Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area – 2/1/22 – 4 miles
On the way from here to there, I took a little time to visit Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area near Hillsborough, NC, a unit of the North Carolina State Parks system that I have driven past many times when traveling I-85. It is a monadnock, a tongue-twisting word for a hill or mountain that stands isolated above a predominantly flat plain. At 867 feet high, Occoneechee Mountain is the high point of Orange County, NC.
This gem is sandwiched between I-85 to the south and the Eno River to the north. What, you ask, could possibly fit in this 190-acre bit of land? Well, quite a lot.
From the parking lot, I started out hiking clockwise on the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail. I used GAIA GPS to keep myself on track but found that the trails were very well signed and easy to follow. [If you’re going, be aware that there is no park office on-site and you can’t count on getting a paper map there. Download a pdf here to take with you.]
Information sign at the trailhead - I wouldn’t rely on cell service in mountain areas but this is good stuff to know for Occoneechee Mountain SNA
Going clockwise, the trail parallels I-85 for a bit, and through the open forest I could see and hear the noise of cars and trucks barreling along the interstate. I found it very distracting and disheartening that civilization so relentlessly encroaches on the outdoor experience. But…the trail soon turned away from this nonsense and the racket faded to nothing.
As the path curved and began its gentle climb, I saw communications towers higher up on the right-hand side - the high point of the mountain. I bushwhacked through the open forest as near to the summit as allowed (not as amazing or brave as it sounds, maybe a few hundred yards) and then returned to the trail.
I also passed rock formations as the trail curved away from the interstate, and as I approached a low shoulder I noticed restoration work. A new trail rerouted off the top of the rise and the old trail was filled in with chopped up tree trunks and limbs to deter future use. Great trail work and kudos to a job well done to keep people on the new trail.
I followed the trail as it descended to the river’s edge, where I encountered a side trail to the left and a sign saying the state park ends there and private property begins. [My GAIA app indicated this place is called “Jumping Rock.”] Being respectful of private property, I stayed on the main trail and walked for a ways alongside the reflective still waters of the Eno.
Not showing on the map, but signed as plain as day, is a short side trail to the site of pre-Civil War Occoneechee Quarry (abandoned around 1908) which I took as an invitation to take a look. Slippery remnants of snow and ice held on in deep shadows at the quarry’s base. I passed three teenagers coming out from the quarry…hmmm…
Occoneechee Mountain rises sharply from the river’s edge, and the trail turned and suddenly took me up recently constructed sturdy steep stairs and barely recognizable steps in dire need of replacement.
I turned right onto the Overlook Trail that leads to the top edge of the quarry and a fine view of the Eno River below.
At this point I had decisions to make: backtrack to the Loop Trail or find another way back to the parking area? The trail completer in me took over and said, “Why not hike a loop-within-a-loop?” I’ll spare you the turn-by-turn, but I managed to complete the entire Loop Trail plus a few others for good measure.
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is a wonderful resource for locals and an easy diversion for travelers, a few miles of real dirt trails in urban-suburban sprawl. I’m very glad I finally took the exit!
I’m sorry to say that the North Carolina State Parks website is lacking in information about the human history of Occoneechee Mountain SNA. Read this Eno River Association web page to learn more about its history since Europeans came to the area and recent preservation efforts, but also go further back in time here and here to learn about the Occaneechi indigenous peoples that preceded them. A land acknowledgement of the Occaneechi band of the Saponi Nation can be found here.
“In every walk with nature one receives
far more than he seeks.”