High Shoals Falls is one of my favorite places to visit. It has a lot of things going for it, being relatively close to several metropolitan areas at the top of the list.
The falls are located in the South Mountains Game Lands. Situated roughly midway between Charlotte and Ashville, North Carolina. South Mountains State Park apparently shares the same borders with the Game Lands, which causes some confusion when trying to find either one on Google maps. They are identical as a practical matter.
The starting point is the Cicero Branch Parking area.
The trail to take is the High Shoals Loop Trail. It’s a 2.7 mile loop that’s rated strenuous. It’s not required to follow the whole loop. You can go straight to the waterfall and back, which shortens the hike somewhat. The waterfall is just over a mile from the parking lot. That trail is well maintained and very popular. The last quarter mile does get a bit steep, but there are steps in some places, in a few others natural rock formations provide high steps.
Every time I’ve been there I meet people in their 60’s and 70’s taking the walk to the falls. There is a short section just beyond the viewing platform which takes you to the top of the falls. That last section is a bit over 80 feet in elevation change, but very steep. The good news is that there are steps the whole way. From the trailhead to the top of the falls is 1.2 miles. That last few hundred yards is the most difficult.
The good news for nature photographers is that there are several cascades along the way that are very photogenic. None are especially difficult to get to, although the best shots require getting off the trail. The lower part of the trail parallels the Hemlock Nature Trail, which is no more difficult than going to the mailbox. Some good photo opportunities there as well. The park service even has a few viewing platforms along the way. The character of several cascades and pools along the way depends on recent rains. They can be quite dramatic after thunderstorms, always something to consider in the south.
Another thing to consider is that both these trails are under forest cover the whole way. So hikers are out of direct sun and following the streams for most of the way. That, along with being a few thousand feet above sea level, means that it’s relatively cool. A nice break on hot summer days.