Occoneechee Mountain, just across the Eno River from Hillsborough, is both the highest point in Orange County and in the eastern part of the state. Dramatic views and unique flora make it more typical of the Appalachians. Occoneechee State Natural Area was established in December 1997 and is administered with Eno River State Park.
Visiting Occoneechee Mountain
At first, the mountain isn’t visible when coming in on Virginia Cates Road, off Orange Grove Road at the Interstate-85 overpass. The long gravel drive passes two large ponds, where verdant green clubmoss lines the edge of the lower pond and sourwoods burn brilliant red in the fall. Alders around both ponds begin flowering in February. The road curves and comes to the parking lot. Wisteria vines several inches in diameter used to cling to the treetops, and other non-native plants are scattered in this more disturbed area. This south-facing slope of the mountain has a warm microclimate, where one year the peaches started flowering early and bore fruit.
Hiking Occoneechee Mountain
From here a hiking trail winds to the top of the mountain, around 860-feet above sea level, topped by another 100-feet of communications tower and an abandoned fire observation tower. The trail forms part of the Chestnut Oak Trail, connecting with the Brown Elfin Knob and Overlook trails. These trails join the Loop Trail, circumscribing the mountain and extending to Eno Mountain Road.
Open forest covers the slopes. Chestnut oaks are rare trees growing on a few rocky hills in this region, and are the main canopy tree on Occoneechee, growing up to 2-feet across. Blackjack oaks are also common here, a tree associated with dry soil, but more common than chestnut oaks. There are many scarlet oaks, and some red, white and post oaks, sometimes joined by red maples. Virginia and shortleaf pines mix with the oaks and dominate in places. The mostly sparse shrub layer includes beech, hollies, sourwoods, witch hazel, and serviceberries. There are dense groves of evergreen mountain laurel, which bloom around Mother’s Day. Ankle-high blueberries, huckleberries, wintergreen, staggerbush, and related shrubs cover the ground in places, joined by bracken ferns, grasses, and reindeer lichen. Rare trailing arbutus, blooming in March, is common on the Chestnut Oak Trail, and pipsissewa blooms around May. Ravens visit the heights in winter, along with brown creepers, while Cooper’s and broad-winged hawks, blue grosbeaks, and tanagers might nest. A few deer live on the mountain.
Brown Elfin Knob, a hilltop around 767-feet high, is named for the brown elfin butterflies seen in the area mid-March to early May. Both the adults and caterpillars depend on mountain laurel and related plants. Isolated populations here and in the Sandhills are considered relics left after the ice age. Spread-winged skippers can be seen on the trails, along with uncommon sleepy duskywings, whose caterpillars feed on oaks. Silvery checkerspot caterpillars eat the crownbeard. The canopy can be full of swallowtails in spring.
The Overlook Trail leads to the edge of a gorge left by quarrying, begun before the Civil War to build the first east-west railroad across the state. There is an active mine for talc-like pyrophllite on a neighboring mountain, which prompted efforts to protect Occoneechee in the 1960’s. This area was once a volcanic island archipelago, and the action of hot groundwater and metamorphosis (notice the upward tilted rocks) created the milky quartz and other hard rocks. and the very soft rocks found here. The quarry ended around 1908, but the leftover walls aren’t entirely stable. In February 2001 some 2,500 cubic yards of rock fell from the walls.
The cool, moist north slope, accessible on the Loop Trail, has a different set of disjunct montane plants. Many wildflowers bloom here in spring, including trout lilies, yellow violets, mayapples, and deciduous azaleas. Mounds and daffodils mark the location of a mill village active until 1956, where there is a dam just below Eno Mountain Road. Mossy stone walls mark a former riverside road. The trail skirts a cliff laden with mountain laurel and a few rare Catawba rhododendrons, and shiny, evergreen galax, more typical of the Appalachians, are as showy as the large witch-alder, sweet pinesap, and several ferns.
There is a small grotto called Panther’s Den, supposedly the home of Orange County’s last mountain lion, but when I worked at the natural area it just looked like a person, possibly homeless, had been camping in the small fissure. Visits to the den are discouraged to protect several rare to endangered plants found here. The purple fringeless orchids might already be gone.
Michael Pollock gardens in Durham and has written for publications such as Chatham County Line, Carolina Gardener, and The News & Observer.