January 2017: Uwharrie National Recreational Trail

Always happy to be back under pack!

I haven’t had a lot of chances to really test out my wet weather operating procedures in a couple of years – only the typical afternoon storms in the southeast and some full rainy days, but not multiple consecutive days of rain where you don’t get a chance to dry things out and squelch when you walk. Why is this a priority for me?  To build up to a potential walk across my homeland of Scotland for two weeks.  Rain and wind will be a given and so will wet underwear (I hope just from the rain!).

So on a relatively warm January weekend (highs in the 50’s) that called for rain Friday through Sunday, I hit the trail.  I had to stay local due to work constraints (but that results in more time on the trail versus the highway!) so decided to head to the Uwharrie National Recreational Trail (UNRT) in central NC.  This is not a wilderness area, so I expected a lot of day hikers, boy scouts and other traffic, and therefore had waited to try it out until a weekend like this that scares off the majority of sane people (leaving only the loons on the trails).

The last time I was in this general area (October) it was dry as a bone and I had to shift my route significantly, so it was nice to cross the first small stream and see it flowing well.

The UNRT was really pretty in many sections, often changing from shrub filled valleys to open flood plains and hardwood to pine upland forests.  Being in the Uwharrie Mountains, it often felt just like the Piedmont hills, with short stretches of climbs and drops that feel like the “real mountains” further west.

The Uwharries are possibly some of the oldest mountains in the US, and therefore not very tall anymore.  Apparently they used to be over 20,000 feet high but geologic change has resulted in peaks only 1,100 feet today.  This area was also part of the first gold rush in the US.  You can still see evidence of mines scattered throughout the area.

There were a good variety of typical southeastern hardwood forest species including beech (above), oak, hickory, maple and sweetgum, interspersed with stands of pine.  The entire area is at leasts second growth from what I could tell.

After starting out at the southern terminus of the trail west of Troy, NC (Sparta is much further northwest), I had a nice hike in to the top of Dennis Mountain on Friday afternoon, with enough time to find a nice flat campsite as the sun was beginning to dip down.  In winter, I had some nice views all around, but these would be hidden in the leafy season.

In the picture above, you can just make out the reflection of Lake Tillery near Morrow Mountain State Park just above the treeline.

As usual, the Lightheart Gear Solong 6 provided excellent room for sleeping, reading, notes, and airing out laundry while staying dry – I love the large awning (see left side of photo).

I wasn’t expecting a lot of bear activity in the area, but as this was a short trip had brought along my small BV-450 canister and cooked away from the tent out of habit, except for morning coffee.  I am trying to break my Fletcherite habit of cooking and eating right from my sleeping bag, especially when using the same equipment I take to bear country.  I tend to bring the BV-450 canister on short trips with low pack weight now as, combined with my REI Trail Chair, it provides an excellent seat and lets my camp selection ignore good bear hang trees.

No matter where I am camping, there is nothing better than a good sunset, even with some treeline to obscure it.  I enjoyed the setting and oncoming darkness, as I contemplated camp, life, and who Dennis might be and what he did to get a mountain named after him, even if it’s only a few hundred feet high.  I never follow up thoughts like that with research – the internet makes finding out things much too easy, and it’s much more fun to imagine and contemplate.

I brought along something I haven’t used in about 10 years…a candle lantern.  This was a whim purchase at Christmas (less than $15) – the UCO Micro Lantern.  It takes the tiny tea candles that are cheap and light.  While it gave off some light to see for general activities, it is not strong enough to read by (my eyes won’t allow any candle lantern for that purpose!).  More about this piece of kit later.

After a breakfast of my home made mix of quick grits with green chiles, and bacon bits (with a chunk of Seriously Sharp cheddar cheese tossed in), I took my standard morning photo of the campsite so I can judge my leave-no-trace skills when I get back.  Apart from the dry leaves, I did a pretty good job this time.

I am not sure if it actually rained during the night, but a heavy mist was making the trees drip like steady rain the next morning.

The drops weren’t heavy enough for a rain jacket (at least for a nuclear generator like me) but did soak the tent along with the dense fog.  But a few minutes on the trail let my body heat dry out my hiking clothes nicely.

After a quick descent from Dennis Mountain (famous for discovering the first gold in the Uwharries – or at least that was the unsubstantiated rumor around my camp that night) the UNRT rolled through pretty stream valleys like this.

There was no rain Saturday morning, but the heavy fog and mist stayed around until noon…it really changed the look and feel of the forest (Blair Witch anyone? – not sure why I like it after that movie) and made for a very enjoyable walk with almost perfect hiking weather – I barely broke a sweat and put about 9 miles behind me before stopping for lunch.

Occasionally the trail tried to “go mountain” on me, but the climbs were short and just enough to get my trail legs under me after a few weeks off for the holidays and family visits.  The lower heights really make you feel good, as you forget the elevations after a while, and can vastly over estimate your physical prowess!  Nice boost as you age!

The trail suddenly changed and reminded me that I wasn’t in wilderness area – it skirted along the upper edge of a stream valley and an area of forest management that looks like it had undergone some selective clearing and a prescribed burn.

It didn’t last long and descended into another pretty stream valley.

Then up another smaller peak.

I was testing out a couple of new pieces of kit, besides the UCO candle (which I renamed UCH! before the trip was over).  A new Delorme InReachSE (2016 model) that was a Christmas gift to me, and to my lovely wife so she can keep up with my wanderings.  I am a paper map and compass guy, but actually enjoyed popping little pre-set messages to her so there were no worries.

