Two weeks ago I made an attempt at exploring the South Mountains Gamelands, which is on the south side of the South Mountains north of Shelby, NC. I went on Saturday, only to find the place swarming with hunters. It is small game season in western North Carolina, and apparently rabbit, squirrel, and coon hunting is very popular in Rutherford County.
I returned last weekend, on Sunday, as hunting is still illegal on Sundays in North Carolina. I met Bob in Charlotte and Jack in Shelby, and Bob drove all of us to the official access and trailhead at the end of Melton Road, northwest of the thriving metropolis of Polkville, NC. This time we didn’t pass a single person or vehicle on the way in.
We parked where the road is gated, just downhill from the state’s most remote church. Bob and I made use of the porta potties in the church parking lot while Jack checked out the church. Apparently services are only held there on the first Sunday in June and the second Sunday in September.
We headed up the road beyond the gate, bound for Ball Alley and Woods Gap at the crest of the range. We had driven through a lovely forest on the way to the trailhead, but here we found ourselves walking through a “wildlife clearing” – which is a nice way to say “clearcut”. Although ugly in places, the clearcut did provide us with views of the ridges above us and blue sky beyond. We noticed a couple of impressive cliffs along those ridges, and passed one expansive boulder garden. We also spotted numerous tracks in the muddy road as we hiked. Deer and turkey are obviously plentiful in the area. In fact, we followed the tracks of what must’ve been the largest turkey in the state for some distance. Its footprints were almost as big as mine!
The climb up to the ridge was surprisingly tedious. It was unusually warm – hot even – for late January, and Jack and I spent the whole day in shorts and t-shirts. Bob had come equipped for winter weather, with long pants and a flannel shirt. Eventually he shed the flannel and sported a wife-beater for the rest of the hike.
Just before the gap we climbed up a steep gully in search of a shortcut. This led to another road, in better condition. This dirt road runs the length of the range, from the state park at the east end of the range across Benn Knob and on to the peaks at the western extreme. The road follows the crest of the ridge and the border separating Rutherford and Burke Counties. It also delineates the South Mountains Gamelands from South Mountains State Park on the north side of the range.
We followed the road west, rolling over and through a series of peaks and gaps. Our goal was to reach Buzzards Roost, which is the highest peak in the range (2980’). At one point we descended through a shady area on the north side of the ridge, and the road was still covered in ice. This was pretty amazing, with temperatures in the 70s. If there was one hike that I thought would be snow and ice free this winter, it was this one.
We descended to the headwaters of Sally Queen Creek, where we noted the remains of an old road heading downstream. Beyond, we left the ridge to contour along the south side of High Peak. We found a sunny clearing for a quick lunch before marching on. We eventually regained the ridge, eventually descending beyond Skull Knob to a viewpoint of high, snowy mountains far to the northwest. A few minutes later we reached a gap and a junction with multiple trails. One trail headed north, towards Buzzards Roost, while the other headed east, down into the valley of the Henry Fork. We had a decision to make here. Should we continue west on the main road, or take the trail north?
I think we were all a little tired of following that road. That probably influenced our decision to leave it. Plus, the trail heading north was heading towards Buzzards Roost. The only problem was that the headwaters of the Henry Fork of the Catawba River were directly in our way. I was hoping that the trail we’d chosen would contour around the headwaters and lead us to the peak.
Unfortunately it didn’t work out that way. The trail, which was covered in snow and ice in some shady spots, led us down to the infant river. We hopped across, now directly below and south of the summit we were trying to reach. While we were pondering our next move, Jack’s sharp eyes spotted a chimney just off the trail. The chimney was impressive, though there wasn’t much else left of the homestead.
We didn’t see a reasonable route up the mountain, so we continued on the trail. Unfortunately it turned east and began following the Henry Fork downstream. A few minutes later it turned back to the south, still heading downstream. At that point we knew that the trail had led us astray. Unfortunately a rational route to the summit failed to materialize. Since it was pushing 2pm we knew that any further explorations would mean hiking back to the car in the dark. We all agreed to save Buzzards Roost for another day.
We doubled-back out to the main road and headed back. The return hike was grueling. Oddly, my boots had been rubbing my heels raw all day. I’ve had these boots for almost a year, and they’ve never given me blisters. Today was a different story though. Each step was painful, and by the end of the hike, my heels looked like something from a horror movie. Aside from the foot pain, the hike itself was tougher than expected. We ended up covering about 14 miles. That was far more than on any of our recent hikes. Even though we mainly walked on roads, the terrain wasn’t exactly gentle. There were lots of climbs on the way out, and a fair number on the way back. Strangely, it seemed like the hike was uphill both ways.
It was a relief to finally return to Bob’s truck. We ran into a handful of local (?) children when we arrived. One of them wanted to know if we’d been ‘coon hunting.
Even though much of our hike was a bit uninspiring, we definitely plan to return to the area. We still want to get up to Buzzards Roost, though we’ll probably approach it from a different direction next time. Also, we’ve heard rumors of remote waterfalls in the South Mountains. We may look for one of them on our next hike in that area.
The drive home was uneventful. The highlight of the rest of my evening was feasting on a burger and fries from Five Guys. The low point was showering, as the water was hell on my blistered heels. I had to utilize a wide stance – like former Senator Larry Craig (R-ID) in airport bathrooms – to keep my feet out of the spray. I hope to get back out on a trail later this week, if my heels heal quickly!
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