One of the many things I absolutely love about my husband is the fact that he not only tolerates my random sense of adventure, he shares it. So on a random weekday, when I leave him a (crudely) drawn cartoon on a whiteboard that says “let’s go camping”, he doesn’t bat an eye. Rather, he books the campsite. And that’s how we wound up at Morrow Mountain State Park for the first time.
One of our very best friends here in Myrtle Beach has been raving about Morrow Mountain since the day we met her. In fact, I do believe she declares it’s “her” mountain, and escapes to it every chance she gets. And now I understand why. The term “hidden gem” is wildly overused, so let’s use a different descriptor: underrated? Diamond in the State Park rough? I don’t know. But I can tell you this: Morrow Mountain State Park is absolutely gorgeous.
Morrow Mountain is located in a small town called Albemarle, North Carolina, about 50 miles East of Charlotte. It’s one of the highest peaks in the Uwharrie Mountains. 500 million years ago, when these mountains were formed, they peaked over 20,000 feet above sea level (for reference, the peak of Everest sits at 29,029′ above sea level). But, millions of decades of erosion have brought them down to 1,000 feet tall, or less. But what this area lacks in elevation, it definitely makes up for in beauty. And I’m stoked to share our adventure with you.
Tent Camping at Morrow Mountain State Park – Our Experience
Our drive to Albermarle was quick and uneventful. I always love the adventure of going to a place I’ve never been before, in a town I’ve never heard of before, even if it’s only 3 hours away. It always reminds me of how damn BIG this country (never mind the world) is, and how I could spend every second of the rest of my life traveling, and still not see everything.
As the time until arrival on our GPS slowly ticks down, we take a right onto Morrow Mountain Road. I’m a little befuddled, because I don’t see a single mountain in sight…but never the less, we are apparently here. A few miles up the road, the State Park signs begin.
I often forget that North Carolina does NOT have an entrance fee for their state parks, like we do here in South Carolina (thank you, NC tax payers!). There is indeed a gate at the entrance of Morrow Mountain State Park (which, FYI, is locked every night, and there is no gate code. Once you’re in, you’re in for the night, so plan accordingly), but no need to stop. In fact, there’s no one to talk to if you did stop.
We continue a long, windy drive that is definitely going UP, even though I’m still not seeing any mountains. I’m immediately struck with how green and lush everything is, especially considering it’s September. It’s on this first drive in that we see our first – but not last – deer of the weekend. During our stay we would end up seeing dozens of white tail deer grazing just off of the side of the road. More specifically, we saw a ton of little, white speckled fawns. It was like a regular Disney movie out there.
Geoff and I arrive at the park on a Thursday morning. It was the Thursday before labor day weekend, and truthfully we anticipated mild chaos. As any camping enthusiast can tell you, Labor Day is sort of the last “hoo-rah” of summer, before most people pack up their camping gear for the winter. We feared that the park would be crowded, and we’d have no chance at an early check in.
We were wrong.
Because besides the (incredibly friendly) staff…there was seemingly no one else there. In fact, it would turn out that we were the ONLY people who were registered to stay in campground loop A that night. This was definitely a first. Needless to say, the staff didn’t even bat an eye when we asked if we could check in early (check in was scheduled for 3 pm, and we were there around 10:30 am.).
The office also had a handful of “souvenirs” for sale, so we snagged a Morrow Mountain sticker while checking in. Because if there isn’t a sticker on the Subaru’s rocket-box, DID THE TRIP EVEN HAPPEN? (Kidding…sort of.)
Before making reservations, Geoff and I had poured over the campground map. It’s always an adventure trying to pick a “good” site based solely on a map at a campground you’ve never been to. Morrow Mountain State Park features 106 campsites for both tents and RV’s, spread across three separate campground loops. Note: only loop “C” has electric hookups, if that is something you require.
As it would turn out (and as previously mentioned) absolutely no one else was staying in Loop A that night, so it truly didn’t matter which site we got – we had the entire place to ourselves. That said, some of the campsites on the inside of Loop A did seem pretty close to each other, without a ton of privacy.
We know this, because we walked around inspecting each and every one, with such scrutiny it was almost as if we were trying to find a new neighborhood to move to. But it’s easy to do when NO ONE ELSE is there.
We wound up in site 28 (A) and were definitely pleased with the amount of space – as well as the uninhibited path directly to the bathrooms/wash house. In the future though, we’ll likely book one of the sites on the outer loop, for a little more privacy.
Life at 28-A
Our site came with two raised tent platforms, one of which had a picnic table on it. I’ve yet to stay in a campground with a reserved site that didn’t come with a picnic table, but it still feels worth mentioning.
The platforms were well groomed – I wasn’t sleeping on a pile of large rocks or roots jabbing into my rib cage. This is always a bonus. The campsite included a large fire pit with a grill top, perfect for cooking vegan hot dogs (or “not-dogs” as my husband calls them). Lastly, there was a lantern hook (seen in the left of the picture above) in each site. Confession: I initially thought was meant to hang your food to keep it away from bears. Which of course led me to wonder if they had really, really short bears here in the Carolinas.
I swear I’ve been camping pretty much my entire life, but you wouldn’t know it based on some of the things I say and do. (Sorry, Dad…)
Fortunately, the sign at the bathroom (below) assured me that there were no bears (neither tall nor short) at Morrow Mountain. Meanwhile, I had to document this sign, simply for my amusement. And just so you know, I now yell back “WHO COOKS FOR YOU?” at every owl, Barred or not, that hoots at me. I’m secretly hoping they’d tell me the answer, and invite me to dinner.
