The South Mountains certainly won’t win any competitions for elevation or for features that most associate with major peaks. You won’t find any horns in this old range. Nor are there any soaring cliff faces or treeless summits boasting wide expanses of scoured rock. What you will get, though, are classic ancient ridges of eroded peaks, deep valleys and brief gorges filled with rushing streams and sparkling springs. You’ll also see lush forests of hardwoods and pines and extensive gardens of mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea.
On a limb.
What the South Mountains lack in classic vertical they more than make up for with a fine forest, the cleanest watershed in North Carolina, and quite a lot of wildlife. With any luck you’ll see at least some of the woodland creatures who call this place home, or the signs that they leave behind. If you don’t see a champion buck, you’re likely to see the track he left behind or a rub on a young poplar where he paused to scrape the velvet from his antlers. The local bobcats may be shy, but their scat—filled with rabbit fur—is common along the tracks and forest floor. And while you may not see a turkey in flight or scrambling among the dry leaves there’s a pretty darned good chance you’ll see their tracks in the mud along an old logging road.
In a grove.
But make no mistake about the ruggedness of this range, this most eastward outlier of the Blue Ridge. The highest peak in the area might be a shade under 3,000 feet, but don’t let that fool you. These mountains are rugged! The streams that pour out of them cut them through, forming deep, precipitous gorges that make for some very tough hiking. Whether you’re following a well graded trail, or taking off cross-country and going the route of the bushwhacker, you’re going to be in for some tough hiking and a real workout.
Richland Mountain is typical of the summits of the South Mountains. At a whisker under 2500 feet above sea level, it’s among the large group of peaks that vary between 2300 and 2900 feet—the masters of the South Mountains. Since these mountains are the sliced up plateau, harder rock resisting the inevitable pounding and slide to the coastal plains, the biggest of the bunch are roughly of a uniform height. Between peaks like Richland and Buzzard Roost there is barely 500 vertical feet of difference between the also-rans and the champ. But try hiking from one to the other and you’ll find yourself plunging down into one gorge after another, discovering that you have to climb back up again only to drop into the next valley before you can reach another summit.
Each of the major ridges is generally separated from the other by valleys that vary up to one thousand feet deep. So a hike from one major summit to the next could involve quite an undertaking. I’ve hiked the South Mountains in all seasons, but for off trail hiking I’d stick strictly to the winter months. Summers will find you struggling through vigorous growths of dog hobble and having to deal with ticks and the presence of lots of active copperhead snakes. When the months get warm I stick to the established trails and wait for winter to go bushwhacking.
From I-85 South:
Slight left to stay on N Carolina 226 N/Polkville Rd
Continue to follow N Carolina 226 N for 10.1 mi
Turn right at Jonestown Rd, go 1.0 mi turn left at Melton Rd go
0.6 mi and turn slight right at Old CC Rd. Park on Old Road at a turnout across from an obvious gated logging road. Don't follow that logging road as it leads to posted private property. Instead, hike up the road about 100 yards to a grassy field on the left. Take the trail there and hike through the field into the forest to begin the bushwhack up Richland Mountain.
Since this is a bushwhack, do your homework. If you do it right, the entire hike will take place on public property. But there is private property all around. Most (if not all) of it is posted. When a southerner posts his property "no trespassing", by JOVE he means it!
From what I understand there is no overnight camping allowed on the Game Lands. Overnight camping is allowed at designated sites in the nearby South Mountains State Park. There is also developed and semi-developed camping for tents and RVs in the state park.