Hiking through Wildflowers on George Pyne Trail at Penny’s Bend

Wholeleaf rosinweed flower

As you probably know, I’ve been hiking along the banks of the Eno River for the past five years. In that time, I’ve covered almost every trail at Eno River State Park, Occoneechee Speedway, Occoneechee Mountain, and the Hillsborough Riverwalk — all of which adjoin the Eno River. But because of its inaccessibility and my own depleted health, I’ve never been to Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve, which covers the easternmost extent of the Eno River in Durham, North Carolina.

However, that changed on July 30th, 2020, when I took my first hike at Penny’s Bend. Along the way, I covered an easy 2.1 mile loop on the George Pyne Trail, following the upstream course of the Eno River and passing through floodplain, woodland, and meadow. In the last part, I even found a surprising selection of wildflowers, two of which were new to me.

Map of Penny's Bend Nature Preserve

Arriving from the south on Old Oxford Road, I pulled into the ridiculously small parking area for Penny’s Bend (3708 Snow Hill Road, Durham, NC 27712) and barely managed to find a spot. (The parking area is gravel and dirt with only one usable driveway and a maximum capacity of six cars.) Getting out of my car, I was disappointed to see the accumulation of trash along the edge of the parking area, including an old mattress — which was here for what reason I can only imagine.

Taking the first trail that presented itself, I walked straight from the parking lot down to the Eno River, to the site of Cameron’s New Mill.

Old Oxford Road crossing Eno River

When I got there, I looked for signs of the mill but found none; instead I found a nice view of the Eno River flowing under Old Oxford Road to the east.

Backtracking a bit, I crossed a steep creek and reached the trailhead for George Pyne Trail, which you can tell by the big sign for Penny’s Bend.

Park kiosk at Penny's Bend

Crossing a wooden footbridge, I started hiking west along the banks of the Eno River. The trail was narrow and poorly maintained, and there were many places where overgrown vegetation nearly blocked my path.

Overgrown trail with sunlight

After a tenth of a mile, I reached a clearing where I could see a better view of the Eno River with the bridge over Old Oxford Road in the distance.

Eno River with Old Oxford Road in the distance

Continuing down George Pyne Trail, I noticed the Eno River bending to the south as it skirted the edge of the diabase sill that forms the geologic backbone of Penny’s Bend.

With overgrown vegetation on either side, I soon passed one of many quaint wooden benches, placed alongside the trail at regular intervals.

Quaint wooden bench

After a half mile, I reached the southernmost extent of Penny’s Bend, where George Pyne Trail bends back on itself, reversing direction from south to north.

Winding trail through trees

Around this point, I happened to look down and noticed something by the trail.

Porcelain gray moth

Stooping down, I found this one-inch wide porcelain gray moth (Protoboarmia porcelaria), doing his best to blend in with his surroundings despite his notable white and brown mottling.

As George Pyne Trail continued to bend northward, I noticed more clearings to my left, where I could see private land across the river and heard sporadic bursts of semi-automatic gunshots. (These gunshots continued for the rest of my hike, lending it a greater sense of drama than I otherwise expected.)

Soon I reached a clearing on my left where there appeared to have been an old mill site. Descending the short distance to the riverbank, I found a nice view of the Eno River flowing downstream.

Downstream view of the Eno River

Returning to George Pyne Trail, I continued hiking north until I came to a fork in the trail, which I almost missed due to the overgrown vegetation.

Fork in the trail

After a moment’s consultation with the digital park map, I determined that I needed to take the right branch in order to continue on George Pyne Trail.

Turning right, I reversed direction and started up the steepest incline at Penny’s Bend, which was lined with rocks and boulders.

Uphill trail through rocks

After ascending seventy feet, I came to a large rock formation.

Little Blowing Rock

Judging from the trail map, I quickly determined this was Little Blowing Rock — though there was no explanation on the map or official site for where this name came from.

Soon the trail reached level ground, and I found myself hiking through a grove of pine trees.

Trail though pine trees

Gradually the pine trees gave way to oak trees, and then the oak trees gave way to a meadow.

Meadow with blue sky

Along this meadow, there were numerous wildflowers.

Wholeleaf rosinweed flowers

The first one to catch my attention was this wholeleaf rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), which took me a solid two hours to identify after the fact, thanks to its close resemblance to a number of other species in the aster family. (In addition to the bright yellow flowers with up to 25 “petals” — actually ray florets — the leaves and buds are great indicators, since the former are opposite, entire, sessile, and decussate, and the latter have layered roseate calyxes.)

Ironweed flowers

The second wildflower to catch my attention was this ironweed (Vernonia spp.) — most likely New York ironweed (V. noveboracensis), though it frequently hybridizes with tall ironweed (V. gigantea). (The brilliant magenta flower clusters with numerous disk florets are helpful in identification, along with the bracts that encase the flower clusters.)

After a few hundred feet, I came to the edge of the meadow, where a dirt road joined George Pyne Trail. Turning left, I continued east for a couple hundred feet and passed a creepy metallic trailer sitting out in the woods for no apparent reason.

Old metallic trailer in the woods

Within fifty feet, I came to very small and inconspicuous opening to my right, which — after consulting my trail map — I realized was the last stretch of my hike.

Trail through woods

Crossing onto it, I entered the forest once again and continued another tenth of a mile, retracing my steps from earlier as I passed back onto the initial stretch of George Pyne Trail. Within ten minutes, I was back at the parking area, getting into my car and cooling off from the oppressive July heat. And despite the trash and overgrown vegetation, I was pleased to discover another fascinating corner of the Eno River, where nature has a chance to flourish once again.

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