Wednesday, January 26, 2011

High Shoal Falls at South Mounain State Park 1/11/2011

On New Years Day after sleeping in and enjoying breakfast we decided to take our weekend company for a hike to see if there was any snow or ice at High Shoals Falls.  It was a fairly warm day and most of the snow and ice had melted at the house but even though we only live about a half hour drive from the park the trails had a lot more snow and ice remaining.  There were six of us enjoying the holiday - daughter JoAnne, son-in-law Peter, grandsons Matthew and Daniel, Mitch and I.  This was their dog Custers first trail hike so Peter took control of the leash.  The falls are in South Mountain State Park which is south of the Blue Ridge Parkway in smaller but still nice mountains.  There are good picnic and bathroom facilities as well at tent camping sites.  We were surprised to see the parking lot quite full on this Winter day.
There are two choices for the first segment of this hike.  The Hemlock Nature Trail is a .3 mile handicap accessible trail along Jacob's Fork that is quite pretty in any season.  We chose for today to take the Headquarters Trail instead on the way in since it passes by the entrance to the restrooms.  We returned by the more interesting Hemlock Nature Trail.  The first section of trail is gravel road and was easily walked even with the snow. 
Just past where the nature trail joins the main trail you cross a bridge where Shinny Creek comes in from the right to join Jacob's Fork.  It was near here that we were sitting last summer resting our feet in the creek when a crayfish grabbed my big toe.  Don't know who was more surprised - me or the crayfish.  But this trip there was to be no wading here - just the "boys" including Grandpa throwing snowball in the creek.
Shortly beyond this point is the Shinny Creek picnic area and several trail choices.  For today we went through the picnic area and took the left fork of the High Shoal Falls Trail.  This is the most direct route to the falls.  From this point you are no longer on  a road but a more natural mountain trail.  For most of the next half mile the trail hugs Jacob's Fork with its cascades and holes for wading.  There are some rocks and roots to negotiate but nothing too difficult in this section.  My favorite spot on the trail is crossing the river on a combination boardwalk and bridge.  There are pretty cascades here and a view of the falls just above.  We took some time to enjoy this spot before tackling the toughest part of the hike.  The next section is much steeper and climbs through rocky areas and steep wooden stairs.  It is a short section and you are soon at a short side trail to the falls overlook platform. 
At the falls we took a few pictures and discovered all kinds of shapes in the icicles and ice flows.  Matthew noticed a hole in the ice in the pool below the falls and the guys had target practice with snowballs.  Then a decision had to be made.  Do we backtrack the way we came or continue upward on the trail to the upper falls?  Joanne suggested that continuing up would be easier then going back down the icy rocks so we all headed up more wooden stairs.  The next section is still gaining elevation quickly but you are on stairs rather than rocks. 
The upper falls are much smaller but there are some interesting potholes in the stream here.  It looks like a fun place to play in the water but please resist the urge.  Remember you are just above the lower falls and one slip could be disaster.  There are many safer places to play in the water in this park.  Within site of these falls is a bridge across the water leading to several benches.  This is a nice place to picnic but there are no facilities and camping is not allowed here. 
From this little picnic area the trail becomes more like an old road again and although you continue to gain elevation for a time it is easier going.  The first trail intersecting on the left leads to the Upper Fall Campsites. They are only about 500 feet away and have facilities (the kind that do not flush) if you need to make a detour.  Continuing on you come to a choice of taking a trail left or right.  Pay attention to the signs and turn right unless you are looking for a longer hike.  There about 30 miles of trails in this park and you can get quite far from the parking lot.  From here you will be walking downhill  until you reach the first picnic area where we began the falls loop trail.  The last section is a backtrack along the Headquarters Trail to the parking lot.  Remember to take the right turn onto the Hemlock Nature Trail if you want a few more minutes of walking along the water.
There are many more possible hikes in the park.  We will return here in the other seasons and hike a few more of them.

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