Just kidding, I don’t eat mice.
Paddling on Lake Tillery
After setting up our campsite, our next stop was down to the boathouse on Lake Tillery. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, so hitting the water seemed like the obvious choice. There is no swimming allowed in the open water (the currents are unpredictable, as a number of rivers converge here). But that said, there is a pool on site if you feel like taking a dip. Much to Geoff’s dismay, the pool was closed for repairs when we were there. So I have no pool review for you, other than it looked nice from the other side of the fence. But back to teh boats:
Morrow Mountain State Park offers a slew of boat rental options, including:
- Canoes (2 person and 4 person)
- Sit-on-top kayaks
- Stand up paddle boards (SUP)
- competition racing kayaks (these things were so cool)
The website says they rent for $5 an hour, but I’m pretty sure we paid $7/hour. Either way, still a bargain, and way easier than trying to store your own canoe. Trust me, we have a kayak behind our futon in the living room.
On our first day at Morrow Mountain State Park, we opted to share a canoe. Sounds romantic and stuff, but if you’re a competitive, stubborn jerk like I sometimes tend to be, it might not go so well . And…it didn’t go that well (you can read about that disastrous day HERE).
BUT on the second day, we rented a SUP and one of the racing kayaks respectively, and had a much more enjoyable trip. Solo paddling saves marriages.
No matter what you rent, nor whom you paddle with, the lake is gorgeous. You can head upstream towards the Falls Dam (which is quite a workout!) or head across the lake and paddle through the smaller streams and tributaries. In those shallower waters, we were able to see some MASSIVE carp, the size of Golden Retrievers. I have zero fear of fish…but I won’t lie, they made me a little nervous when they’d zoom directly underneath our boat through the shallow water.
It would be incredibly remiss of me not to mention that the staff at the boathouse were also ridiculously friendly. The gentlemen who helped us into the boat repeatedly thanked us for visiting Morrow Mountain State Park. Are you kidding me? WE should be thanking YOU for sharing this slice of outdoor paradise with us. I could not get over how grateful and gracious everyone, from staff to volunteers, were.
Hiking / Running Trails
Because trails are our happy place, we were eager to explore all of the trail Morrow Mountain had to offer, both from a hiking and running perspective. Plus, I was still bound and determined to figure out where these “mountains” were hiding. I wrote an entire post specifically about the trails and trail running options at the park, which you can read HERE.
In short, with 14 established trails ranging from 0.6 miles to 9.3 miles, ranging in difficulty from easy to strenuous, there are trail options for everyone. Running, hiking, mountain biking, are all welcome. Further, horseback riding is allowed on the bridle trails. All of the trails were incredibly well marked. And yeah, there were some climbs and peaks. Again, I’m not sure how the landscape hides these mountain tops, but sure enough they were there – and absolutely worth the climb.
For the best “views”, I recommend Sugarloaf Mountain trail. Hiking/running not for you? Good news, you can drive to the top of Morrow Mountain, park your car, and still see some killer views of the surrounding Uwharries.
Who doesn’t love a little history? In the middle of the park you will find the homestead of Dr. Francis Kron, recognized as the first medical doctor to settle and practice medicine in the southern piedmont of North Carolina. Dr. Kron’s home, doctor’s office and infirmary, and greenhouse were reconstructed in the 1960s, so the houses you see now are indeed replicas.
We actually stumbled upon the backside of the homestead (and some memorial markers to Dr. Kron and I believe his wife?) while on one of our hikes. It wasn’t until the next day that we sought out the homestead itself. It’s actually not hard to find – there are signs on the roadway that will lead you right to it. While guided tours are offered, Geoff and I opted for a solo tour. And by that I mean I mostly oogled at the greenhouse, declaring that I could both raise plants AND live comfortably in there. Warm sunshine makes everyone happy.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO:
We were able to easily find the park using GPS / Google Maps. The exact address is:
49104 Morrow Mountain Road
Albemarle, NC 28001
At the base of Morrow Mountain Road, you’ll find a Moonset General Store, where you can purchase ice cream and local goods. If you need something more substantial, head just a few miles further (less than a 10 minute drive) into the town of Albermarle, where there are plenty of shopping and restaurant options.
As mentioned earlier, you can purchase firewood either at the main office, or directly from the campground host. Who, conveniently, even drives around with stacks of firewood for sale on his golf cart, ice cream truck style. Talk about service. We paid $5 for a good sized, dry bundle of wood.
While my kids didn’t get to make this trip (much to their dismay, they had to go back to school after summer vacation, and it was their week at their Dad’s) I can attest to this park being super kid friendly. In addition to the playground and pool, there are a number of educational events available. Or, if your kids are chock full of energy like mine, the park was definitely friendly to bicycles – one of my favorite things to do when I was camping as a young kid.
I grew up in New England, were locals would tell you “if you didn’t like the weather, wait five minutes, it will change”. Well, the Carolina’s aren’t much different. As I write this post, it’s December. Three days ago we had 75 degree temps, only to be followed by a high of 45 degrees not 24 hours later.
In short, the weather during your visit to Morrow Mountain may include: heat, humidity, rain, snow, hurricanes, wind, hail, or beautiful, perfect sunshine. While we there in September, we were gifted with beautiful, perfect sunshine. I wish the same for you.
So, that’s my Morrow Mountain State Park experience in a nutshell. Will we go back? ABSOLUTELY. This is the ideal place to escape into the “mountains”, without having to make the 5+ hour drive into the upstate.