by Suzanne M. Wood
The opportunity to fuel up at one of my favorite restaurants sealed the deal when I considered which local segment of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail to hike on an early winter afternoon.
Conveniently, a 2.2-mile section of the trail begins at West Point on the Eno, a Durham city park that’s only a few miles from Elmo’s Diner on Ninth Street. This stretch would also give me the chance to visit the Eno River, one of the Triangle’s most beautiful outdoor recreation areas, with its rapids, gentle falls, and mountain-like terrain and flora.
For this hike – my first on the over 1,000-mile trail that spans Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks – I was joined by my husband, Scott, our elder daughter, Emily, and her boyfriend, Micajah. Both young people were home from college on winter break, and up for an outdoor adventure on a mild day that also came with the promise of a tasty meal. An intrepid photographer and her 8-year-old daughter also joined us.
It just so happened that this stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is labeled “easy.” Because my husband is stronger and fitter than I am, and I’m always up for a challenge, we rarely choose easy routes. But a recent knee injury recalibrated my parameters, and a 4.4-mile round-trip hike sounded like plenty, even with a solid dose of ibuprofin and a makeshift walking stick made from an old mop handle.
One advantage to a hike that isn’t physically challenging is that you have more energy to enjoy the scenery. The sun was at its highest point when we started out. About a mile into our journey, where swampy weeds and a tiny creek crossing gave rise to the trail’s first climb, we were treated to a sparkling view of one of the river’s widest points – a place where rocky outcrops have created a popular summertime swimming spot the locals call Sennett Hole.
Even today, the water looked inviting – one mile into the hike and I was already sweating. I’d overdressed for a winter excursion, but the good thing about padding up like a hockey player is that you can always shed extra layers. White blazes on strategically chosen trees kept us on the trail and also marked where the park’s trail and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail converged. I paid more attention than usual to these signs because I found myself bringing up the rear most of the time. Fortunately, I wasn’t always alone.
It turned out that 8-year-old Finley and I walked at about the same pace, so I had the privilege of her company. She is an expert on mushrooms, as I learned when she piped up that the weirdly beautiful fungus I spotted growing like shingles on a dead oak was called “turkey tail.” I wasn’t alarmed when she broke off one of the gray-and-tan “cups,” which resemble little shells, to show me how they resemble the fan of a wild turkey. She merrily described how turkey tail mushrooms can be brewed into a tea, a fact her mother confirmed when she doubled back to see what was keeping us.
Subsequent research revealed that Trametes versicolor are bracket fungus that grow on dead trees around the world. They’ve been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years for their potent, immunity-enhancing properties. I might try turkey tail myself someday, but I’ll get mine at the health food store.
Embraced by the river on one side and a marshy field on the other, we coasted along the well-trod path, enjoying the more sharply defined landscape that people who limit themselves to lush summertime treks don’t see. Like a beautiful woman without makeup, the woods in winter is pared down to its essence.
Scott pointed out that beavers seemed to love the area. We saw lots of stumps, large and small, whittled down to sharp points near the river’s edge, and smooth ruts along the bank where they slide in and out of the river. A couple of teenaged boys were rigging fishing gear on the edge of the riverbank when we came across them. Their presence served as a reminder that the MST uses existing, well-used park, city, and national forest land to connect one segment to another.
A view of the red-brick office building used by the Eno River Association indicated we’d come to the turnaround spot. As we sat on a log at this halfway point, I thought of a woman who ran the entire Mountains-to-Sea Trail in about 23 days a few summers back to raise awareness and more than $40,000 for the trail’s upkeep and expansion. At 52, Diane Van Deren averaged more than 38 miles a day at a blistering pace over terrain that at times was steep, rocky, and slippery.
Even though I knew it wasn’t fair to compare myself to an endurance athlete so elite that she’s sponsored by The North Face, I did so anyway. I consoled myself that by completing even half of the 4.4-mile hike, I’d probably burned off about half the calories of the oat pancakes with berry compote I’d enjoyed at Elmo’s. Make that a third – I’d splurged for the whipped cream, too.
If you go:
The Triangle is home to about 100 miles of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. About 13 finished miles run along the Eno River; another 12 are scheduled to be completed soon. The remaining segments are located in the Falls Lake Recreation Area. The segment we chose – the 2.2-mile segment from the parking lot of West Point on the Eno to the Eno River Association headquarters at 4404 Guess Road – is one of four possible MST day hikes along the Eno River. The other three are slightly longer and more difficult.
For more information on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and opportunities to hike it in the Triangle, visit ncmst.org/the-trail/mst-day-hikes. On this page, you can click through to specific information and detailed maps of both the Eno River and Falls Lake MST segments.
And a stop at Elmo’s Diner makes this a fun outing for a group of hikers. With a menu that includes everything from all-day breakfasts to salads, burgers, and “chicken & dumplin’s,” it’s got something for everyone.
776 Ninth St., Durham; elmosdiner.com