North Carolina’s ‘Enchanted Forest’

Merchants Millpond State Park showcases the natural beauty of swampland

By Renee C. Gannon | Photos by Renee C. Gannon

Traveling through a real-life version of Tolkien’s Middle-earth (without the hobbits, elves and warring orcs) is one thought that may come to mind of visitors to Merchants Millpond State Park. This slice of nature in northeastern North Carolina provides a different outdoor experience than the usual hikes and paddles in the Piedmont and mountains.

Merchants millpond

The park consists of Lassiter Swamp and a 200-year-old millpond built to provide grain and lumber milling for what was a thriving center of trade in 19th century Gates County. In addition to the 760-acre pond and adjacent swamp, the park also features about 1,000 acres of woodland and scenic routes by water and by land.

Paddle your stress away

The millpond and swamp offer a glimpse of nature before civilization. Canoe and kayak rentals are available at the visitor’s center. Numbered buoys mark the paddle trail, but you should explore one of the many inlets off the path. (Just remember which way you paddled and reverse course, with eyes peeled for the buoys.)

Merchants Millpond 3

Park rangers explain the three colored paddling trails (blue, orange, yellow), with each one building on to the next. The longest, yellow, encompasses all three for 1.25 miles one way. A large portion of the pond awaits exploring beyond the yellow trail’s last buoy. Also available is a longer 4.5-mile camping paddle trail along Bennetts Creek.

Once on the water, enjoy the slow-moving, tannin-colored water; watch for turtles perched along logs to catch the sun’s warmth as well as egrets standing along the shoreline; and know snakes are ever-present, though mostly unseen. The quiet of the park lets you hear bird calls from warblers to owls and hammering woodpeckers, as well as a chorus of frogs.

Hike into another world

Once back on land, stretch out with a walk through the park’s forest that surrounds the water.

Close to 11 miles of trails traverse the park, from the shoreline, into the marshes and woodlands. Four trails are available. (The short Cypress Point Trail is handicap-accessible but currently closed for renovations due to Hurricane Matthew damage.) All trails are deemed easy, this being the flat coastal plain.

Merchants millpond trail

The Bennetts Creek Trail (2 miles) comes recommended by a park ranger, which he describes as a walk in an enchanted forest with its tree canopy, marshlands and much of the trail covered in lush green moss. He also pointed to Coleman Trail (2 miles) for my first trek, which leads along the edges of the millpond and its inlets before turning inland toward the Bennetts Creek trailhead across the road.

The “enchanted forest” description for Bennetts Creek could not be any more accurate. The atmosphere had a medieval feel, with the knees of Cypress tree roots protruding from gray-green swampy water and the tall American beech, pine and other hardwoods filtering the sun’s rays entering the forest. The often moss-colored trail winds through both hardwood stands and marshlands, giving you an idea of the ecological diversity this park holds.

The park is open year-round, closed only on Christmas Day. The visitor’s center educational exhibit is worth exploring before heading outdoors. Spring and fall are ideal times to visit, with lower temperatures (and possibly less buggy). Paddle- and hike-in family and group camping sites are available along the pond’s shores and the wooded trails for a fee.

Merchants Millpond State Park

176 Millpond Road, Gatesville [mapnew-window] | bit.ly/MerchantsMillpond

About the Author

Renee C. Gannon is the senior associate editor of Carolina Country.

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