Ever wanted to feel like you’re visiting the mountains without actually doing all the back breaking willpower draining climbing up hill only to slide back down hill, (then find yet another up hill in front of you), that the Appalachian elevations force you to do? Birkhead Mountain Wilderness is your ideal place then. Take the goat out to enjoy some uphills that end before the challenge stops being fun and some downhills that stop before you end up sliding on your butt. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t laugh when the goat slides down on its butt when it misjudges the mud under the leaves!
As a nice bonus, if you start off at the Thornburg Trail Head you can visit most of the historical sites in the park. The Birkhead Wilderness once belonged to, no shock here, the Birkhead family, and they rented land out to tenant farmers. Therefore there are several interesting old sites to visit on this hike, and some old road beds to be seen.
Location: Birkhead Mountains Wilderness Area in northern Uwharrie National Forest
Is it goat approved? Yes. I have written proof the really cool forest manager is okay with a goat on a leash. This wilderness area is hiking only which means there are no bikes, no horses and no all terrain vehicles, so the only on trail obstacles are the occasional backpacker or light hiker, all of which seemed mildly amused at my fuzzy four legged companion. However, be mindful that wilderness area means minimal trail upkeep and more likely run ins with carnivorous wildlife (see Beware section below). Overnight camping is allowed in this wilderness area, which may add to the fun of a trip out to this awesome little slice of heaven.
How you get there: Oh lord. Just seeing this section makes me cringe. Getting here is a massive pain! You need to be on Lassiter Mill Road. What Google maps, paper maps, and directions online will do a bad job of telling you is that Lassiter Mill Road crosses Hwy 49 on a bridge rather than intersecting with the highway, which is a very unusual arrangement for North Carolina Piedmont roads. So how do you get to it if it doesn’t actually intersect with 49? Go down to Mechanic Road, and turn onto that. Mechanic Road dead ends into Lassiter, and if you turn right at the dead end you’re headed in the right direction. Look for the sign for the Thornburg Trail Head on the right hand side of the road. The parking area is on the left across from it.
Time for hike: The total distance is about 10 miles of wonderful up and down terrain, which I completed in about 3.5 hrs. This is a loop hike.
Best season to do this hike: Winter, but not the hunting season (see Beware section). The trails and camping are supposed to be EXTREMELY popular in the warmer seasons, so if you want to enjoy nature and not spend all day answering questions about pack goats January and February are your friends.
Trails to Take
Starting off in the parking lot you want to walk towards the green house. This house looks at first glance like it might be in good enough shape to be occupied, but it’s actually a historical site. There’s some fun signs around the house to read and some old buildings to explore that are worth checking out. If you grew up in the south it will feel a lot like visiting your great grandparent’s place. Though, my grandparents weren’t posh enough to have their well built into the back porch of the house like this one does!
The trail heads off down a large, old gravel road behind the house that is very obvious. First a basic warning – there are tons of side trails off this main road that you are on. Avoid them. They go out to wildlife management plots or dead end into the trees. Stick to the biggest and most obviously well trod trail, (though this can be confusing since they pull a farm implement called a disk that digs up dirt down the trail periodically to disk the wildlife plots. This makes a side trail look like lots of people have been trampling through the mud even though no one goes that way). Look out for extremely worn brown metal National Forest Service trail markers to help guide you in the right direction too.
This gravel road leads down to a deep creek which has signs of obvious severe flood damage around it, (see Beware section). You can ford the creek, but if a more recent flood hasn’t finished it off, there’s a bridge you can go over on. After the bridge the trail continues along overgrown bottom land, then comes to a major intersection. You want the trail on the left! Take this and go up hill towards a big open wildlife field.
