WHERE BUZZARDS ROOST
Have you ever taken a hike that turned out to be disappointing? Perhaps one that you had great expectations for that just didn’t live up to the hype? Last weekend’s hike in South Mountains State Park was pretty much the opposite. I wasn’t really expecting much, but it turned out to be a grand adventure.
Last year, Bob S., Jack and I attempted to hike to Buzzards Roost from the game lands on the south side of the South Mountains. Buzzards Roost is just under 3,000’ in elevation, and is the highest summit in the entire range. That attempt required a long approach on old forest roads, followed by a challenging bushwhack. On that occasion, we simply ran out of time and energy before we reached the summit.
Last weekend, we tried a different approach. I planned a route from the Clear Creek entrance to South Mountains State Park. This entrance, which is a few miles southwest of Morganton, is in the new addition to the park. This area was purchased a few years ago, and the park has an official plan for Clear Creek that includes a campground and a trail network. However, very little has been done there to date.
I once saw a map that shows a trail running up Clear Creek from the Broughton Hospital Reservoir, which sits right at the entrance to the park. Clear Creek starts in a gap just east of Buzzards Roost. I was hopeful that we could follow the trail most of the way up the ridge and then bushwhack from there to the summit.
I met Bob S in Charlotte and Bob J in Morganton. From Morganton, it only took us about 10 minutes to get over to the trailhead. There is a small, official parking area there, just downstream from the lake. The parking area was deserted when we arrived, but minutes later a local in a loud pickup passed by. We noticed this because he was driving about 50 mph down a one-lane road, backwards. We were all ready to get on the trail after that encounter.
Boone, the Bobs and I headed up a gated gravel road at 9:30 under cloudy skies. We followed the old road up to the dam that creates the reservoir. From the dam we had a nice view of the lake and the mountains beyond. From there we had a clear view of our goal, Buzzards Roost. The fall foliage around the lake and on the slopes of the mountains was at its peak, adding to the beauty of the view. In fact, the color was impressive almost all the way to the top of the ridge. The very crest was bare, likely due to strong winds at the higher elevations.
We followed an old road / official horse trail around the east side of the lake. Once on the far side, we continued upstream along Clear Creek, rock hopping it once. The official trail eventually petered out in a maze of old roads and footpaths. I navigated by the seat of my pants, following my instincts at each junction. That seemed to work until the old road we were following started to descend back towards the lake. That was clearly wrong, so we doubled-back until we reached a faint road heading uphill on the west side of Clear Creek. This took us to an old homestead. There wasn’t much left of this one except for some scattered rocks. Beyond, we continued upstream through a young forest. Then the old road faded away and we entered a stretch of mature forest. Apparently the road we had followed was used as a logging road 20 or 30 years ago.
Our trail had disappeared, and Clear Creek was somewhere off to our east. We didn’t have many options at this point, so we decided to continue ahead on a wooded ridge. The ridge was steep, but the forest was fairly open and the bushwhacking wasn’t terrible. Still, the hiking to that point had been fairly easy. From that point on, the climb was slow and grueling.
Along the climb we noticed that the ground was littered with clusters what appeared to be blueberries. This was odd, as there weren’t any shrubs in the area. There were plenty of tall trees, but they didn’t look like the type that would have berries of any kind, particularly not blueberries. Our uncertainty about the nature of the berries didn’t stop Bob S from picking up a cluster and licking one of the berries. He swore that it tasted like a blueberry, but we had our doubts. As we hiked on, we began teasing him that he was going to drop dead from licking a poisonous berry. That’s when Bob uttered the Official Quote of the Day: “I touched it with my tongue, but I didn’t put it in my mouth”.
Insert your own punch line here.
Bob didn’t drop dead, but we all struggled with the climb. At one point I thought we were nearing the summit, but it was an illusion. We climbed another 30 minutes before reaching the wooded summit. We hacked our way through the briars and weeds to the highest point, which lacked a view or any other redeeming qualities. It was almost noon and we were beat, so we stopped there for lunch.
While we ate we debated exactly where we were. The route we had followed was rather different than what I had planned. Rather than following Clear Creek to the ridge crest, and then bushwhacking west to the summit, we had taken a more direct approach. We had stayed west of Clear Creek, but the question remained – were we actually on Buzzards Roost?
The terrain dropped off dramatically to the west, but a high ridge continued to the east. Unfortunately, Buzzards Roost is at the corner of my map, so I couldn’t tell from it what was immediately to the west. I thought we were probably on it, but couldn’t rule out the possibility that the true summit was to our east. Bob S checked his altimeter, which was calibrated. It indicated an elevation of 2,967’, which was very close to the official elevation of Buzzards Roost (2,980’). We were pretty sure we were on the peak, but in the interest of being thorough, we decided to follow the ridge east to the next peak.
The ridge was a bit overgrown, but the bushwhacking was still reasonable. We descended to a minor gap, and then began climbing the next peak. Part of the way up we passed through a neat boulder garden that provided some limited views to the north. From there we continued to a rocky, narrow summit. There were enough trees here to eliminate any view though. We did notice several markers along the ridge on either side of the summit. I guess those markers indicate some sort of property line. In fact, the ridge is now the boundary between the state park and the game lands.
Bob checked his altimeter here, which indicated an elevation of 2,992’. That wasn’t an exact measurement, but clearly we were higher than we’d been at lunch. At that point we still weren’t certain if we were on Buzzards Roost, but it seemed likely.
Later we determined that the second peak we summited was in fact Buzzards Roost. Initially we had climbed Propst Mountain, which is approximately 2,960’ in elevation.
We descended the east side of the ridge in hopes of finding an easier route back to the trailhead. After a short distance Bob S spotted a cliff just below us. We dropped down to it, where we were greeted with a fantastic view. From there, we gazed out over the Piedmont and Lake James to a long stretch of the Blue Ridge in the distance. The view stretched from the Black Mountains to the west all the way to Grandfather Mountain to the northeast. The fall foliage added to the beauty, as the ridges and valleys below were a brilliant gold.
We loitered there for awhile, enjoying the view. Eventually we had to get moving though. It was the first day after the end of daylight savings time, meaning it would be dark by 5:30. We continued down the ridge to the east, still hopeful of finding an easier route back.
At the next gap we headed north down a steep, somewhat overgrown ravine. This was slow and tedious, but at least we were heading in the right direction. The ravine did feature some impressive trees, including some mature Tuliptrees and at least one massive Oak. Farther down the fall foliage was as impressive as any I’ve seen this season.
The descent seemed to take forever, thanks to the steep terrain and bad footing. Everybody fell multiple times, but there were no major disasters. Eventually the terrain eased, and we began following a small stream downhill. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were at this point, but I knew that continuing downstream would eventually bring us to the lake. Finally we stumbled onto the old road we’d followed early that morning. We reached the lake a few minutes later, where we actually passed a family out for a walk. They were the only people we saw all day.
None of us really expected much from this hike, which is probably why it was so enjoyable. Buzzards Roost was a tough climb, but it proved to be worth it. The view from the cliff just below the summit is probably the best vista in the entire park. The funny thing is that very few people know about it. One day there may be an official state park trail to it, but I’m glad we blazed our own route there.
For our next South Mountains adventure, I think we will drive up to the fire tower on Walker Top and follow the ridge southwest to Buzzards Roost. There’s no telling what else we’ll find up there.
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