The Cradle of North Carolina Civilization
Updated: Jun 22
If the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step then I suppose the journey to experience 41 state parks begins with a single hike. That journey started for me on January 19, 2020, because of two reasons: 1) a neighbor at my mother-in-law's Christmas gathering told me about the North Carolina State Park Passport Program, and 2) I'd been yearning to get back to the Uwharries since I last camped there on a Scouting trip over 20 years ago.
First, a note on the Passport Program: at any NC State Park visitor center you can pick up a free booklet that lists each park along with a spot for a stamp. Visit a park, get a stamp. But here's the kicker: you also get prizes for every 10 parks you visit! And we're not just talking pencils and lollipops. We're talking a sock voucher, a $25 gift certificate to Great Outdoor Provision Company, a state parks t-shirt, and (what was at that time and would be revealed to me later) a secret prize for completing the "Amazing Adventure Challenge." The challenge is to visit all 41 state parks and recreation areas in one year. My wife told me this program seemed to be geared toward kids. I said "hold my beer..."
Okay back to the mountain.
Morrow Mountain State Park sits within the Uwharrie Mountains, which is basically in the southern middle of nowhere, NC. The closest real town is Albermale (any Kelly Pickler fans out there?), which is just a couple miles to the west, and the mighty Yadkin-Pee Dee River borders it to the east. The Uwharries also have a really cool history. They are part a mountain range formed by volcanic activity over 585 million years ago within the super continent Gondwana, and their sister range is the Anti-Atlas Mountains in what is now Morocco. At one time standing nearly 20,000 feet high, time has worn them down to just over 1,000 feet in elevation. But what really sets this group of mountains apart is that volcanic activity, coupled with metamorphic forces, formed a unique rock called rhyolite.
Rhyolite was malleable enough to be chipped and cut into desirable shapes but strong enough to be used in weaponry like spear points, knives and arrowheads. Open quarries of rhyolite were found all over Morrow Mountain, with additional evidence suggesting that Native Americans lived in the area over 12,000 years ago. So what do you get when you combine a navigable and bountiful waterway like the Pee Dee with a natural deposit of the world's best rocks? A really robust system of settlements and trade, which is why this area is considered North Carolina's Cradle of Civilization. Tools and weapons made from rhyolite from Morrow Mountain have been found as far north as Maine and as far south as Florida. That's better distribution than Cheerwine.
The Hike My 60+ lb Catahoula mix Jackson accompanied me on this hike, which means I could have whistled and skipped the entire time and still had the worst attitude in the group. It was Sunday of MLK weekend, and the weather was perfect - mid 50s and sunny. Winter hikes are also fun because bare limbs equal better visibility, and with Morrow Mountain's top elevation of just over 900 feet, the views are unique for the area but not exactly drastic.
- Map Link
- Distance: 6.8 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Time: 2.5 - 3 hours
Before I started this hike, I stopped by the visitor center and picked up my brand new Passport Book and got my first stamp. I also talked with a ranger and an office administrator (which I highly recommend anytime a park office is open) to ask about their favorite trails and to grab a map. They couldn't believe it had been over two decades since my last visit but agreed this was a lesser known and honestly undervalued area of the state.
My new friends also confirmed my Internet research that there are basically two must-visit summits in this park: Morrow and Sugarloaf. Those trails are aptly named for their respective mountains, and from the main parking lot you can make the Sugarloaf climb a loop, while the Morrow Moutain Trail is an out and back. All together this makes for a 6.8 mile/2.5-hour hike which I'd rate as moderate, with exception to the climb up the south side of Sugarloaf. It's a short ascent, but that half mile will definitely make you shed a layer. The hike itself is rocky, hilly and perfect. The views give you a taste of the mountains even though you are just 30 miles west of Pinehurst, and it feels like you've discovered a hidden treasure* in the Tar Heel State. You have.
Upon completing the hike, I couldn't leave without visiting the museum, which sat across the parking lot from the visitor center. It's basically a one-room display that has artifacts and history from both Native American settlements thousands of years ago and early American settlers in the 1800s. That's where I learned a lot of the history I shared in this post.
Winter daylight is precious, and I didn't get the earliest of starts, so by the time I drove over two hours to get home, it was dark. My spirits, however, were anything but. I could not have picked a more perfect hike in such a history-rich area to start my official one-year exploration of the state parks. Little did I know that being outside and keeping travel to within North Carolina was going to be one of the only safe activities 2020 was about to offer.
*Speaking of treasure, the first gold (a whopping 17-lb nugget) in the United States was found just a few miles away in Cabarrus County. This led to the Carolina Gold Rush.
Explore one of only two remaining covered bridges in North Carolina while you're in the area.