South Mountains State Park - North Carolina
Jacobs Fork River, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
An impressive waterfall, intimate cascades, and seasonal wildflowers await the naturalist or nature photographer within South Mountains State Park, North Carolina. The park isn't limited to those two activities either; campers, hikers, backpackers, mountain bikers, equestrians, trout fishermen, and picnickers will all find their perspective venues within the park. South Mountains State Park has a lot to offer for a variety of interests.
High Shoals Falls, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
The park contains over 40 miles of hiking trails with 29 miles of those open to equestrians. In addition to the family and backpacking camping areas, there is an equestrian camping area (with stables, flush toilets, and showers) conveniently located right off the entrance road in the Jacobs Fork section of the park. Note that the family camping area has only pit toilets and drinking water access. There are no showers in the family camping area. The backpacking camping sites include pit toilets.
There is a 17 mile loop for mountain bikers and miles of streams classified as wild trout water (two miles are classified as delayed harvest trout water) for fishermen.
The Jacobs Fork picnic area includes tables, grills, and restroom facilities with flush toilets. Across the parking lot from the Jacobs Fork picnic area is a 10-12 table picnic shelter that includes grills and a fireplace. The shelter is first-come first-serve unless you make a reservation. The Shiny Creek picnic area requires a half mile hike from the parking lot and includes a couple of tables and grills, but no restroom facilities.
A modern visitor center greets guests entering the Jacobs Fork section of the park. The visitor center includes a large relief map of the park as its center piece, along with restrooms, an auditorium, and a nature display describing the local habitat and wildlife. Various brochures and maps concerning the park can be picked up at the visitor center. Fees for camping can be paid at this location also.
While the rich assortment of activities available at South Mountains State Park are impressive, it's the wildflowers and waterfalls that provide a bonanza of photographic opportunities that keep the photographer coming back. It's a great place to obtain images for your wildflower portfolio or simply practice getting that creamy/misty look on your cascade and waterfall captures.
Jacobs Fork Cascades, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Jacobs Fork Waterfall, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
South Mountains State Park has a plethora of wildflowers available during the spring and summer months. As nature photographers, we get the most excited about the ephemerals that bloom in early spring before the leaves form on the trees and block the sunlight to the ground. After a tough cold winter, it's a great excuse to get out of the house while it's still cold and observe these fascinating blooms. You can start looking mid-March for the ephemeral wildflowers at the park and continue searching through April.
We explored only a small portion of the park's trails during the spring, but we found an abundance of wildflowers for the attentive. Almost all the plants we observed/photographed were within a couple of miles from the parking area. In fact the Hemlock Nature Trail produced some of the best looking Bloodroot I've seen and I could see my vehicle the whole time I was shooting.
Trails we explored for wildflowers included the Hemlock Nature Trail, the River Trail, the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail (including the Upper Falls Campsites), and the Shinny Trail (up to the Shinny Creek Campsites). We highly recommend you stop by the visitor center on your way in and pick up a pamphlet listing the wildflowers found in the park. The pamphlet lists the common name, the scientific name, a general location where the plant can be found, and an estimated bloom date.
Wildflowers we observed in spring included the following: Round-lobed Hepatica, Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Bloodroot, Foamflower, Giant Chickweed, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Common Blue Violets, Halberd-leaved Violets, Sweet White Violet, Birdfoot Violet, Gaywings, Wood Anemone, Crested Dwarf Iris, Vernal Dwarf Iris, Bluestar, Mayapple, Wild Geranium, Wake-robin Trillium, Catesby's Trillium, Yellow Lady's Slipper, and Pink Lady's Slipper.
Sharp-lobed Hepatica, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Bloodroot, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Bloodroot Blossom, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Wake-robin Trillium, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Catesby Trillium, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Sweet White Violet, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Halberd-leaved Violet, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Wood Anemone, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Wild Geranium, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
In addition to the early bloomers, two often sought after species within the park include the Yellow Lady's Slipper and the Pink Lady's Slipper. It's easy to see where these orchids get their common name; the lip of the flower forms a pouch or "slipper".
Supposedly orchids are the largest family of flowering plants on earth with tens of thousands of species, though few are as showy in the southeastern US as the lady's slippers. A few other orchids listed in the park pamphlet but not observed include Showy Orchid, Downy Orchid, Cranefly Orchid, and Yellow Fringed Orchid.
