Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on January 29, 2023.
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough is one of the most unique spots in Central North Carolina. The 221-acre NC State Parks site features one of the only mountain peaks in the otherwise flat Central NC landscape.
Occoneechee Mountain rises 350 feet above the Eno River and is reportedly the highest point between Hillsborough and the coast. Our guide will show you how to reach the top of Occoneechee Mountain, hike all of the park’s trails, and explore the rest of Hillsborough!
So you can jump ahead to the trails or other activities, we’ve organized the guide into the following sections:
- Where is Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area?
- Leave No Trace Reminder
- Things to Do
- Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
- More Hiking Trails
- Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
- Nearby Places
You’re welcome to jump ahead to any of the aforementioned sections or continue reading some interesting park history. Visual planners (like us) can find Occoneechee Mountain on our North Carolina Travel Map and Central North Carolina Map.
Read More: 50 of the Best Day Trips from Durham
Where is Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area?
625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278
- Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is located in the Orange County town of Hillsborough.
- This NC State Parks-managed site is the perfect day trip from many of NC’s biggest cities.
- It’s about 20 minutes away from Chapel Hill and also, 20 minutes away from Durham.
- The park is also about 45 minutes away from Raleigh and 45 minutes away from Greensboro.
Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area History
The land that makes up Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is a natural wonder. Researchers believe the mountain and surrounding area have stayed relatively the same since the last Ice Age.
This phenomenon is likely due to the presence of brown elfin, a rare butterfly species that call the area home.
Brown elfin used to populate much of the Piedmont region, but major landscape transformations after the Ice Age caused a decline in their numbers. Now, the butterflies are mostly found near Occoneechee Mountain due to the cooler temperatures there.
Becoming a State Natural Area
- Like much of the Hillsborough area, the land that makes up Occoneechee State Park, NC was once occupied by the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation.
- European immigrants settled the area during the colonial era, as Hillsborough is one of NC’s oldest settlements. A mill village was here until the mid-1980s.
- In 1997, the State of North Carolina purchased land at Occoneechee Mountain.
- Today, it’s one of our State Parks sites and is managed by the Eno River State Park office.
Before You Go: Leave No Trace Reminder
We want to remind you that it’s important to leave Occoneechee Mountain as you found it. Please pack out what you pack in and leave no trace.
You can give this amazing park a big hug by picking up any trash you see and taking it with you. We often bring a grocery bag to do so.
Things to Do at Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area
Today the park boasts a variety of trails to explore and places to see, including a summit overlook rivaling those in the Western mountains, an old quarry, fishing spots, and the winding Eno River.
The trails are all naturally surfaced and there are occasional roots along the way.
Here’s a breakdown of all the things to do at Occoneechee Mountain.
Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail
When visiting Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area, there are four different trails you can choose from.
The longest but most comprehensive trail in the park is the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail at 2.2 miles. It is naturally surfaced and there are some roots along the way, so be mindful as you hike.
Just as the name suggests, the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail takes you in a loop around the outskirts of the park, beginning and ending at the parking lot. You can enter from the parking lot or cut onto this trail from one of the other trails.
Here’s a breakdown of the hike, starting with our preferred route on the loop:
- You’ll be closer to the overlook if you hike counterclockwise or towards the west.
- We’ve hiked both ways and prefer this route and the scenery you’ll see along the way. Either way, you’ll start hiking around Occoneechee Mountain.
- For the first leg of the hike, you’ll likely hear noise from I-85 from the west or I-40 from the east. It’s especially louder in winter when there’s less tree cover, but the noise subsides rather quickly.
- Overall, occasional inclines and roots make this a somewhat challenging and semi-long hike. However, it’s also a rewarding one, as you’ll cross all kinds of terrain while following the quiet Eno River.
- We especially love this hike during fall, but it’s a nice trail throughout the year.
More Hiking Trails
- Brown Elfin Knob Trail (0.1 miles): Named for the park’s rare butterfly, the Brown Elfin Knob Trail is a short side trail that explores the oak forest scenery. The trail is surrounded by mountain laurel and rhododendron and is especially beautiful in the springtime. The Brown Elfin Knob Trail connects to both the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail and the Chestnut Oak Trail. It’s a fun detour that can easily be extended into a longer trail.
- Chestnut Oak Trail (0.9 miles): The Chestnut Oak Trail is a 0.9-mile trail that starts at the parking lot from the east and eventually loops into the Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail. This trail takes you through the park’s center, surrounded by forest and flora.
- Overlook Trail: The Overlook Trail is another short 0.15-mile trail that connects with all three of the other trails. This trail traipses through beautiful forests and features stunning scenery. Take a slight detour onto this trail for some new sights!
The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is also a great place for fishing and enjoying the water! For starters, there are a pair of small, quiet ponds near the parking lot that teem with bass and bream.
Venture further in with the fishing streams in the Neuse River Basin or the Eno River itself. Common fish found in these waters include bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and the Roanoke bass that’s only found in four areas across northeastern NC and southeastern Virginia.
A North Carolina fishing license is required for anyone over the age of 16 who plans to fish with bait or gear in NC’s public waters.
Enjoy a nice afternoon with a picnic lunch at one of the tree-shaded picnic tables near the parking lot. Round out a fulfilling day of hiking with a meal at the picnic grounds before leaving!
The park also offers quite a few regular interpretive programs that serve to introduce visitors to the natural world and help them learn more about the uniquities of NC parks.
Most programs and events are free but require pre-registration, so check their website to stay updated!
Programs are usually led by park rangers. One particularly interesting event was one about what parts of trees are edible and even lets visitors taste some parts of a tree!
Ready to Visit Occoneechee Mountain?
While Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is one of North Carolina’s smallest state parks sites, one visit isn’t enough to take in its beauty! Each season brings something new to the experience, so try coming multiple times throughout the year.
There are also so many different combinations of hiking trails to try. Mix up the path you take through the park and explore different habitats and scenery!
If you’re familiar with this park, we’d love to know how you enjoy it. Let us know here in the comments or by email.
Don’t forget to share your Hillsborough adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!
More Things to Do Near Occoneechee State Park NC
Nearby Hillsborough is the perfect place to grab a meal or spend an afternoon after a hike at Occoneechee Mountain.
- Indulge in a meal at Saratoga Grill, a restaurant known for its extensive seafood menu.
- For a casual dinner for the whole family, Radius Pizzeria never disappoints, followed by dessert at Matthew’s Chocolates.
Here are a few more fun things to do in Hillsborough.
Occoneechee Speedway Trail
For more trails, visit the Occoneechee Speedway Trail in Hillsborough, a mile-long loop rich with history. The Speedway Trail was once a NASCAR Superspeedway and was considered one of the most dangerous tracks.
As you walk along the trail, you’ll see remnants of old cars and other NASCAR memorabilia marking the area’s history.
The Riverwalk Trail is another leisurely trail that stretches for two miles along the Eno River. We like entering from the downtown entrance after grabbing a coffee or from Gold Park after enjoying the playground for a bit.
Finally, be sure to visit the luxurious Ayr Mount. Constructed in 1815, Ayr Mount was the home of Confederate general William Kirkland, who named it after his birthplace in Ayr, Scotland.
Winding through the property is the Poet’s Walk, a mile-long loop that explores the grounds.
More Things to Do in Hillsborough and Nearby (Travel Guides)
Beyond Occoneechee State Park NC and Hillsborough, there are quite a few fun things to do in Orange County. You’re within a short drive from Chapel Hill and many more places that we’ve covered in these NC travel guides.