How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

by Mark Miles

Sometimes the road less traveled leads to a genuinely breathtaking surprise. I was reminded of this in April when I went hiking at Occoneechee Mountain, which — if you haven’t figured out by now — is my favorite hiking destination in central North Carolina. I’ve been going there on a monthly basis since the summer of 2015, so there’ve been plenty of opportunities for me to discover the hidden nooks and crannies within its limits. Yet somehow I managed to miss the most breathtaking sight of all in the course of the past twenty-two months.

In my defense there’s a good reason for this. The hidden cove I discovered isn’t adjacent to any of the official trails; you actually have to venture off the main trail in order to find it. It’s not terribly far from the main trail, but it’s far enough that the spot is entirely occluded by the surrounding terrain.

I found this out when I reached the fern grove on the north side of the mountain. I was headed up the staircase that leads toward the quarry when I saw a path veering toward the west. I’d seen it before but had never paid much attention to it. For some reason on this occasion I decided to follow it and see where it led.

There wasn’t much to see at first. The westward trail ran along the edge of an embankment where the land sloped steeply upward to my left and downward to my right. Because the trail was unofficial and therefore not maintained by park officials, the vegetation was thick and gave me more than my fair share of smacks and slaps. Though the distance I covered wasn’t more than a tenth of a mile, I was seriously considering turning back due to the discomfort.

Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon. So I continued through the vegetation and kept my fingers crossed.

Then I noticed a rock formation to my right. It was probably ten feet wide by fifteen feet tall, though it was covered by vegetation and dead leaves which obscured its features. I didn’t think much of it until I passed it and noticed the trail in front of me veering sharply to the left. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my fingers were still crossed for something miraculous. Possibly for the first time in my life my expectation was surpassed with flying colors.

Rising forty feet high to my immediate left and jutting outward over my position was the most breathtaking rock formation I’ve ever seen at Occoneechee Mountain. I’m not very small, being six feet tall and in good physical shape, but I suddenly felt as tiny as an ant at a gathering of elephants. The promontory — which I’ve decided to call Sentinel Rock in the absence of an official title — was jagged and rough-hewn, which may have indicated that it sheared away at some point in the not too distant past. This added concern to my amazement, but I quickly disregarded it as I stepped into the hidden cove which looked as if it came out of a fairy tale.

To the right of Sentinel Rock was a gorge which had been hollowed out by a tiny stream gurgling gently over the surface of the rock. I can’t be certain, but it appeared that the stream originated at this very location. It’s strange to say, but this may have been the first time in my life that I’ve actually seen the birthplace of a stream.

Above and to the left of the stream was something else very curious. About thirty feet from the outermost edge of Sentinel Rock was a strange opening in the side of the rock face that almost looked as if it could’ve been the mouth of a cave. Now I was really excited. Apart from a cave in the Appalachian Mountains which I visited a very long time ago when I was a kid, I’ve never seen the mouth of a cave before. I’ve certainly never stumbled upon one inadvertently.

After very carefully picking my way up ten feet of steep moss-covered rock to make a closer inspection of the opening, I came to the conclusion that it was instead a sizeable crack which had been hollowed out by erosion and came to form a pocket in the side of Sentinel Rock. Regardless of its depth or adjacency to a cave, it was still fascinating and gave me the opportunity to more closely examine the area.

After I’d finished my cursory inspection of the crack in the rock, I decided it was time to head back to the main trail. Very suddenly and for no apparent reason, I found it difficult to breathe. Possibly from a combination of excess pollen, inadequate ventilation in the enclosed microclimate, and physical exertion from climbing the slippery rock face, I experienced an asthma attack — which for me is virtually unprecedented. For forty-five seconds I could barely take more than a shallow gasp of breath. Combined with the fact that I was attempting to descend a slippery rock face with abundant moss that gave little protection in the event of a fall, I was momentarily flummoxed.

By the time I made it back to the trail, however, I was breathing normally and thanked the mountain for allowing me to see something so utterly surprising and breathtaking. Not for the first time in my life I was reminded of the words of Robert Frost:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Frost, Robert, “The Road Not Taken” from Mountain Interval (New York City, NY, USA: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), accessed May 4th, 2017.

List of Rock Formations,” Wikipedia, accessed April 18th, 2017.

32 thoughts on “How the Road Less Traveled Led to the Discovery of a Hidden Cove

  1. That word “amazing” really applies here…the birthplace of a stream, the fissure in the rock, the faerie grotto AND an asthma attack when you’re all alone in the woods! I’ve experienced this and know how terrifying it is not to be able to breathe. It seems that, sometimes, taking the road less travelled really does take our breath away.

    1. Thank you. The asthma attack was a small price of admission to see such a place. And it’s odd to say, but I was powerfully overcome with emotion when I saw the cove, perhaps because seeing natural beauty is a reminder that all of the world should be a paradise.

      Have a lovely week, my friend.

  2. Absolutely beautiful pictures, and what a great story! I looked at the pictures and I gasped -they scenery looks just like a certain spot in Yosemite, even the tree with the big roots, the birthplace of the river, everything looked so similar. What a fantastic coincident, or maybe there are places in this world that are like people and have their soul mates…….

    1. That’s such a beautiful way of putting it. It’s certainly refreshing to think that there are other places of similar beauty still clinging to survival in our rapidly urbanizing world. Each one of them is a gem and should be protected at all cost.

      Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Happy to hear that you got down safely, Mark. I never experience an asthma attack but imagine considering where it occurred that this would have been frightening.

    1. That sounds wonderful. I wish there were more mountains in this area, but Occoneechee is the closest and the one I’m able to see most easily.

      Have a good week, my friend.

  4. I’m having a Lovecraft moment — or does the name Sentinel Hill ring any bells?
    I’m glad you caught your breath. Meeting the Big Girl sometimes affects people that way I think. Gorgeous photos.

    1. I’m not familiar with that reference, but if it relates to Lovecraft I’m sure it’s suitably macabre.

      Though I love the little of his writing that I’ve read, it vexes me that he seemed to exploit racist and speciesist tendencies to attract attention to his paranormal scenarios. If only his villains had been rich old white men in suits — who happen to be soul-sucking misanthropes with visions of world domination — I’d have fewer reservations.

      1. Oh, he was a horrible racist and laughable in the letters where he banged on about Nordic heroism, considering he was a skinny reclusive wimp. But he really is sui generis as a storyteller. In “The Dunwich Horror,” one of the Elder Gods descends and impregnates a human woman on the top of “Sentinel Hill” (it’s meant to be a real hill in New Hampshire with suggestive stone arrangements, which I once visited). One of his later and better. It was made into a ridiculous film with Sandra Dee.

  5. What a delightful side-track you made. Loved this!
    Thank you for your recent visit to my blog! Always a treat to discover new readers and their work!

  6. Absolutely gorgeous photos of an amazingly dream like world. It really is true that venturing of one’s path can and most usually does lead to good and better things. Let us not be so strict to keep forging ahead on a path that we think we must follow!

  7. “Yet something nudged me onward subconsciously, and I found myself wondering if my regret would be greater from finishing what I started or turning back too soon.”
    I know exactly what you mean! Often some of the best adventures are found off the beaten track!

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