Here in central North Carolina, Occoneechee Mountain is a local outdoor gem. Standing a diminutive 867 feet tall, it may not sound like much. But it’s 350 feet higher than the nearby Eno River, and it towers over every feature of the nearby town of Hillsborough. Beyond that, it’s the highest point in Orange County and has some of the most distinctive wildlife and rock formations of any site in the region.
Being as close to Occoneechee Mountain as I am, I visit often. Nevertheless there are still things I don’t know about the place, mostly as a result of poor signage and inadequate historical records. This has left me to do research on my own, depending mostly on observation, experience, and reading to make up for the gaps in my knowledge.
Beyond that, there are some things which nobody seems to know — like the inhabitants of the land before the arrival of the Occaneechi/Occoneechee and the exact dates of operation of the Southern Broke Stone Company, which operated at the base of what is now the Overlook.
Also seemingly unknown are the names of many of the rock formations at Occoneechee Mountain. Though I’ve been able to find names for two of them — namely, Coon Rock and Panther’s Den — I still haven’t been able to find any trace of a name for at least four others. So, in the absence of official names, I’ve come up with some unofficial names, which I’ll be sharing along with my experience of hiking through these distinctive rock formations.
After arriving at Occoneechee Mountain (625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278) in the early afternoon of May 17th, 2020, I quickly parked my car, got out, and headed for the Mountain Loop Trail. My plan was to take a leisurely 1.6 mile hike that would allow me to see the six main rock formations, while avoiding the somewhat tiresome end of the trail, which has none.
Because of the sunny weather and pleasant temperature, there were many other people at the park, two of whom happened to jump in front of me just as I was starting the trail. Resigned to my fate, I followed them at a generous distance, giving myself time for frequent photographic pit stops.
Before long, I was hiking up and down hills on the south side of Occoneechee Mountain through a forest of oak and pine. And before I knew it, I had covered a half mile and could make out the first fork in the trail coming into view ahead of me.
Veering left, I continued down Mountain Loop Trail, descending another gently sloping hill for a few hundred feet. Then, off to my left, the first rock formation — which I call Terrace Rock due to its many tightly-spaced, successive levels — came into view.
Scrambling my way down the side of it, I felt like I was navigating my way through a terrace of stone and earth. Timeworn boulders made of mica and quartz jutted up out of the ground on my left and right, forcing me to watch my step. Then, after descending about fifty feet, I reached the bottom of Terrace Rock, turned around, and looked up.
Unfortunately the harsh light of the midday sun, in combination with the shade of the forest, created some very sharp contrast, which played havoc with my photography. Even so, I stood at the base of Terrace Rock and admired the strong, sinuous contours of a rock formation that has been here — and will hopefully be here — for longer than the lifespan of our species.
Climbing back up the steep hill that borders Terrace Rock, I returned to Mountain Loop Trail and continued hiking northwest. After another tenth of a mile, the first signs of the second rock formation came into view.
Approaching the south side of what I call Behemoth Rock — due to its towering exposure on the west, where it nearly overhangs Mountain Loop Trail — I admired it from a distance. Unfortunately, however, the forest canopy obscured the contours of the rock face, reducing the visual impact of the resulting photo.
Climbing up the south side of Behemoth Rock, I gingerly made my way to the top, limited in my movements by the phone I was holding in front of me. After forty feet of this, I reached the top and looked over the edge at a pair of hikers who were passing below.
Circling around Behemoth rock, I navigated my way through a maze of rocks — some as tall as myself — descending the rock face with as much dignity as my shoddy shoes would allow. Then, after reaching the north side of Behemoth Rock, I looked back admiringly one last time and couldn’t help wishing it were late fall so I could see it more clearly.
Hiking north, I covered another tenth of a mile before turning left. Then I headed straight west for a few hundred feet before turning right and descending a switchback on the west side of Occoneechee Mountain. After another few hundred feet, I turned right again, heading west through a closely canopied length of forest.
After about a quarter mile, the trail gently descended to reach the level of the Eno River, and a large rock formation loomed ahead of me. Once again, I found myself wishing it were late fall or early spring so I could clearly see the contours of the third rock formation — which is officially called Coon Rock.
Though I haven’t been able to find out the reason why it’s called this, it does seem to fit the general mood and ambiance of the surrounding terrain, which is very low-lying and muddy — not unlike a raccoon after a late-night garbage binge.
Circling to the east, I gazed admiringly up the steep sides of Coon Rock and noticed a group of young people who were using the top of it for a hangout in between dips in the Eno River, which borders the north side. After walking fifty feet, I reached the east edge of Coon Rock, considered going up, and decided against it out of consideration for social distancing guidelines.
