First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

Bradford pear in bloom

Spring came early this year in central North Carolina and brought with it exceptionally warm temperatures, arriving by the middle of February after a winter that was exceptionally cold and snowy. The pairing of exceptional warmth with exceptional cold may seem unusual, but it’s the ecological equivalent of a planetary fever, in which fluctuations of temperature are often extreme and unpredictable.

This pattern of temperature fluctuation is of course the result of climate collapse — as climate change should rightly be called — and is becoming increasingly common throughout our world. Though most people are hesitant to speak the truth on this matter, the fact remains that what we’re seeing isn’t merely a momentary aberration; it’s the transition to a new and dangerous global climate, in which our world will be irrevocably altered for the worst, whether we like it or not.

Map of Occoneechee Mountain in Hillsborough, NC

When I arrived at Occoneechee Mountain (625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278) on the last Sunday of February, the clouds were overcast and gloomy, telling of the torrential thunderstorms that have become common in central North Carolina recently. The land was still drenched, and with temperatures in the sixties it felt more like April than February. Getting out of my car, I started hiking the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail and tried to keep my feet on solid ground despite frequently feeling as if I would soon slide into a mud pit.

Occoneechee Mountain Trail

Aware of the mud and careful of my footing as a result, I crossed the north and west sides of Occoneechee Mountain without difficulty. The deciduous trees were still mostly bare, though buds were starting to appear on many of the maples and dogwoods. The pines were stately and serene, lending the lion’s share of green that could be seen on most stretches of the trail. There were, however, other patches of green here and there. As I progressed down the trail, those patches became more prevalent on the forest floor, and it wasn’t long before I decided to stop in my tracks and take a closer look.

What I found when I took a closer look was a strikingly beautiful yellow and red flower that loosely resembled a columbine and had unmistakably distinctive maroon leaves with green spots flecked across the surface. I was baffled as to the identity of the flower, since I’ve never seen it at Occoneechee Mountain in years past and have certainly never seen it in a domestic garden. At a later date I was able to identify it as a yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which I learned through a bit of research has a tendency to remain dormant for most of the year, thereby explaining why I had never noticed it before.

Yellow Trout Lily at Occoneechee Mountain

There are in fact only about ten weeks of the year when the plant is active, during which time each individual yellow trout lily will produce either one leaf with no flower or two leaves with one flower. Though there are reputedly only about five percent of plants with flowers in any yellow trout lily colony at a time, the profusion of tiny yellow and red flowers at my feet left me wondering if there was a single square inch of the forest floor where these plants weren’t already residing.

Walking past the largest profusion of yellow trout lilies along the north side of Occoneechee Mountain where it skirts the Eno River, I noticed faint ruins of a mill race that used to adjoin the Quarry. The ruins of the mill race followed the course of the trail at this point, and it was only after walking north of the trail and looking back that I was able to discern a better view. The presence of the mill race was more readily visible on this visit because of the vibrant green moss blanketing the ruins, which seemed to have greater intensity of color after the latest rainstorms.

Occoneechee Mountain Trail passing through ruins of an old mill

As I passed from the ruins of the mill race up the side of the mountain toward the Overlook, I decided to stop and admire the view. Though it was marred by the clearcut of an electric line extending to the north and south, it was refreshing to see so much land that’s still in a reasonably natural state. The fact that Occoneechee Mountain is directly adjacent to downtown Hillsborough, North Carolina, is one of the park’s biggest assets, since the town of Hillsborough is generally vigilant in its preservation of historic sites – of which Occoneechee Mountain is one of the foremost. However being in close proximity to a town that’s expanding in population and housing brings with it the imminent risk that much of the surrounding terrain will be significantly degraded and will cause harm to the mountain by extension. As a result my feelings are increasingly ambivalent when I look in the distance from Occoneechee Mountain.

Clearcut passing over Occoneechee Mountain Trail

Regardless of any ambivalence about housing, I love the views and the land itself, and it wasn’t long before I was hiking the last stretch of Mountain Loop Trail in quest of the amazing view from the Overlook. When I reached the crossing of Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail and Overlook Trail, I switched from the former to the latter and continued the last portion of my ascent before coming into view of the fenced-in area at the edge of the old Quarry that provides the most memorable view in the whole of the park. The clouds were still overcast and were threatening to downpour at any moment; similarly I was drenched from my own perspiration as a result of hiking in such warm springlike temperatures. None of that mattered, however, when I reached the edge of the Overlook and the high point of my hike.

Eno River in winter from Occoneechee Mountain Overlook

After taking time to relish the view from the Overlook, I returned to the trail and descended Occoneechee Mountain. The forest surrounded me on all sides again, and it was easy to forget that an expanding town and a major interstate were both less than a mile away from my location. I passed the lone house in the park, where the park ranger lives, and reached the last stretch of trail before the parking lot. As I came into view of the parking lot, I noticed one other telltale sign of spring: a bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) in full bloom.

Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana) flowers

These trees are frequently the first to indicate the arrival of spring, and this one in particular left no doubt in my mind about how quickly the world around us is being irrevocably altered in front of our very eyes, whether we like it or not.

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29 thoughts on “First Signs of an Early Spring at Occoneechee Mountain

  1. Very well said. It surprises me that even among those of us who spend our time out observing the natural world, I still find climate change deniers. How can they not see it? In the end, of course, it matters not whether they believe it is happening. The good news is that, even with Trump at the helm, solar and wind energy still improves, and efforts to clean up the oceans are increasing.

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  2. I recently hiked through Oconeechee down to the Eno. That was my inaugural hike on that trail, and I absolutely loved it. The view of old Hillsborough is lovely. This is a great post, and it’s always fun to read someone else’s perspectives on places I know.

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