Birkhead Mountains Wilderness – Uwharrie National Forest, NC

 

Birkhead Mountain Trail
Birkhead Mountain Trail

After a long, tiring Saturday in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I wasn’t up for another big hike on Memorial Day. I simply wanted to rest my feet and kick back, but after I woke up I realized I had little else to do. These are the times when I muster up the energy to explore local parks and forests when I wouldn’t otherwise. Hikes in the Triangle area are typically crowded and they lack the anticipation I feel when I’m planning hikes in the mountains. I always seem to enjoy them though, so I decided to strike out midday towards Uwharrie National Forest to get a quick hike in before the day was wasted. My plan was to hike the bulk of the trails in the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, which also happens to be the closest section of the national forest. This small wilderness is located in the far northern tip of Uwharrie National Forest just outside of Asheboro and features a central loop with 4 connecting trails. The trail layout is commonly referred to as a hub-and-spoke. I started at the Tot Hill Farm Access for the Birkhead Mountain Trail, and circled back using the Hannahs Creek Trail and Robbins Branch Trail. This is the longest lollipop hike in the wilderness, and although bereft of views the forest is surprisingly scenic and makes for a pleasant walk in the woods.

 

Hiking books commonly state that the Tot Hill Farm Access is the most remote trail head for the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness, but these must be outdated. The parking area is newly improved and the gravel lot can fit 10 cars. It is also located very close to NC 49 and is right beside Tot Hill Farm. This is not the middle of nowhere. The trail head has a large map, and even had free paper maps! All of the trails are blazed white, and every primary intersection has trail signs. I would think of this more like a starter wilderness, and not a true wilderness. Supposedly the Thornburg Access and Robbins Branch Access are larger and more popular. If you’re looking for a shorter day hike, I recommend starting from either of these on the west side. I specifically chose this route for the length and I figured this was the best backpacking trip.

Total distance: 12.3 mi
Max elevation: 935 ft
Min elevation: 417 ft
Total Time: 05:08:46
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The Hike

The Birkhead Mountain Trail [100] (white blaze) immediately rock hops Talbotts Branch, then soon crosses Talbotts Branch on a wooden plank bridge. The bridge seemed very unnecessary since the branch is very tiny. After the 2nd crossing the trail stays central on a ridge gradually moving away from the drainage. You’ll notice many side trails and forest roads branching off in each direction for the first mile. In most wilderness areas this would make navigating extremely difficult, but those white blazes sure come in handy. I won’t bore you with pictures, but almost every intersection is marked with a white blaze indicating the proper direction. For me this was a relief since I did zero planning for this hike and was primarily basing my trip on book memory. Plus the paper map helped.

Birkhead Mountains Wilderness trail information and maps
Birkhead Mountains Wilderness trail information and maps

I was surprised at the climbing I had to do for the first 1.2 miles of this hike. After Talbotts Branch the trail climbs pretty steeply up to the summit of Coolers Knob Mountain. Maybe it was my tired legs, or lack of mental preparation, but the grade felt similar to many mountain hikes I’ve done. Coolers Knob Mountain, at 945 feet, barely qualifies as a mountain. It is one of the high points in the wilderness and has an airy feel to it despite the tree cover. I suspect in the winter you might get some views through the barren trees. Either way, the summit has two huge appealing campsites. That’s actually a theme throughout this hike, there are many wonderful campsites along all trails which makes it easy for backpackers to stop when they’re tired.

Scenery on the Birkhead Mountain Trail
Scenery on the Birkhead Mountain Trail

After passing Coolers Knob Mountain the trail generally stayed on the ridgeline above the North Prong Hannahs Creek and Robbins Branch drainages. At mile 1.8 I passed a trail on the left with a sign saying Camp 3 (yellow blaze). This is not on the map, but have since researched it. You can make an eastern loop using this trail to campsites along North Prong Hannahs Creek. There are also some historic artifacts, including mines along this trail. Instead of venturing on this unknown trail I continued south on the Birkhead Mountain Trail. I passed the Robbins Branch Trail on the right at mile 2.6. You can reverse this loop if you want, it wouldn’t make much of a difference unless you’re backpacking. There is a great campsite 0.8-mi down the Robbins Branch Trail beneath massive hardwoods. Keep that in mind.

