Places to visit on one tank of gas: Morrow Mountain State Park and Town Creek Indian Mound

Follow Wilmington resident Allison Barrett Carter as she and her family find the 'perfect' camping spot. With 4,500 acres of park, there are over 15 miles of trails, vacation cabins, tent sites, a lake and plenty of history.

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Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)

Editor’s note: No need for a plane ticket. Put that passport away. This story is part of a series that features regional attractions outside of the Wilmington area that can be driven to with less than one tank of gas. Buckle up and hit the road.

The kids are running around – dirty, free, burying worms. I am sitting by a fire reading a book or just staring into the vast sky. My husband is cooking dinner. Allow me to repeat: my husband is cooking dinner.

Camping. It’s perfect.

I know that right now it is hard to envision nights where a crackling fire is all the heat you need to be warm; where the thought of spending the night in a tent doesn’t make you wonder if it makes just as much sense to go lay in a vat of ice cubes. But we are preparing. We take our next camping trip this month, and we are ready.

But before I get ahead, I want to spend some time thinking back. Back in the fall, we took advantage of a year-round school schedule to enjoy an extended fall break. We took the kids to a place where we never have to say, “Please, a little less crazy right now.”

We decided to head to Morrow Mountain.

Morrow Mountain State Park is located in Albemarle, N.C., in the Uwharrie Mountains. With 4,500 acres of park, there are over 15 miles of trails, vacation cabins, RV sites, tent sites, group sites, a pool, a lake with boat rentals and history. All in one spot.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Since we were visiting in the fall, swimming and various activities where one gets wet weren’t ours to enjoy. But we weren’t bored. Ultimately, this place delivered a unique experience for our family.

Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)

When we arrived, we found the campsite. We are tent campers and elected to pitch on an outside site on Loop B. Eerily, we were the only people there. I am sure this is atypical. Loop A had much more activity and there were still plenty of families enjoying the park. But the special experience of feeling completely alone in the wild was a relatively bizarre one for our always-plugged-in-always-connected brains.

From the campsite, it was an easy walk to the museum at the park, which we decided to do first thing in the morning. When we camp, no one sleeps the first night (except, surprisingly, our dog. Related note: she is not known for her prowess as a watchdog). So the short excursion before we came back, a few naps were the right fit. Plus, it helped us get our bearings.

Later that afternoon, we actually got in the car to explore the park. It’s that big. I kind of hate that feeling, using a car to explore nature, but what can you do? We didn’t have the foot power to make it by a hike. Lewis and Clark, we are not. Yet we still wanted to explore.

Since we were also on a break from school, we had to throw in some education. We went to the Kron house grounds within the park. Dr. Kron was a Prussian immigrant who bought the house in 1839.

The Doctor spent his time traveling the area healing folks until he was in his 80s (think lots of leeches). Apparently, he became quite famous and sought after (OK, maybe there was more than leeches).

And, of course, he and his family lived on the land in the middle of the Uwharrie Mountains, isolated at times by a rising river. The grounds today are restorations of what is believed to have been a good recreation. Also, it was all closed. We spent a lot of time on our tiptoes peering in. But you can book tours (mostly on Sundays) if you want to learn more. We still had fun pontificating to our children about “life back when” and “how easy you have it now.” Required for a family vacation, of course.

Then we went down to the bottom — all the way down to Lake Tillery. There was gentle hiking around the water. The bugs most likely get terrible in the summer, but for us it was simply lovely.

It would have been fun to rent a watercraft, but our time was limited.

Fall colors aren’t a huge thing here in North Carolina – not like you nor-easters receive. But on the banks of Lake Tillery in October, it smelled like fall: salty, smoky, fresh and sleepy.

Kron house grounds at Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Kron house grounds at Morrow Mountain State Park. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)

After walking along the marshy bottom, it was back to the car and 936 feet up. That night, we packed up some chocolate treats and watched the sun set over the valley below. We would be back to explore the Mountain properly when daylight was our friend.

So that night, we had exhausted everyone enough that we slept as well as the dog.

In the morning, while the sun was rising, birds were digging for bugs in the dirt outside our tent, and dew made everything clean so we broke camp. We had a mountain to summit. Which we did … by first getting the car and driving to the top.

That is truly another reason this camp is so family-friendly. You don’t have to have adult legs to see a lot of nature here. It is accessible.

We elected to do the mountain loop, which was simply gorgeous. And we wondered how many people used this golden path? Areas were overgrown and narrow. Again, it felt like we were the only ones on the mountain.

But it was so gorgeous. Yellow flowers I call asters kissed our ankles and rocks slid under our boots, happy to be moved to the next step of their geologic evolution. The panoramas were divine, rare for the Piedmont, and we felt lucky to be with our kids in nature. They could yell as loud as they wanted, claiming to the world that they were rulers of the Earth (it’s nice to let them pretend every now and then).

The wonder of Morrow Mountain State Park is the diversity. At the top, among shelly rocks that tumbled down steep cliff faces, we could hardly believe that we had just been at a marshy lake with an overpopulation of bugs. There was so much contained within the one park that we could understand why Kron settled there: there was a place in nature, just a short — albeit hard — walk away to fit your mood.

While driving back toward home, we realized that we were going to be passing close to the Town Creek Indian Mound. Truly, how did people travel before the Internet, smartphones, and TripAdvisor?

Town Creek Indian Mound is the oldest historic site in North Carolina. Let me say that one again, too: THE. Not one of. THE. And, well, again, we’re parents, so we felt it our duty to force our children to drink it in.

Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)

This place was, as you may expect, in the middle of nowhere. And not only does it look like it is from the ancient tribal civilization, there was a lot of the 1970s represented in the exhibits and museum. It was glorious. I hope they never change it.

We grabbed the self-guided tour leaflet but, really, to get the most value out of this free spot, you need to go on a tour, with a tour guide. So definitely make time for that. We didn’t. We still enjoyed our time waltzing through but I had so many goosebumps and questions about what happened on this hallowed ground centuries ago, that it would have been rewarding to hear more. The leaflet was short on information.

This was a spot that felt other-worldly. It was a place where you could sense that important things had happened before. It was eerily quiet, while regal.

Overall, this was a very successful trip for us. While I am sure the kids loved the dirt and flashlights the most. I know that the history and experience will shape and mold their little bodies and minds for years to come.

Looking forward to more camping days.

Allison Barrett Carter is a freelance writer who moved from Chapel Hill, N.C., to Wilmington in search of more salt and sand. As a mom to two young kids, she struggles to find time to write but has gotten very good at making excuses for herself. Carter’s work has been featured in numerous national and local publications as anything left from her paycheck is set aside for travel. It’s a passion, not a problem. She can be reached at allisonbcarter@gmail.com

Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)
Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy Allison Carter)
Town Creek Indian Mound. (Photos courtesy of Allison Carter)

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com.