Red clay overlook lined by wooden fence with rock formation and view of river and trees below.

Occoneechee Mountain State Park, NC

I guess I should start off by saying that even though everyone calls it Occoneechee Mountain State Park, or Occoneechee Mountain, it’s actually Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area. You also don’t want to confuse it with Occoneechee State Park in Virginia.

Okay, now that we’ve got the name out of the way (and I’m giving myself props for using Occoneechee 4 times in a paragraph), let’s talk about the park.

Located in Hillsborough, NC the park is basically one mountain, and at 867 feet, it’s the highest point in Orange County.  If you live in the Triangle area, Occoneechee Mountain is the largest climb available before you hit the mountains. This makes it the best local training ground for trail runners, hikers, and backpackers preparing for a trip.

Squirrel behind a bush on top of rocky overlook.

While it’s a separate entity from Eno River State Park, Occoneechee Mountain is managed by the Eno River Park office.

The area is believed to be relatively unchanged since the last ice age, based on geological studies and the presence of certain species of plants and animals in the area. You really are stepping back in time when you visit.

Activities at Occoneechee Mountain State Park

The park offers over 3 miles of hiking trails that can be added together to create fun loops. There are also 2 ponds for fishing, and a picnic area.

While there are no camping facilities at Occoneechee Mountain, you can head to Eno River State Park about 10 miles away.

There’s a cute picnic area right by the parking lot. I’ve seen families have get-togethers here and a few small parties.

There is no Visitor Center, but a pit toilet is available near the picnic area.

View of blue pond surrounded by brown grass at Occoneechee State Park

Training at Occoneechee Mountain

Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail is the longest trail at 2.2 miles. Looking at a map, you can see it circles the mountain. In actuality, it goes up one side of the mountain, then circles the top, takes you down a bit, climbs back up, makes you feel better when it levels out, then takes you downhill back to the parking lot.

Many hikers and trail runners like to run the loop multiple times. In reverse, the trail is different but just as difficult. There’s no “easier” direction.

When I have a big backpacking trip, I like to load my pack with weight and go around the loop 3 or 4 times. This isn’t just 6 to 8 miles, it’s also climbing 867 feet 3 or 4 times. What a great way to prep for a trip!

Features of Occoneechee Mountain

At the top of the mountain is the overlook. Sitting on top of an old rock quarry, there’s a bench, a fence for safety, and a beautiful view. This is a popular spot for families.

Red clay overlook area with rock formation and wooden fence with view of trees and river below.

The second feature is the rock quarry itself which takes a bit of hiking to reach. Don’t expect a swimming hole though, the only things here are rock formations and nooks and crannies to explore. It’s a fun place to wander around and explore.

Parking at Occoneechee State Park

Parking is free. The entrance to the park is a dirt and gravel road with an unpaved lot at the end. There’s usually plenty of room in the morning, but during the summer you’ll want to arrive early or late in the afternoon.

When the lot fills, Rangers often block the road and only allow cars in as others leave.

The good news is that several trail running groups like to meet in the morning so around 10 am several cars tend to leave at once.

Trails at Occoneechee State Park

Occoneechee Mountain Trail

Difficulty: Intermediate for the terrain

Mileage: 2.2-mile loop

It may only be 2.2 miles, but this trail is no joke. The mountain loop does just what the name implies, it winds you up the mountain and then back down. Along the way expect more ups and downs, and some rather large steps.

For a bit, you’ll find yourself at the bottom hiking along the Eno River. There are benches here to stop and enjoy the moment before heading out again.

The trail goes through woods, along the river, and also follows a section of powerlines for a short bit. The powerline section is one of the toughest areas of the trail. If you start from the trailhead at the parking lot going clockwise, you’ll climb rock steps, and wooden stairs before reaching this section. And the powerline section is steep. In the summer, since it’s out in the open, it can become hot.

The good news is it’s only a short bit before you’re back in the tree line.

After a little more climbing, you’ll find yourself on a pleasant section, usually uncrowded, meandering through thicker shrubs. The final leg takes you downhill toward the lake on a bed of soft pine needles.

Eventually, you’ll see a residence and the dirt road leading back to the parking lot.

The trail is rocky in spots and has uneven terrain. Hiking boots are recommended.

Overlook Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Mileage: 0.15 miles

The Overlook Trail is an easy hike. It’s a spur that connects the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail to the overlook itself. The hard part is getting to the Overlook Trail.

The easier way to the overlook is to follow the dirt and gravel road from the parking lot, past the private residence, and continue up the hill. Technically, this is part of the Chestnut Oak Trail. It’s a little shorter and an easier hike. Almost at the top, there’s a sign for the Overlook Trail.

Chestnut Oak Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Mileage: 0.9 miles

This is a favorite for people with children. Chestnut Oak Trail is 0.9 miles with half being a gravel road. It’s the easier way up the mountain. Now, I said easier, I didn’t say easy. It’s still a climb.

The trail is not a loop. If you head down the gravel road to the right from the parking lot, it will take you up the mountain, then wind along the back before intersecting with the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail about 0.5 miles from the parking lot.

Think of it as a shortcut. If you don’t have much time, or there are small children and 2.2 miles seems a bit much, this is a good option to cut the mileage but still do a loop around the mountain.

Brown Elfin Knob Trail

Difficulty: Easy

Mileage: 0.1 miles

Sometimes when I’m training at Occoneechee Mountain, I’ll head up the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail, then make the right on Elfin Knob for something different.

Having been on this trail more than once, I’m convinced the 0.1 miles is an understatement. It always feels longer, but in a good way.

The trail wanders through terrain lined with rocks and feels more open than the other trails. It connects with the Chestnut Oak Trail towards the bottom of the hill.

It’s a simple connector between the Mountain Loop Trail and Chestnut Oak Trail.

The trail is named after the Brown Elfin butterfly, which inhabits the area.

Rocky side of mountain with trees as seen from the bottom of the rock quarry

Hiking to Hillsborough

There is an extension trail near the wooden steps at the rock quarry off Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail. From here, you can hike all the way to the Occoneechee Speedway.

It’s a little tricky though. The extension trail ends near a group of businesses, then picks up on the other side before connecting to the Hillsborough Riverwalk at Gold Park. Follow the Riverwalk all the way to downtown Hillsborough and keep going to reach the Speedway.

There are several hiking groups that enjoy this hike. If you haven’t done it before, a GPS app on your phone will help you navigate the gap between Gold Park and the extension.

Wrap-Up Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

While it’s one of the smallest NC State Parks, Occoneechee Mountain is the perfect place to get out on a nice day. Trail runners wanting a good workout without a lot of time will find the trails and climb challenging and hikers will enjoy a quiet getaway in nature.

I love it because it’s my local go-to when I’m training for a big backpacking trip.

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