You’ll find more ecological escape packed into this 190-acre preserve on the outskirts of Hillsborough than anywhere else in the Triangle. Occoneechee Mountain has five distinct ecological zones, all of which you’ll encounter on this 3.5-mile loop that encompasses the Occoneechee Mountain Loop, Overlook, Summit and Brown Elfin Knob trails. The diversity of the mountain — topping out at 867 feet and representing the highest spot in the Triangle, Occoneechee does qualify for mountain status — makes for some unique sitings.
The brown elfin butterfly, for instance. Rather nondescript as butterflies go, the brown elfin is nonetheless an oddity here on Occoneechee’s north slope: the nearest known population is 100 miles west, in higher, cooler climates.
Probably the preserve’s best example of diversity is found where the trail swoops down the Eno River. There, a 20-foot north-facing cliff houses a collection of flora more accustomed to the higher Appalachians: rhododendron, mountain laurel, sweet pinesap and galax, the latter being especially unusual at such a low elevation. This area is known as Panther’s Den, btw, named for supposedly being the last spot in the Piedmont where a panther was spotted, more than a century ago.
Another treat on this trail comes off the Overlook Trail. A quarry dating back to the mid-1800s whacked a goodly chunk of the mountain’s northwest flank. That’s unfortunate. But it did result in one of the best views in the region. On a clear day you can see Efland.
Claim peak-bagger status with a short trek up the Summit Trail, but be aware that you’ll find a massive communications tower and retired fire tower closed to the public.
Maps: Downloadable here, also available at the trailhead.
Distance: 20 minutes from downtown Chapel Hill
Time to complete: 2 hours
Address: Orange Grove Road at Virginia Cates Road