Trail: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
Natural Area Occoneechee
Geographic Location: west of
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A suburban loop hike around
Area Information: http://www.ncparks.gov/occoneechee-mountain-state-natural-area
Google Map: http://www.mappedometer.com/?maproute=503848
Directions to the trailhead: Just north of the I-85/40 split west of
I-85 to Churton Street
(exit 164). Exit and go north on Churton
St. Drive Churton
St. 0.2 miles to Mayo
Street and turn left on Mayo
St. Drive Mayo
St. 0.3 miles to Orange
Grove Rd. and turn left on Orange
Grove Rd. Drive
Orange Grove Rd. 0.4 miles to Virginia Cates Road,
which is reached right before you pass back under I-85, and turn right on
Virginia Cates Rd. Virginia
Cates Rd. turns to gravel and deadends at the
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area’s only parking lot in 0.4 miles.
The hike: With a summit that is more than 840 feet in elevation,
on the west side of Occoneechee Mountain Durham is the
highest point in northeastern North Carolina. The mountain derives its name from the
Occoneechi Indians, who lived in a village less than 2 miles down the during the 1600’s. After European settlers arrived, the land was
used for several industrial purposes including a textile mill and a quarry. Eno
The last textile mill closed in the 1950’s, and the mountain was purchased by the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation in 1997. The site is classified as a state natural area rather than a state park because it has no facilities except a small picnic area, a pair of fishing lakes, and 4 trails totaling 3.4 miles. Because the mountain’s summit is still owned by
and thus is not open for hiking, the area’s main trail is the 2.2 mile
Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail described here.
This trail circumnavigates the mountain while taking you to the Orange County and the old quarry site, thus
exploring every major point of interest in the natural area. Eno
|Trailhead: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail|
True to its name, the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail forms a loop, and a clockwise journey around the loop begins behind the restroom building and information board at the rear of the parking area. A sign warns of recent vehicle break-ins and recommends hiding any valuables, which is good advice at any trailhead parking area. The red-blazed dirt trail climbs gradually with the mountain rising to your right. On my visit a very recent controlled burn had left the surrounding area charred black. I could still faintly smell the burnt organic matter from the fire.
At 0.2 miles, you pass under some low-voltage power lines that serve the communication towers at the top of the mountain. The clearing created for the power lines provides views of the mountain summit to your right and I-85 to your left. The constant reminders of suburbia are this hike’s only downside. Indeed, the initial segment of this hike stays so close to I-85 that I could barely hear a woodpecker directly above me due to the highway noise.
After passing through the power line clearing, the trail continues its gradual climb via two short switchbacks. Some rocks recently placed beside the trail better define the path. At 0.4 miles, the orange-blazed Chestnut Oak Trail exits right as you approach the highest elevation of this hike. The Chestnut Oak Trail makes a tighter and higher loop around
and it could be used to shorten the hike to 1.3 miles. To get the full tour including a visit to the
quarry and river, angle left to stay with the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail. Occoneechee Mountain
|Hiking the loop trail|
The descent to the
begins as the trail curves right around the western side of the mountain. The surroundings get quieter as you move
further from I-85. Also, the west side
of the mountain contains some interesting rock formations that are exposed
portions of the bedrock that underlies the mountain. Eno River
The descent steepens as you drop into a ravine that will eventually lead you to the
. The west and north park boundaries lie just
left of the trail here. Just shy of 1
mile, you reach the south bank of the Eno
River near another interesting rock
formation that technically lies on adjacent private property. The river flows deep, wide, and slow here,
and some benches provide opportunities for rest and contemplation. Eno
For the next 0.4 miles the trail heads east as it follows the south bank of the
. At 1.3 miles, some steps lead up to what
appears to be an old road or railroad grade.
Shortly thereafter you reach the spur trail to the old quarry, which
exits right. We will eventually head
left to continue the loop, but for now turn right to visit the quarry. Eno
Very quickly you reach the floor of the quarry. This quarry produced pyrophyllite, a mineral known for its thermal stability. Pyrophyllite is often added to other materials such as clay before they are heated, and the
valley west of Durham has large
deposits of pyrophyllite including this one.
The cliffs created by the quarry now tower over 100 feet above the
quarry floor where you stand. If you see
some people up on the quarry rim, they are standing at an overlook where you
will be in a few minutes.
|Old pyrophyllite quarry|
Back on the main loop, the hardest part of the hike comes next, as the trail gains 200 feet of elevation over the next 0.2 miles. Unfortunately, this climb is made in a high-voltage power line corridor, another reminder of this area’s suburban location. Some wooden steps make the terrain easier to navigate, and some world-class waterbars help prevent trail erosion. All of these features were built within the past decade by scouts as eagle scout projects, so be sure to thank a boy scout the next time you see one working on the trail.
After exiting the power line corridor, you reach another trail intersection, this time with the Overlook Trail, which exits right. We will eventually turn left to continue the loop, but a short detour on the Overlook Trail will bring you to the quarry overlook you stood below earlier. This north-facing overlook provides one of the best views in Raleigh-Durham. The quarry and
lie directly below, while the forested Eno River Piedmont and
suburban Durham lie beyond. Some benches make nice places to rest after
the climb and enjoy the view.
|View from north-facing overlook|
Retrace your steps to the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail at 1.7 miles. Next the trail descends to briefly re-enter the high voltage power line corridor. After turning right to leave the corridor for good, a gradual climb using a single broad switchback leads to a shoulder ridge of Brown Elfin Knob, where the Brown Elfin Knob Trail exits right. The knob and trail are named for the brown elfin butterfly, a small butterfly found nowhere else in the region except
. Normally found in cooler climates such as the
higher mountains of western Occoneechee
Mountain North Carolina,
the brown elfin butterfly colony found here is thought to be a remnant from the
last ice age.
|Brick structure remnants|
The trail’s last segment heads downhill with Brown Elfin Knob visible uphill to the right. As you approach the area’s fishing ponds, the trail curves right to pass what appears to be an old brick structure just before coming out at a gravel road near the ranger’s residence. A left turn and brief road walk will return you to the parking area to complete the hike.