Hiking to the Occoneechee Mountain Overlook and Brown Elfin Knob

Lush foest from distance with cloudy sky overhead

Occoneechee Mountain was the place where I fell in love with hiking. As such, it holds a special place in my heart. Even so, I’ve hardly been there in the past few months due to the closure of the Overlook — over which there were health concerns due to the large crowds gathering there in the early days of the pandemic.

Map of Chestnut Oak Trail at Occoneechee Mountain

Fortunately, however, things have changed, and the Overlook is now open. This I found out on June 28th, 2020, when I took an easy 1.6 mile hike down Occoneechee Mountain Loop and Chestnut Oak Trail. In the process, I saw several native plants and trees, visited Brown Elfin Knob, nearly ended up hiking in the dark, and made it to the Overlook for the first time since March.

Arriving at Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area (625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278) in the early evening, I got out of my car and headed for Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail.

Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail sign

After joining it, I started hiking west through a forest of oak and pine.

Trail through woods

Within a tenth of a mile, I came to a clearcut extending north and south. All along this clearcut there were numerous yellow wildflowers — about two inches wide, with eight petals each — growing from a deciduous plant about two feet tall, with needle-thin leaves.

Threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) flower

Like many other native wildflowers in North Carolina, this threadleaf coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) is a member of the sunflower family. Distinctive for its bright yellow flowers and needle-thin leaves, it thrives in rocky upland terrain, which is prevalent at Occoneechee Mountain.

Passing the clearcut, I started hiking up a switchback, at the top of which the trail straightened out.

Dirt trail in forest bordered by chestnut oak

Then the trail turned north before veering back to the west. Soon I reached the first fork in the trail, where a sign on the right informed me of my intended path.

Fork in trail leading to Chestnut Oak Trail

Taking the right branch, I joined Chestnut Oak Trail and started hiking north. Passing numerous oak, beech, and pine trees, I continued for a tenth of a mile before the trail turned east.

Now on the north side of the mountain, there were numerous groves of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) dotting the path, which I had to dodge on my way through.

Author Mark Miles on trail through forest

Then, after a quarter mile, a distinctive tree came into view on my left.

Chestnut oak tree with large burl

With a large burl — or mass of callus tissue — about fifteen feet up the trunk, this chestnut oak (Quercus montana) loomed off to my left as I passed.

In a few hundred feet, Chestnut Oak Trail veered north and merged with a gravel maintenance road running up the mountain. Upon reaching it, I turned left, went a couple hundred feet, then turned left again onto Overlook Trail. Off to the right, there was a sign indicating an occupancy limit of 25 people.

Occupancy sign on tree near Overlook

As I approached the Overlook, I was glad to see I wouldn’t have to worry about the limit, since literally nobody else was there. Descending a short staircase, I was soon looking north over the city of Hillsborough.

View of Hillsborough, NC from Overlook

Then I veered left and reached the westernmost edge of the Overlook.

Eno River from Overlook, surrounded by lush forest

More than 350 feet below me, the Eno River stretched northwest through a verdant forest under a slate gray sky.

After admiring the view for several minutes, I turned around and retraced my steps to the gravel maintenance road. Then I turned left and walked downhill for a couple hundred feet before coming to a wooden bench with a sign on the right.

Trail and bench with sign

Continuing straight, I joined Brown Elfin Knob Trail and started hiking uphill. After a couple hundred feet, the trail turned east and I followed suit. Soon I reached the trail namesake.

Brown Elfin Knob with trees and stones

Surrounded by pine trees and dotted with boulders, there wasn’t nearly as much of a view at Brown Elfin Knob as there was at the Overlook.

Quickly passing through, I hiked downhill and reached a sign for Occoneechee Mountain Trail. Then I turned right and started hiking south. As I did, everything suddenly became dark, on account of the lateness of the hour and the sun being on the opposite side of the mountain.

After a tenth of a mile, I reached a slight clearing where the last remainders of sunlight filtered in overhead. Within a few hundred feet, I reached a fork in the trail and took the left branch, continuing straight through a dense patch of forest before reaching a clearing. As I passed through, it was like passing into another world.

Grassy field leading up to pond under couldy sky

Ahead of me, well-manicured grass led to a fishing pond that spread out lazily under a slate gray sky, marking my approach to the parking area. And as I covered the last few hundred feet to my car, I realized that no matter how far I may go from Occoneechee Mountain, it will always hold a special place in my heart.

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