Best-Kept Secrets

Best-Kept Secrets: NC has many spots for a quiet walk in the woods

Best-Kept Secrets Week One: For Hikers

Video: A visit to Catawba Falls near Old Fort, N.C. Located just off I-40 at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
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Video: A visit to Catawba Falls near Old Fort, N.C. Located just off I-40 at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

There are times when you head out into the woods, hoping for a little one-on-one time with nature, that you find yourself bumping into lots of people.

But this spring, my teenage son and I hiked for three hours in the Uwharrie Mountains, about a half hour southwest of Asheboro, on a sunny Saturday afternoon and didn’t see a soul.

The trail was a relatively new extension of the Uwharrie National Recreation Trail, which runs from N.C. 24/27 north through the Uwharrie National Forest. Most maps and online guides show the trail ending 20 miles north at a parking area at Jumping Off Rock on Flint Hill Road. But in 2014, the trail was extended north another six miles, becoming what outdoor writer and former News & Observer reporter Joe Miller calls the most scenic stretch of trail in the Uwharries.

North Carolina is blessed with a wide variety of places to hike. From the coastal forests and swamps through the ancient mountains and river valleys of the Piedmont to the towering peaks of the Blue Ridge, the state offers something for just about every taste.

And with 67 state recreation and natural areas and parks, a national park, two national seashores, four national forests, two dozen local land trusts and three long-distance trails – the Appalachian, Overmountain Victory and the ever-growing Mountains-to-Sea Trail – well, there’s lots of trails to choose from.

 
 
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Still, there aren’t any undiscovered gems, says Charlie Peek, spokesman for the state Division of Parks and Recreation and an avid hiker.

“There are no hikes that people haven’t heard of,” Peek said. “Hiking is so popular right now that somebody is seeking out every scrap of trail.”

But the afternoon hike my son and I took shows it’s still possible to find solitude. For starters, the northern stretch of Uwharrie Trail isn’t easy to find. The Jumping Off Rock parking area has a map that shows only the trail heading south – no signs or other indications that it also goes north.

We hunted for the trail up and down Flint Hill Road. About 100 yard to the west, just over Barnes Creek, we saw a small sign for the Uwharrie Trail and an arrow pointing into the woods.

The trail gains some elevation quickly, then levels off through a hardwood forest before dropping down into a swampy area and a stream called Poison Fork. There we encountered a marker for the Uwharrie Trail audio tour, an Eagle Scout project by Chris Moncrief of Indian Trail in 2014. Unfortunately, AT&T’s cellphone service didn’t extend this deep into the woods, so we couldn’t use the QR code to listen to what Chris had to say. (You’ll find it at landtrustcnc.org/ut-audio-tour/)

The stream is about 15 feet wide, and to cross it without getting your feet wet you’ve got to leave the trail to find a spot where you can leap from rock to rock. The trail follows the stream on what looks like an old logging road, then turns to follow the road up Little Long Mountain.

The trail leaves the road and climbs through a plantation of pines, their trunks charred by fire. The pines thin as you approach the top of the mountain, and at the summit you emerge at an open area that offers rare views of the other mountains in the distance. This opening is the result of logging and may not last long; young trees are already growing up. There’s a shelter here, another Eagle Scout project, completed in 2015.

From here, the trail continues north to a trailhead on Thayer Road and another leg of the trail that crosses King Mountain and ends at Pisgah Covered Bridge Road. For a complete guide to hiking in the Uwharries, check out “Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide” by Cary author Don Childrey. http://nando.com/wharrie

Deep Gap Trail, Mount Mitchell State Park

You don’t have to be a super athlete to scale some of North Carolina’s highest peaks, because the Blue Ridge Parkway gets you most of the way there. You can’t get much higher than the parking lot at Mount Mitchell State Park, just below the summit of the highest point east of the Mississippi River. This hike lets you extend that feeling of being up high while escaping the crowds of the park’s signature attraction. It begins near the picnic area and follows the crests of the Black Mountains, crossing Mount Craig (the second highest peak in the east, at 6,647 feet), Big Tom Mountain and Balsam Cone before leaving the park. It’s a 4.3-mile “strenuous” hike one way, but you can turn around any time. http://www.ncparks.gov/mount-mitchell-state-park

