With the new reality of social distancing, we were keen to find a quiet place off the beaten path. Instead of heading into the Appalachian mountains, we headed east from Charlotte to explore the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Looking for lesser visited national or state parks, we stumbled upon the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge.
Encompassing 8,500 acres of forest, wetlands and farmland, this hidden gem of the Piedmont was easy to explore without running into very many people.
With tons of nooks and crannies, there were lots of places to discover. It’s worth noting, fall and winter is really when this amazing refuge comes to life as it’s primarily a winter refuge for migrating birds are waterfowl.
Located between the small towns of Ansonville and Wadesboro, the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge is around an hour from Charlotte. There are two easy ways to reach the park’s main entrance:
- US – 74 east, then north on US-52, or
- NC-218 east to SR-1615, then south on US-52
At the main entrance of the park is the Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge headquarters offices. For sightseeing and fishing, the park is free to use.
For fishing, you just need a valid NC fishing license. Plus, you must sign the park’s blue sport fishing license pamphlet. Available just outside the office doors. Even if you’re not fishing, the pamphlet provides the best map of the park. As the main entrance of the park does not lead through to all attractions, we found the map very useful.
Quick tip: If your visiting between April and October, bring insect repellent.
Next to the office is Sullivan Pond. With covered and non-covered piers, this is the only area of the park that is open for fishing year-round. Other than fishing, and the nicely shaded picnic tables, there wasn’t a lot to do at the pond itself.
However, just to the left of the lake is a boardwalk. Brown Creek Nature Trail’s boardwalk is only 1/4 mile long, but leads to the edge of the wetland area. Unfortunately, we didn’t spot much on our visit, but I imagine it’s one of the best areas of the park for morning bird watching.
Pee Dee National Wildlife Drive
Feeling a bit like a drive through a safari park, we followed Wildlife Drive around the wetlands. We should mention this is one of the few paved roads in the refuge. Most are well maintained dirt roads.
As we were the only ones there, we took the opportunity to creep along the drive. I was pretty excited to spot a beaver, but it was impossible to get a decent photo from the car.
At the turn, there was a small space to park. We got out and walked along the waterway. Luckily, we spotted the park’s famous Canada Geese. More on them later. But, no luck finding the beaver again.
Though, we saw plenty of turtles. Even a white-tailed deer dashed in front of our car just as we drove into the forested area.
Tall Pines Nature Trail
Next, we followed Tall Pines Nature Trail (3/4) mile into the forest. This short walk took us to the backside of Sullivan Pond and back over to the observation boardwalk.
For our next quick stop, we headed into the center of the park.
Closed by a fallen tree, we couldn’t use Ross Road from US-52. Instead we took Grassy Island Road (1634) to SR-1627. After winding through a lovely forest and some corn fields on a narrow dirt road, we found ourselves at Ross Pond.
As there wasn’t much shade, and all the birds were too far away to photograph, we didn’t stay long at this spot. I think this is another spot better for mornings.
One of our favorite spots in the park was Arrowhead Lake. Though once again the wildlife kept themselves at a distance, the lake itself and surrounding foliage were very photogenic.
We look forward to checking back in fall or winter when a lot of waterfowl flock to the area.
Built in 1997 by the Friends of Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge, Gaddy Covered Bridge is a highlight in the park. Though it’s not an historical bridge, it does have historical meaning.
Named after Lockhart and Hazel Gaddy, the bridge commemorates the large role they played in the founding of the refuge.
Once an avid goose hunter, Lockhart Gaddy developed a fondness of the creatures. In the fall of 1934, he used four live decoys to attract wild geese to his one acre pond. To his surprise it attracted nine geese that first year.
He kept at it, and by the early 1950’s Lockhart Gaddy’s Wild Goose Refuge had over 10,000 wintering Canada geese, 1,000 wild ducks, and visitors coming from around the world see them.
Lockhart passed in 1953, but his wife Hazel kept the refuge open until her passing in 1972.
Today, the pond is on private land and closed to the public. However, their grand-nephew manages a Facebook page in their memory. I recommend reading his post from December 16, 2018 on his granduncle’s passing and funeral. The connection between Lockhart Gaddy and the geese is fascinating.
In the 1960’s, the numbers of geese and waterfowl started to diminish in the area. With local and state support, Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge was established to ensure a preserved habitat for wintering waterfowl.
The bridge itself is just down a short trail off Gaddy Road. This one is well sign-posted.
Pee Dee River Canoe & Kayak Launch
Before leaving the refuge, we wanted to check out the Pee Dee River. There are only a couple of access points, so we headed to the canoe & kayak launch not far from Gaddy Bridge.
It’s nicely set up. As you can’t bring vehicles down to the river, there’s a ramp instead. At the bottom there was a large log which looked like it was blocking the way. In reality, it helps with not getting caught in the fast moving current before launching.
Where to Stay Near Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
If you want to stay close to the park, your only real option is Wadesboro. However, this is a really tiny town with not a lot of options. We actually recommend staying 30 minutes north of the park in Albemarle. This will put you smack dab next to the Uwharrie National Forest and Mount Morrow State Park. The Holiday Inn in Albemarle is a good option.