When you think of North Carolina, you probably think of mountains and the ocean. I am going to guess you don’t think about acres of swamp land full of Bald Cypress trees and Tupelo Gum trees draped with Spanish moss.
I know I thought that way. That is, until I visited Merchants Millpond State Park located in northeastern North Carolina.
Here a southern swamp and a coastal pond create one of North Carolina’s rarest ecological communities near the community of Gatesville. The result is a state park that needs to be on every weekend explorer’s bucket list.
The Gorgeous Scenery Found At Merchants Millpond State Park
We arrived in the dark at the Tent and Trailer campground in December. Shortly after pulling into our spot, we climbed into our DIY truck cap camper and went to sleep. We didn’t see any of the beauty of the park until the next morning.
The Visitor Center
After a cup of hot tea at the campground the next morning, we drove to the Visitor Center for a map of the park. This is when we discovered we could have walked over via the short trail that connects the main campground to the Visitor Center–whoops.
The History Of Merchants Millpond
Inside the center, we took in the exhibits on display and learned about the history of the park.
The pond was created when Bennetts Creek was dammed to create power to operate a local gristmill and a sawmill. It was first named Norfleets Millpond, but was renamed Merchants Millpond after the area became the center of trade for Gates County.
Soon after World War II, production in the area came to a halt, and the land was sold to developers. In the 1960s, the land was sold to A.B. Coleman, who later donated the land to the state. Soon after, the Nature Conservancy contributed close to a thousand acres of woodlands to the park, making it the more than 3,000-acre park it is today!
Canoes Are Available For Rent
The number one thing we wanted to do in the park was to rent a canoe and get out on the water. We highly recommend you do the same too. Canoe rentals are available in the Visitor Center for a very reasonable price.
While paddling around the pond, you will see why this park is often said to contain an enchanted forest. With each stroke of the paddle, you will work your way around massive Bald Cypress trees and Tupelo Gum trees, many of which have Spanish moss dressing their branches.
The scenery is supposed to get even better in Lassiter Swamp, but we didn’t make it to that area of the park during our canoe ride. However, the views we saw in Merchants Millpond are unforgettable.
The Boat Launch Behind The Visitor Center
If you rent a canoe, you will enter the pond via the boat launch behind the Visitor Center.
If you bring your own, you will use the boat ramp found further down the road from the Visitor Center.
Dogs are allowed in the park on hiking trails and in boats. They are not supposed to swim in the water. Dexter, however, decided not to listen to that rule and jumped in when I let go of his leash for just one short second. The result was an ear infection requiring a vet visit and expensive medication.
Learn from us. Secure your dog at all times if you do decide to canoe with them.
I took close to one hundred photos of trees. I seriously could not stop oohing and ahhing over them.
This out-of-focus turtle is the best shot of wildlife I got, but we did see what we thought was a river otter and several more turtles.
We did not see one of the American Alligators that are known to live in the swamp. Merchants Millpond is said to be as far north as they inhabit. Nor did we see the snakes, frogs, or beavers that also make their homes in the 760-acre pond.
I think we would have seen more of the swamp’s wildlife if we had gone in warmer weather.
It doesn’t show up in pictures well, but many trees were draped in Spanish moss, which gives the whole swamp an added boost on the enchantment scale.
Around the massive trunks of the Cypress trees are knees. It is not yet understood why these grow around the trunks. I thought this one looked like a bear. Do you agree?
Cypress Point Trail (.33 miles)
If getting out on the water in a canoe is not your thing, you can still get decent views of the striking trees from Cypress Point Trail. The start of this trail is near the boat launch. You will find the entrance to the Coleman Trail here as well. There is also a picnic area with numerous picnic tables nearby.
This is the only trail that Jack and I explored since we also wanted to spend some of our day over at the nearby Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Area (more on that in a bit).
Other Trails You Can Hike In The Park
- Bennetts Creek Trail–2.25 miles
- Coleman Trail–2 miles
- Lassiter Trail–7 miles
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Jack and I spent two nights in the family camping area of the park. The site we had was very private and level.
There is no electricity or water at the sites. We didn’t mind as we can go without electricity for a few days thanks to our Anker portable power stations and propane heater.
This is not the type of campground you would want to bring a huge RV to, but if your RV is 25 feet or less, I think pretty much all the campsites could accommodate you.
There is one central bathhouse with hot showers in the middle of the campground.
There are several more campgrounds in the park, including one for group camping, several canoe-in campsites, and a backpack camping site.
There are restrooms at the group camping area with flush toilets. The canoe and backpacking campsites have pit toilets.
More Things To Do In The Park
There are over 200 species of birds to be seen in the area, including geese, egrets, woodpeckers, turkeys, and owls.
The pond has bluegill, largemouth bass, bowfin, rock bass, blue catfish, longnose gar, and black crappie.
There is a 5-mile biking trail that takes you on Fire Road and then on a portion of the Lassiter Trail.
Things To Near Merchants Millpond State Park
Grab A Meal At The General Public Restaurant In Suffolk, Virginia
There are several smaller cities that are around a 30-minute drive from the park, including Elizabeth City, Edenton, Ahoskie, and Suffolk, where you can grab a great meal.
We chose Suffolk, Virginia because it was nearest to the Great Dismal Swamp Wildlife Refuge.
Once there, I Googled great places to grab a burger near me and The General Public Restaurant popped up. Yep! It was a great burger and awesome fries. If you are ever in the area, it is worth the stop!
Drive Wildlife Drive At Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Jack and I are as big of history buffs as we are nature enthusiasts, so when I find something that is both rich in history and nature, I add it to our “must-see” list–and the Great Dismal Swamp is one such area.
The Great Dismal Swamp is where slaves escaped to in the 1700-1800s. Thousands lived in the swamps here, creating settlements. They became known as the Great Dismal Swamp maroons.
You can learn more about them and check out Lake Drummond by taking the wildlife drive.
Tour The Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach
Before heading home after two nights camping at Merchants Millpond, we drove just over an hour to The Military Aviation Museum to see the world’s largest collection of warbirds in flying condition.
Take in The Giant Dinosaur Sculptures Found In Jerrassic Park
In front of the museum is Jerrassic Park, a collection of gigantic metal dinosaur sculptures. This park is free to visit. I think I had as much fun checking them out as the children who were there with their parents.
I hope this article helps you plan your visit to Merchants Millpond State park in Gates County, NC.
Is the state campground full? If you have a self-contained RV, a membership to Boondockers Welcome could provide you with a space to stay nearby. Read our review here.