Located in the otherwise flat central Piedmont of North Carolina, the Uwharrie Mountains are one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America. Geologists estimate that the Uwharries once topped out around 20,000 feet, but erosion, at work since the volcanic origin of the range over 500 million years ago, has worn it down to a tiny fraction of those heights. Currently, the high point of this ancient range is only 1,119 feet above sea level, with most of the range standing between 300 feet and 900 feet high. At the time of their creation, The Uwharries once defined a portion of the eastern seaboard, but a slow, gradual rise east of the range has moved the Atlantic shore more than 150 miles over time. The smallest of the 4 National Forests in NC at 50,000 acres, the land was originally purchased by the Federal government in 1931 and dubbed the Uwharrie Reservation before being designated a National Forest by JFK 30 years later. The first fame for this range came as early as 1802 when it was discovered that a rock being used as a doorstop was actually as 17lb gold nugget found 3 years earlier in a mine in the Uwharries, Reed’s Mine. The discovery led to the nation’s first gold rush.
This February 18th marks the 6th anniversary of the start of my Appalachian Trail Thru-hike. While I’ve remained a very active hiker in the years following, I had not done any thru-hike caliber mileage since. My goal for this trip was to see if I still had it in me by attempting to cover 42 miles in under 48 hours.
Day 1: Surprises – Pleasant and unpleasant
I left my car at the Jumping Off Rock trailhead on SR1306 at 3:45pm heading south on the Uwharrie Trail. Immediately I was pleasantly surprised. The terrain was rugged, steep and rocky and through the leafless trees I could see ridgelines extending in all directions. The forest was almost exclusively hardwoods in this northern section, and, apart from the marked absence of Rhododendron closely resembled the Appalachian Blue Ridge to the west. This first day I saw no one. I hiked in complete silence and solitude for an hour and a half, covering around 3.5 miles before setting up camp atop an unnamed wooded dome that would provide open views of both sunset and sunrise.
The sunset was spectacular and seemed to be an omen of good things to come. As I watched the sun go down I built a small fire, cooked some dinner and listened to enthusiastic coyotes celebrate the unusually warm night.
With the sun gone I turned my gaze skyward where the stars were out in force – the coyotes evidently enjoyed this too. Soon though, the coyotes’ song was drowned out by a slow, methodical, heavy crunch of footfall on dry leaves coming from the southeast. There were only two possibilities given the weight and stride: bear or man. I was alone and it was very dark, my only protection a 3.5” blade and a trekking pole. I sincerely hoped it was a bear since any human out this far, with no light, walking directly into my camp could mean no good. If it was a bear though, it was a big bear, and given that I was directly downwind, he may not know I was there at all. Without the benefit of wind, this bear’s primary sense would be returning a subtle blend worth checking into: stroganoff and campfire.
The official Forest Service signage would suggest that it was not a bear. Both at trailheads and online, bears are absent from the list of resident species and nowhere are there cautions regarding safe food storage while camping in the backcountry. I knew that black bears ranged the entirety of North Carolina, even occasionally passing through the cities of the central Piedmont as had happened this past summer with tragic consequences (Click to see Blog Post).
Whatever the source of the crunch, it was getting very close and coming directly at my camp. I turned to face the intruder and simultaneously turned on my headlamp and shouted. Fifteen yards from me was a large black bear standing on his hind legs (presumably to get a better sniff). He dropped quickly to all-fours and retreated a few yards, gave a look back and then continued back in the direction from which he had come. Needless to say, the next thing I did was hang my food.
Day 2: The long haul
The night was uneventful after the departure of my interloping friend and the morning was warm and dry with a sunrise even more spectacular than the sunset the night before. After coffee I set off for my first 20-mile day in 6 years. My load was heavier than I would have liked it for this type of mileage due to some test gear that I was carrying, but the lack of prolonged ascents or descents in Uwharrie made 30 lbs very manageable.
The terrain here is characterized by rolling ups and downs and wide open hardwood forests peppered with worn granite and quartz. While water was scarce along the first 4 northernmost miles, Day 2 brought numerous creek crossings. Occasionally the hardwood forest gave way to tall white pine stands, but common to both was a complete absence of underbrush. The result is a relatively unobstructed view deep into the forest in all directions.
Despite the clear views there was a marked lack of animal presence in the forest. Thanks to a sign at trailhead I did not have to wonder long for the reason: hunting season is November 7th – January 1st. Apart from my visitor last night it would appear that everything else with fur had been either blasted or scared out of these woods in the preceding months. Anyone planning a hike in Uwharrie during hunting season should wear plenty of blaze orange and use extreme caution. The best times to visit is early fall, winter, and spring. Summer temps and humidity are oppressive in this area and bring with them an abundance of parasites, especially mosquitoes and ticks.
I maintained a steady 3mph pace as I crossed over Hwy 109 which bi-sects the Uwharrie Trail. I had the trail largely to myself with the exception of 2 parties of fellow backpackers and a handful of trail-runners. The terrain here lends itself perfectly to trail-running and the forest is the site of an annual 8, 20, and 40 mile race.
