The thunderstorm began as soon as we reached our campsite. Uwharrie National Forest has many camping grounds, but we picked Badin Lake Campground, with the hope of scoring one of the lakefront campsites. Our fellow campers were immediately intimidating with their circus tents and RV homes.
Armed with nothing but a fire-starting log and a smallish (but sturdy!) tent we bravely stepped into the rain, waving cheerily to our dry neighbors, who were eyeing us from their lawn chairs. We forgot to bring towels (which would have been lovely after our four-hour hike through the rain), a first-aid kit (which surely would have helped when I found a tick on me), and pillows (luckily my boyfriend—a Chicago native—had a jacket cushy enough to substitute).
In retrospect, I would struggle to remember why I had prepared for this trip as though it was a sleepover in the backyard, equipped with a loving mom who brings brownies in the middle of the night.
But as we began our carefree jaunt around the Badin (pronounced "bay-din") Lake Loop, wearing flip-flops and blissfully ignorant of the six miles that lay ahead of us, we were impressed by the people around us who continued their swimming and camping pursuits despite the rain. As the hike progressed, we realized—with increased furrowing of the brow—that though we were out enjoying the rain alongside our fellow campers, their cookstoves, shelters and boats set them apart. They were not dolts. They had done this before.
The Uwharrie National Forest is located just outside of Troy ("The Gateway to the Uwharries"), which is roughly a two-hour drive from the Triangle. One of four national forests in North Carolina, Uwharrie has a slew of options in its 50,000 acres, and most of the park is not for the faint of heart. The land itself has a hearty history: The Uwharrie Mountains began forming 500 million years ago and grew to reach 20,000-plus feet. Over the centuries, the Uwharrie Forest has survived, battling the erosion that whittled its peaks down to their current 1,000-foot height and surviving the timber and farming industries that almost annihilated the area before John F. Kennedy declared it a national forest in 1961.
With resilient blood pumping through its soil, the rugged Uwharrie National Forest offers all the recreation a summer should have. There are three main launching sites that accommodate everything from jon-boats to pontoons, and Badin Lake will typically showcase a cornucopia of different boats on any given summer weekend.
The Uwharrie River provides visitors with the chance to fish, canoe and kayak away from the excitement of the lake recreation. The campsites are becoming increasingly furnished and correspondingly busy, but luckily, primitive camping is also allowed in Uwharrie, as long as it's a reasonable distance from any shore and not in an area explicitly marked otherwise. There are also several campsites that are tailored to activities, such as hunting (allowed in specified areas) and horseback riding (the forest has ample horse-friendly trails). There are trails for ATVs and OHVs (off-highway vehicles). Gold-panning is also allowed is specified locations, a recreation remnant of the gold found in the mountains in the 19th century. And for those who don't want to camp, there are three picnic and day-use areas within the forest and in the Badin Lake area.
Beyond the Uwharries, visitors have easy accessibility from Troy to the N.C. Zoo and Morrow Mountain State Park, both of which are about a half hour away. Morrow Mountain also offers camping, swimming, boating and fishing. And unlike Badin Lake, the park has rowboats and canoes to rent for use on the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery. If you are traveling to Uwharrie during the third weekend of July, the 20-minute trip to Candor (the self-proclaimed "Peach Capital") will be well worth it. Candor is known for the N.C. Peach Festival, which it hosts every year in its modest surroundings.
And whatever you do during your Uwharries sojourn, don't forget real shoes.