Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on July 27, 2023.
High Shoals Falls is the crown jewel of South Mountains State Park near Morganton in Burke County. While you’ll need to hike a strenuous mile of a 2.7-mile loop to reach this waterfall near Asheville, your reward is worth all the trouble.
When you first see it, you’ll quickly realize that this is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina. You can partially see that from our photos below.
There are so many angles to High Shoals Falls, though, and that’s another reason why we think you have to witness it in person.
One of many things to know before you go is just how busy this waterfall can get. But, as we mentioned, it’s only a short day trip from Asheville, an hour from Boone, and the closest waterfall to Charlotte.
That’s why you can expect the massive parking lot to fill up on busy days.
Our guide shares more about where to park, driving directions, hike details, and everything else you need to know about High Shoals Falls.
Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll find below:
- Where is High Shoals Falls?
- Before You Go: Leave No Trace Reminder
- Driving Directions
- Parking Info
- Where to Stay Nearby
- Tips for Visiting
- Can You Swim at High Shoals Falls?
- Hiking the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail (from Start to Finish)
- More South Mountains State Park Trails
- Things to Do Near High Shoals Falls
- Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
You can scroll ahead to any of these sections or keep reading some interesting facts about South Mountains State Park’s best waterfall.
Where is High Shoals Falls?
Address: South Mountains State Park, 3001 S Mountain Park Avenue, Connelly Springs, NC 28612
High Shoals Falls is an 80-foot waterfall inside South Mountains State Park, in southern Burke County in Western North Carolina. The park itself is known as one of our most rugged, and we wholeheartedly agree with that sentiment.
Hiking the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail is one of the most popular things to do in South Mountains State Park and is usually what many people do first. That’s primarily because of the waterfall reward, and this being is one of the shortest trails in the entire park.
There are a few ways to reach the High Shoals waterfall:
- The popular 2.7-mile loop around the falls.
- The Hemlock Nature Trail, which runs parallel to the first section of the loop, before joining the loop after 0.3 miles.
- Hiking a mile to the falls and a mile back, making for a slightly shorter walk.
We prefer the loop because the descent back to the trailhead and parking is much gentler this way. However, hiking out and back means you (and your knees) have to descend the many stairs that it took to reach the top of the waterfall.
We’ll share more details about the hike below.
Before You Go: Leave No Trace Reminder
Before you visit High Shoals Falls NC or any outdoor space in North Carolina, we want to remind you to leave no trace. That means you should pack out everything you brought with you into the woods.
Also, if you see garbage that’s not yours, you’d be doing us all a great favor if you picked it up and took it with you. Bringing along a plastic bag helps you prepare for this.
Either way, we hope you’ll help us keep this fantastic North Carolina waterfall and all others beautiful!
Before sharing hike details, you have to get to South Mountains State Park and the High Shoals Falls Loop Trailhead.
If you’re driving from Charlotte, follow these directions:
- Drive I-85 South and US-321 North for 34 miles.
- US-321 will merge onto S Aspen St, so turn left onto W Congress St, right on S Grove St, and left onto Childs St to exit onto NC-27 W.
- Finally, follow Old NC 18 to reach South Mountains State Park.
Here are directions from Asheville:
- Take I-240 East before following I-40 East for 52 miles.
- Use exit 104 to reach Enola Road before hopping on Old NC Hwy 18.
If you’re traveling from Boone to the North, here are directions from that beautiful mountain town:
- Follow US 321 South for 25 miles.
- In Lenoir, turn right onto Main St, continue straight on Creekway Dr, and take a slight right on Harper Ave.
- Turn right onto US-64 West and continue for 13 miles. Don’t take the bypass and continue straight when US-64 merges with NC 18
- Take a right onto Lenoir St, which eventually becomes Avery Ave.
- Take a left on Sterling St and continue straight on Sterling St/Old NC 18.
The High Shoals falls trailhead starts from the Jacob Fork parking area. There are picnic areas, camping sites, and you’ll pass the park’s visitor center, which has WiFi.
If you’ve arrived early enough or on a weekday, you should have a good parking spot at the trailhead. There are roughly 75 parking spots here, and they quickly fill up.
To avoid crowds, we always suggest early arrival and, if possible, weekday hikes. The High Shoals Falls parking lot fills up quickly on weekends and holidays
Where to Stay Nearby
- South Mountains State Park has camping spots for tents, trailers, and RVs if you’d like to get a head start ahead of everyone else. Check here for official booking info and availability.
- Dysartville is the closest town to the park and trailhead. Morganton, the Burke County seat, is just a 30-minute drive away on Old NC Highway 18.
- If you’d like to stay in Morganton, you have great options like the Fairfield Inn & Suites or an Airbnb downtown like this one.
- Our friends at Discover Burke County have hosted us in both, including the wonderful cottage on a farm pictured above. It’s in a great spot between Morganton and South Mountains State Park.
High Shoals Falls Loop Trail Tips
- We recommend arriving early to beat the crowds, especially on weekends and holidays. As we mentioned, the trailhead has quite a lot of parking spaces, but it can quickly fill up. Going early in the morning or on weekdays means you could possibly have the trail and waterfall to yourself!
- Like much of North Carolina, the South Mountains State Park area gets pretty hot and humid in the summer months. While the trail has plenty of trees and shade, the air can be humid and muggy even by mid-morning.
- That’s why you should always bring plenty of water and a snack if you think you’ll get hungry along the way.
- Cell service is spotty as you approach South Mountains State Park, but there’s Wi-Fi at the Visitor Center.
- You can grab a trail map at the Visitor Center and at the trailhead.
Can You Swim at High Shoals Falls?
