The South Mountains are an ancient and deeply eroded mountain range in western North Carolina. They are an isolated remnant of the much larger Appalachian Mountains to the west, and are separated from the Appalachians by the Catawba River valley. The range covers approximately 100,000 acres (400 km²) in Burke, Cleveland, and Rutherford counties. The South Mountains are the highest and most rugged chain of the isolated mountain ranges which dot North Carolina's Piedmont region. The highest point in the range is Buzzard Roost, which rises to 2,980 feet (908 m) above sea level. The South Mountains are heavily forested with Southeastern mixed forests. Water erosion from numerous rivers and streams has given the mountains narrow ridges and valleys.
The mountains were once inhabited by the Cherokee Indian tribe; after gold was discovered in the mountains in the 19th century numerous prospectors moved into the area, and by the time the mines closed in the early 20th century over $1 million in gold had been found. Today the mountains are sparsely populated, and no communities of more than a few hundred people are located in the immediate region (the largest nearby city is Morganton, North Carolina, located five miles north of the range). Most of the South Mountains remain in the hands of private owners. However, in 1973 the State of North Carolina paid $1.5 million to acquire 5,779 acres (23.4 km²) of land in the South Mountains, and in 1975 the South Mountains State Park was created. Today the park covers nearly 17,000 acres (69 km²), and includes the impressive High Shoals Falls, which cascade over 80 feet down a sheer cliff and form a large, deep pool at the bottom. The park, like most of the South Mountains, is largely undeveloped, and much of it is still wilderness. Numerous rare and endangered plants lie within its boundaries, much of them documented by botanist Bill Moye, whose efforts helped expand the park to its present size.