UWHARRIE TRAIL — Reaching the top of King Mountain, Crystal Cockman slipped out of her heavy backpack and took a breather from the climb to the Uwharrie National Forest’s highest elevation at 1,120 feet.
It wasn’t long before the nine other hikers in her party heard Cockman scream with delight. Just inches from her backpack, sticking up straight as an arrow, was a rare orchid, the crested coralroot.
“I’ve seen almost every orchid in the Uwharries except this one,” said an unbelieving Cockman, conservation specialist for the LandTrust for Central North Carolina.
A self-described “honorary botanist,” Cockman had been on the lookout for the plant for three years. She explained how the orchid will bloom only once every seven to 10 years, usually needing a wet summer to do so.
“This is the time it blooms, and this is the habitat for it,” Cockman said, having other hikers take pictures of her lying on the ground next to the small plant.
As a way to raise awareness of the Uwharrie region and the LandTrust for Central North Carolina’s efforts to connect missing pieces of the original Uwharrie Trail, Cockman led a four-day, 40-mile hike last week through the woodlands of Randolph, Montgomery and Stanly counties.
To land trust’s staff, reconnecting the trail and protecting the lands associated with it embodies the organization’s core values.
“This is the ecological gem of the Piedmont,” Executive Director Jason Walser adds of this region, which also is the geographic center of the state. “We’re definitely Uwharrie-driven.”
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The sweltering days of July are not the best time for a four-day mountain trek, but 22 hikers participated last week — most of them for one, two or three days. Only Cockman, Don Childrey of Cary and Duke University intern Rebecca Schoonover camped and hiked for the entire four days.
Childrey, a state employee, authored the 302-page Uwharrie Lakes Region Trail Guide in 1998, and he plans to publish a revised second edition later this year. For him, the hike was hands-on research for the updated guide.
Childrey first hiked these mountains as a Scout in the 1970s. It remains a remote trail, not overrun, he said after his third day.
The trail offers challenges in spots — Dark Mountain and Dennis Mountain have 500 feet in elevation changes, for example — “but that’s what hiking is,” Childrey said.
The efforts by the land trust and others have added 8 to 10 miles to the trail Childrey didn’t know about. But that’s the thing you keep hearing about the Uwharries and the Uwharrie Trail.
“So many people don’t know about it,” Childrey said. “We’ve hiked for three days and not seen anyone.”
The Uwharries, Childrey said, are like no other place in the Piedmont, and the trail is close — easy for someone like him to reach, hike for a day and go back home.
The land trust says the Uwharries are within an hour-and-a-half drive of 5.5 million people.
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Susan Sanford hiked and camped for three days of the trek. She said she has friends who are North Carolina natives who have never heard of the Uwharrie Trail, mountains or national forest.
“You made that up,” one of her friends said after learning Sanford was hiking in the Uwharries.
The trail, located east of the Uwharrie River, parallels the river but never crosses it.
“I think it’s beautiful,” Sanford said, “and there’s no one on it. It would be nice to see more people using it.”
Sanford, who lives in Durham, said it was an easy trip by car for her. As for the hiking, she described it as challenging, but not impossible. The trail can be rugged, rocky and rooted, and experienced hikers rate it easy to moderate in difficulty.
“The blisters are getting to me,” Sanford said, resting at Yates Camp at the end of the third day.
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In the early to mid 1970s, veteran hikers such as Joe Moffitt and Mike Chisholm, Boy Scout troops and National Forest Service rangers built and blazed the original trail traversing the length of the Uwharries.
The son of a trapper, Moffitt in particular is associated with the trail’s beginnings. The story goes the idea for the trail originated when Moffitt’s Boy Scout troop was in the unfamiliar Southern Appalachians for its 50-mile hike, and Moffitt thought how much easier and just as rewarding it would be to hike the Uwharries, one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America, if not the world.
A forest ranger and deputy sheriff, Moffitt knew the streams and woods so well, in addition to the people, that he made handshake agreements with several property owners to gain access to their land and get the 50-mile trail started.
Boy Scout troops built many sections of the trails as part of Eagle Scout projects, and a Uwharrie Trail Club also was formed.
The trail eventually extended from the Birkhead Wilderness Area north in Randolph County to the Wood Run Trailhead at N.C. 24/27 in Stanly County, going across much of the Uwharrie National Forest in the process.
But as time went on, many sections of the original trail — especially north of the Jumpin’ Off Rock Trailhead in Montgomery County — were closed as private properties were timbered, posted, sold or left to heirs long scattered across the country.
