Wand'ring Again

small adventures in Eastern North Carolina and beyond

Two Little Rivers: Diminutive Adventures from the Coastal Plain to the Piedmont

In preparation for the Neusiok Trail blog entry, I did some reading about the Neuse River, a body of water that forms part of the northern boundary of the Croatan National Forest. The Neuse River begins in Falls Village, where it flows out of Falls Lake through Falls Dam.

Before Falls Dam was built, the Neuse River ran from the piedmont onto the coastal plain, forming white waters known as the Falls of the Neuse. Construction of the dam began in 1978 and was completed in 1981. It was built to help control frequent flooding that occurred in the area, and it created a 28-mile-long lake that currently supports many recreational activities.

According to several sources, the Neuse River/Falls Lake is formed by the confluence of the Eno River, the Flat River, and the Little River. Having become interested in Falls Lake, I in turn became curious to learn more about these three rivers. My interest in Little River was especially piqued when I realized that it also emptied into Neuse River at Goldsboro – about 50 miles southeast of Falls Lake!

After a bit of research, I discovered several things about Little River. First, there are at least eight different rivers within North Carolina named Little River. Second, the Little River that empties into the Eno River is formed by the merging of North Fork Little River and South Fork Little River about 4.5 miles northwest of its termination. Third, the Little River that joins the Neuse River in Goldsboro originates at Youngsville, about ten miles east of Falls Lake.

As the title of this posting suggests, rather than exploring the Little River, I visited various spots along the lengths of the two Little Rivers I’ve described. My adventures began with the more southerly of the two, and then moved on to the more northerly Little River.

The locations of the major points of interest to which I travelled are shown on the map above, and include the following: A) Old Waynesborough Park, B) Little River Picnic Area, C) Mystery Lake, D) Little River Park, E) Mitchell Mill State Natural Area, F) Moore’s Pond, G) Falls Dam, H) Wilkerson Nature Preserve, I) Little River Lake, and J) Little River Regional Park and Natural Area. With a few exceptions that are mentioned below, I visited these locations in a single day.

Old Waynesborough Park

The Little River ends in Goldsboro when it empties into the Neuse River at the northwest corner of Old Waynesborough Park. The park is located where the town of Waynesborough (the former Wayne county seat) was situated from 1787 until 1847. Today the 150-acre park features a “village” composed of historic buildings relocated to the site from around the county, as well as four miles of trails through fields, forest, and cypress swamp.

The park website indicates that its hours are from sunrise to sunset, and that the historic village opens at 9:00 a.m. and closes at 5:00 p.m. I arrived at 7:00 a.m. only to discover a sign saying that the trails did not open until 8:00 a.m. Because I had no interest in killing an hour at the nearby Dunkin Donuts, I decided to ignore the sign and begin my explorations.

It was a bright, clear, chilly morning, and there was frost on the ground.

I took a quick walk around the village even though the buildings were closed. Except for a replica of a blacksmith’s shop, all the structures are original and most date from the 1800’s. Some are furnished to reflect their original purposes, and others display the trappings of some other businesses. For example, a tobacco-grading shed has been fitted with the period equipment of a print shop. My favorite structures were a one-room schoolhouse that was later converted to a Quaker church, and a hay barn/corn crib.

The walking trails consist of three concentric loops and a fourth adjacent loop trail that had been closed since October when hurricane Matthew caused extensive damage to that portion of the park. I took the orange trail in a counterclockwise direction.

After moving across a large open field, the trail entered the wooded portion of the park, and I soon came across Cogdell Cemetery. The grave with the earliest identifiable burial date is from 1846, and the newest is from 1904.

After leaving the cemetery, I came to the cypress swamp area. As I entered, many great blue herons and deer were startled and scattered noisily before I could get any pictures.

After leaving the swamp area, I got my first view of the Neuse River. A lovely mist was rising from the slow-moving water. Although I had been slightly nervous about walking through the park before the posted opening time, when I came across a man fishing from the shore I decided there was probably no one around that objected to early birds.

