Staying active in the peak of the Charlotte summer is tough. The humidity on those steamy, Southern days feels like a backpack, weighing you down while you hike or run. Finding the trails that offer some respite is an essential strategy for outdoor enthusiasts here.
Luckily, refreshing waterfall mists and deep, cool mountain swimming holes aren’t far away. In fact, North Carolina offers an abundance of such watery oases. Here, a rundown of four awesome waterfall hikes, each within a 2-hour drive of Uptown Charlotte, plus recommended spots to go afterward to continue the refreshment.
1. High Shoals Falls at South Mountain State Park
The closest waterfall to Uptown Charlotte in this list, High Shoals Falls is an excellent choice if you can’t invest a full day in your adventure. South Mountain State Park, home of the falls, is just a 1.5-hour drive from the city center.
Water tumbling down High Shoals Falls careens off multiple jagged rock outcroppings before settling in a wide pool some 80 feet down from its apex. Wooden walkways allow for viewing from up top and all along its descent.
The hike to the various heights of the falls isn’t long, but is necessarily steep. Begin at the Jacob Branch Parking area a couple miles past the park entrance. Walk the smoothly graded Hemlock Nature Trail for less than half-mile to the base of the High Shoals Falls Loop. You can go either direction on this 2.7-mile loop to see the entire falls.
Afterward, continue the refreshment with a stop at Redbone Willy’s, which dishes up some of the best homemade ice cream in the Carolinas.
2. Stone Mountain Falls at Stone Mountain State Park
As its name suggests, the outstanding feature at Stone Mountain State Park is the huge granite rock face that seems to erupt out of the Carolina countryside. But when the heat of summer has you running for the hills, the park’s waterfall takes center stage. And at two hours each way from Charlotte, you’ll have plenty of daylight to explore, especially in the long days of summer.
At 200 feet, the falls are an impressive site from any vantage point. And just like High Shoals, the trail here follows right alongside the cascade, giving hikers multiple vantage points to take it all in. The pool at the bottom of the falls is well shaded and just deep enough to sit and soak, if you’re so inclined.
There are several access points to reach the falls. Perhaps the most interesting begins at the Lower Trailhead Parking Lot toward the back of the state park. From here you can hike the nearly 5-mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail and not only see the falls, but get up close and personal with Stone Mountain and the historic Hutchinson Homestead.
Conveniently located on the outskirts of the park, the Stone Mountain Store is the place to refuel with burgers and fries and more ice cream.
3. Falls Creek Falls at Jones Gap State Park
The hike up to Falls Creek Falls at Jones Gap State Park isn’t very long: less than 1.5 miles. But it certainly feels like much more than that, as the nearly unbroken stretch of steep incline is capped by rugged rock scrambles. And oh, what a payoff, when you reach your destination.
In the middle of the falls, the river’s flow crashes into multiple rocky surfaces in all directions as it cascades more than 100 feet. A cooling spray envelopes the area, rejuvenating hikers after the tough slog up. And with steep forested cliffs all around, few natural places capture all natural senses better.
The most direct route to Falls Creek Falls begins at a small parking area about a mile away from the main parking lot at Jones Gap State Park. To get there, head north on Duckworth Road from Jones Gap Road then take a right on Falls Creek Road. There is a kiosk marking the trailhead. (All South Carolina State Parks require a small fee, typically around $5, so be sure to bring cash.)
Since it’s a full 2-hour drive to Jones Gap, take advantage of the trip to explore the other amazing falls within an easy hike from the main parking lot. When you’re finished, stop at Green River Brew Depot for local music and a fantastic menu of the area’s best craft beers.
4. Harper Creek Falls at the Wilson’s Creek Natural Area
At around 50 feet tall, Harper Creek Falls in the Wilson’s Creek Natural Area is the shortest on the list. But what it lacks in height it more than makes up for in beautiful surrounds and swimming hole perfection.
Harper’s Creek Falls is comprised of two distinct sections, each more of a steep slide than a sheer drop. Water falling from the higher section has carved out a shallow pool in between the two. At the base of the falls, one of the most sublime swimming holes in western North Carolina beckons hikers for a dip in its cool, clear waters.
The Harper Creek trailhead begins on Brown Mountain Beech Road, about a mile north of the Wilson’s Creek Visitor’s Center. It’s only about 1.5 miles to the falls, but there is a significant up and down to get over. Look for a side trail that leads to the falls and be prepared for a steep, rope-assisted descent to the falls.
When you’ve wrapped the adventure, be sure to explore Morganton, which has a growing reputation as a foodie enclave. This quaint little town is home to several worthy farm to fork eateries; Wisteria Gastropub is known for hearty, well-crafted burgers and Southern favorites.
Originally written for OrthoCarolina.