Scouting report: long hikes at the coast, in the Piedmont

The Weetock once was lost, but now is found.

Mel writes: “I am the Hiking Merit Badge coordinator for Troop 395 in Raleigh and we are looking to put together our hiking itinerary over the next 12 months.  As you may know, to earn this MB the Boy Scouts have to do five 10+ miles hikes and one 20+ mile hike.”

Mel goes on to mention that he has my “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina,” but that most of the hikes therein are shorter than 10 miles. Might I, he asks, have some recommendations on longer hikes, and might at least one of them be at the coast, three to four in the Piedmont, and one or two in the mountains?

I love a good, long hike, and do indeed have some thoughts on the subject. Since Mel has already opened the door to shameless plugs of my books, I will go ahead and add that many of the 43 trips in my “Backpacking North Carolina” (UNC Press, 2011) can be done as long hikes. I should also note that my soon-to-be released “Adventure Carolinas: Your Go-To Guide for Multi-Sport Outdoor Recreation,” available from UNC Press in May, does not have specific long hikes but does have a section on “Backcountry Exploration.”

Where were we? Oh, yes. Mel and the Boy Scout long-hike recommendations. I’ll start today with the Coast and Piedmont; I’ll add the mountains next week.

Without further delay, the nominees are:

Coast

There aren’t a lot of long trail options along the coast (unless you count the 301-mile “hike” along the beach from Virginia to South Carolina). But of the two long trails that do exist, both in the Croatan National Forest, both are good ones.

10 miles

Croatan National Forest: Weetock Trail
11 miles
Maysville
The Weetock, located on the south flank of the Croatan National Forest along the White Oak River, was blazed between 2001 and 2003 by the Carteret County Wildlife Club.  A significant portion of the trail was rerouted by the USDA Forest Service in 2007; the last time we tried to tackle the Weetock, the Weetock tackled us instead. The first few miles were good: a nice ramble through coastal forest on well-marked, well-maintained trail. But then the trail grew forgetful, frequently losing its place and meandering into the boggy woods or dumping us in a briary thicket. A recent report from Daniel with the coastal Fast Fox Running Co.,  however, suggests the Weetock has since gathered its thoughts. “The trail is actually in pretty good shape these days!” he reports. Good news, since we liked what we were able to see of the trail back in 2011: boardwalk passages through perpetually wet stretches, great sightlines through a mostly pine forest, creeks that carve surprisingly deep through the woods, and a bluff at one point along the White Oak River.
Trailhead: The easiest place to pick up the trail is from the Haywood Landing Boat Ramp off NC 58. Details here.
Preferred seasons: November to April, to avoid the bugs, slithery types and assorted other pests common in warmer times.
More info: Carteret County Wildlife Club.

20 miles

The northern end of the Neusiok Trail, along the Neuse River.

Croatan National Forest: Neusiok Trail
21 miles
Havelock
Whereas the Weetock Trail may have once lost its way, the Croatan’s other major trail, the Neusiok, has done a good job of staying the course since its creation, also by the Carteret County Wildlife Club, in the early 1970s. The trail runs from the Pine Cliff Recreation Area along the southern shore of the Neuse River, southeast to its southeast trailhead off Mill Creek Road. The northernmost seven miles are the most diverse, passing beneath a bluff overlooking the Neuse, then heading through a pine savannah. You’ll find the scrubby pine forests and swampy spots expected of a southern coastal forest, but you’ll also encounter a rolling stretch where holly, galax and other flora more commonly associated with the southern Appalachians are found. Signs of the area’s colorful human past (rusted stills) also dot the trail. The southern two-thirds of the trail are flat and more typical of a coastal forest, with long stretches of boardwalk through marshy stretches.
Trailheads: To pick up the trail on the south end, at Oyster Point: From the town of Newport, take Chatham Street for 2.8 miles to Market Street and turn left. Take Market to Mill Creek Road (SR 1154); go 7. 1 miles on Mill Creek to Oyster Point Road (FR 181) and turn right. Go one mile to the trailhead. To get to the northern trailhead in the Pine Cliff Picnic Area: From Havelock, go left on NC 101 for 5.3 miles. At Ferry Road (NC 306), turn left and go 3.3 miles to
FR 132. There, go left for 1.7 miles to the Pine Cliff Picnic Area at road’s end.
Preferred seasons: November to April, to avoid the bugs, slithery types and assorted other pests common in warmer times.
More info: Check out the USDA Forest Service brochure here.

Piedmont

A Boy Scout needn’t leave the Piedmont to earn his long-hike stripes: the region is full of long hikes. Some are pieced together with two or more trails. The longest, the 60-mile Falls Lake Trail, is long on its lonesome.

10 miles

Crabtree Creek, along the Company Mill Trail at Umstead State Park.