There have also been cases of severe injury and deaths at this waterfall, so please follow the signage! Also, when visiting, be careful when it comes to the “swimming” pools.
Many people hop the fence to swim in the pools at the top of the falls. If you choose to do so, then exercise extreme caution.
There is no lifeguard, and outside help can take time to reach you due to the spotty service.
Hiking the High Shoals Falls Loop Trail (from Start to Finish)
As mentioned before, there are a few different routes to hike to High Shoals Falls.
We suggest following the 2.7-mile loop because of the easier descent and fewer stairs.
You can also start your hike on the 0.3-mile Hemlock Nature Trail (easy), which begins at the SW corner of the Jacob Fork Parking Lot. This trail runs closer to the river before intersecting with the High Shoals Falls Loop.
The High Shoals Falls Loop Trail starts at the Jacob Fork parking lot and follows the sparkling Jacob Fork River for the first half-mile. This section is relatively easy and might make you wonder why the trail is rated as “strenuous.”
You’ll pass intersections with the Hemlock Nature Trail, the 2.6-mile Chestnut Knob Trail (strenuous), the 0.2-mile Big Bear Trail (easy), and the 1.9-mile Headquarters Trail (strenuous) along this section. The Big Bear Trail leads to another waterfall, appropriately named Big Bear Falls.
After the junctions with Big Bear Trail and the HQ Trail, you’ll meet the High Shoals Falls Loop begins. Continue left toward the waterfall.
From here, the trail becomes relatively steep for the next half-mile. You’ll wind through cliffs, forests, and a boardwalk over the cascading river. The base of High Shoals Falls will come into view at the last crossing, framed by towering bluffs and lush trees.
This spot is gorgeous in the fall.
You can take the boardwalk steps up to the different layers of the waterfall, from the base to the cascades themselves. You have a few great angles to see this waterfall.
The above photo is from a viewing platform, and typically the view of High Shoals that you’ll see advertised. If you can arrive early enough or later in the day, you can take a sun-free photo of the falls.
You can continue up the stairs to the top of High Shoals Falls. Here, you’ll see some pools that people hop the fence to wade in and swim. As we mentioned, do this at your own risk.
No lifeguards are on duty, and in case of injury, a rescue crew will not be able to arrive quickly.
At this point, you can turn around and hike the one mile back to the parking area or continue the 2.7-mile loop. Before you do, we hope you’re able to have a few minutes to admire this waterfall.
When you’re ready to continue, follow the path along a ridge before crossing through forests and the Jacob Fork River. Before your descent to the loop split begins, you’ll pass two intersections with the 3.9 mile Upper Falls Trail.
Once you pass the second intersection, the trail moderately descends a wide road, followed by a mix of steps and natural surface, before eventually meeting the loop split.
Ready to Visit High Shoals Falls?
The only thing left for us is to ask you: Are you ready to hike High Shoals Falls in South Mountains State Park?! We think our guide will prepare you for the trail and hope you enjoy it as much as we have.
While it takes some work to reach this waterfall, we think the rewarding views make it worth the entire hike. Tell us all about it when you go, because we’re always eager to compare notes!
Also, if you’ve already visited High Shoals Falls, we’d love to know what you think of it. Share your thoughts in the comments below or by email.
More South Mountains State Park Trails
South Mountains State Park has a few other trails to explore while you’re in the area.
Some allow bikers and horseback riders along with hikers. Most of them are classified as moderate or strenuous, some of the most challenging hikes in NC.
Here are a few that you should know about:
- Clear Creek Trail (2 miles one-way, strenuous): this quiet, reflective trail takes you through Clear Creek Watershed for a beautiful foray into nature.
- Fox Trail (3.70 miles one-way, strenuous): this trail meanders along the Blue Ridge for scenic views.
- Hemlock Nature Trail (0.30 miles one-way, easy): following the Jacob Fork River, this is a relatively easier hike.
- Little River Trail (2.10 miles one-way, moderate): starting at the Jacob Fork access, this trail crosses the Little River. Horseback riders are welcome here!
Things to Do Near High Shoals Falls
We couldn’t mention South Mountains State Park and High Shoals Falls without sharing a few more things to do nearby!
As we mentioned, Morganton is an excellent base for exploring the South Mountains area. Stroll through downtown after a fulfilling day exploring nature and grab dinner at Blue 42’s Burger Bar or Root and Vine.
We also love Swede’s Cafe above the Morganton General Store. There are three great breweries in town, with four locations total:
- Catawba Brewing
- Fonta Flora’s two locations (downtown Morganton and Whippoorwill Farm)
- Sidetracked Brewery
Linville Gorge Wilderness Area
South Mountains State Park takes care of the outdoor adventures south of Morganton, and the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area flanks the town to the north.
Most of its highlights are about an hour away from Morganton. We love exploring the Gorge, which Pisgah National Forest manages.
Our favorite places to visit here include the 90-foot Linville Falls, which gets much more attention than High Shoals Falls as the most popular Burke County waterfall.
Some other beautiful hikes in the Linville Gorge include Table Rock Mountain, which offers expansive forest views for miles, Hawksbill Mountain next to it, and Wiseman’s View across the Gorge from those two.
At Wiseman’s View, you’ll find a wheelchair-accessible trail after a somewhat bumpy drive up. The views at the end of the trail are just unbelievable. It’s our favorite place to peer into the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area.
There’s more to explore in the Gorge, South Mountains State Park, and elsewhere in Burke County. We hope to continue sharing it all with you!
More High Shoals Falls-Area Travel Guides
There are plenty of more things to do near High Shoals Falls and we’ve included them in these NC travel guides.