Yellow Lady's Slipper close-up, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Yellow Lady's Slipper, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Pink Lady's Slipper, South Mountians State Park - Steve Thomas
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid
South Mountains State Park is not without its problems, specifically the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (also known as HWA). Like the Appalachians, some of the eastern hemlocks within the park are infested with this small aphid-like insect. A native to Asia, the pest poses a significant threat to the eastern hemlock and the Carolina hemlock. The hemlock woolly adelgid feeds on the sap near the base of the tree's needles which disrupts nutrient flow and eventually kills the tree. The presence of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is easily detected by the cotton ball like filaments found on the leaves which is used to protect itself and its eggs. See the image below.
There are a few chemical methods at combating the pest, though all are expensive - requiring manpower and re-application. The one employed by the park is called soil drenching. Soil drenching involves temporarily removing the duff from around the base of the tree then pouring an insecticidal treatment around the tree. The chemical is then absorbed by the tree through the root system. Treatments may remain effective up to three years. Trees that have been treated are recorded and tagged (see image below) so that subsequent applications can be applied within the specified time frame. Obviously the state park system (and the national park system) doesn't have the resources to treat every hemlock within their jurisdiction. It's a very sad situation.
Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Tagged Eastern Hemlock, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Biological control of the hemlock woolly adelgid is being tested in other parts of the US. There are two exotic beetle species that appear to feed exclusively on the adelgid. Various universities are studying and rearing the beetles for the sole purpose of controlling the insect. Beetles have been released in a few areas within national forests and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Wilderness Experience Perspective
Stone Stairs on the Trail, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
There are plenty of trails where you can find solitude and wilderness adventure within the park, but the High Shoals Falls Trail isn't one of those. The park is very popular on the weekends with most folks walking to the falls. Though during the week, the High Shoals Falls Trail isn't too bad and company is usually infrequent.
Did we mention there are a lot of stairs on route to the top of the falls? High Shoals Falls is about one mile from the parking lot and the stairs don't start until maybe 3/4 of the way up. But once you get to that section you'll notice there's a lot of them, and they're steep. The stairs are a mix of stone and wooden staircases, with many twisting and turning in route. While the actual distance is probably not very far, when walking them they seem to go on forever. This is not a trail for the physically challenged.
While you might think man-made structures such as the stairs would be a distraction in a natural setting, this is not the case whatsoever. The state park has done a wonderful job of creating a rustic unobtrusive medium for reaching the top of the falls. The twisting stairs blend in perfectly with the surroundings and actually appear to complement the environment. We give a thumbs up to the look and feel of the stairs. But note ... they are a tough climb. Be very careful during wet conditions.
We also give a thumbs up to the wilderness experience that can be enjoyed within the park, just realize you won't find it on the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail.
Winding Stairs on the Trail, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
Wooden Stairs on the Trail, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
The Last Stairs to the Top of the Falls - Joe Kegley
More Stairs on the Trail, South Mountians State Park - Joe Kegley
While game animals such as wild turkey and deer are occasionally observed, and birding's not too bad either, those generally aren't the draw for nature photographers here. The reason a nature photographer comes to South Mountains State Park is for the splendid water vistas (cascades and waterfalls) and wildflowers.
Nature photography at the park can further be split into two seasons: spring for the wildflowers, and fall for the cascades and waterfalls. Spring is fairly obvious for the wildflowers. What fall offers is additional color in your images and the fallen leaves can complement an already interesting water composition.
Suggested focal lengths for the water vistas range from 16 to 200mm. The river images on this page were taken with either a 16-35mm or a 24-70mm. A longer length (up to 200mm) would be appropriate to shoot some of the cascades that are hard to physically access, though there are plenty to shoot closer using the smaller focal lengths. The title image was shot off the River Trail; the waterfalls were shot from the High Shoals Falls Trail.
Suggested focal lengths for the wildflowers range from 60 to 200mm depending on the size of the subject or scope of the composition. Many of the wildflower images on this page were taken with a Sigma 150mm macro lens.
- Camping Equipment - should you wish to camp at the park campground or backpack.
- Sturdy Hiking Shoes/boots - some areas are very rocky and the area can be muddy.
Location and Points of Interest
South Mountains State Park (Google interactive map)
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hover over markers to see descriptions
- http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/somo/main.php - official South Mountains State Park website.
South Mountains State Park ... a nature, wildlife, and photography perspective.