Umstead State Park: Company Mill Trail with Sycamore Loop
10 miles
Raleigh
A figure-eight double lollipop loop that exposes you to the best of Umstead. Starting from the Harrison Avenue entrance to Umstead (a k a the Reedy Creek entrance) on the Company Mill Trail, cross three small ridges on your way to Crabtree Creek. Cross the green metal bridge (dropped in years back by an Army BlackHawk helicopter) and go right. You’ll follow Crabtree for a spell, climb to the bike and bridle trail that bisects the park and continue. Shortly, you’ll hit a kiosk indicating a short spur to the Sycamore Trail; follow it to another B&B trail, go left and over the bridge, then pick up Sycamore just past the bridge, to the right. There’s a half-mile stretch along Sycamore Creek (quite lively just after or during a rain), then the trail climbs through the hardwood Piedmont forest prevalent throughout before crossing another B&B. Within a quarter mile, the trail Ts. To get in your full 10 miles, go right to yet another B&B crossing, then turn and complete the opposite side of the Sycamore-Company Mill figure-eight. Lots of up-and-down, but nothing sustained. No water along the way (don’t risk filtering these urban creeks), so pack plenty, especially in summer.
Trailhead: Harrison Avenue at I-40 in Cary.
Preferred seasons: Fall, winter, spring
More info, including a map, at the Umstead State Park website.

The Birkhead Mountain Trail is well blazed, especially for a wilderness trail.

Uwharrie National Forest: Birkhead Mountain Wilderness lollipop loop
11.8 miles
Asheboro
This one clocks in at 11.8 miles and you’ll appreciate every step of the extra credit. Starting from the trailhead off Tot Hill Road, you’ll hike the Birkhead Mountain Trail south for two miles before hitting the popular loop that Boy Scouts, among others, have been using for years to cut their backpacking teeth. Where the Robbins Branch Trail enters from the right, continue straight on the Birkhead for two miles. Note along the way that despite the fact this is a designated wilderness, the trail is well blazed. After two miles, go right on the Hannahs Creek Trail, where, for the first time, you abandon ridgelines in favor of passages along holly-clogged creeks. After a mile and a half, go right on the Robbins Branch Trail, which climbs a rocky (for the Piedmont) ridgeline before dropping to its namesake creek and rejoining the Birkhead after 3.2 miles. Go left for the two-mile return to your car. You can filter water from Hannahs Creek and Robbins Branch, though both run low in summer and during dry weather.
Trailhead: There’s a gravel lot and kiosk on the south side of Tot Hill Road. Tot Hill Road is a paved loop off NC 49 west of Asheboro; if you take the eastern Tot Hill turn, start looking for the kiosk on your left when you see the golf course on your right.
Preferred seasons: Fall, spring, winter
More info here.

Moore's Knob, at Hanging Rock State Park.

Hanging Rock State Park: Moore’s Knob and Indian Creek trails
11.5 miles
Danbury
Starting from the Visitor Center, the 4.3-mile Moore’s Knob Loop Trail makes a dandy warm-up. It starts innocently, passing the lake and bathouse, then probing a tunnel of holly. About a mile in, it’s time to get down to business, with a long ridge ascent to Moore’s Knob. It’s a bit relentless, this climb, getting rockier and ridgier the higher you get. The payoff: great 360 views from the observation tower atop Moore’s Knob. Continue the loop back to the Visitor Center for Round 2. The Indian Creek Trail descends, along with scores of hikers, to Hidden and Window falls. It’s here were the men are separated from the Boy Scouts, with the men sitting winded wondering how they’ll climb back up to their cars while the Scouts continue another three miles to the Dan River. And back. Yes, this hike also goes over the 10-mile limit (it’s 11.5), but isn’t going above and beyond what being a scout is about?
Trailhead: Visitor Center, Hanging Rock State Park
Preferred seasons: Year-round
More info here.

The Ridgeline Trail joins North and South.

Crowders Mountain State Park/Kings Mountain State Park (S.C.): Ridgeline Trail
12 miles
Gastonia
This hike is two miles over the 10-mile limit. But it’s downhill. The 12-mile Ridgeline Trail joins two state parks (Crowders Mountain and Kings Mountain) and the Kings Mountain National Military Park, plus it involves two states, which gives you added bragging rights. Starting from the Crowders Mountain Visitor Center, hike to the base of Kings Pinnacle and don’t pass the opportunity to take the short spur to the top for great views. Back on the Ridgeline Trail, continue south through rolling Piedmont countryside. Near the south end of Crowders Mountain State Park, you’ll see a sign for the Boulders Access area. If you’re in need of a rock climbing merit badge, check out this popular bouldering area. Otherwise continue on. If the hills have taken a toll on your legs, keep sights set for the South Carolina state line: once the trail hits the Palmetto State, it is dead flat for the remainder. (Buggy, too, in warm weather so you might save this for a cool season option.)
Trailhead: Visitor Center, Crowders Mountain State Park. You’ll need to set up a shuttle from Kings Mountain State Park — unless you elect to make this your 20-mile badge.
Preferred seasons: Fall, winter, spring
More info here.

It's hard to take a wrong turn on the MST along the Eno River.

