Sunday, March 20, 2016

Occoneechee State Natural Area: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail (Blog Hike #566)

Trail: Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
Hike Location: Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
Geographic Location: west of Hillsborough, NC
Length: 2.4 miles
Difficulty: 6/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A suburban loop hike around Occoneechee Mountain.

Directions to the trailhead: Just north of the I-85/40 split west of Durham, take 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, Occoneechee Mountain on the west side of 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 Eno River during the 1600’s.  After European settlers arrived, the land was used for several industrial purposes including a textile mill and a quarry.
            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 Orange County 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 Eno River and the old quarry site, thus exploring every major point of interest in the natural area.
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 Occoneechee Mountain, 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.
Hiking the loop trail
            The descent to the Eno River 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.
Rock formation
            The descent steepens as you drop into a ravine that will eventually lead you to the Eno River.  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 River
            For the next 0.4 miles the trail heads east as it follows the south bank of the Eno River.  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.
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 Deep River 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 Eno River lie directly below, while the forested 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 Occoneechee Mountain.  Normally found in cooler climates such as the higher mountains of western 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.

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