Hiking to the Occoneechee Mountain Overlook and Brown Elfin Knob

Occoneechee Mountain was the place where I fell in love with hiking. As such, it holds a special place in my heart. Even so, I’ve hardly been there in the past few months due to the closure of the Overlook — over which there were health concerns due to the large crowds gathering there in the early days of the pandemic.

Fortunately, however, things have changed, and the Overlook is now open. This I found out on June 28th, 2020, when I took an easy 1.6 mile hike down Occoneechee Mountain Loop and Chestnut Oak Trail. In the process, I saw several native plants and trees, visited Brown Elfin Knob, nearly ended up hiking in the dark, and made it to the Overlook for the first time since March.

Arriving at Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area (625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278) in the early evening, I got out of my car and headed for Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail.

After joining it, I started hiking west through a forest of oak and pine.

Within a tenth of a mile, I came to a clearcut extending north and south. All along this clearcut there were numerous yellow wildflowers — about two inches wide, with eight petals each — growing from a deciduous plant about two feet tall, with needle-thin leaves.

Like many other native wildflowers in North Carolina, this threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) is a member of the sunflower family. Distinctive for its bright yellow flowers and needle-thin leaves, it thrives in rocky upland terrain, which is prevalent at Occoneechee Mountain.

Passing the clearcut, I started hiking up a switchback, at the top of which the trail straightened out.

Then the trail turned north before veering back to the west. Soon I reached the first fork in the trail, where a sign on the right informed me of my intended path.

Taking the right branch, I joined Chestnut Oak Trail and started hiking north. Passing numerous oak, beech, and pine trees, I continued for a tenth of a mile before the trail turned east.

Now on the north side of the mountain, there were numerous groves of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) dotting the path, which I had to dodge on my way through.

Then, after a quarter mile, a distinctive tree came into view on my left.

With a large burl — or mass of callus tissue — about fifteen feet up the trunk, this chestnut oak (Quercus montana) loomed off to my left as I passed.

In a few hundred feet, Chestnut Oak Trail veered north and merged with a gravel maintenance road running up the mountain.

Upon reaching it, I turned left, went a couple hundred feet, then turned left again onto Overlook Trail. Off to the right, there was a sign indicating an occupancy limit of 25 people.

As I approached the Overlook, I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to worry about the limit, since literally nobody else was there. Descending a short staircase, I was soon looking north over the city of Hillsborough.

Then I veered left and reached the westernmost edge of the Overlook.

More than 350 feet below me, the Eno River stretched northwest through a verdant forest under a slate gray sky.

After admiring the view for several minutes, I turned around and retraced my steps to the gravel maintenance road. Then I turned left and walked downhill for a couple hundred feet before coming to a wooden bench with a sign on the right.

Continuing straight, I joined Brown Elfin Knob Trail and started hiking uphill. After a couple hundred feet, the trail turned east and I followed suit. Soon I reached the trail namesake.

Surrounded by pine trees and dotted with boulders, there wasn’t nearly as much of a view at Brown Elfin Knob as there was at the Overlook.

Quickly passing through, I hiked downhill and reached a sign for Occoneechee Mountain Trail. Then I turned right and started hiking south. As I did, everything suddenly became dark, on account of the lateness of the hour and the sun being on the opposite side of the mountain.

After a tenth of a mile, I reached a slight clearing where the last remainders of sunlight filtered in overhead.

Within a few hundred feet, I reached a fork in the trail and took the left branch, continuing straight through a dense patch of forest before reaching a clearing. As I passed through, it was like passing into another world.

Ahead of me, well-manicured grass led to a fishing pond that spread out lazily under a slate gray sky, marking my approach to the parking area. And as I covered the last few hundred feet to my car, I realized that no matter how far I may go from Occoneechee Mountain, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

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