Eno River: Mountains-to-Sea Trail
10.2 miles
Durham and Orange counties
As the Mountains-to-Sea Trail grows in the Triangle, this 10.2-mile stretch has become a favorite. Assuming you hike this in warm weather, we’ll start upstream at the Pleasant Green Access. (There’s a reason for starting here, which we’ll get to momentarily.) Hike under Pleasant Green Road bridge, up a bluff overlooking the Eno, around an abandoned quarry, through surprising stretches of steep climbs and sharp drops. Pass under Cole Mill Road and the trail mellows, heading through flood plain forest and occasionally taking a more upland route. At Guess Road you hike up to the bridge, stay on your side of the road, cross the bridge, then curl under the bridge to continue downstream. A little over a mile downstream, and less than a mile from the end of the hike, you run into Sennet Hole, a pool on the Eno above the mill pond where even on the hottest of summer days you can find cool water 10 to 15 feet down, and plenty of rocks to sun on when you get out. You begin in an ample parking lot, you end in one as well.
Trailheads: Off Pleasant Green Road to the west, at West Point on the Eno City Park to the east. All the info you need to find these spots is here.
Preferred seasons: Year-round
More info: Find detailed descriptions of the four sections making up this stretch on the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail website.

20 miles

A remnant of the past on a remote stretch of the MST

Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake
21.8 miles
Wake and Durham counties
The Mountains-to-Sea Trail runs 60 miles along the south shore of Falls Lake through the Triangle. With the trail broken down into 18 day-hike sections, ranging in length from just under a mile to nearly seven, there are plenty of 20-mile(ish) permutations. Here’s a favorite. Starting from the Falls Lake ranger station off NC 50, hike west. Immediately, you are in the most remote stretch of the MST along Falls Lake, a nearly seven-mile run where signs of your fellow humans are rare (save for the remains of an old tobacco barn and what appears to have been a commercial chicken coop). The trail ducks in and out of coves on the lake, loses sight of it occasionally, has some boardwalked, swampy passages. At Little Lick Creek there’s an impressive pedestrian footbridge followed by an impressively narrow and long boardwalk. From there, it’s more hiking typical of a Piedmont hardwood forest. This 21.8-mile stretch concludes at the Hickory Hill Boat Ramp: no facilities but lots of parking. There is no water along the way; be sure to pack in plenty.
Trailheads: The ranger station off NC 50 (the start) is marked from the highway; the take-out at the Hickory Hill boat ramp is well marked from Redwood Road. Find all the directional information you need here.
Preferred seasons: Fall, winter, spring
More info: For more information on navigating this stretch and for scouting your own 20-mile hike on the MST at Falls Lake, go here.

Rocky ridgelines dominate the Uwharries.

Uwharrie National Forest: Uwharrie National Recreation Trail
22.9 miles
Troy
The Uwharrie National Recreation Trail has long been the default long hike for Boy Scouts in the Piedmont. In part, that was because it was the only game in town — and what a game it was, extending 50 miles at one point in the 1970s. The trail shrank in the 1980s and 1990s, but has since rebounded and is back up to about 40 miles. This stretch remains the classic Uwharrie Trail. Starting from the trailhead off NC 24/27, the trail heads north through what was once a mighty mountain range, with peaks topping 20,000 feet. Today, nothing along the trail reaches 1,000 feet, and while the climbs aren’t Appalachian, they’re more sustained than any you’ll find elsewhere in the Piedmont. It’s a good workout, and great training for backpackers prepping for a mountain trip. Several small waterways cross paths with the trail and can be filtered — when they’re running.
Trailheads: The southern trailhead is 9.3 miles west of Troy on NC 24/27; the northern trailhead is off Flint Hill Road (SR 1306), 1.8 miles east of Tower Road.
Preferred seasons: Fall, winter, spring
More info: Find a detailed trip description of this hike in “Backpacking North Carolina” (UNC Press, 2011).

Sauratown Mountain looms on a stretch of the Sauratown Trail.

Sauratown Trail
Between Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks
21.6 miles
Though part of the statewide hiking-centric Mountains-to-Sea Trail, the Sauratown Trail originally was built for equestrians. As a result, it often exhibits a slightly more rugged feel. For instance, instead of a footbridge over every wet spot, you have running creeks that are rock-hopped. Also, horses apparently have less of a problem with direct assaults on climbs, adding a vigorous ascent or two. All of which underscores the particular allure of this trail: its naturalness. The trail is never hard to find, but you’ll know you’re not on a finely groomed state park trail. Starting from Pilot Mountain, the trail heads east, tracing the north flank of Sauratown Mountain. There are some particularly scenic passages, including a waterfall or two that would seem more appropriate about 75 miles to the west, along the Blue Ridge escarpment. There’s a doozy of a climb when the trail reaches Hanging Rock State Park, but you’re rewarded with great views from atop Moore’s Knob. End your hike at the Hanging Rock Visitor Center. Note: Much of this trail is on private land, access generously granted from local landowners. Occasionally, land changes hands and the new land owner may not be as keen about a public trail. Thus, trail rerouting is common, and is well documented on the Sauratown Trails Association website.
Trailheads: Pilot Mountain State Park ranger station to the west, Hanging Rock Visitor Center to the east.
Preferred seasons: Fall, winter, spring
More info: Check out the aforementioned Sauartown Trails Association web site.

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