In case you haven’t seen the forecast for this weekend, fall finally arrives. After summer’s last stand (hopefully), we’re looking at daytime temperatures in the 70s in the Piedmont, in the 60s in the mountains, ideal for finally getting out and enjoying some fall hiking.
When you have a hankering to head for the hills, but don’t have time for a trip to the mountains, you can drive an hour or so to the mountains in the midst of the Piedmont.
In fact, long ago — 300 million to 500 million years — the Piedmont was the mountains. They bubbled out of the ground via volcanic activity, thrust as high as 20,000 feet by the crunching and colliding and folding of tectonic plates.
Alas, the effects of aging have a way of reducing one’s stature; like Great Grandpa Irving, their once towering presence has diminished. But they haven’t disappeared altogether.
Throughout the Piedmont, you’ll find relict mounds of Piedmont monadnocks, erosion-resistant rock that’s not going down without a fight. Some—Medoc Mountain in North Carolina, Smith Mountain and White Oak Mountain in Virginia—are recognized as outdoor playgrounds: Medoc Mountain and Smith Mountain as state parks, White Oak Mountain as a Wildlife Management area. Both offer hiking. Others — such as Thoroughfare Mountain, Mount Pony and Piney Mountain, all in Virginia — are in private hands. These are isolated remains, their neighbors long since worn to rolling hills.
But there remain several mountain ranges in the Piedmont where recreation is alive and well.
Probably the best-known mountains outside The Mountains are the Uwharries, which occupy a good portion of Randolph, Montgomery, Stanly and Davidson counties southwest of Asheboro, in the center of the Piedmont. The range tops out at just under 1,200 feet (1,188-foot High Rock Mountain in southwestern Davidson County), but there’s considerable relief in these hills, which are surrounded by rolling farmland a little over 300 feet above sea level. In the 50,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest, there are more than 215 miles of trail, according to Don Childrey in his “Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide.” The backbone of hiking in the Uwharries is the roughly 40-mile (and growing) Uwharrie Trail, which runs from Troy on the south to near NC 49 on the north, and even includes a wilderness area. If you’re looking for long training hikes in preparation for hitting the Appalachians or heading out West, it’s hard to beat these trails, which are within an hour and a half of Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle.
Also=&2=&popular from a hiker’s standpoint are the Sauratown Mountains, a range north of the Triad that’s defined by Hanging Rock State Park to the east and Pilot Mountain State Park to the west (in between is Sauratown Mountain, which has no public lands). Pilot Mountain with 25 miles of trail and Hanging Rock with more than 20 miles of trail offer the highest hiking in the Piedmont, reaching nearly 2,500 feet in elevation. And both offer the kinds of mountain-top views you long for in a summit, and waterfalls to boot. And the nearly 25-mile-long Sauratown Trail links the two.
We’re hard-pressed to find a name for the mountain range that runs from Crowders Mountain State Park outside Gastonia to Kings Mountain State Park in South Carolina, but what’s in a name, anyway? Crowders Mountain, at 1,635 feet, and its neighbor, The Pinnacle, at 1,705 feet, offer an alpine experience for Charlotte hikers (and Charlotte mountain climbers as well). Crowders Mountain has 20 miles of trail, including the 6.2-mile Ridgeline Trail, which hooks up with an additional 40 miles of trail across the state line in South Carolina’s Kings Mountain State Park and Kings Mountain National Military Park.
Cane Creek Mountains
This lesser-known range in portions of Alamance, Guilford, Randolph, and Chatham counties was lesser known because it was short on public access to recreation. That’s about to change. In 2014, the Piedmont Land Conservancy acquired a 101-acre tract in southern Alamance County. PLC subsequently turned the land over to Alamance County Parks & Rec., which is developing trails on the property, part of the Cane Creek range. We’ll be back with more information about the preserve and it’s anticipated opening.
We’ve got several trips planned to the Piedmont mountains over the next two months. Join us and explore these mountains in our midst.
Explore with us!
Our GetHiking! program frequently explores the Piedmont’s mountains. Coming up:
- Friday Crowders Mountain Extreme Hike, GetHiking! Charlotte. Details here.
- March 24 GetHiking! Classic Hikes: Pilot Mountain. Details here.
- April 14 Piedmont Explorer: Hanging Rock State Park. Details here.
For more information on the mountains mentioned today:
=&9=&“Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide,” by Don Childrey (2014, Earthbound Sports. More info at donchildrey.com.
=&10=& For hiking in Pilot Mountain State Park, go here, for Hanging Rock State Park, go here. For information on hiking the Sauratown Trail, which is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, go to this trail guide from the Friends of the MST.
=&3=& Check the
Crowders Mountain State Park website
It started two weeks ago with a serenade by spring peepers in a pond at Horton Grove Nature Preserve. It was reinforced a day later by the sudden appearance of perky yellow daffodils near an old homestead along the Eno River. Then, last Friday, on a hike through bottomland forest at Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, I got the sign I’d been waiting for: a trout lily unfurling its delicate yellow and maroon petals.
