Hiking through Strange Sycamores and an Old Mill Site at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

Trees are living records of the past, carrying in their wood the traces of prior times and people. Even so, they also change and grow, adapting to meet their future needs on the basis of their surroundings. In this way — with one foot in the past and one in the future — trees are models for society.

Likewise, society is constantly shaping trees, either by pruning them, poisoning them, turning them into board feet of timber, or occasionally conserving them. And it’s in this last instance that trees come up with some of the most ingenious solutions to the universal problem that all of us face sooner or later — namely how to survive.

Map of Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

As with most things, I saw this firsthand on a recent hike, this time to Johnston Mill Nature Preserve (6001 Turkey Farm Rd., Chapel Hill, NC 27514). Having never been there before, I kept my expectations to a minimum. But I was pleasantly surprised by strange trees, an old mill site, diverse wildlife, and at least a few exceptional views of the landscape — all of which I found on an easy 2.4 mile out-and-back hike on Robin’s Trail.

After taking I-40E to Chapel Hill and then following a few back roads, I arrived at the secondary entrance for Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in the late afternoon on July 5th, 2020. Parking my car, I got out and noticed a boulder with a plaque on it.

Plaque with names of benefactors

Inscribed with names of benefactors who made the preserve possible, it was a nice reminder that humans can in fact be an asset to nature when they put their money where they morals are.

Joining Robin’s Trail, I soon found myself on an elevated walkway through the woods.

Raised walkway in the forest

After crossing it, I returned to the forest floor and noticed a tree on my right, with a large patch of missing bark on the first five feet of its trunk.

Tulip poplar by Robin's Trail

This tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) was clearly not in the best of shape, though it nonetheless made an arresting photographic subject, especially when I came close and looked up the side of its trunk.

Upward view of tulip poplar

With deeply ridged tannish-white bark segueing to brilliant green foliage above, it looked the part of a stalwart bastion of the forest.

Returning to my hike, I continued north and then west for a few hundred feet before reaching the banks of a scenic creek.

New Hope Creek

Climbing onto a boulder by the riverbank, I admired the downstream view of New Hope Creek, even as I tried to dodge a flock mosquitoes who were clearly intent on eating me for dinner.

Soon I was on Robin’s Trail again, heading west and then south through a floodplain rich with plant life. One in particular grabbed my attention; it was two feet tall with deep green oval leaves and tiny lavender flowers lined up in a cluster on a vertical stalk.

Common selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

This common selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) has been used by many different cultures at many different times to assist in recovery from illness, especially fever and diabetes.

After admiring the plant, I quickly rejoined Robin’s Trail and headed west, then south. Within a tenth of a mile, I came to a clearing on my right, where there was another view of New Hope Creek.

New Hope Creek near mill site

Continuing south, I soon noticed the sound of traffic ahead. Then I reached a clearing and saw the reason why.

Robin's Trail by Turkey Farm Road

Not more than ten feet to my left, Turkey Farm Road passed by, giving hikers an uncomfortably close berth to oncoming traffic.

Just shy of a half mile into my hike, I came to the first trail junction.

Robin's Trail divides

Turning right, I continued on Robin’s Trail as it slowly reversed direction, soon heading northwest up New Hope Creek. As I went, I happened to notice a river birch (Betula nigra) with particularly distinctive bark. Stopping in my tracks, I took a closer look. And that was when I noticed something.

Triceratops beetle (Phileurus truncatus) on river birch

About four feet up the trunk was a triceratops beetle (Phileurus truncatus) — two inches long and jet black with spiky limbs and a tiny tripartite horn that looked like a horseshoe from above.

Leaving the beetle, I was soon hiking northwest again. After a tenth of a mile, I reached the confluence of New Hope Creek and Old Field Creek, next to which was a bench overlooking the water. Turning left with the trail, I followed the riverbank until something very strange came into view.

American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) near Old Field Creek

Of course, from its peeling white and brown bark, I immediately recognized the tree I saw as an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). But beyond that it was something of a cipher. It almost looked like an old tree had been uprooted from the riverbank and tossed on its side, where it put down new roots and sent up a divided trunk into the forest canopy.

Passing Sideways Sycamore, I came to a footbridge over Old Field Creek.

Wooden footbridge over Old Field Creek

After crossing the footbridge, I stayed on Robin’s Trail as it continued northwest through lush forest and thick vegetation.

Robin's Trail heading northwest

Then, ahead of me, something really strange came into view.

American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) with four trunks

Yet another American sycamore rose up into the forest canopy. But instead of being tilted sideways, this one was splayed out in a V-shape, composed of four separate trunks that diverged from one another as they climbed toward the sky. Honestly it looked like something out of a science fiction novel.

Passing Four Trunk Sycamore, I hiked another tenth of a mile and came to a trail junction with Bluebird Trail, which turned sharply to my left. Meanwhile, to my right, I noticed an unusual slope of terrain that hinted at something man-made. Following my instinct, I descended the riverbank and soon came to a strange little pond.

Possible old mill race

Though there was no signage or explanation for it, it was clearly the remnant of an old water mill, possibly the mill race.

Walking through the overgrown mill site, I soon found myself climbing a steep embankment through six-foot-tall grass. Then I reached another clearing and found a small waterfall.

Small waterfall near mill site

Though there was once again no signage or explanation, this may have been part of the mill dam, albeit greatly reduced from its original size.

Retracing my steps, I returned to Robin’s Trail and soon came to the opposite side of the waterfall.

Old mill site at Johnston Mill Nature Preserve

Given the contraction of New Hope Creek at this point and the strong stable rock on either side, it was clear to see it would’ve been the perfect site for a water mill.

Continuing on my hike, I soon came to a small switchback descending a steep hill, at the base of which was a primitive wooden staircase.

Wooden staircase going downhill

Within a few hundred feet, a massive pine tree, about three feet wide, came into view on my left.

Loblolly pine (Pinus taeda)

This loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) had clearly been around for quite some time — from the look of it, at least a 120 years.

Passing the pine tree, I continued down Robin’s Trail another tenth of a mile, passing a trail junction on my left before reaching a small hill with a wooden bench at the top. Consulting the park map, I realized I had finally reached the northernmost extent of Robin’s Trail.

Before turning around, however, I decided to get one final shot of New Hope Creek. So, descending the riverbank and looking downstream, I did just that.

New Hope Creek at northernmost exent of Robin's Trail

And as I admired the beauty of the water, stone, and forest, I realized not for the first time that our society would be far better served by conserving trees than by making board feet of timber out of them.

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