Directions to Trailhead: To hike in the Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area, from I-85 take exit 164, turn north onto Churton Street, turn left at the stop sign onto Orange Grove Road, and turn right onto Virginia Gates Road and follow the signs all the way to the parking area. The address of the Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area is 625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278. There is no cost for parking at the trailhead area. The park hours are as follows: November - February, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; March, April, September & October, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.; and May - August, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. the park is closed on Christmas Day.
Description of Hike: The Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area contains 190 acres of land and more than three miles of hiking trails. The area is situated around Occoneeche Mountain Summit (867 feet) which rises 350 feet from the Eno River and is the highest point between Hillsborough, North Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. The hike Ashley and I completed was the Occoneeche Mountain Loop Trail which is 2.2 miles in length with an elevation gain of just over 300 feet. The Occoneeche Mountain Loop Trail is well marked and is easy to follow. The hike features hilly terrain through mature oak forests and goes along the Eno River. There are several side trails, one we did was the rock quarry view trail below the rock quarry. The Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail is marked by red circles throughout the park. For a Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area park map, click Here.
The top of Occoneechee Mountain's ridge and northern slopes provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species that are typically found in the mountains, and some plant species reach their easternmost limits here. These include Bradley's spleenwort and wild sarsaparilla. Catawba rhododendron is present on the steep rock outcrop adjacent to the ravine, and a mountain laurel-galax community grows on the ravine's slopes. Sweet pinesap, another rare plant, also grows here, along with large witch-alder. Yet another mountainous species that grows in the natural area is the purple fringeless orchid.
Researchers believe that the area's habitat has remained relatively unchanged since the last Ice Age due to the presence of brown elfin, a rare butterfly, as well as several unique plant species. The brown elfin is typically found in mountainous and northern areas, and the nearest brown elfin population to Occoneechee Mountain is more than 100 miles west. When the Piedmont's habitat underwent enormous transformations after the Ice Age, the area became unable to support the brown elfin and other species more accustomed to cooler environments. Brown elfins, believed to have once populated the Piedmont, were restricted to the state's mountains. However, the brown elfin butterflies at Occoneechee Mountain remained.
Rating: Elevation Gain: 300 ft. (Easy), Distance: 2.2 Miles Roundtrip (Easy)
Time to Complete Hike: 1 - 2 hours.