When you think of backpacking in these parts, you think of exploring the scenic highlands — the mountaintop balds, the roaring waterfalls — of the Southern Appalachians. Rarely do your thoughts turn to camping in a swamp. But in winter, they should, especially at a place as enchanted as Merchants Millpond State Park. The park is centered around a 760-acre millpond created more than 200 years ago ago. For about a century, it was the hub of regional commerce. Then it wasn't.
Since then, nature has reclaimed the area. The pond has become peppered with tupelo gum and bald cypress, Spanish moss draped from their limbs. Beyond the millpond's banks, the surrounding flora has flourished, sporting a tangle of coastal trees and shrubs that support a diverse critter population and more than 200 species of birds. Plus, a winter visit means the chance to see a range of overwintering waterfowl. A winter visit also means the park's peskier residents, particularly of the biting variety, are kept at bay; it's the perfect time for a visit.
Friday: We'll arrive around 3 p.m. and hike the 3 miles to our campsite for the weekend. We should have plenty of time to hike this flat stretch of trail before sunset at 5:43 p.m. (Civil Twilight — the point at which you'll need to start using a headlamp — lasts until 6:09 p.m.) We'll be in the same camp both Friday and Saturday nights.
Saturday: We'll don day packs and hike between 8 and 10 miles, exploring much of the park. There's also the option to paddle the millpond: canoes are available at the boathouse year-round.
Sunday: We pack up and hike out, about 3 miles.
Fee for this trip is $105 — unless you participated in a minimum of three of our trips or classes in 2019, in which case you pay the 2019 price of $95 (a savings of 10 percent). It includes:
* Winter Camping Seminar (see below) with handouts (handouts are supplied upon signing up).
* Detailed eguide for the trip, including custom maps and route descriptions of each day's hiking.
* High-energy gorp mix, designed specifically with winter in mind.
Note: The Winter Camping seminar for this trip will be on Monday, Feb. 3, at 6:30 p.m., at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. in Chapel Hill (1800 E. Franklin St.). We will discuss cold-weather camping, the gear you need to bring and the precautions to take, as well as how to navigate a coastal forest.
A Second Note: Starting in 2020, all of our trips will be non-smoking. This is in part due to growing concern about wildfires, but largely out of concern for the heath and wellbeing off all of our hikers. Thanks!