Hikers came to consider the Uwharrie Trail as only 20 miles long, from the Wood Run to the Jumpin’ Off Rock trailheads, though it also includes the 11.5-mile Dutchman’s Creek loop on the southern end.
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In recent years, the LandTrust for Central North Carolina has looked to fill gaps, aimed at rebuilding all of the original trail. Through loans, swaps and property transfers, the land trust has put together land north of the Jumpin’ Off Rock Trailhead for almost 10 more miles of contiguous trail.
Walser says it has been 10 years of work and at least $2.5 million in land acquisitions.
The new properties include Little Long Mountain (also known by locals as Bald Mountain), King Mountain and 45 acres that will include a future McArthur Trailhead, named for a previous owner.
Multiple partners with the land trust have been involved in securing the land, including the N.C. Zoo, the U.S. Forest Service and the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission, besides private donors.
King Mountain alone — some 370 acres — took the collaboration of more than 10 agencies, including U.S. Rep. Howard Coble’s office and the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund.
The land trust took out loans to buy the Little Long Mountain property, and David Craft of Greensboro and David Gardener of Cary have led Saturday workdays since February in building the trail — all the grubbing and benching — north of Jumpin’ Off Rock.
By 2014, the land trust hopes to have 7 miles more of trail in place.
“They have been making things happen on that trail for a couple of years now,” U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Deborah Walker said.
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The past week’s hikers came across rare and endangered plant species such as the crested coralroot, the Schweinitz sunflower and the Piedmont indigo bush.
It was not unusual to move box turtles off their path, or step on rocks across pristine waters such as Poison Fork. They woke up to the sounds of a wood thrush, spotted white-tail deer, sprayed themselves against ticks and mosquitoes, left a black racer go on his way and hiked without seeing any timber rattlesnakes, which do best in the Uwharrie habitat.
On the trek’s second day, hikers walked up Little Long Mountain — a journey made hotter from the sun because of a prescribed burn in April of more than 200 acres.
The mountain showcases a brilliant white outcropping of quartz and a grassy bald on the top offering panoramic views.
Cockman said the Uwharries are a destination spot for birders and home to eight species of rare mussels.
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Garrett Christy of Cleveland, a former intern with the land trust and graduate of Catawba College, joined last week’s hike for two days.
“I think it has a little something for everyone,” Christy said of the Uwharrie Trail. “... It did have some challenging spots.”
Christy said he wished he would have made better plans so his wife, brother and sister-in-law could have joined him. He has helped on some of the trail workdays led by Gardener and Craft.
The work days attract people from as far away as Cary, Charlotte and Greensboro “because it (the trail) is such a great resource,” Walser said.
Gardener, a Marine and retired IBM employee from Cary, used to bring Scout troops down to the Uwharries for hiking and camping. Many Scouts have used the Uwharries as part of their training to prepare for hiking trips at the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.
The trail-building work days are tough, as volunteers cut and hack, stack rocks as markers, paint new white blazes on trees, dig up roots and move fallen trees.
Gardener, 71, hiked three of the four days, and as he moved along portions of the yet-to-be-rejuvenated trail he cleared the path like any good trailblazer would.
Cockman grew up in Robbins and loves this Uwharrie region — this land of the longleaf pine with intriguing names such as Ophir, Fern Valley, Liquor Springs and Bootleg Hollow.
She writes a regular column for the Montgomery Herald called “The Outdoor Experience.”
“It’s a place you care about,” Cockman said.
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Schoonover, an intern from Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, has been documenting cultural resources connected to the trail.
It has 17 original campsites built by Scouts and much older connections to abandoned graveyards, homesteads, fire towers, hunting camps and even gold mines.
Before Schoonover leaves her internship, she will give the land trust an archive of sites and stories from the Uwharrie Trail, a script for an audio tour and video from the four-day trek.
Schoonover said she enjoyed seeing things along the trail such as chimney piles and graveyards.
“You can walk the trails past them, where the people who came before you lived,” she said. “This was their life.”
On the second day’s journey, the hikers left the trail for a short journey to the grave of 10-year-old Dania Woodell (probably Diane or Diana Woodall, if correctly spelled), who apparently died during the building of a church camp, which was then abandoned.
“I imagine it wasn’t very easy to live here,” Schoonover said. “... It really does connect you to the past and the history of North Carolina, the homesteaders and what they had to deal with.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.