The trail was easy to follow and signs identifying some of the native trees were placed along its length. These plaques provided more information about their subjects than any others I have seen elsewhere.

Soon I arrived at the point where the Little River flows into the Neuse, and my exploration of Little River truly began.

The trail ran beside the Little River for only a short distance, so I moved at a leisurely pace to make the most of it and strolled along a few side paths that took me close to the river’s edge.


Some of the park sights were those that are very familiar to anyone living in North Carolina – our state bird, the cardinal, and red bud trees. Great blue herons are also plentiful in eastern North Carolina, but until this day I had never seen a flock of them flying overhead. In the past I had only ever seen solitary fliers.

I was crossing an open field near the end of my walk when I saw the shadows of about a dozen birds landing in the tree beside me. I turned toward the tree and was amazed to see its branches full of cedar waxwings. I had often admired pictures of these birds in field guides, but had never seen a live one before. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer way to complete my visit to the charming Old Waynesborough Park.

Little River Picnic Area

I probably spend way too much time with Google Maps, but I get immense pleasure from virtual exploration in preparation for actual outings. While painstakingly tracing the course of the Little River, I had noticed several places that I don’t think I would have discovered in any other way.

Just a speck on the map, the Little River Picnic Area sits beside Old Dam Road in the town of Kenly. I parked on the north side of the road, walked to the other side, and follow a narrow path into the trees.

The area beside the river was small and mostly overgrown. There were no signs, tables, or traces of recent picnicking. The only indications that it was once the site of outdoor meals were a few brick fire pits in disrepair.

Mystery Lake

In the township of Marks Creek, a stream connects the Little River to a 15-acre granite quarry lake called Mystery Lake. Although it is easy to determine its location on the map, I couldn’t learn much else about Mystery Lake. In one online hiking forum, a post mentions that it is situated deep within dense woods and is, therefore, inaccessible. On the other hand, there is a Mystery Lake Scuba Park Facebook page that says it will be open to the public starting in the summer of 2017.

Although it seemed unlikely that I could manage to get to Mystery Lake, how could I resist trying to see a place with such a name?

I parked at the end of Old Quarry Road (red dot on map), got out of the car, and sized up the situation. The property that appeared to be adjacent to Mystery Lake was posted as private (yellow square), but there were woods just south of its gravel entrance way. The vegetation there did not look especially thick and, I imagined that I might make my way around the private property and arrive at the lake via a circuitous route.

Keeping to the less overgrown areas and avoiding the occasional swampy bits, it wasn’t long before I felt that my path was being diverted away from my goal. Soon the woods became unpassable, and I turned back, retracing my steps to the car. An approximation of the path I took is marked in red on the map.

I had considered it a longshot that I would manage to get to Mystery Lake, so I wasn’t overly disappointed when my efforts didn’t pan out. Later that day, after I returned home, I rechecked the map and realized I had misremembered its location relative to Old Quarry Road. Rather than being southeast of the road’s end, it was northeast and beyond the private property I had avoided.

A few days later I returned to the area and walked along the railroad tracks (green line) that run close by the northwest edge of the lake. In almost no time the water was visible through trees that bore “No Trespassing” signs. There were no people or buildings in sight, and I didn’t imagine it would take me long to investigate, so I disregarded the postings and pushed through the brush towards the lake.

The sky was bright and clear, and the lake’s surface had an iridescent blue appearance. Sadly, I didn’t get very close because the ground dropped off steeply to the water’s edge. So, being satisfied with my brief glimpse of Mystery Lake, I hurried away, thinking that I might gain better access later in the year after the park opening.

Little River Park

The nine-acre Little River Park lies two miles west of the town of Zebulon. Once the site of a mill and an icehouse, the waterfalls formed by the dammed Little River were, until recently, considered the most attractive feature of the park. Unfortunately, the heavy waters resulting from hurricane Matthew caused major damage to the dam, reducing the size of the millpond and the beauty of the cascades.

I enjoyed climbing around the areas both below and above the remains of the dam, and the geese seemed little bothered by my presence.