The trail will skirt the wildlife field, then go off through the woods. You will eventually reach a spot with confusing signs, just before the trail heads uphill again and past some rocks on the right. If you look, the signs have penciled in mileage around the original writing where prior hikers have tried to stop future hikers from being as stupid as they were. All these signs are telling you is that you have a long ways to go before you reach Robbins Branch Trail/Thornburg Trail intersection. Nothing else. They look like they are trying to indicate a trail crossing, but they are not! In fact, don’t even read the damn things and just continue along the trail. It’s probably less confusing that way. While you continue on your walk, keep an eye out for “trails” that seem to cross or come up along side the trail you are on. These are the remnants of old roads that once ran through the forest, back when travel was by horse and wagon. There are also old road beds visible when you hike Hannah’s Creek Trail later in the loop.
You will eventually reach the real Robbins Branch Trail/Thornburg Trail intersection. To go around the loop like I went, go left here and down the hill instead of straight ahead. Almost immediately you will pass 2 stone walls next to the trail on your left, (this way you know you’re headed the right way!).
The trail goes out through the woods, eventually meeting up with Birkhead Mountain Trail. Not long after you turn onto that trail you’ll pass a major campsite with a concreted fire back and a yellow blaze trail that heads down to the water access point for this campsite. This trail continues up and down through the hills, crossing some nice little creeks and club moss strewn forest.
Eventually you will pass a small metal sign for the Bingham plantation site, which was once the heart of the Birkhead lands. I couldn’t find much at this site except for some earth hummocks. But it’s interesting nonetheless. The trail heads downhill and goes BEHIND this sign, ignore the well trod trail to the left, which appears to lead nowhere.
The trail continues to the intersection with Hannah’s Creek Trail. Turn onto this, and as you drop in elevation along the edge of the hillside, look to your right to spot the old road bed that runs down and then leaves the main trail. As you go along, look for a camping area to your left with a big pile of suspicious looking stones in front of it. These are the remains of a once standing chimney, and the camp site has incorporated some of the fallen stone into a fire ring.
After you pass the pile of rocks you’ll go through an area with boulders, many of which are quite nice for a climb. Beware, however, that you are approaching the Robbins Branch Trailhead, and there may be many other people out enjoying a bit of rock hopping. Next up is the intersection with Robbins Branch Trail, which will take you back to Thornburg. This trail is the most heavily trafficked in the park from what I can tell, so expect to meet your largest numbers of people here. When you make it back to the Robbins Branch Trail/Thornburg Trail intersection, go back on Thornburg and return to your truck/car/suv/goat powered helicopter.
- Hunting season is NOT the time to visit this place! There are significant signs of hunter presence, including a permanent tree stand I found that was set up to fire ACROSS the trail! Don’t go with a goat during deer season!
- I was stalked by something on the Birkhead Mountain Trail for a ways. Could have been deer because neither the goat nor I got a good look at it, but it could also have been coyotes. Take a heavy hiking pole for any eventualities and consider bringing a human friend to beef up security for your hamburger on four legs.
- Signage is sparse, and trail markers (which are white blazes on trees) are worn. Be careful when navigating! While getting around the park is very doable, the number of trees blocking the original trail and the presence of what looks like historical road beds in certain parts of the park can make the trail unclear in places. Note in the trail review that there are also side trails for game management or possible external access (?) that can be confusing at times.
- Access from the Thornburg Trail Head may not be doable in flood conditions because you have to cross a sizeable creek with signs of serious flood damage on either side.
- There is an abundance of tasty holly on this hike – make sure your goat doesn’t gorge itself silly and become too fat to get back to the truck!
- The parking area at Thornburg and Tot Hill Trail Heads (these are the only 2 I’ve visited) are small and FENCED. This means there isn’t a ton of parking. Plan accordingly since overnight campers and day hikers all use these areas.
- Be careful on the first part of the trail to stay on the main trail and not get lost on the side trails that go out into the wildlife management plots. Look for very worn brown metal forest service trail markers to help you choose the right way.
Keep rollin’, rollin’, rollin’,
Though the streams are swollen,
Keep them goaties rollin’, rawhide.
Through rain and wind and weather,
Hell bent for leather,
Wishin’ my dude was by my side.
All the things I’m missin’,
Good vittles, love, and kissin’,
Are waiting at the end of my hike.