Sunday, October 26, 2014

Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area (North Carolina)

The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is recognized as one of the most important natural areas inside the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill Triangle in North Carolina. The Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area provides great hiking through various habitats that support species that area rare and significant to this region. This area provides fun hiking and outdoor recreation opportunities for the entire family.

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.

Further Thoughts: Ashley and I really enjoyed our hike in the Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area. We saw several other park visitors while were hiking there and we also got a chance to talk with a very nice park ranger. The summer weather was great with a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid 80s. While on our hike we saw fish, turtles, toads, frogs, a hawk, and several lizards. We found the hiking trails in the Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area easy to navigate and follow. The only minor downsides to this hiking area is the power lines running through a portion of the park as well as the close proximity to roads at times.

There are two little fishing ponds that are near the trailhead area where you can go fishing, if that is your cup of tea. The Occoneechee ponds are great for catching bass and bream on worms, crickets, and lures. The Eno is a great place for fly-fishing, casting lures, or baiting with the ever reliable worms and crickets. Most of the river can be waded and there are many openings for bank fishing. Commonly caught game fish include largemouth bass, bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and the feisty Roanoke bass. Roanoke bass, locally know as "red-eye" are found in only four river drainages in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Chubs and bullheads add to the fishing fun. All North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fishing regulations are enforced.

The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area showcases a diversity of natural communities, and such diversity is found nowhere else in the Triangle area. The relatively undisturbed forest of the ridge top includes one of the best chestnut oak stands in the region. And, the mountain area itself, adjacent to the upper Eno River, is important wildlife habitat. The acorns and berries produced by the chestnut oaks and other area plants support a population of animals, including deer, groundhog and wild turkey.

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.

In addition, several rare animal species found nowhere else in the region are present in the park. These include the brown elfin butterfly. Separated by more than 100 miles from other brown elfin populations in the mountains, the brown elfin butterfly is believed to have survived at Occoneechee Mountain since the Ice Age. Although the brown elfin is found virtually nowhere else in the Piedmont, the population on Occoneechee Mountain is quite large.

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.


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