Our goal on a very mild January day was to find and locate what was the “new” highest peak in South Mountains State Park. The summit in question is called Buzzard Roost and no, it had not gotten taller. But the park had doubled in size and the highest peak in the old section of the park (Benn Knob) was now no longer the tallest mountain within the boundaries of South Mountains State Park.
It’s not often that one gets to see a state park double in size. But that is precisely what occurred when about 8500 acres was added to what was already one of the largest state park in the North Carolina system. This park offers up some great recreation opportunities in the form of horseback trails, hiking, angling, swimming, camping, backpacking, photography, etc. And suddenly it was twice as large as it once was.
The “new” section of the park is largely undeveloped and hardly visited at all by any save rangers, park employees, and naturalists. But there are trails, of a sort, in that part of the park, but they consist of access roads and abandoned logging roads. As far as I am aware, no official trail system at all has yet been added to the new addition. And with budget constraints looming for some time, I doubt we’ll see any trails added in the near future.
So what we did was scope out various logging roads and access roads that would take us close enough to Buzzard Roost so that we could either hike up via a rumored old roadway, or bushwhack to the summit through the woods. One of our party, Andy Kunkle, had already scouted the area the previous week, but was prevented from hiking very far due to the a large number of armed hunters he hadn’t expected to encounter. But he decided there were too many guns going off in the wildlife refuge for his comfort and put it down as a scouting mission.
We met up at our usual spot in Charlotte NC and took the highway north toward Shelby. Normally, all of us enter South Mountains State Park via the official north entrance. However, the route Andy had scouted had us going in through a direct southern route which would be a first for me. In fact, I’d never even seen the range from directly due south.
Looking for a Route
Here’s the route directions that we took to go in that direction, hiking through the Wildlife Management Area adjacent to the new borders of the park:
Head west on Campbell St toward N Dekalb St
2. Take the 1st left onto N Dekalb St
3. Take the 1st right onto E Marion St
4. Slight right at W Dixon Blvd
5. Take the 1st right onto N Carolina 226 N/Polkville Rd
6. Slight left to stay on N Carolina 226 N/Polkville RdContinue to follow N Carolina 226 N
7. Turn right at Jonestown Rd
8. Turn left at Melton Rd
9. Slight right at Old CC Rd
At the end of the Old CCC Road there is a small church that is used twice per year for reunions of the families who once lived in the area. There’s still a cemetery there and a couple of portable toilets. We parked below the church and began our hike on the remnants of the Old CCC Road which was recently used for a logging route as the wildlife refuge was completely, utterly, hideously clear cut.
We hiked from about 1400 feet elevation through the clear cut up to Woods Gap where the logging road intersects with the park access road which forms the southern park boundary. This road is in excellent repair and is used to move men and material around the park. Generally I don’t care for road hiking, but as only park vehicles are allowed to use this road, one is highly unlikely to encounter anything motorized. By the time we had hit Woods Gap we had climbed about 1400 vertical feet in a relatively short amount of distance. It’s a pretty good pull up the slope. The hiking is, however, quite depressing, as you are moving almost entirely through a clear cut that has leveled what was a relatively mature hardwood forest. You can quite literally see the park boundary where the clear cut ends and the forest begins anew.
Once at the park boundary road we headed west/northwest, seeking out the higher peaks of the South Mountains and keeping a lookout for what we hoped would be the peak known as Buzzard Roost. We had vague information that the summit has the remains of an old abandoned fire tower. What remains of that tower we had not heard, but I suspect that if one was there, that at least the concrete or brick footings will remain.
Pretty soon we were hiking through a good second-growth hardwood forest. Once there were some good hemlocks in this area, but most of these are fading fast from hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. However, we were mainly up on the highest ridges where oaks, hickories, and other hardwoods typically dominate. We were also hiking in what are the tallest peaks in the South Mountains.
As I’ve written before, the South Mountains are not that high, even by North Carolina standards. But they are a unique range set well away from the main body of the Blue Ridge Mountains far to the east of most other ranges. In addition, they are deeply cut by streams and have very deep valleys and a number of impressive waterfalls and forming what is largely considered to be one of the cleanest watersheds in eastern North America.
Buzzard Roost, at 2,960 feet is the highest peak in the South Mountains. I had read a number of sources that claim the range has peaks in excess of 3100 feet, but I have yet to be able to prove this. So far, the highest summit any of my hiking companions have been able to verify is Buzzard Roost which is, according to all official sources, forty feet shy of the 3,000-foot mark. And it sits in a patch of summits that are all well over 2,800 feet, making this particular area the highest terrain in the South Mountains.
After about six miles of hiking the various road systems we finally found a secondary abandoned logging road heading due north. According to our maps we figured this for the best spot to find a way to the slopes and top of Buzzard Roost. We consulted and bantered for a bit and decided to head down that way. The road pretty much slabbed along the same ridge lines that form the backbone of the range and through the winter forest we kept looking for a likely peak. We made a stream crossing we had predicted and figured we were definitely on the right track.
However, after moving about a mile or so down the old road bed, we realized that we would have to turn back if we were going to make it out of the park by nightfall. We had to abandon our summit of Buzzard Roost and save it for another day. Deciding that we were short of time we just turned around and followed our route back out, heading back to our vehicle.
In all, we had hiked about fourteen miles and had either bagged, or came close to bagging about half a dozen of the highest peaks in the park. The next time we return we’re going to take a different route into this section of South Mountains State Park and, hopefully, find our way to the top of Buzzard Roost to view what we hope are at least the ruins of the old fire tower that once stood there.