Little River Trail, South Mountains State Park

For a scenic stroll along a horse path through the South Mountains forest, you may give Little River Trail a try. Starting at the Cicero Branch parking area and climbing above Jacob Fork gorge, you will pass viewpoints for the North Carolina Piedmont and follow Little River to the end of the trail at a small but treacherous hidden waterfall. I hiked to Little River Falls on Saturday, December 27, 2014 between 2:00PM and 4:00PM. Since this was my first visit to South Mountains State Park, I was just out exploring. My plan was to see what I could find.

Hike Length: 4.5 miles Hike Duration: 2 hours

Hike Configuration: Up and back Blaze: White dot, blue triangle

Hike Rating: Moderate. Lots of climbing, but not overly steep.

Elevation Change: 585 feet, gain 950 Elevation Start: 1,297 feet

Trail Condition: Good. Mostly wide double-track horse trail.

Starting Point: Raven Rock trailhead at Cicero Branch parking area.

Trail Traffic: I encountered 5 horse riders and 2 other hikers.

How to Get There: From Shelby, NC take Hwy 226 north 10.8 miles. Turn slight right on NC-10 for 8.5 miles. Turn slight left on Ward Gap Road for 4.3 miles past Mount Gilead Church, then turn left on Ward Gap Road for 0.8 mile. Take a sharp left up the hill on S. Mountains Park Ave. for 3 miles to the state park. Get a trail map and other info at the Visitor Center.

 

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After finishing the High Shoals Falls Loop, there was still plenty of time in the day to get in another few miles, so I studied the trail map I picked up in the State Park Visitor Center. I liked the sound of Little River Trail, so I headed for the trailhead at Cicero Branch. River trails are usually pretty scenic, so perhaps that’s why it caught my attention. A camping area, Cicero Branch has plenty of parking right along Jacob Fork River.

From the parking, head west along the river about 50 yards and take a right on the Raven Rock Trail. It then crosses S. Mountains Park Ave. and heads upwards into the woods. For six tenths of a mile you’ll climb a series of switchbacks until reaching the junction with Little River Trail. Go left for access to the High Shoals area, or go right as I did and continue climbing upwards into the forest.

Little River is a wide trail, with tell-tale signs of horse traffic. In fact, I had pretty much decided by the end of this hike that this is primarily a horse trail. The forest is populated with hickory and oak, an occasional maple, and pine of many varieties. The ubiquitous rhododendron is all over, and the soil is likely fertile ground for Spring wildflowers.

After another half mile of climbing you’ll reach a junction with Turkey Ridge Trail. This is a primary means of access for the equestrians because the horse trailer parking lot is at the other end of that trail. Continue straight ahead, though, to stay on Little River Trail. Frankly, there really isn’t much of interest on this trail for the first mile and a half, and I was beginning to wonder if I had made the wrong choice. Then suddenly, the woods opened up to the east and there was a remarkable view of the North Carolina Piedmont.

The Piedmont is a plateau region located in the eastern United States between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the main Appalachian Mountains, stretching from New Jersey in the north to central Alabama in the south. The surface relief of the Piedmont is characterized by relatively low, rolling hills. Essentially, the Piedmont is the remnant of several ancient mountain chains that have since been eroded away.

The Piedmont is a plateau region located in the eastern United States between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the main Appalachian Mountains, stretching from New Jersey in the north to central Alabama in the south. The surface relief of the Piedmont is characterized by relatively low, rolling hills. Essentially, the Piedmont is the remnant of several ancient mountain chains that have since been eroded away.

Then, not too far after that, the trail topped the ridge and began a gentle descent. I began to hear water, so YAY!, the river was getting close. As I approached a hairpin turn in a switchback, suddenly I heard voices, and then, through the trees three riders. At the switchback was a wooden foot bridge over Little River, and a ford for the equines. From above I could see the horses with their snouts buried in the river taking a drink.

After crossing the river, the trail flattens out as it follows the narrow stream that is really nothing more that a creek. I can see why they call it “Little” River. Access to the water itself is choked by thick rhododendron and laurel. After a quarter mile of walking, I was startled by another horse, who was apparently quite startled by me as well. He made a terrible racket, almost fell, and gave the rider quite a jolt. As they passed me a few moments later, the rider chuckled and said, “Gee, you would think this horse had never seen a hiker before.”

Where that horse, and another, came from was the Upper CCC Trail. There’s a junction here, with a horse tie-off bar. There are all kinds of signs around warning about the danger of falling from the waterfall. WATERFALL? Hmmm. Now this was getting interesting. On the other side of the hitch I noticed the faint traces of a trail, more like a manway really.

A few feet later, this manway falls steeply downhill and I heard the giveaway sound of rushing water. I was getting close. Then there were more warning signs, and a small rock outcropping at the top of the falls. The rock was covered in fallen leaves, so I didn’t dare get too close for fear of sliding, but I could definitely tell this was no place to lose your balance. Slip, and you would fall to certain doom.

I continued down to the left, and reached another manway that went to a precipice about half way down the cascade of the waterfall. Two problems though. It was very, very steep… and it was covered with wet leaves… the kind that give way when you step on them. I stood there seemingly for a full minute trying to decide how badly I wanted the closeup picture.

Here at Meanderthals our tagline says, "If you're gonna be dumb, you better be tough." Nobody ever accused me of being brilliant, so with reckless abandon I proceeded to slip and slide my way down the steep embankment to capture this photo just for you. Well, for me too.

Here at Meanderthals our tagline says, “If you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough.” Nobody ever accused me of being brilliant, so with reckless abandon I proceeded to slip and slide my way down the steep embankment to capture this photo just for you. Well, for me too.

Behind me I left a trail of leaf piles as I slid about three feet with each step I took. The seat of my pants was certainly covered with rich, moist South Mountains topsoil. But I made it, and breathed a deep sigh of relief. As far as waterfalls go, this one isn’t particularly remarkable, but it was the challenge, y’know?

What goes down must go back up, and so I had to work my way back up the embankment two steps forward and one step back. Boy were those wet leaves slippery! When I got back to the hitching post I found a nice rock near some large, fresh fungus and paused to take inventory, and have a snack. Everything still seemed to be in working order, and I had safely found another hidden waterfall.

The return trip goes back the same way I came. This time I actually encountered another pair of hikers, so I wasn’t totally alone in setting foot on a designated horse trail. As I approached the end, there was the quite lovely view of bare trees that you see at the top of this post. I thought it made a nice study in black and white.

To summarize, there are bound to be more picturesque hikes in South Mountains State Park, but I did get some good exercise and a little adventurous excitement. This was my first visit, so I was just learning. High Shoals Falls was definitely a highlight, but Little River Trail left me wanting more. On my next visit to the South Mountains I think I will leave Little River to the horses, and try some of the other trails.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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