A great blue heron was less thrilled by my intrusion as I moved upstream to view the remnants of the old mill.

According to the website for the town of Zebulon, the dam once powered a sawmill, and sawdust from the mill was used as insulation in an adjoining icehouse. In addition, the dam is said to have been used to generate electricity for the town residents. Several websites also mention the presence of walking trails at the park, but I was unable to find any.

Posted to YouTube by Russell Mizelle, here is a video that shows the dam and falls before the damage caused by hurricane Matthew. You might want to turn the volume off before watching it, because the music is pretty dreadful.

A different video posted by Puremac69 shows the location during the time immediately after hurricane Matthew.

Mitchell Mill State Natural Area

Mitchell Mill State Natural Area is a 105-acre tract situated about five miles north of Zebulon. The bulk of the property was purchased in 1976, and some smaller sections were added to it in the late 1980’s. Most of this land lies within the boundaries formed by Zebulon Road (on the east), Mitchell Mill Road (south), Pulley Town Road (west), and Fenmar Lane (north), although small portions are located northeast of Zebulon Road and south of Mitchell Mill Road. The red lines on the map below indicate the approximate limits of the area.

A dam built across the Little River in about 1800 provided power to several local industries up until 1915. The map above shows roads that used to pass through the area (brown lines), as well as locations of several buildings that were used during that time. These included a sawmill (1), a grist mill (2), a cotton gin (3), two houses (4 and 5), two stores (6 and 7), an icehouse (8), a blacksmith (9), and the original Beulah Church (10).

Today, the state-owned land is best known as an environmentally-important location because of its massive granite outcropping. The exposed rock is part of the largest granite dome on the east coast, and the area is home to several rare, threatened, and endangered flora and fauna species.

There are several access points to Mitchell Mill State Natural Area. These are indicated by the colored dots on the map above, and the purple line represents the location of the dam remains. There are laybys north of Mitchell Mill Road (red dot), west of Pulley Town Road (blue dot), east of Pulley Town Road (yellow dot), and southwest of Zebulon Road (green dot). Each of the pullovers requires drivers to move onto low shoulders, and the one beside Zebulon Road is especially steep, so caution is required to avoid bottoming out.

I’ve visited Mitchell Mill State Natural Area a total of three times so far. My first and longest visit was in mid-March, on the same day I visited most of the other places described in this posting. The other two visits were quite brief, and were made while passing nearby for other purposes. They occurred at the end of March and in the middle of April.

Although a network of paths can be found on both sides of the Little River, there are no blazed or maintained trails at Mitchell Mill State Natural Area. Getting around the area in mid-March was challenging because many areas were overgrown with thorny vines, and by mid-April the nasty vegetation was so dense that some paths were no longer passable. I recommend moving from layby to layby and exploring the area in bits and pieces rather than attempting to get everywhere from a single starting point.

Except for the one by Zebulon Road, all of the parking areas are small and can accommodate only two or three cars. Nevertheless, because few people seem to spend time in the area, I never encountered much competition for the limited space.

I first stopped at the Mitchell Mill Road layby. The path from the parking area forks almost immediately. The right-hand option leads to the area beneath the dam, whereas the left-hand turn takes one to the top of the dam and beyond.

The dam was built atop the giant granite outcropping, and it is easy to explore the area below it by walking across the massive expanse of stone.

The dam was built with two openings in the wall. Water moving through the upper opening was channeled to the mills to power their wheels. The opening at the bottom of the dam wall was only undone every two to three years in order to drain the millpond so that the accumulated sediment could be removed.

As I wandered about below the dam I saw bladder wort (left) and water-starwort (right) growing in some of the shallow waters.

The path to the area above the dam was very narrow and prickly, but the view from atop the dam was worth the effort required to get there.

I continued north along the western river bank for as far as I could. The thorny growth became quite thick before long, and soon I pushed my way to the west where I encountered more of the massive granite dome. I continued exploring this area until I emerged at Pulley Town Road across from the parking area on its west side. Rather than going through the trouble of bushwhacking your way from the dam to this rocky area, I suggest using the much easier route from Pulley Town Road.

