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.
QUICK TAKE: Uwharrie National Forest
DRIVE TIME: The Uwharrie National Forest is in southcentral North Carolina, about 45 miles (1 hour) south of Greensboro and 50 miles (1 hour) east of Charlotte.
THE WAY: From Greensboro, take US 220 south to the Biscoe exit on NC 24/27. Turn west and travel through Troy and on 10 miles to the Uwharrie /Dutchmans Creek trailhead. From Charlotte, take NC 24/27 east, cross Lake Tillery on the Pee Dee River and continue just over 2 miles to the trailhead.
TRAILS: The Uwharrie Trail is 20.5 miles long but requires backtracking or a shuttle. A super figure eight of 20 miles can be made of the Uwharrie and Dutchmans Creek trails. There are 8 miles of trail in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness.
ELEVATION: Don't let its midstate address fool you: there are 17 peaks between 600 and 950 feet, with stream valleys in the 300 to 400 foot range. Trail heights crest at just over 900 feet on the Birkhead Mountains Trail.
CAN'T MISS: The Uwharrie River is one of the finest Piedmont streams remaining, with clear water, high rocky bluffs, fishable populations of smallmouth bass, and the state's most colorful gold-mining history.
CROWD CONTROL: September through December is big deer-hunting time; take the necessary precautions. The Uwharries are home to a healthy rattlesnake population, so be careful where you step when summer hiking.
PIT STOP: Want to bag a giraffe or gazelle sighting on your trip to the Uwharries? Stop by the impressive N.C. Zoological Park 5 miles south of Asheboro, where creatures alien and exotic wander through sprawling natural habitats.
WALK SOFTLY: The Tuscarora and Catawba Indians prowled these hills, and finding artifacts is common. Look, touch, marvel, and return. Federal law prohibits the collection of arrowheads and other artifacts here.
MAPS: A patchwork of 16 USGS topographic maps cover the area, so start with Gemini Maps' Uwharrie National Forest Map ($3.50, 910-461-5216 or through the U.S. Forest Service at the address below). The Forest Service also sells a great map of the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness for $4, as well as a map of the Uwharrie National Forest, also for $4.
MORE INFORMATION: Uwharrie National Forest, 789 Hwy. 24/27 E., Troy, NC 27371-9332; (910) 576-6391.