December 2010: Merchants Millpond State Park

Gatesville, North Carolina

Settlement in Gates County - named for Horatio Gates of Revolutionary War fame - began in the 1660s and millponds were built to process and market regional produce. The Merchants Millpond was constructed in 1811 and supported a sawmill, gristmills and a farm supply store making this the center of trade in the county. Milling continued in the area for over 100 years until World War II when much of the land was sold to developers. A local outdoorsman, A.B. Coleman, though the area too beautiful to be altered by bulldozers and purchased the property in the 1960s. He donated 919 acres that led to the establishment of Merchants Millpond State Park in 1973. Additional donations have swelled the park’s size to over 3,000 acres.  

The longest loop of pure canine hiking on the Carolina coasts can be found here - the 6.7-mile Lassiter Trail. This is easy going for your dog on soft, pine straw-littered paths. Wooden bridges tame the wilder stretches. Your dog will happily leave the long, flat stretches at the shore for the gentle hillocks in Merchants Millpond State Park, bounding up eagerly to discover what awaits on the other side. The star of the park is the 760-acre millpond that harbors ancient bald cypress and tupelo gum trees. But out on the trail you’ll be hiking under a pleasant mix of pines and hardwoods such as American beech. If your dog is not up for a three-hour hiking loop, sign on to the Coleman Loop, a two-miler that touches the southern shore of the millpond. You can access the Coleman Trailat the canoe launch on NC 37 and this is a wonderful place to canoe with your dog as well.

Much of the character of the eerie “enchanted forest” of the Lassiter Swamp comes from the mistletoe that has twisted and gnarled the branches of tupelo gum trees into fantastic shapes. Identified nearly 2000 years ago, Anglo Saxons named the plant “mistle-tan” meaning “dung twig” after bird droppings on a branch. It was thought the plant’s existence was entwined with birds but it is actually a parasitic plant that is also known as the Vampire Plant. The mistletoe sends out a root-like structure into the bark of hardwood trees and extracts all its nutrients from its host. The mistletoe’s mooching won’t kill the tupelo gum - if the host dies, it dies. You can recognize mistletoe by its clumps of 2-inch greenish-yellow leaves and clusters of white berries. The tradition of kissing under a sprig of mistletoe dates back hundreds of years. The proper procedure is to pick one berry off the plant for every kiss received. When the berries are gone, so are the kisses. Make sure you dispose of the berries after you’re through bussing - they are toxic to dogs and people.

Four miles east of town on US 158. The park entrance is just east of the intersection with NC 37 and eight miles west of NC 32.