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.
We have a season-appropriate forecast for the weekend: partly sunny with temperatures in the upper 50s! Perfect for getting out and exploring. Perfect for:
Spring Hike, Cliffs of the Neuse State Park, Seven Springs, Saturday, 1 p.m. Spring comes even sooner on the coastal plain, so expect an extra-special treat on this 1-mile hike through a longleaf pine forest. The trail is flat, suitable for a range of hiking abilities. Learn more and sign up here.
Especially if you head off the beaten path.
Now, there are good reasons why that path is beaten. Not everyone is interested in a more raw form of adventure, fewer still are equipped. Whatever innate navigational skills our species may have had have since been relegated to the recesses of our brains in favor of more modern survival skills. Touch typing with our thumbs, for instance.
Relegated, maybe, but not deleted.
Every year around this time, because the woods become more open and welcoming, we rev up our GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods program. We start with a basic introduction to map and compass and how to use the two in tandem. Then we head down the trail, and off, to match the imagery of wavy topo lines with the reality of a rolling landscape. At some point, those dormant navigational skills are retrieved from deep storage and our students experience an “Aha!” moment. Nothing makes sense, then — well, maybe not everything makes sense, but you can hear the tumblers fall into line.
Why is this skill important?
Think about a trail you hike on a regular. Your hike may vary by season, it may vary by time of day and by the weather. But you’re still walking along the same stream, climbing the same long hill, passing the same dilapidated tobacco barn and seeing the same view of the lake. Nothing wrong with this familiarity. But haven’t you ever wondered what lies beyond?
At Eno River State Park in Durham, for instance, the Cox Mountain Trail is a popular hike. It involves crossing a swinging bridge, it follows a rocky stretch of the Eno, and it has some good elevation through a maturing hardwood forest. It all makes for a good hike. Yet when you reach the summit of Cox Mountain, you notice that, to the south, the mountain plateaus for a third of a mile or so before dropping off on three sides. From your park-issued trail map you notice what lies beyond — about 600 acres — is in the park. Since it’s parkland, you figure it’s probably pretty wild (in fact, the tract is known as the Eno Wilderness). The unknown beckons: What’s over there?
At Umstead State Park in Raleigh you stand on the bridge spanning Crabtree Creek and look downstream. According to the park map there’s a sizable area that, again, isn’t served by trail but must harbor some hidden treasure, right? (Right: a stand of ancient beech trees, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a short-lived Boy Scout camp.)
At Hanging Rock State Park you hear tale of a Cessna that crashed on the mountain more than a half century ago. Where? you wonder. And, Would anything be left after more than 50 years?
Sometimes you need these basic navigation skills just to find the trail. At the coast, in the Croatan National Forest near Maysville you’ll find the Weetock Trail. Well, you’ll find the northern and southern trailheads, both off NC 58, but sometimes finding the 11 miles in between can be a challenge. When blazes abandon you, a map, a compass and a basic understanding of topography can be the difference between a fund day of navigating the woods or an unplanned overnight.
Most people who take our Finding Your Way in the Woods class do so because they simply don’t like the feeling of getting discombobulated in the outdoors. Almost all leave the class with this goal accomplished. But they also leave intrigued by what lies beyond the confines of the blazed trail, by the treasures, natural and cultural, waiting to be found. They may not be inclined to abandon the trail entirely, but they know that if something does beckon from beyond that they can venture a little ways off the trail and find their way back. Navigational skills come in especially handy in this part of the country, where our state parks and our national forests in particular are criss-crossed with long-abandoned wagon roads and cart paths. Crossing one such path in the woods it’s impossible not to wonder where it leads — and where it once led.
Winter’s the ideal time to find out.
GetOriented! Finding Your Way in the Woods
Last weekend, we explored the longest uninterrupted stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake in Raleigh: the 7 miles from NC 98 to Creedmoor Road. We were struck by how, seemingly overnight, the woods had gone from a hint of green to full-blown leaf-out. We caught glimpses of the lake; mostly, though, we were enveloped in green.
That was Saturday. Sunday, we hiked a little farther west on the MST, along the Eno River from the Pump Station Access to Pleasant Green, about 5.5 miles. While the Eno coursing through its rocky valley wasn’t quite as shy as Falls Lake a day earlier, it was likewise subdued, swallowed in green.
Prevalent in that green, fyi, was poison ivy: you can ID the culprit in the photo to the right. Steer clear: this ivy is irritating and itchy. On to this weekend.
Every Friday, we give you a glimpse into our weekend past to give you a nudge to get out and explore the weekend future (this one). Our suggestions:
Saturday, May 5, 8 a.m. Confluence Natural Area Grand Opening, Cedar Grove in Orange County. For a half century, the Eno River Association has been saving land along its namesake river (and tributaries). Most of that land has become Eno River State Park. Saturday, the association opens the 200-acre Confluence Natural Area where the east and west forks of the Eno converge. Festivities begin with a Pre-Celebration Bird Hike at 8 a.m., followed by guided hikes at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Live music and food as well. Learn more and sign up here.
Saturday, May 5, 9 a.m. Vade Mecum Trails at Hanging Rock State Park, Danbury (north of the Triad). The first weekend of every month, Hanging Rock and the Friends of Sauartown Mountains open the trail network at the park’s Vade Mecum addition. The 716-acre former Camp Sertoma 4-H Educational Center, with miles of trail, was added to the park in 2014. Learn more and sign up here.
Sunday, May 6, 9 a.m. Lake Norman State Park, Troutman (north of Charlotte). I Can Canoe, and So Can You. Paddling a canoe is one of those things that isn’t complicated, but can be a little intimidating the first time: the boat’s tippy, you aren’t sure which way to face, how does the paddle work? So many questions. And so many answers in this 1-hour ranger-led clinic. No experience necessary, all equipment provided. Learn more and sign up here.
But wait, there’s more
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