And also, a new Vargo Triad alcohol/Esbit stove (2017 model).  I have been using the 12-10 stove that came with my wonderful Caldera Ti Tri, but it is a bit flimsy and after two years of use I decided I wanted a sturdier alcohol burner.  The clock was ticking on when I would step on and obliterate the 12-10 pepsi can stove.  I stepped on the Triad when I got it as an initial test, and nothing happened…well I got an inch taller but besides that zip!

After crossing one of two bridges on the lower half of the trail (I turned around half way on this out and back trip), I had an enjoyable afternoon walk including easy (dry foot) creek crossings…

A few interesting sights – not your typical “widowmaker” but definitely not a good campsite!

After a lazy jaunt I found a nice campsite along Panther Branch and settled in just as it started to rain.  It’s weird how often that happens without conscious thought – I guess decades of walking in the woods gives you some awareness of oncoming weather without thinking about it.

I had thrown the UST Tube Tent/Tarp on top of the pack in case of heavy rain to provide additional operating room (and to test out this freebie from Trailspace).

The awning on my Solong 6 (left) is nice, but the UST tarp gave me a palace of an area to use for dumping wet stuff and cooking during the steady rain that lasted all night.  I rigged it up pretty well and only needed one adjustment to prevent pooling on the roof.

I spent an enjoyable afternoon looking out into a beech filled flood plain and snacking on soup and tea – I am British after all!

There is no better place to read a good book than on a rainy afternoon in a tent listening to the pitter patter on the roof…although I am always happier when the source of that sound is rain and not mice.

The only downside of the afternoon was discovering that the UCO Micro lantern has a real design flaw…once the tea candle goes completely liquid, any slight movement allows it to flow like molten lava out the vent holes in the bottom.  This ended up on my pants, trail chair, and sleeping pad before I noticed.  Luckily it didn’t melt anything through.

I’ll do a quick review sometime, but doubt I’ll carry this even though it’s extremely light and I enjoyed the ambiance at the first campsite.

Dinner consisted of Packit Gourmet’s Texas State Fair Chili – don’t wait for my review, just order this and enjoy the best packaged trail dinner I have ever had.  I am serious, stop reading and order it now before you forget!

The rain continued for about 16 hours and finally tailed off in the late morning.  You know it’s wet when salamanders would rather hang out with you to dry out!  We played hide and seek for about 10 minutes as he (or she?  I didn’t get close enough to tell and am not sure I could figure it out) found ever more creative places to hide in my equipment that was spread everywhere.  I had a great time, but I wonder if Sally (I am going with “she”) had as much fun.

Packing up a two-day wet camp and walking in the rain was exactly what I needed to get back in the groove of rain operation after our 2016 drought.  I really enjoy hiking in the rain – not sure if it’s being from Scotland where that is completely normal, or just some other flaw in my personality.

The ULA Ohm 2.0 (which I am about to review on Trailspace) handled the full load of wet gear just fine and seemed to lift me down the trail at times.

Without the massive views of the high country, I tend to refocus my interests and still enjoy the trip.  It’s the little things that count on walks like this.  Birds and squirrels (and salamanders!), but also plant life.  The heartleaf or wild ginger (Hexastylis) was everywhere in small and large clusters, including the base of trees where it seems to thrive best.

Even though it is not the season, a few flower buds were out on the heartleaf…this genus has really neat little fleshy jug-like flowers that grow in the leaf litter under the leaves.  You have to dig around carefully for them (and try to replace the leaves when done).  Usually you can see them in early spring.

At times you can see how this trail will probably look like the typical southeastern “green tunnel” in the full growing season.  Without the typical mountain views you could go on a hike here in summer and probably look like you stayed inside with all the potential shade.

Without leaves on the trees and underbrush, you can get landscape scale context, and I enjoyed passing areas where you could see the “bowl” at the top of a watershed ready to collect all the rainfall and immediately below…

find the beginning concentration of flow that would later form a stream.  Wet season flow (intermittent stream) forms a few hundred feet down from this, and reliable water (perennial stream) is even further down the valley where the channel regularly intersects the water table.  Seasonal views like this help me calibrate in an area, so hopefully better judge future off-trail explorations for water sources.

One last shot of a nice lunch spot along a small stream before my battery died…the InReach and my FitBit combined to drain the phone faster than I anticipated so I’ll have to look at the settings and take that into consideration in the future.  I am way too digital now compared to a couple of years ago where I had no batteries to worry about except the ones in my headlamp.  Ah the price of progress!

Overall, the Uwharrie National Recreational Trail was a nice walk – I went over half way up before doubling back rather than relying on a shuttle from my wife who was busy this weekend.  Trail traffic on Saturday was as expected – a couple of boy scout groups and some trail runners in the sections near roads.  Sunday was quiet due to all the rain, but I did pass a group of Reserves doing training and carrying what I think had to be over 100 pound packs!  I felt spoiled walking by with my 20 pound pack on, but appreciate the shape these guys are in and the training and readiness to defend our country.

This will be a fun little through hike if the northern end, which currently follows a road can ever be routed back through the woods to the Birkhead Mountain Wilderness.  I’ll be back with my wife for some weekend trips here when the weather is better (and maybe leave the GPS behind!).

Backpacking reviews, trips, and random thoughts