Iron Ore Belt Access to Haw River State Park

While Mount Mitchell is North Carolina’s oldest state park, Haw River State Park, just north of Greensboro, is one of its newest and still lacks the camping and picnic facilities found at most parks. But this spring, the state opened the Iron Ore Belt Access and a new 3.2-mile Great Blue Heron Trail that loops around a wetland through mature forest, meadows and past the rust-colored rock that gives the access point its name. The trail is so new that it doesn’t appear on the Haw River State Park website or park map yet. You’ll find the access road at 6068 North Church Street, on the right a few miles north of N.C. 150.

Max Patch Mountain

If you haven’t experienced an Appalachian Mountain bald, you owe it to yourself to hike to the top of one, both for the awesome views and to experience an ecological oddity. Balds like Max Patch are mountain peaks topped with grass or shrubs where trees would be expected to grow. It’s thought that some originated with the ice age, when icy winds kept trees from growing, then were maintained over the millennia by grazing animals, first wild and then domestic, or by fire. Max Patch, on the Tennessee line, is now maintained by periodic mowing. Getting here by car is half the adventure. From Asheville, take Interstate 40 west and get off at Exit 15 through the little community of Fines Creek and follow Max Patch Road as the terrain becomes steeper and the homes fewer. Or take Exit 7 and follow the gravel Cold Springs Creek Road through the Harmon Den Wildlife Management Area. Both roads meet near the parking area just below the summit. The hike itself is a moderate climb of less than a mile, and at the top you’ll find the odd juxtaposition of families flying kites and scruffy through hikers on the Appalachian Trail, which traverses the summit. You’ll feel like you’re at the top of the world.

Catawba Falls

You shouldn’t expect much solitude at Catawba Falls. The trail is just a few miles off Interstate 40 at Old Fort, and the 1.2-mile hike up to Lower Catawba Falls is easy enough that small children (and small dogs) are a common sight on the trail. The falls are in Pisgah National Forest but were not publicly accessible until the Foothills Conservancy began acquiring land below the falls and making it available to the Forest Service. The trail follows the Catawba River, which is little more than a stream here, and passes the ruins of a dam and two old power houses that once provided electricity to Old Fort. From Exit 73, follow the signs for Old Fort Recreation Area onto Catawba River Road, then take the road all the way to the end. nando.com/catawbafalls

The Neusiok Trail, Croatan National Forest

Hiking is a year-round activity in North Carolina, and in fact some hikes are best done in cool weather. The Neusiok Trail in Croatan National Forest passes through cypress swamps, hardwood forests, longleaf pine savannahs and shrubby bogs, and offers the chance to see wild turkeys, black bears, bald eagles, alligators and red-cockaded woodpeckers. But the mosquitoes are thick in the summer heat, and the hiking is best from October through May. For the ambitious hiker, the trail is 20 miles long, from the shores of the Neuse River south to Newport River. But for a 9-mile loop, start at the Pine Cliff Picnic Area on the Neuse River and take the trail south to where it crosses Ferry Road, then follow the road back north to the river. The trail was built by the Carteret County Wildlife Club, and is part of the 900-mile Mountains-to-the-Sea Trail. You’ll find a link to a trail brochure at nando.com/neusiok.

Nags Head Woods Preserve

For most people, hiking at the coast is limited to walking up and down the beach. But there are numerous coastal parks and nature preserves to take you away from the crowds and into maritime forests, wooded dunes and marshes teeming with life. The Nature Conservancy’s Nags Head Woods Preserve offers all of these on the sound side, between Jockey’s Ridge State Park and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk. There are several trails on this 1,111-acre preserve, ranging from a 3.75-mile loop over steep dunes, to short but scenic trails for families, including a trail developed in conjunction with the N.C. Handicapped Sportsmen that accommodates wheelchairs and strollers. Trails open dawn to dusk every day. Information: nando.com/nagsheadpreserve

Richard Stradling: 919-829-4739, @RStradling

Look for other installments in our Best-Kept Secrets series every Monday through Labor Day.

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