No. 47 Merchants Millpond State Park / Lassiter Loop Trail
5.5 miles roundtrip, backcountry campsites 2.4 miles in
No. of days: 2
The next time I go backpacking alone in a swamp for the first time, I think I’ll go with someone. By day, a swamp isn’t much different than the rest of the outdoors, albeit a little wetter. But as the light begins its hasty retreat for the day (a retreat made all the hastier by the dense swamp vegetation: the dense canopy of a hardwood forest with its share of impressive beech trees, a dense understory chocked with bays) it’s amazing how much more amplified and primordial a swamp sounds. Ducks taking flight could be pterodactyls, squirrels crashing about in the brush take on the aural heft of eastern cougars, mischievous raccoons might as well be black bears (which do, occasionally, enter the park) lurking in the dark. Light (or the lack there of) and sound do wonders for time travel.
The idea of backpacking in a swamp wouldn’t have occurred to me if I hadn’t been looking for a place to paddle. Paradoxically, I wouldn’t have been looking to paddle if I’d had time to go backpacking. A backload of work had conspired to nix a three-day backpack trip to the mountains I’d planned. Not to be shut out entirely, I began scouting for a day paddle trip. That’s when I stumbled upon the backcountry site located about midway on the 5.5-mile Lassiter Loop Trail at Merchants Millpond State Park.
Merchants Millpond, located in northeast North Carolina’s Gates County, isn’t known for hiking, let alone backpacking. Although there are 10 miles of trail in the 3,250-acre park, what brings people to Merchants Millpond is paddling on its namesake 760-acre millpond. The millpond dates back nearly two centuries. It’s distinguishing features: the bald cypress and tupelo gums that rise out of the pond’s dark, tannic waters. The trees’ stout bases often appear to sport ecosystems of their own, their canopies are frequently festooned with Spanish moss. Despite the fact it’s easy to lose one’s way on the densely-populated millpond, the park’s canoe and kayak rentals ($5 for the first hour, $3 for each subsequent hour) are a big draw. Walking down from the Visitor Center to the boathouse at water’s edge is like entering a Disney ride where no expense has been spared in presenting the ultimate swamplike experience. Except Merchants Millpond isn’t swamplike, it’s swamp-is. If you pay a visit, be prepared to spend your first couple hours with a paddle in your hand. (There are also canoe camping options.)
Once you’re ready to shoulder your pack and hit the trail, you’ll be surprised by something you may not have known existed in swamps: hills. I’d gotten to the trailhead about an hour before sunset, but wasn’t concerned about the 2.4-mile pack in. Flat trail: I’ll be there in 40 minutes tops, I reasoned. Yet hiking in the recommended clockwise direction, the trail encounters a series of quick ups and downs through a series of steep drainages. Granted, we’re only talking 15 or 20 feet of elevation change, but over not that many more horizontal feet.
I arrived at the well-marked backcountry camping area (five well-separated sites radiating out from a privy) as the world took on a fade-to-black cast. I unshouldered my pack, got out my headlamp, and within 10 minutes — the time it took that rummaging squirrel to go from mischievous rodent to marauding ‘raptor — my tent was up and I was in it.
Once the dark settled, my imagination did as well and I was able to lay back and enjoy the swamp’s evening serenade. The mixed chorus of carpenter frogs, leopard frogs, bull frogs, cricket frogs and tree frogs, the who-cooks-for-you call of the barred owl, the chatter of any number of fall migrants moving in.
And, of course, that wily raccoon doing his black bear imitation.
For an interactive version of this map, go here.
Trailhead: Merchants Millpond State Park is in Gates County in northeastern North Carolina off NC 158 between the towns of Gatesville and Sunbury. To figure out how to get there from where you are, go here.
Distance: 5.5 miles.
No. of days recommended: 2.
Loop / out-and-back: Loop.
Campsite location: 2.4 miles, hiking clockwise (N36 26.579 W76 40.063). Five backcountry sites with a pit toilet.
Map: N.C. State Parks Map (downloadable here)
Fee? $13 a night.
Water: Water must be packed in.
Trip highlight: Spending the night in a swamp.
Special considerations: Technically, the campsites are above the swamp, but proximity makes you subject to swamp ecology (mosquitoes) that could make a visit vexing in warm weather. Hence, the recommendation below to visit in the winter. As part of your visit, plan to rent a canoe or kayak from the park office and paddle the 760-acre millpond, in the heart of the swamp. $5 the first hour, $3 every hour thereafter (the extra $3 is worth it to explore the “enchanted forest” of Lassiter Swamp, located in the millpond’s upper reaches).
Night hike in? Trail is relatively easy to follow, but park gates close around dark.
Solo? Yes. Campsites are just off a main trail; trail itself is not technically challenging.
Family friendly? Yes. The hike in and out is short (2.4 and 3 miles, roughly) and the novelty of swamp camping should be especially intriguing to younger campers.
Bailout options: No.
Seasons: Winter. According to Rutgers University: “Mosquitoes function best at 80 F, become lethargic at 60o F and cannot function below 50 F.” At Merchants Millpond, mosquitoes are your biggest concern; plan accordingly.
Solitude rating: 3 (on a scale of 1 to 5). Most folks come to Merchants Millpond for the paddling, a few to hike, far fewer to backpack.
Nearest outfitter: Wal-Marts are located in Roanoke Rapids, 50 miles to the west (251 Premier Blvd, 252.535.3151) and Elizabeth City, 25 miles east (1873 West Eringhause, 252.338.3367).
Hunting allowed? No.
More info: Merchants Millpond State Park phone: 252.357.1191, Web site