If you have been reading for awhile, or gone through old posts, you will know that a- I am in Hillsborough for the summer and b- I have talked about the old Occoneechee Indian Tribe before (and how hard that word is to spell). Occoneechee Mountain is the place where the original Occoneechee Tribe had settled. It is the highest point in all of Orange County and one of the few places in our area that offers vistas and views. And it is a few blocks from my summer house!
If you Google Occoneechee Mountain, you aren't going to find much. This is a State Natural Area, so it is protected. But it hasn't been protected for very long (just since 1997). This means that it's exposure to recreational enthusiasts is just now growing. But be careful, this is in Orange County and in Hillsborough. The NC Division of Parks & Rec will tell you the address is Cole Mill Road in Durham. Don't go there. Instead, access Occoneechee Mountain from Virginia Cates Road. It isn't too far from 85. In fact, you can hear 85 during parts of your hike. (See map below.)
This was a great day for us hiking. A stroller certainly won't work, this is hiking. So we had C in a carrier. He loved it.
There are a lot of trails around here. And the map below (which is the one they provide at the park) isn't the best. There is a gravel service road that will take you all the way to the summit. It is short and easy walking.
The Occoneechee Mountain summit is reported to be the highest point between Hillsborough and the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, you can't reach the summit. Well, you can. But it is private property that has a fire tower, a communications tower, and some barbed wire. Not really scenic at all. As DH put it, "At least you can say you have been to the top."
There are two parts of the Mountain that are more rewarding: the Overlook Trail and the Mountain Loop Trail. The Overlook Trail has a couple of different access points. The easiest way is take the service road, then catch the trail to the right that points to the Overlook. At this Overlook you can see out onto the rock cliff and quarry below. It is one of the best views in this part of the state. There is a HUGE permanent sign up that says that the lookout is closed. This sign is up right next to the lookout. And every one we saw proceeded the few yards past the sign to take in the view. Use your own discretion, though.
The Mountain Loop Trail is a 2.2 mile hike that is very nice. It can be pretty strenuous in parts, so plan ahead if you are hiking with older kids. And the path is in all different states: grass, gravel, dirt, steps. There are parts where this path goes under power lines (we have found this to be fairly common in NC hiking), but you also work your way down to the Eno River and walk beside it for awhile. There are even spots to get close to the River and dunk your toes.
As I mentioned above, the trail map isn't great (just not very detailed). The trails are marked with arrows, but there may be a few moments where you don't know which way to go. For the Mountain Loop stay close to the River. But really, you can't get too lost since it isn't that expansive of a park. Just stay on the trails.
Due to it's north-facing cliff, this Mountain harbors a lot of flora not generally seen in our region. In fact, to see some of the plants and flowers you would have to go to Asheville. We ran into a lovely pair of hobby botanists excitedly trolling these woods. They showed us the very rare Crane Fly Orchid. It was pretty cool, and don't worry those of you who know how quickly I kill orchids in my house, I didn't bring it home.
There are two ponds in the State Natural Area that fishing is allowed on. No swimming, and they are not big enough for boating.
There are picnic tables (a bunch of them and they are very nice) at the trailhead. There are also restrooms.
Parking is free.
Virginia Cates Road
Trail Map: http://www.enoriver.org/eno/Maps/OcconeecheeMAP.htm