A Gold Country Adventure
Gold and more await you in the Piedmont foothillsBy Renee C. Gannon
Just east of Charlotte and south of the Triad in the rolling hills of the southern Piedmont, a golden rock used as a doorstop in 1799 set off the first gold rush in the United States — 50 years before prospectors headed to California. The U.S. government opened the Federal Mint in Charlotte in 1837 to handle the gold pulled from mines, creeks and hillsides. Today, the mines are closed, and the creeks quietly flow through forests and past farms. Families now venture to the region not to strike it rich, but to enjoy the area's history, natural beauty and small town charm.
Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site
Young Conrad Reed found the 17-pound golden doorstop in Little Meadow Creek in Midland, the first documented discovery of gold in the U.S. Conrad's father, John Reed, sold the rock in 1802 for $3.50 (a week's worth of wages), not knowing its worth at the time set close to $3,600 (almost $100,000 today). Reed soon found out what his farmland held and began surface mining for gold in a partnership known as the Reed Gold Mine. Gold mining underground began in 1831 at Reed Gold Mine, with the first shaft.
Mine operations opened at other Piedmont sites such as Gold Hill, Cotton Patch, Barringer, Ingram and Parker. The golden boom lasted until 1845, with North Carolina gold production ceasing around 1915. Just a few new "finds" in old mines and panners working the creeks for flakes and small nuggets continued the hunt until the 1930s.
Reed Gold Mine State Historic Site opened to the public in 1977 (admission is free). The almost 900-acre site has a visitor center and more than 400 feet of restored underground tunnels. The underground tour descends 50 feet below the surface and you can feel the temperature fall as you drop into the brownish-red rock and timber structure space. The deepest shaft at Reed reached 150 feet, while some mines in other parts of the state plunged 600 feet.
The property also features wooded trails to outside exhibits, an ore-crushing stamping mill and a bridge over Little Meadow Creek. Across from the visitor center you can try your luck at panning for gold for $3. A water trough awaits you and your 15-pound, rock-laden pan. A guide demonstrates the panning technique and checks on your progress. It's time-consuming and shows the patience those early prospectors had to find the smallest golden flake. If lucky, you will walk away with a vial of gold. (www.nchistoricsites.org/reed or 704-721-GOLD)
Badin Road leads to the small town of Badin, known as the gateway to North Carolina's central park — Badin Lake, Lake Tillery, Morrow Mountain and the Uwharrie National Forest (park office in Troy), as well as the Yadkin, Pee Dee and Uwharrie rivers that split Morrow Mountain from the Uwharries. Outdoor recreation rules here, with boating, canoeing and kayaking; fishing, camping, biking, hiking and horse trails available.
If time allows, plan to spend the day in the woods. For my daughter's first hiking adventure, we chose Morrow Mountain State Park, with its range of trail distance, access and ability levels more suited for a young first-timer.
Morrow Mountain is located on the western edge of the 50,000-acre Uwharrie National Forest that spans both Stanly and Montgomery counties, just outside of Albemarle. Once part of an ancient eastern U.S. mountain range, the Uwharrie's four major peaks of Morrow, Sugarloaf, Hattaway and Fall, have worn down over time, with Morrow now the highest at 936 feet. The state park's museum located at the park office details the geological and cultural history of the area. Park rangers are available to discuss hiking and other recreational options to best suit your needs.
You can hike across Morrow Mountain in many directions without ever leaving the wooded path on 15 miles of trails (with 16 miles of horse trails). We chose several trails whose trailheads were accessible by car to break up the hikes. Our day started with the short, easy 0.8-mile Three Rivers Trail loop, which leads from the boat ramp parking area on Lake Tillery, along and then away from the shores of the Yadkin and Pee Dee rivers, back to the parking area. This is a perfect introduction trail for young hikers, with the water's edge, slight hills, leaf-covered trails, wildflowers, marshes and creeks to traverse.
After attempting to skip rocks off the river, a short drive to the Morrow Mountain summit led to the Mountain Loop Trail. This 0.8-mile trail traverses around the mountain summit. While marked as easy, gravity can be felt on the front side of the summit, trying to pull you down the mountain's incline. The view from the summit features wooded foothills, small farms, Sugarloaf, Tater Top and Mill mountains, the Pee Dee River and Lake Tillery.
The Overlook picnic area sits at the trail's end, a perfect spot for a quick sandwich and chips lunch before tackling a longer trail — the 2.5-mile Big Rocks Trail (1.25 miles each way).
The Big Rocks Trail starts in the family camping area. This scenic trail takes hikers up and down hills deep into the woods. Nature is here, with the calls of hawks and songbirds, small animals skittering through the leaves, the dampness of a moss-covered fallen tree, the smell of earth in the air. The trail ends at a large rock outcropping above Lake Tillery, which you must climb down to arrive at the water's edge. Navigating the rocks and tree roots can be tricky, especially for children, but the breathtaking view is worth the climb.
Local eats and entertainment
After hiking, touring an underground mine, and sloshing a pan of rocks and water in hope of seeing a golden glint, a bite to eat is in order. The best bet to any good meal is to ask the locals. The Reed Gold Mine attendant recommended Old School Mill's Fresh House in Locust, a family-owned antique grist mill that produces Old School brand flours, grit, molasses, jams and other products. The mill's country store features a bakery and a full-service restaurant where everyone's country favorites are served, even fried frog legs. (www.oldschool.com or on Facebook at Old School Mill's Fresh House, 704-888-1460)
Looking for dinner and entertainment? The Badin Road Drive-In has been showing first-run movies and serving hamburgers, hot dogs, pizza, popcorn, ice cream and other favorites since 1948. The two-screen drive-in caters to adult and family movie buffs. WiFi access and FM stereo audio allows you to listen to the movie through a car radio or a portable stereo (recommended to save car battery). With weekend double features, the drive-in offers family fun without hurting the family wallet. (www.badinroaddrivein.com or 704-983-2900).