Whichever approach you choose, be sure to choose one of them – this portion of Mitchell Mill State Natural Area should not be missed.

It was in this western region that I saw two of the endangered plant species for which the area is well-known

Generous amounts of elf orpine (aka Small’s stonecrop) grows on the exposed granite there. The red succulent leaves were throughout the area when I visited in mid-March.

When I returned in mid-April, the plant was in bloom and the tiny white flowers covered generous portions of the granite.

In the wetter areas, just south of the exposed granite, endangered Small’s purslane was growing along several narrow pathways.


Less rare plants on display were hop clover and blue-eyed grass, and common whitetail dragonflies enjoyed sunning themselves on the rock.

Just north of this area, the road passes over Cedar Branch.

From the parking area on the east side of Pulley Town Road, one reaches the granite on the western bank of the Little River.

Graffiti, litter, and vandalism is markedly greater in this zone, suggesting that it is particularly popular. Some of the less disturbing defacement resulted in the positioning of broken rocks in the shallow waters to form stepping stones to the little islands in the river.

At some spots on the rock bank, the “peeling” of layers from the exposed granite could be seen, and white fringe trees were in bloom during my April visit.

From the large parking area west of Zebulon Road, one can easily access the eastern shore of the Little River.

The water flows in wide sheets over the solid granite riverbed.

Scattered along the shore were the remains of freshwater bivalves.

A path through the trees seemed to hold the promise of a new vista, but ended at the backyard of a nearby home.

I investigated the areas east of Zebulon Road and south of Mitchell Mill Road, but could find no paths that allowed me to enter. There was only extremely thick vegetation, and passage would have required the use of a machete.

Well, I might have overdone it with the mediocre photos of this place, but at least my enthusiasm for Mitchell Mill State Natural Area should be obvious. This was one of the most interesting spots that I discovered along the Little River, and it seems to be an underappreciated gem of the eastern North Carolina outdoors.

Moore’s Pond

The more southern of the two Little Rivers originates in the suburbs of Youngsville.

Just three miles downstream, a dam creates Moores Pond, and I was curious to see it. There were only private drives approaching the pond, so I had to be satisfied with pulling over at the side of the road to get a meager glimpse of the dam. It was worth it, however, because as I stood beside my car a bald eagle flew overhead in the direction of the water.

Falls Dam

As mentioned before, of the two Little Rivers upon which I focused, the northern one terminates at Falls Lake. For this reason, and because it was not out of my way, I decided to make a brief stop at the dam that forms the lake.

Although there are several hiking areas around Falls Lake, most are not extensive, and the primary recreation at the lake (big surprise) is boating. The major exception to this is the Mountains-to-Sea (MTS) trail that runs along the western perimeter of the lake.

I plan to explore the MTS in the future, but did not hike it during this “little adventure.” Instead, I simply paused long enough to glimpse the lake from atop the dam and to see the output of the dam that creates the Neuse River.

I had planned to walk some of the Neuse River Greenway that extends south of the dam, put it was occupied by hundreds of trail-hogging bicyclists, so I moved on to my next point-of-interest instead.

Wilkerson Nature Preserve

The Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve Park is located just west of Falls Dam. The park was established in 2006 on a 157-acre plot of land donated to the city by the renowned Dr. Wilkerson of Raleigh. The park features an education center, restrooms, and nature play areas. I also saw a turtle rehabilitation center on the grounds, although it was unoccupied, presumably because terrapin substance abuse is currently on a decline in the vicinity.

As can be seen on the map above, there are three short loop trails through the park. I walked in a counterclockwise direction, combining portions of all three.

The Hidden Rocks Loop is named for some boulders that are concealed in the area. Are your eyes keen enough to spot them in the pictures below?

Sun-bathing turtles could be seen from the Pond Loop. The trail on the northeast side of the pond was riddled with red dirt mounds made by miner bees, and signs asked walkers to avoid disturbing the tunnels.

A short connecting trail links the park to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that zigzags along the western shore of Falls Lake.

