A quick note that many parks and wilderness areas are currently closed. This was a trip from the past and is posted to highlight a beautiful area and provide inspiration and ideas for when it is safe to travel. Please follow any national, regional, and local guidelines.
Research and Planning
I was looking for a winter camping site near the coast and was surprised to learn that North Carolina has its own little bayou known as Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County, about three hours from the Raleigh-Durham area.
Merchants Millpond is comprised of the millpond itself and Lassiter swamp which sits at the head of the millpond. It is like no other State Park I’ve visited and perfect for a winter camping trip.
The Enchanted Swamp
When I first arrived, I was greeted by dense, murky water covered with green moss and algae. Beautiful boardwalks created fairytale-like pictures spanning over and across the swamp.
The bald cypress trees and tupelo gum trees coated in Spanish moss and mistletoe seem to rise out of the water creating a scene from a horror movie yet somehow still enchanting. The rust leaves on the ground behind them finished the eery look.
I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by the surreal beauty of the area.
The Merchants Millpond Alligators
Checking in to the visitor center, I had my second surprise of the day when I encountered the alligator board. The American Alligator is known to live and breed in the swamp even though it was previously considered too far north.
The visitor center houses an alligator watch board where you can note where one was seen along with the date and time. Even though it was a cold February, there was one sighting on the board.
The cold weather predicted over the weekend meant chances of seeing an alligator were low and the ranger explained that they usually slide into the water and hide from humans.
Campsites and Hiking
Thinking things just couldn’t get better, our group hiked through swamp and forest, across boardwalks and fallen leaves, into what I think are some of the best primitive camping sites around.
It’s an easy hike to the sites, which are large and house fire rings and a privy. There are plenty of flat spaces around so no one is fighting for that perfect spot. I guess a lot of people don’t camp in the cold because we had the place to ourselves.
The park has three main trails and a few offshoots for great day hiking. Water from the swamp and millpond can’t be filtered so we had to stop by the visitor center to refill, but that’s only about 2.5 miles from camp and the ground is fairly flat since you’re near the coast.
This is a bit different from the mountains with elevation gains like South Mountains State Park. That doesn’t mean the hiking is easy though.
You can hike all of the trails for a whopping 11 miles in one day (including some backtracking for water and mileage getting to each trailhead), or spread them out for a more leisurely experience.
The visitor center is bright and friendly with a great staff ready to help. There’s a museum where you can view several taxidermied animals set in simulated habitats. Don’t worry though, all of the animals died of natural causes or had run-ins with vehicles.
Getting There and Setting Up Camp
We like to arrive on Friday, register at the office and then hike 2.5 miles to the primitive campsites. The primitive campgrounds are close to the halfway mark around the Lassiter trail circle.
On our last trip, we walked in hanging a right on the loop from the connector. In my mind at least, this feels like it’s slightly shorter than hanging the left and most of the group agreed.
Once we got to camp, everyone started scoping out the perfect tent spot. I found mine a little ways from the fire ring where I could enjoy the sense of being alone but knowing I had friends nearby.
It was February and there was a cold spurt, so we made a fire and hunkered around. No one seemed to want to leave the fire pit. You knew the second you got up, it was going to turn cold.
I finally braved it and took off for my tent. It didn’t take long to warm up in my quilt and I quickly fell asleep with the cold weather.
Hiking the Park – Our Favorite Route
In the morning, we pulled ourselves out of our tents and tried to get a fire started. It had gotten down to around 20 degrees Fahrenheit that night.
What we needed was to eat and get moving fast. With a little pushing, we got everyone in their day packs and headed out for a whirlwind tour of the park.
We took the Lassiter trail in the opposite direction from the day before so we could complete the loop, then headed to the visitor center.
Topping up on water, we then navigated to the Bennett’s Creek Trail loop. This is a nice hike on a well-maintained trail and is mostly flat. There’s some hill, but nothing that registers as difficult.
The trail swings around Lassiter swamp and has an observation deck built out over the water so you can get great views and pictures. There are campsites here if you’d rather be alongside the swamp. I believe these can be used by kayakers.
After a snack break, we continued on our tour.
Continuing our Trek
Finishing up Bennett’s Creek Trail, we hit the road for a brief bit and stopped at the dam. It’s pretty cool to be standing on a bridge overlooking a small dam.
We then continued and found the Coleman Trail. The Coleman trail is a nice trail through some dense woods and, like the majority of the park, mostly level. It starts and ends at a small parking lot with picnic tables and a view of the water.
There’s a second, smaller trail near the tables called Cypress Point Trail which leads to great views overlooking the water. It’s only 0.3 miles so I would definitely recommend taking the time.
We opted to have lunch at the picnic tables since the area was so nice. There were restrooms there along with trash cans which is really special if you’re used to backpacking.
Our group was starting to feel the 8 miles we had already hiked so we headed back to the visitor center to top up our water and continued to camp via the “shorter” Lassiter trail route.
All in all, most mileage trackers were saying it was around an 11 to 12 mile day.
Back at Camp
Since it wasn’t freezing that night, we enjoyed dinner and a fire, then headed to bed.
In the morning we packed up and headed out. I gave everyone the choice for which way to go on Lassiter and they all said left. I think at this point everyone was convinced it was the easier portion of the loop, but I still think it was likely in our heads.
Back at the cars, we took our time packing up and changing clothes. Even though we were tired, I don’t think anyone was ready to leave yet.
Merchants Millpond is now on my must-do yearly list. It’s one of those trips that if I don’t do it, I feel like I’ve missed out on something special.
A little history
In 1811, Norfleets Millpond was built with the intention of being a gristmill and sawmill. It thrived and the area began to grow, soon becoming known for its trade and merchant activity. The millpond began being referred to as Merchants Millpond and was later renamed.
The millpond came to a halt right before World War II. Luckily, A.B. Coleman purchased the property in the 1960s and recognized it was an area of beauty worth protecting. Rather than develop it, he donated 919 acres, including the millpond, to the state. Merchants Millpond State Park was established in 1973 and the Nature Conservancy contributed 925 additional acres of woodlands that same year.
Today the park boasts over 3200 acres of land, including the 750 acre millpond.
I like to visit here in the late fall or winter months, however, even in the heat of summer mosquitoes are not an issue since the numerous dragonflies eat them. Other biting bugs are still around though, including ticks.
Do not feed the alligators. It is unlawful and there is a fine for feeding them.
There is no swimming in the millpond or swamp. Kayaking and canoeing are popular activities and boats can be rented at the boathouse behind the visitor center.
There is ample parking throughout the park. The best pictures are along the boardwalks.