we decided to shorten the loop by taking the Sawtooth Trail. Everyone was for the change in plans, though it meant having to ford the Little River.
We descended to the river again and reached it at a pretty spot. Upstream it passed through a tunnel of rhododendron, while downstream it cascaded over a rock face. The ford was simple, as the water was only about 6" deep. We made it across and began the climb towards Chestnut Knob.
This was tedious, but Christy, Nathan, and I livened it up with a pine cone war. We reached an unmarked junction that wasn't shown on the map, and I guessed left. Luckily I was correct. We climbed along a ridge through open forest that showed scars of a recent fire. Finally we began the final climb to Chestnut Knob. We reached the summit, and descended a short, rocky side trail to a rock outcrop for lunch. Here we had a fine view south and east over the Jacobs Fork valley. After lunch, Nathan and I had a fun time exploring the rock outcrops and miniature caves clinging to the side of the mountain.
We returned to the summit and began the long winding descent into the valley. This was the first part of the hike that was on a footpath, which was a welcome change. We did interrupt the descent for a short side trip out to the Jacobs Fork overlook. Here we had a fine view across the valley, where we spotted High Shoals Falls spilling over a ledge.
We descended to the valley, passing numerous hikers and families along the way. It was the first warm, sunny weekend in quite some time, and it seemed like everyone was out enjoying it. When we reached the valley, Christy, Nathan, Saucony, and I decided to head for home. It was early, but Christy's hip pain was back and Nathan was complaining of an upset stomach. Everyone else continued the hike with an additional 3-mile loop to High Shoals Falls. This would've been worthwhile, but I was content to head home early. I'm sure we'll be back to South Mountains, as it's a nice place that isn't too far from Charlotte. Next time though, we'll probably avoid the Little River area and focus more on the Jacobs Fork section of the park.
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