The first wildflower of spring.
For some, the first sign of spring is when pitchers and catchers report to Florida. For others, it’s the closeout deals on winter wear at the mall. For me, it’s that first trout lily making its way through the leaf litter of the forest floor.
Come these first signs of spring, folks arise from their winter slumber, eager to take on the trails they abandoned in November. Temperatures climb into the 60s and 70s, and the trout lilies are followed by fields of spring beauties and bluets. The oaks, tulip poplars and hickories fill the canopy with pastel pinks and yellows and reds.
Everyone, it seems, wants to hike, and that’s great.
But it also presents a challenge, starting with finding a place to park at the more popular trailheads.
Come the first sunny, warm weekend of March, the two main parking lots at Umstead State Park in Raleigh — off Glenwood Avenue and Harrison Avenue — fill early; late arrivals park willy nilly where they can. Pilot Mountain State Park’s website includes an advisory that it can take up to 30 minutes to find a parking space. Crowders Mountain State Park has shuttle bus service from Gastonia.
That’s not to say you can’t find solitude, even on the most gorgeous of spring days.
At Umstead, for instance, the bike & bridle trailhead on the Glenwood Avenue side almost always has space, with access to Umstead’s best hiking, in the center of the park. The Pinnacle Hotel Access at Pilot Mountain usually has spaces, from which you can catch the Mountain Trail and climb to the summit via the Grindstone, Ledge Spring and Jomeoke trails. At Crowders Mountain, the remote Boulders Access feeds the Ridgeline Trail, from which you can take on a long romp into South Carolina.
Or, follow in the footsteps of our GetHiking! hike leaders, who take into account the potential spring surge. We aim to start from these and other lesser-known trailheads, to get you out on the trails sooner and with less angst.
In addition to the weekly hikes offered through our seven GetHiking! chapters, we have two special programs designed to avoid spring’s crowds while enjoying its offerings:
- The GetHiking! Triangle Spring Series begins March 11. We’ll hike every Sunday afternoon for eight weeks at a different location. For each hike, we offer a short (2-4 miles) and long (5-7 miles) version. The hikes in this series are designed to explore areas where spring wildflowers typically are blooming.
- In the GetHiking! Piedmont Explorer series, on the second Saturday of each month, we hike an area that may not be on your radar (but should be!). The hikes are 5 to 8 miles, start at noon, and last about three hours.
Join us as we hike the trails less traveled.
GetHiking! this spring
To find the GetHiking! hike nearest you, click on your local chapter.
It started as a mellow saunter, progressed to an up-tempo hike, then, on a modest downhill, evolved into a trot. It was one of my first hikes at the Triangle Land Conservancy’s new Brumley Forest property near Hillsborough, and the absence of rocks and tree roots coupled with the gentle flow reminded me of my bygone days of being able to run a 10-minute mile on trail.
For the most part, I believe trails should be treated like a nice wine: savored and not rushed. But every once in a while, you find one that begs to be consumed with abandon. Here are five trails/trail networks where speeding is understandable and should be tolerated.
1. Brumley Forest
There are about 15 miles of trail at Brumley Forest, half of which are open to mountain biking and have the best runner mojo. Wood Duck Way is a nice warm-up, connecting to the lengthy — 4.2 miles (more if you aren’t paying attention) — Springhouse Loop. You’ll find a few, brief rocky spots, engineered for the enjoyment of mountain bikers, but they break up the run with some focused tip-toeing. Throw in the whoop-de-doing Buckeye Loop and you’ve got 7.5 miles of fast, foot-friendly fun.
More info here.
2. Pilot Mountain State Park
Mountain Trail/Grindstone Loop
Two reasons to run this loop. First, it eschews the crowds that frequent the top of Pilot Mountain, where you can wait 30 minutes for a parking spot, and once you’re on the trail, you’re constantly dodging hikers. (You can begin this loop from the lonely Surry Line Road Access.) Second, it has it’s challenging moments (read: climbs) but none are severe and none last long. Plus, you’ll be spending your time in a nicely shaded hardwood forest, especially important on a summer run.
More info here.
3. Hagen Stone Park
To indicate how threat-free most of this trail is, it’s one of the most popular cross-country courses in the region. It’s noted for its passing lanes, its push-me-but-don’t-break-me climbs, and its overall flow. As for the half mile or so that’s not part of the course, if you start from the gravel lot just inside the front gate and run clockwise, you’ll get it out of the way first, while you’re still fresh.
More info here.
4. National Whitewater Center
30 miles (with smaller runs easily doable)
This multi-use network is shared by runners and mountain bikers, but the wide trails (in most spots) make it work for both. A traditional rating system for the mountain bikers makes it easy to see whether a trail is easy, intermediate, or holy-cow-how-did-I-wind-up-here? hard. Designed with mountain bikers in mind, the trail has good flow, and the compacted surface minimizes slippage. One caveat: while you don’t have to pay the Whitewater Center admission fee to run, you do have to pay to park: $5 a day, $40 a year.
