Will the real Stone Mountain please stand up?! Mentioning my visit to Stone Mountain State Park with friends and family always brought up the same question, "Which Stone Mountain?” I was prepared to answer this only because I had the same issue when researching my trip to visit the park while traveling through North Carolina. It seems there are several mountains and towns that go by the same name, in nearly half a dozen states, including Georgia's more famous Stone Mountain.
Stone Mountain State Park is located in the sleepy, high-country town of Roaring Gap, North Carolina. So sleepy in fact that it has less than 200 residents and not a stop light to speak of, yet it swells with visitors from all over the country every summer. The summit of this park is a be viewed from several popular overlooks on the Blue Ridge Parkway, several miles away.
This place has some of the best climbing in the entire state, bringing adventure seekers here to attempt to summit the 600 ft granite dome. Within the 14,000 acres of this state park are creeks and streams known for their excellent brook trout fishing, comparable only to the streams in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Speaking of streams, in a state known for its waterfalls, our first hike here was to view the magnificent Stone Mountain Falls. The falls can be seen from a short yet strenuous 1 mile hike along the Middle Falls/Lower Falls Trail. We parked in the Upper Trailhead Parking area along the Stone Mountain Loop Trail. The 200 ft falls are so tall that they can be viewed from three separate areas; the cliff, middle falls, and lower falls. Take the Stone Mountain Loop trailhead for 0.5 miles until you reach the falls marker.
You’ll know you’re there when you reach the phantom stone chimney, smack in the middle of the trail. This revolutionary war era chimney belonged to an early set of homesteads located in and around Stone Mountain. The first known settler to scratch out a living here in the 1770’s was James Caldwell.
The Hutchinson family eventually purchased the property, and remnants of their way of life have been preserved in the Hutchinson Homestead, located on the base of the granite dome near the Lower Trailhead Parking. This is one of the more popular spots to catch a glimpse of climbers as they attempt to reach the summit of the towering dome.
Along the way there are several smaller trails leading to Big Sandy Creek as it cuts its way through the bedrock towards the falls. Several smaller falls tumble over large boulders along steep embankments covered in blooming rhododendrons. Between the smell of the sweet blossoms and the freshly budding eastern fir trees, the scent here is intoxicating. I followed the stream until I found myself, unknowingly on the wrong side of a fence overlooking the falls. Several fatalities have occurred here from visitors doing the exact same thing I just did, so please exercise caution when following side trails along the falls.
Making my way back to the proper side of the fence, we arrived at the main overlook for Stone Mountain Falls. With several weeks of rain preceding our visit, the falls were roaring over the cliff at an incredible speed. One could feel the force of the falls as water sprayed onto us the closer we got to the fence. Unlike most other waterfalls, this one doesn’t have a sharp vertical plunge, instead the water cascades, or slides, down the side of the mountain.
This entire overlook is perched on the face of a sloping cliff, with notches carved into the stone for added traction. Wood rails along the cliffs precipice keep visitors from tumbling over as they make their way down to the steps leading to the base of the mountain and the middle/lower falls area.
Now this is the most strenuous part of the whole hike….. the stairs. I didn’t bother to count them, but online reviews from other hikers claim the steps are anywhere between 500 to 2,300 long, split up into two sections. Visitors were spread out among the steps, taking turns resting as the stairs were quite steep. Halfway to the bottom, we veered off the steps onto a boardwalk leading to the Middle Falls.
Here you’ll find a large platform overlooking the middle section of the waterfall as it slides down the mountainside. Some of the view is obstructed by overgrown rhododendrons, but you still get a good sense of how large the falls are. Looking up towards the cliff, it doesn’t look much like a waterfall at all, but more like an overflowing bathtub. At this point, the water is gently sliding down into the lower falls towards what looks like people playing in the creek.
Getting back on the stairs, making our way to the bottom of Big Sandy Creek, you have to zigzag your way around people crowding the steps. We got the occasional chuckling remark, “wait till you have to go back up”, from other hikers. Finally we made it to the lower falls boardwalk and to our surprise, a pretty festive party. It was quite a sight to find several dozen people swimming and playing in a natural pool at the lower falls. At nearly waist deep in a few spots closest to the mountainside, people were taking turns plunging into the water and sun bathing on the boulders surrounding the pool.
At the opposite end of the falls, the pool spills out over boulders, creating a staggering of smaller falls until reaching the bed of Big Sandy Creek. From here, steps lead down to the lower creek, onto the Bridle Out and Back Trail. This horseback riding trail winds it way through the southern end of the state park for 10 miles, climbing over steep ridges, and ending at the Bridle Loop Trail.
Now comes my least favorite part of this trail, the return climb up those stairs. Even at a moderate pace, it took 12 minutes to make our way from the lower falls to the the top of Stone Mountain Falls. If you have any energy left in you, continue along the Stone Mountain Loop Trail to get an incredible, front and center view of Stone Mountain. Next up, well be hiking the Wolf Rock and Cedar Rock Trail. Stay tuned and see y’all on the trails!