The Epps Forest Loop returned me to the park office.

The park was a delightful little stop that looked especially fun for the kids who were enjoying educational activities inside the office.

Little River Lake

Little River empties into the Eno River about two-and-a-half miles east of the northern end of Falls Lake. About three-and-a-half miles upstream from there the river is dammed. Although the dam is not accessible by the public, Little River Lake is.

There are no hiking trails at the lake, but the spot is popular with fishermen. (Can you spot the sportsman standing in his boat in the picture above?) I stretched my legs just enough to get to an unobstructed view of the lake, and then returned to the car and ate my lunch.

Little River Regional Park & Natural Area

In the mid-1990’s, a tract of land along the North Fork Little River was jointly acquired by Orange and Durham Counties. In 1999, the county governments developed a plan to use the property as a landfill for construction and demolition materials. Many neighbors protested the plan because such a landfill would have had dramatically negative effects on the principal drinking water source for the region. In the end, the Orange County board of commissioners rejected the plan, and the property was eventually sold to a group of area landowners.

The sale of the original tract of land, however, was outlived by a regional interest in establishing protected lands along the river. Eventually, Orange and Durham counties, along with the Eno River Association, the Triangle Land Conservancy, the NC Clean Water Management Trust Fund, the NC Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, and the US Land and Water Conservation Fund contributed a combined total of $1,322,000 to purchase the 391 acres of land that became Little River Regional Park and Natural Area. The park opened to the public in December 2004.

I visited Little River Regional Park and Natural Area before heading back to Greenville after my Piedmont Weekend. My directions to the park were confusing, and by the time I arrived that park had already been open for an hour or so. Nevertheless, the only other visitors at that time were a man and his little boy who were walking on the Ridge Trail, and a young woman who was running the short loop trail beside the parking lot.

The trails begin just beyond an old corn crib that has been converted into an information station. Although informational fliers, announcements, and maps were posted on the walls inside, the bin meant to hold small copies of the park map was empty. A sign instructed visitors that more copies could be found at the park office in such circumstances, so I headed across the parking lot to find one. When I got to the office, the outside map cupboard was bare, and a sign in the window told me the office was closed until a ranger returned from duties that had taken him elsewhere.

Without thinking, I let out an overly loud and grumpy, “son-of-a-bitch,” and turned back towards the trailhead. As I was walking away, the office door swung open and a smiling ranger called me back and apologized for the presence of the misleading sign. Although somewhat embarrassed, I was happy to receive a park map as well as a brief history of the park from the ranger. He also described a useful connecting trail that was not on the map, and mentioned that I could expect to see trout lilies in bloom during my walk.

Immediately beyond the corn crib information center, a series of placards are posted along the forest road that runs into the woods. The first is about the sun and the others are about the planets in our solar system and are placed at intervals that correspond to the relative distances among their orbits. Considering its 2006 downgrade to dwarf planet, I was curious to see if Pluto would be included or not. What I found was that the folks who constructed the sequence of educational signs had decided to not only include Pluto, but also Ceres. Evidently, they didn’t want to exclude the familiar ex-planet, and at the same time wanted to give equal recognition to the other “lesser” celestial body.

The two maps above illustrate the route I followed during the first part of my hike (left), as well as the path I followed on the second part (right). For anyone interested in covering the same ground, I recommend the exact reverse approach. This is because the trails include hills (orange arrows) that approach the river from directions opposite to the one I took. I walked these stretches with my back to the lovely views that I could only enjoy by stopping frequently and turning around to take them in.

The park ranger had gone to great trouble to carefully explain the whereabouts of the connecting trail not included on the map. I planned to take this trail as a way of linking the two parts of my hike, so I was very alert as I walked out so that I would be sure to notice its location. Imagine my surprise when I found that missing the critical T in the trail would have been nearly impossible.

All along the forest trail I saw the leaves of trout lilies (aka dogtooth violet), but none of the plants were in bloom. I woman who passed me while walking in the opposite direction, said she had seen loads of them by the river just a week ago, but that now all the flowers seemed to be gone.