Miles 10-14 are very mellow rolling hills while the remaining 6 miles of the Uwharrie Trail offer relatively more dramatic ups and downs (although the biggest elevation change is a modest 400 feet). The southern terminus of the Uwharrie trail is Hwy 24/27 where I crossed the parking area to join the Dutchman’s Creek Trail which would loop me out to the east before returning me to the Uwharrie Trail after 6 miles.
Several miles into the Dutchman’s Creek Trail I came across more evidence of bear activity some 15 miles south of where I’d camped the night before. Here the leaves had been mowed through in a five foot wide swath meandering through the woods. The prevalence of mature oak trees here provide an abundance of acorns for a variety of foraging animals. Sure did seem to be a lot of bears there for a forest with no bears in it.
I made it 5 miles into the Dutchman’s Creek Trail before settling on a campsite on another hilltop with panoramic views through the trees. One thing that’s great about Uwharrie is that because of the lack of undergrowth, backcountry campsites are practically infinite. You can close your eyes and throw your pack anywhere and chances are that where it lands will be a viable spot for a tent. My weather luck turned at dusk as heavy rain begins to fall so I settled into the tent and brewed up a pot of cheddar noodles with hot sauce and a cup of hot, spiced apple cider. With 17 miles of Uwharrie Trail and 5 miles of Dutchman’s Creek I had covered 22 miles with a 30lb pack on day 2 and feel surprisingly good. On the final day 16.5 miles would return me to the northern terminus.
Day 3: Overflows and blowouts
The rain continued all night, but graciously stopped soon after my coffee was brewed, so I quickly packed up camp and headed north. Immediately the effects of the night’s rain were evident as small streams became rushing torrents and mud holes became flooded valleys. The rain resumed shortly after I started walking and would continue to turn on and off throughout the day. Soon I rejoined the Uwharrie Trail headed north (Note: Dutchman’s Creek continues an additional 5 miles to the west and east from the first junction with the Uwharrie Trail to form a figure 8. I opted not to take the final 5 mile leg, of the DCT this trip.).
Due to a combination of the dampness from steady rains and stream crossings, the 22-mile pounding of the previous day and the relative infrequency with which I get out on the trail, my feet began to fail on me. I treated emerging hot spots with duct tape reinforcements, but it was not enough. By the time I reached the site of my first nights camp monster blisters were already well established on 8 of my toes and both heels and some were starting to break. The final 3 mile push was through seething pain from my right foot where my pinky toe had been mangled beyond recognition. Cresting the gap on the shoulder of Dark Mountain I made the final downhill push to the trailhead to finish the 42-mile trek in just under 47 hours. Not bad in mid-January where days are short and 28 of those hours were dark and spent in camp.
Overall, Uwharrie National Forest was a very pleasant surprise. For years I had put off visiting this area which is practically in my backyard, having written it off for low altitude and proximity to population. What I found though was a very accessible and easily traveled stretch of wilderness with great character and ample opportunity for solitude. Variations on backpacking trips abound with shuttle options from 8-21.5 miles in length, loops from 6-20 miles in length and others such as my 42-mile lollipop trip that could easily be expanded by 4 miles by adding in the rest of Dutchman’s Creek.
I did call the Ranger’s office to report my bear sighting and to recommend addition of bears and the relevant food storage precautions to the signage at the trailheads. Although the staff that I spoke with were all very excited that I’d seen a bear, they seemed to miss the part about it heading straight into my camp where I'd not hung my food due to lack of warning and I didn’t much get the impression it would result in any changes in practice. As for my feet, I limped around for a few days, but a week later I’m all healed although my toes are considerably uglier. Good to know that my 6 years of couch-surfing haven’t completely decimated my long-distance hiking legs.
The Hike: Starting from the Jumping Off Rock Trailhead at SR1306 hike south on the Uwharrie Recreation Trail (white blazes) to its southern terminus at hwy 24/27. Cross the parking lot and join the Dutchman’s Creek Trail (yellow blazes) for 6 miles (as reported) or 11 miles to intersect with the Uwharrie Recreation Trail (URT and DCT intersect at both intervals). Turn north and backtrack to SR1306.
To the Trailhead: From Interstate 73/74 in North Carolina take exit #51 for Dawson Miller Rd. Head west on Dawson Miller Rd and take the first left onto Hwy 134 south. After 9.5 miles turn right onto Abner Rd. Turn left onto Flint Hill Rd/SR1306 and follow to the trailhead parking on the left.
Ranger Contact: Uwharrie National Forest, 789 Hwy. 24/27 E., Troy, NC 27371-9332; (910) 576-6391
Maps: Gemini Maps' Uwharrie National Forest Map ($3.50) 910-461-5216; the National Forest Ranger’s Office in Troy (above) sells a map of the Uwharrie Trail for $4; or a combination of the Troy, Lovejoy and Morrow Mountain USGS quad maps cover the area.