Returning to Mountain Loop Trail, I headed east along the banks of the Eno River, covering a tenth of a mile on my way to the fourth rock formation at Occoneechee Mountain. Before reaching it, however, I passed through a grove of mountain laurel and came to a wooden bench, positioned somewhat eerily on the side of the trail.
Behind the bench, a side trail meandered south through a fern grove, and I followed it. Hiking up a steep hill, I soon reached a fallen log which bisected my path. Hopping over it, I passed through a dense canopy of undergrowth toward my destination.
After clearing the undergrowth, I made my way around a sharp bend in the trail and looked up to see one of the most awe-inspiring sights at Occoneechee Mountain — or any other park I’ve ever been to for that matter.
Looming at least forty feet over my head was the fourth rock formation — which is called Panther’s Den on account of its most famous resident, who happened to be the last Carolina panther outside the Appalachian Mountains.
Venturing into this place where history and nature become one, I was struck by the sense of primordial wonder veritably oozing out of every rock. As trite as it sounds, it felt like I was taking a step back in time, to an era when humanity was young and the Earth was still our first love.
As if to confirm this, I looked to my right and noticed a tiny stream, emanating from an apparent underground spring.
After admiring the stream and the vibrant green moss on it, I gingerly made my way over unsteady rock and vegetation back to the most uncanny part of the place.
Fifty feet back, there was an opening in the rock. And as I approached, it slowly revealed itself to be the mouth of a cave — which presumably inspired the name Panther’s Den. Taking a few steps inside, I was struck by the rich colors of purple and magenta, most likely the result of iron oxide, and the intense solitude which naturally accompanied the loss of daylight.
Backing out, I returned to the beauty of the most impressive rock formation at Occoneechee Mountain. Standing for a few moments in awe-struck silence, I felt my heart swell with gratitude for the fact that such places still exist.
With a reluctant step, I left Panther’s Den and headed back to Mountain Loop Trail, a couple hundred feet to the north. Joining it, I then headed east on my clockwise course and very quickly came to a flight of steps leading up a ridge that skirts the edge of the Eno River. As I crested the flight of steps, I arrived at the fifth rock formation at Occoneechee Mountain.
Unlike Panther’s Den, this one has no name in any of the official park literature that I’ve found. So I’ve taken to calling it Shelf Rock due to its height, verticality, and the successive layers — which almost resemble the shelves of an overstuffed yet beloved bookcase.
Passing underneath it, I looked up the sheer rock face, extending a solid forty feet over my head. And while it wasn’t as awe-inspiring or primordial as Panther’s Den, it did remind me how tiny and frail I, as a mere human, am. But despite the sound of it, this feeling left me neither despondent nor defeated. Rather I felt invigorated at the visceral realization that there’s so much in our world that’s so much bigger than any one of us.
At the east end of Shelf Rock, I turned around to take another photo as another hiker passed by in the opposite direction.
Retreating into the distance, the hiker paid no attention to the rock formation to his left, apparently unaware of anything in the world beyond the scope of his own limited experience.
Turning around, I headed north along the edge of the Eno River, following Mountain Loop Trail. Within a few hundred feet, I came to a clearcut, turned right, and arrived at a flight of rickety wooden stairs. After ascending them, I reached the steepest incline at Occoneechee Mountain, where the trail rises 300 feet in a tenth of a mile. Along the way, I caught a stunning view of gently rolling hills receding to the east, bordered by verdant forest on either side and a cloudy blue sky overhead.
At the top of the hill, Mountain Loop Trail turned right and I followed suit. Entering the canopy of the forest once again, I continued hiking upward until I came to the junction with Overlook Trail. Turning right, I joined Overlook Trail and kept hiking until I reached the Overlook itself — which was unfortunately cordoned off due to its popularity and reputation for drawing large crowds.
Turning left, I continued down Overlook Trail for a couple hundred feet before glancing to my left and noticing the sixth and final rock formation at Occoneechee Mountain. Stepping off trail, I made my way to the east to get a better look.
Though not the most photogenic, this rock formation — which I call Picnic Rock due to its width, dispersal, and suitable arrangement for a picnic in the woods — must have stood here for thousands, if not millions, of years to reach its current state of weathering. Wandering around it, I had to wonder whether it might not have been a ritual site for the people who lived here before the Occaneechi, whoever they may have been.
Returning the way I came, I soon joined Chestnut Oak Trail and headed southeast for a half mile, descending through the forest. Along the way, I passed a park ranger’s house and a pond before reaching the gravel parking lot where I started.
And as I got into my car and drove away, I realized that places like Occoneechee Mountain are not merely good for recreation, exercise, and landscape photography. They’re necessary for the human spirit, and as such they must be protected at any cost. Because if they’re not, there will come a time when they will no longer exist — just like the Carolina panther who once lived at the foot of Occoneechee Mountain.