Places like this still exist
Updated: May 10, 2021
I yearned for old timey adventures growing up. Whether it was inspiration from reading a Wilson Rawls novel or watching Nickelodeon's "The Swiss Family Robinson" cartoon, I loved the idea of amazing experiences where the only real ingredients were courage and nature. It's probably why I entertained adrenaline-rushing dares wherever I could find them, like swinging from a rope into the fast-moving Lumber River near McLean Castle in college or braving an icy Sliding Rock on a church trip in high school.
But in my opinion, it's hard to top a running cliff jump where you land in a cool body of water. And in 2017, my late best friend Patrick Pait and I finally got the chance to visit a Durham County spot, where, despite the risks, the park rangers still let you do it: the Eno Rock Quarry at Eno River State Park.
If you want to thank someone for the creation of the Eno Rock Quarry, the credit should most likely go to former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. His administration began the construction of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 as a response to the hindrance to mobilization the lack of quality roads caused the U.S. during World War II. By 1960, it was North Carolina's turn to get in on the action, and the N.C. Department of Transportation began to build I-85. But the DOT needed a lot of rock to make this happen, so they quarried a four-acre area just north of where the interstate would run along the southern bank of the Eno River. The resulting pit was 60-feet deep by the time they were finished four years later, and before abandoning it (and presumably for safety) they filled it in with water from Rhodes Creek.
A year later in 1965, the City of Durham considered building a reservoir in the area. In response, a group of citizens formed the Association for the Preservation of the Eno River Valley and proposed an establishment of a state park, and by 1975, that vision was a reality. The end result was that the river was saved in its natural state, along with remnants of several mills and homesteads. Today there are over 31 miles of hiking trails within the park.
The Adventure Patrick was up for pretty much anything, and I wanted an excuse to drive somewhere fun in my [new to me] 4Runner. So on a hot July Saturday, the Eno Rock Quarry was our destination. We made our way from downtown Durham to the park entrance off Howe Street. It was well over 90 degrees, and the windows were down because the A/C had given out the day after I drove my 199,000 mile SUV off the lot. Patrick wouldn't let me live it down.
This trip was made longer by the fact that I first Googled "Rock Quarry Park" and drove us to that destination. Don't. You'll end up in a city park adjacent to Duke Regional Hospital. To access the entrance closest to the actual rock quarry, head towards the Cabe Lands parking, but be forewarned that space is limited. Only around 25 cars can fit in the sand lot, and it's in the middle of a mobile home neighborhood where "No Parking" signs abound. If you're out of luck, check out the Pleasant Green lot.
Once you're on the trail, a leisurely walk in the woods awaits you with minimal elevation change. What sets this trail apart, however, are the fellow visitors you will pass on the way in and out. Instead of your typical boots and trekking poles you'll see flip flops and floating devices. Some seasoned adventurers will also bring waterproof speakers, towels, chairs and coolers. Basically, this looks a lot more like a beach day than a Piedmont excursion.
Patrick and I made our way briskly though the woods, and in less than fifteen minutes and after a slight uphill climb over trail trestles meant to slow erosion, we were atop the south side of the quarry. The sound of laughter, music and splashing had been increasing for the last one hundred yards, and the view revealed something akin to a 4-acre pool party. Sunlight glistened off green waters, and colorful floats and swimmers dotted the area. Loungers, including college students and families had also claimed open spots between trees along the entire rim. One spot almost directly across the lake, though, was noticeably where the action was. Daring individuals were leaping from a 25-foot high cliff with onlookers cheering and encouraging them. We made a beeline for our objective.
- Map Link
- Distance hiking: 1.9 miles (roundtrip) - Rating: Easy
- Cliff Height: 25 feet ~
- Time: 20 minutes one-way and as long as you want to play once you're there
If you've ever climbed the high dive at a pool, you've realized it looks a lot scarier from the top. This is no different, but there is some added anticipation that stems from the roots and rocks protruding about ten feet into the lake near the bottom of the cliff. And that's where I want to give fair warning: there have been several injuries and deaths at this quarry, most of which come from mishaps with this jump. In fact, the very day the friends and I pictured below visited, we witnessed a teenage girl get seriously injured. But before you go, just know the answer to the questions "Is it dangerous?" and "Can it be done safely?" are one in the same. Yes.
I wish I could tell you that Patrick and I leapt into the quarry's cool waters without hesitation, but that would be a lie. Instead, we giggled like middle-schoolers for a few minutes while watching several other daredevils who ranged from first-time, feet-firsters to seasoned back-flippers. Eventually, Patrick took the plunge, and we soon traded turns with my phone recording the jumps. I owe this picture of me on this site's homepage header to him.
The key is to commit. Neither of us were brave enough (or skilled enough) to do anything but run and jump, but that's a feat in and of itself. The clay is hard packed and slippery when wet, so your timing has to be right to launch early enough from stable ground but not too early as to catch a bit of rock and root below. As a jump veteran, I returned the next year with a $10 pair of water shoes from Dick's Sporting Goods, and I was much more assured with my leaps.
After four or five turns, Patrick and I had our fill and made our way back to the car. We hadn't planned or prepped for a longer trip, but I returned with a number of friends the next summer to relive my experience and create new memories with others. This time we looked like those hikers we saw the year before, with our towels, coolers and colorful floats in tow. Patrick should have been with us, but he had passed away the month prior, so I could only cherish that my first adventure to the quarry had been with him.
But as my friends made several recordings of the newly initiated and we repeated the fun of laughing and leaping, I knew Patrick's spirit was still with me and always would be any time I found old timey adventure in places like this.
Netflix's popular sci-fi drama 'Stranger Things' references the Eno River in Season 2. It's a nod to Durham, the hometown of the show's creators Matt and Ross Duffer.
Built in 1815 by William Kirkland, Ayr Mount was considered one of the Piedmont's finest residences when completed. Walking trails and remnants of the Great Trading Path await visitors just a few miles east in Hillsborough.