Fortunately, she was wrong and, although there may have been many more a week earlier, there were still plenty of the little beauties to be seen along the riverside.

The trout lily blossoms always hang face down, so what you see in these pictures are their backsides. The front is a solid, brilliant yellow, but I find the rear surface of muted yellow and purple stripes to be much more interesting.

The view of the river was quite lovely and I shared it with dozens of butterflies, none of which would stay still long enough for me to get a photograph.

On my way towards the second part of my hike I walked the Homestead Trail for the second time. Along the way, I saw an almond millipede on the trail, and an eastern tiger swallowtail was a more cooperative model than those I had seem flitting about the river.

When I was chatting with the woman I had met earlier (i.e., the trout lily denier), I had asked her about the Homestead Trail. She didn’t recommend it, saying that there was no sign of a homestead, “just a pile of rocks.” I’m not sure what she considered adequate evidence of a homestead, but the meager visible remains were about all that I expected.

As I continued my walk, I saw broom fork-moss (left) and tree club moss (right).

I was fascinated by the sight of a tree that had become bent over until it was practically horizontal. Two of its branches were growing straight up, forming a pair of trees with bases in midair.

I also saw plenty of wild ginger (left) and common yellow wood sorrel (right) by the side of the trail.

The views of North Fork Little River from the South River Loop may have been slightly less impressive than those from the North River loop. Even so, they were still quite enchanting, although the effects of erosion were apparent in many places.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Little River Regional Park and Natural Area, and would highly recommend it to anyone who likes spending time in nature. There were enough trails that I could walk for about as long as my old body can manage (around eight miles), and I greatly appreciated the fact that the bike trails were separate from the walking trails. All in all, spending time at the park was a perfect way to complete my Little Rivers adventure.

An OCD Appendix

Just as I had been interested in seeing the origin of the Little River in Youngsville, I also wanted to visit key locations along the more northerly Little River. In this short section I summarize my successes and failures in this regard.

Above you see a picture of the Little River at a point just before it empties into the Eno River (left) and the Eno River just before it meets the Little River (right).

Here you see spots very near the ends of the South Fork Little River (left) and the North Fork Little River (right). Not far from there the two join to form the main Little River.

I found this cute nibbler at a farm adjacent to the terminus of the South Fork Little River.

Finally, here is a view near the origin of the North Fork Little River. I couldn’t get close to the start of the South Fork Little River because it is situated on private property, but here’s a picture of an old house on that land.


NOTE: You may have noticed that I’ve begun attempting to identify some of the plants and animals that I come across while exploring. I am not an expert at this, but am trying to be as accurate as possible. Despite my best efforts, however, it is possible that I may make occasional (or frequent) misidentifications. If you notice any such mistakes, please let me know so that I can correct the appropriate blog entries.


  • Marilen Reed says:

    The photos helped me to “walk with you”! What great walks! Your photos get better and better and the identification of the plants and trees added so much to the blog! Most beautiful were the trout lilies, the frost on the periwinkle, the cedar waxwings, the mist on the River, and the aqua water of Mystery Lake. Gorgeous! What a difference a month made in the appearance of the the elf orpine – I don’t think we have that plant up north. I had to laugh when I saw the trail of miner bee mounds……how could you ever walk the trail without stepping on them as the park advised???

    Thanks for another great group of NC hikes. Anxious for you to head to the montains sometime. I am told the Smokey Mts. are particularly awesome with wildflowers in the Spring, although I imagine walking in the Smokey Mts. at that time is SOGGY! Even in October, we had to constantly navigate on “corduroy roads”. Continue on and keep sharing.

    • Jon says:

      Thanks, as usual, for being a devoted reader. Seeing the elf orpine was certainly a highlight for me, and the photographs really don’t do it justice. It is an endangered species that only grows in the southeast. It is mostly found in Georgia, but can be found in SC, NC, VA, and TN to more modest degrees.

      I was hearing Tiny Tim singing Tiptoe through the Tulips in my head as I navigated the path with the miner bee tunnels.

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