Another nice campsite
Another nice campsite

The mysterious Camp 3 Trail rejoins at mile 3.0 beside another excellent campsite with a Camp 5 wooden sign. Clearly there is no rhyme or reason to how these campsites are designated. It is wilderness I reckon. After this point in the hike the Birkhead Mountain Trail gradually begins descending towards Hannahs Creek, eventually meeting the Hannahs Creek Trail (white blaze) at mile 4.6. Instead of turning right I continued straight on the Birkhead Mountain Trail because I wanted a glimpse at some water. Two confusing Y-junctions later, taking a left twice, I ended up at a nice campsite beside a graveyard with a huge Bingham Graveyard sign. This is part of the Christopher Bingham plantation, which constituted much of the current Birkhead Mountains Wilderness.

Headstone in Bingham Graveyard
Headstone in Bingham Graveyard

I decided to descend to North Prong Hannahs Creek which wasn’t a great idea through a thick section of thorns of stinging nettles. The creek looked ok, nothing like a swollen mountain creek. Disappointingly the Hannahs Creek Trail does not closely parallel Hannahs Creek. It stays a few hundred feet away from the creek with few easy access points. It wasn’t until the trail crosses Robbins Branch that I had a good glimpse of these intricate waterways. I decided to plop down on the pebbles in the middle of small Robbins Branch to eat some snacks and hydrate. It is my namesake creek, why not? Afterwards I followed a side trail to check out the confluence of Robbins Branch and Hannahs Creek, and the creek was much more impressive. It’s too bad the trail doesn’t highlight this feature.

Hannahs Creek directly downstream of Robbins Branch
Hannahs Creek directly downstream of Robbins Branch

An odd boulder field greets you at mile 6.5. This is one of the few spots along this hike with an array of large boulders. The Hannahs Creek Trail ends at mile 6.7 with the Robbins Branch Trail [393] (white blaze). A left would shortly take you to the parking area, head right like I did to follow the Robbins Branch Trail for 2.8 miles back to the Birkhead Mountain Trail. At first this trail follows the ridgeline above Robbins Branch, passing by an amazing campsite at mile 7.9 just a few hundred feet before it meets the Thornburg Connector Trail [394] (white blaze). Continue right on the Robbins Branch Trail as it progressively resembles a southeast jungle.

Robbins Branch getting tiny
Robbins Branch getting tiny

When you cross Robbins Branch, it is tiny at this point. And it will only get smaller as you cross it three more times. It is a quaint little stream, but too small to produce any good photo opportunities. Just before leaving the drainage altogether, I passed through a nice campsite with convenient water access. This is the site I mentioned earlier if you are doing this loop in reverse. I noticed up the hill on the left a few massive hardwood trees. These were the biggest I had seen all day. They weren’t that wide, maybe 4 feet in diameter, but they were incredibly tall. It looked like the first branches were 50 feet above, and the height of the trees were 100 feet or taller.

Tall hardwoods
Tall hardwoods

The second steepest climb of the day is returning to the Birkhead Mountain Trail, but this is much shorter and easier than the first climb. From there it was a brisk 2.5 miles back to the trail head. The hike ended up being a little longer than I expected. It was 12 miles total and I finished just above 5 hours. I think I could’ve done it faster if I prepared my body better and brought more water and fuel. It was an enjoyable day and especially nice to arrive home during daylight hours. This was my first foray into Uwharrie National Forest and I’m going to get back there in the next few months. I highly recommend Birkhead Mountains Wilderness for beginner backpacking trips. This would be a great winter trip for those nervous about the bigger mountains, or if you want to test out some new gear before a big trip.

Click here to see my full album on Google Photos of the Birkhead Mountains Wilderness

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