Are these miniature mountains worn to the nubbins or brawny hills that never lived up to their potential? To borrow from Winston Churchill, the Uwharries of North Carolina are a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigmatic shroud of deep, cool forests and rugged ridges-all where there should be only gently rolling countryside. For decades geologists contended that the Uwharries were the continent’s oldest mountains. They changed their minds, but many a guidebook still stands by the assertion.
Age aside, to those with backcountry on the brain these 600- to 945-foot-high peaks are a godsend, a little piece of prime high country smack dab (hardly a Churchillian phrase, but a quintessential Carolina one) in the middle of the state and easy to reach.
In the 1930s the federal government snatched up some 45,000 acres of the Uwharries (pronounced you-wahr-e) to create the Uwharrie National Forest. The acreage now boasts the 21-mile Uwharrie Trail and the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, the only federally designated wilderness in the North Carolina Piedmont region.
Equally impressive is the Uwharries’ rich mountains-meet-the-coastal-plain vegetation. Nearly 700 plant species are found here, and the trails wind through stands of soaring longleaf pine, dense mountain laurel and mature forests of hickory and oak. Flecked with stone outcrops and piles of rocks that mark the corners of farm fields long abandoned, these woods have at once a sense of nature’s successional power and the human lives that long ago wrested a living from the difficult terrain.
When visiting you may want to avoid the Badin Lake area because of all the campgrounds and multiple-use trails. On the east side of River Road, however, there’s a network of foot-travel-only trails perfect for quick woodlands getaways. Here you’ll also find the Uwharrie Trail careening from knob to corrugated knob. (Tip your cap to the Boy Scouts who built the trail back in the ’70s to attain their Eagle Scout rank.)
A few miles north is the 5,000-acre Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, where the trails pitch and roll along streams and long ridgelines. On a clear day you can look west and catch a glimpse of these mountains’ big brothers, the Blue Ridge Escarpment. This is where you’ll grapple with the enigmatic nature of these mountains. Man’s presence is close at hand; arrowheads are commonly found, as are old homeplaces and cemeteries. But even so, the mature woods and eroded ridges speak of natural processes measured in epochs.