“It’s not every day a big public park opens,” says Emily Hill, director of development at the Eno River Association, “so we’re excited to be able to welcome folks out to Panther Branch.”

In early April, the nonprofit officially opened new park Panther Branch Natural Area to the public. Located at 2437 Lebanon Road, three miles off I-85 and I-40, the park includes over two miles of walking trails through 56 acres of forest, with opportunities for hiking, fishing, and picnicking. The park is open from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and has on-site gravel parking.

At the park’s grand opening on May 18, local musicians Charlie Garnett and Michael DeVito strummed folk music as visitors milled around the entrance sipping blueberry wheat beer. As the final guitar notes faded out, leaders from the Eno River Association spoke about the work that had gone into opening the park, highlighting the wealth of natural resources that the public would soon get to experience for themselves. 

The Eno River Association first acquired the land in 2017. 600 hours of volunteer work clearing bushes and forming trails later, the park is finally open to the public. It’s the nonprofit’s first footprint in Efland. 

What sets Panther Branch apart from other properties around the river, according to Hill, is that it is almost completely untouched by human activity.

“It’s pretty pristine right now, and we’re really excited about that because that means that there’s big fields of trout lilies, lots of native plants, intact hardwood forest, and several creeks that have creek crossings,” Hill says. 

Panther Branch is home to two main trails. The trail names, chosen from a contest of over 200 submissions, were announced last week: Spoonwood and Running-cedar. The Spoonwood Loop is a moderate to easy 1.2-mile hike, while the Running-cedar Loop is an easy 1-mile trek. Along the trails, hikers can find wildflowers, bird sounds, creeks, beaver dams, small reptiles, and an overlook of the Eno River bend, one of the river’s most dramatic views.

The park’s opening goes hand in hand with the state’s 2023 Year of the Trail campaign, a celebration of nature that promotes outdoor events and connects residents with North Carolina’s thousands of miles of trails and greenways.

State organizations aren’t the only ones promoting the outdoors this summer: North Carolina’s weather seems to be playing a part in the celebration, too, with a recent climate update finding that the entire state is now drought-free for the first time in two years. According to the North Carolina Drought Management Advisory Council, heavy showers in April have led to a clear drought map in all 100 counties. 

With good weather and blooming plants on their side, the Eno River Association hopes Panther Branch will become a go-to hiking spot for locals, Hill says.

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