Hiking Dunnagan Trail at Eno River State Park after Unseasonable Spring Tornadoes

Trail with red dirt and steps

Back in August of 2017, I hiked Dunnagan Trail for the first time. Somewhat jaded from recent experiences, I wasn’t expecting much. But when I got there, it was love at first sight. There was so much to marvel at, I really didn’t know where to start. And because of the history surrounding the trail, the article I wrote focused on that.

A year and a half later, in April of 2019, I went back to Dunnagan Trail. On this occasion, I noticed far more of the natural features of the trail, including beautiful views of the Eno River, spring wildflowers, majestic trees, and water everywhere — in large part due to extreme, unseasonable storms resulting from climate collapse.

These storms were so extreme they spawned an outbreak of twelve tornadoes, which itself took place on April 19th, 2019. Two days later, on April 21st, I went hiking. As a result, it was still on my mind when I arrived at the Cole Mill Access (4390 Old Cole Mill Road, Durham, NC 27712) at Eno River State Park.

Map of Dunnagan Trail at Eno River State Park

Thankfully, the park was still open despite the recent tornadoes, but I was careful to watch my step.

Parking my car in a mostly empty parking lot, I got out and started my 3.1 mile hike by joining Pea Creek Trail.

Pea Creek Trail near trailhead

After hiking down a steep hill, I came to the Eno floodplain and soon found myself perilously close to the edge of the river.

Trail dipping close to river bank with concrete birdge in distance

Normally the trail wouldn’t have been so close to the water, but recent flooding had eaten away about two feet from the riverbank. As a result, there were portions of the trail that had disappeared altogether, requiring some cautious maneuvering.

After passing the eroded riverbank, I reached Cole Mill Road, which crosses the Eno River about a quarter of a mile downstream. As I passed underneath, I felt the reverberations from traffic overhead and plunged into shadow.

Underside of Cole Mill Road, with concrete trestles

Emerging on the opposite side, I was bathed in sunlight.

Within a couple hundred feet, I reached a series of wooden planks alongside the trail and noticed a beautiful tan and black caterpillar, about two inches long, with a stripe of white down his back and blue-tinged spots on either side.

Eastern tent caterpillar munching leaf

This eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) was happily munching away at a fresh oak leaf, oblivious to the fact that the preferred food source for his species is cherry trees.

Continuing down Pea Creek Trail, I rounded a bend in the Eno River, veering to the north. Along the way, the river danced past numerous stands of sycamore trees, with distinctive gray and brown bark at the base, progressively bleeding into milky white at the top.

After a quarter mile, I reached another bend in the trail, this one sharp and sudden, marking the junction with Dunnagan Trail. Before veering left, however, I caught a stunning glimpse of the Eno River, graced by a river birch (Betula nigra) on the left, in a rather suggestive pose.

River birch overhanging Eno River

Seeing this, I found it hard to believe nature doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Returning to the trail, I veered left and soon came to the crossing with Pea Creek itself. Looking for the usual footbridge, I was perplexed to see it was no longer there. Apparently it had been washed out with the flooding from the latest tornadoes. So instead I descended the bank and waded through shallow water, stopping in the middle to admire the gorgeous view to my left.

Pea Creek Trail with bright green foliage and sunlight

Once I’d crossed Pea Creek, I climbed the bank and rejoined the trail, which had seamlessly segued into Dunnagan Trail. Following it, I veered right, heading for the banks of the Eno River once again.

Reaching the Eno, I veered left and continued hiking east. Everywhere around me was new life, bursting forth in a profusion of neon green that forced me to squint at times. As I went, I wondered how anyone could prefer the lifeless confines of a city to the priceless paradise that is wilderness.

About a tenth of a mile downriver, Dunnagan Trail veered right, following the serpentine course of the river. And before I knew it, there was another view ahead of me, situated slightly off trail, begging me to take a look.

So take a look I did.

Eno River with clouds overhead

Gazing into the distance, I marveled at the verdant landscape, brilliant sky, and peaceful river — such fertile terrain for both nature and the human spirit.

Returning to Dunnagan Trail, I continued hiking east along the banks of the Eno River. As I wound my way back and forth through pine, maple, and sycamore trees, it felt like I was making my way through a vegetative labyrinth.

Then off to the side, I noticed a low-lying plant with brilliant yellow flowers, each bearing five wide yellow petals — actually ray florets, since this is a member of the sunflower family — with two grooves running the length of each petal.

Green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) flower

Called green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) for obvious reasons, this wild sunflower nodded gently in the spring breeze, as much at home on the banks of the Eno River as any other endemic species.

Rising to my feet, I continued my eastward hike through the forest, marveling at the diversity of plant life. In the course of this, I covered a half mile and soon reached another bend in the river, this time to the north. Ahead there loomed a series of granite escarpments, giving testament to the history of this location as part of the Durham Pump Station back in the early twentieth century.

Winding my way down a flight of steps carved out of the rock, I soon reached the easternmost extent of Dunnagan Trail. At this point, the trail veered left so sharply that it nearly reversed direction, now heading northwest. Following this, I started climbing up a ridge, gradually ascending 150 feet over a quarter mile.

After reaching the top of a nearby ridge, I came to a fork in the trail where one branch headed north and the other west. Veering left, I followed Dunnagan Trail to the west and immediately noticed a burst of sunlight resulting from a clearing in the canopy where a large tree had fallen recently.

Fallen tree by trail

Passing the fallen tree, I quickly descended a small valley, at the base of which was a seasonal creek that had sprung to life with the flooding from the latest tornadoes.

Roots of American sycamore dipping into creek

On the right, an American sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) stood majestically amid the awakening forest, roots dangling in the water and twining their way around surrounding stones.

Continuing my westward hike, I soon started climbing out of the valley, ascending another sixty feet before noticing a pile of stone rubble to my right, sitting placidly in the middle of the forest. Recognizing the place, I wasn’t surprised when I soon noticed a gravestone to my left, memorializing the life and death of Catharine Link Dunnagan, the namesake of the trail.

Passing the final resting place of Catharine Link Dunnagan, I continued hiking west on Dunnagan Trail through a forest of American beech trees (Fagus grandifolia), with their smooth grayish-white trunks and protuberant roots spiraling outward like long legs in the dirt.

After a quarter mile, I returned to the Pea Creek crossing, hopscotched across the water, and started the last leg of my hike. Veering to the right up a steep embankment, I hiked a few hundred feet before the terrain leveled off once again. Then I passed through more pine, beech, and maple trees until I could make out the roar of traffic from Cole Mill Road.

Without warning, I suddenly came to a clearcut, one of many which mar the land at Eno River State Park.

Power line at clearcut with clouds overhead

Passing through, I marveled at the blue sky overhead, even as I wondered how many trees were sacrificed to make this clearing.

Quickly returning to the canopy of the forest, I was soon descending the ridge at a steep angle and found myself at river level once again. Ahead of me, Cole Mill Road loomed over the Eno River, descending from north to south.

Eno River with concrete bridge in distance

After passing underneath, I finished the last quarter mile of my hike and made one final ascent to the parking lot where I started. Getting in my car, I was surprised to find myself more peaceful and relaxed than I’d been in a long time — and this despite the fact that twelve tornadoes had passed through the area less than two days previously.

Turning the key in the ignition, I was reminded that the world is a strange, dangerous, and beautiful place.

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