More info here.
5. Harris Lake County Park
The true joy of this hike isn’t the smooth running surface, or the absence of elevation. Rather, it’s the ever-changing scenery that makes this 5 miles fly by. You’ll run through a swamp, amid the longleafs of a pine savannah, along the lake, past a disc golf course — you’ll even catch a glimpse of the nuclear reactor over yonder. That smooth trail surface lets you enjoy the views and allows your endorphin-energized brain to emphasize the pure enjoyment of the run.
More info here.
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Saturday sees a return to seasonable temperatures and sun, suitable for a day of adventure. Sunday … not so much. Unless you’re going skiing, check out our Saturday recommendations.
One of the big struggles of modern parenting is motivating our kids to move. Back in the day, it was no problem: you could stay inside and watch one of the four channels (three of which were airing mom’s soaps) on the Zenith, or you could go outside and get into mischief. Nearly all of us went the mischief route.
Today, there are so many more reasons not to get into outdoor mischief, thanks to our assorted electronic devices. It’s so easy to spend the day getting lost in a world of faux mischief that, shoot, who has time for the real thing?
We’re guessing that a bit of history in the making in the Wilmington area this weekend could change that for your brood. Saturday and Sunday, at Brunswick Nature Park in Leland, the fledgling N.C. Interscholastic Cycling League will hold its first-ever mountain bike race. Twenty-five teams from across the state are expected to compete on the five-mile network, kids in grades 6 through 12, some competing on school teams, some on “composite” teams made up of kids from various schools, including home schoolers.
Bring your kids, watch the action. Worried about your kid getting hooked on a sport you can’t afford? Don’t be. The NCICL offers scholarships to riders in need, and has alliances in the bike industry (take a bow, Trek) that can help make mountain biking affordable. Remember how transformative it was to tool around the neighborhood on your BMX bike as a kid? Imagine that feeling amplified riding through the woods.
Logistics: Race 1: N.C. Interscholastic Cycling League, Saturday and Sunday, March 11-12, New Brunswick Nature Park, Winnabow (which is near Leland, which is outside Wilmington). More info here.
Weekend forecast: Sunny and 55 on Saturday, rainy and 55 on Sunday.
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Looking ahead: N.C. Birding Trail Hike, Thursday, March 16, Halyburton Park, Wilmington. More info here.
Last fall’s wild fires in the mountains raised questions about the devastating effect they would have on the places we love to visit: Chimney Rock, South Mountains State Park, parts of the Nantahala.
True, fires of this magnitude can have devastating consequences. But fire in its natural place is vital for the forest, crucial, in fact, to the forest’s health. Certain flora rely on periodic fires to reproduce, certain fauna rely on it to replenish their food supplies. The role of fire is complex.
Saturday, though, you can start making sense of the role fire plays on the Fire Ecology Hike at Pilot Mountain State Park. There, controlled burns have been employed to replicate the natural order of burns; join a ranger to understand how this seemingly contradictory situation — fire breeding life — works.
Logistics: Fire Ecology Hike, Saturday, March 11, 2 p.m., Pilot Mountain State Park, Pinnacle. More info here.
Saturday forecast: Mostly sunny, high of 49.
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Looking ahead: First Day of Spring Hike, Monday, March 20, Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. More info here.
If you haven’t made it to the mountains to ski yet this winter and had doubts that you’d be able to in light of the warm weather of late, the weather gods have issued a reprieve. Cold weather and snow return to the mountains starting Saturday and lasting into midweek, making mid-March skiing a reality. That is, for those resorts that choose to capitalize on the returning cold and crank up their snow machines.
At this point, say our friends at SkiSoutheast.com, only Snowshoe, Appalachian and Sugar Mountain appear committed to more snowmaking this late in the season. Keep your dial tuned to the aforementioned SkiSoutheast.com for the latest details on who’s blowing how much snow where.
Logistics: Get the latest ski report at SkiSoutheast.com
Weekend forecast: Cold, with snow possible.
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Looking ahead: Flight of the American Woodcock, Saturday, March 18, New River State Park. More info here.
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Those are our thoughts on the weekend. Find more options at the sources listed below.
Comprehensive calendar for the Cape Fear/Wilmington/southern N.C. coast searchable by date and event name.
Comprehensive calendar including nature programs from a variety of coastal conservation and research agencies that offer nature programs. Covers the entire coast.
Crystal Cost Tourism Authority
Comprehensive calendar focusing on the Crystal Coast. Good source for programs offered by N.C. Coastal Federation, Cape Lookout National Park, N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve and other costal conservation and research agencies that offer nature programs.
Comprehensive calendar including programs for the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast.
North Carolina Coast Host