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Merchants Millpond among state’s top natural wonders

GATESVILLE – Now the rest of the state and nation are aware of what locals here have known all along – Merchants Millpond is God’s handiwork on full display.

Last week, Land for Tomorrow, a coalition dedicated to supporting the preservation of North Carolina’s land and water resources, announced the winners of the first-ever “North Carolina’s Ten Natural Wonders Contest.”

Of the 1,300 nominations detailing special places across the Tar Heel State, Merchants Millpond made its way into the prestigious top-10.

“It’s a huge honor for us to even be mentioned with the likes of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cape Hatteras and Grandfather Mountain, places that are recognized nationally and internationally,” said Jay Greenwood, Superintendent of Merchants Millpond State Park.

Greenwood continued, “We’re extremely proud to be named as one of the top ten natural wonders in the state. But to tell you the truth, to the people that live here and visit Merchants Millpond, this news doesn’t come as a big surprise. There are a lot of people, me included, that believe this millpond is not only the most beautiful and serene place in our state, but in the entire world.”

The contest was part of Land for Tomorrow’s effort to highlight past generations’ conservation successes and urge North Carolina lawmakers to continue supporting conservation in the state. In fact, several of the nominations, including many of the Natural Wonders identified, were protected with the help of North Carolina’s conservation trust funds.

Participants were encouraged to nominate any landscape, natural feature, wildlife or plant life that is unique to North Carolina and should be considered among the state’s greatest natural wonders. Of the 1,300 nominations, 200 unique potential “Natural Wonders” were identified. That field was narrowed by a panel of prominent North Carolinians to 25 semifinalists. From those 25, “North Carolina’s Ten Natural Wonders” were determined by popular vote. Over 3,000 individual votes were submitted.

Other than Merchants Millpond State Park, “North Carolina’s Ten Natural Wonders” are the Blue Ridge Parkway, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout, Grandfather Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, Lake Mattamuskeet, Lumber River, Mountains to Sea Trail, New River and Ocracoke Island.

“We live in such an incredible state, unique in the fact that we have natural wonders along our beautiful coast and in our picturesque mountains,” Greenwood noted. “But there are so many other spectacular treasures in-between and one of them is right here in Gates County.”

Hailed as an “enchanted forest” – Merchants Millpond State Park is where coastal pond and southern swamp forest mingle, creating one of North Carolina’s rarest ecological communities. Together with upland forests, these environments create a haven for wildlife and humanity alike.

Canoeing is popular at the millpond. Individuals and groups can drift along the smooth, dark surface of the millpond and savor the many sights and sounds that come alive in the stillness of the forest.

Fishing is another key drawing card at the park, as well as an

assortment of camping opportunities. There are picnic areas as well.

Last fall, the park opened a new 6500-square-foot Visitor Center, one that boasts of exhibit space, an auditorium, classrooms, workspace and administrative offices, plus a 600-square-foot outdoor classroom. A trail leads from to the outdoor classroom at the edge of the pond.

Park officials have moved the canoe rental area to the Visitor Center. The old canoe rental space now serves as a boating access area for the millpond.

“We’re very pleased with the new Visitor Center,” Greenwood said. “We think it adds to the beauty of the millpond and will serve us and the public well as we tell the story of Merchants Millpond.”

The Center’s main exhibit hall brings the public up close to the local environment. Greenwood said every display within the exhibit hall is indigenous to northeastern North Carolina. Those displays highlight the four types of local habitat – Pine Woodland, Hardwood Forest, Swamp Forest and Coastal Pond. Each features the species of animals, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds that live within those four habitats.

Just outside the main exhibit hall is a display dedicated to the millpond’s history, including a mock-up of an old millstone. A line of telephones will link a visitor to pre-recordings made by Gates County residents who will share their memories of the old mill and the millpond.

A stroll down an adjacent hallway will further link a visitor to the past. There, visitors can see a slice of a 200-year-old oak tree that fell at the millpond during Hurricane Isabel. Another display traces the millpond timeline, one dating back to 1811. There are receipts from transactions conducted at the old mill as well as a old corn sheller (circa 1900).

Included within the Center is a spacious auditorium, complete with a beautiful view of the millpond. Greenwood said that outside the normal activities that take place in the auditorium, it can be rented for non-millpond related events (i.e. meetings, weddings, reunions, etc.).

The Center also features a working classroom used for environmental education. Greenwood said students and teachers from throughout North Carolina and Virginia are invited to use the classroom. There is no fee for this service (call 252-357-1191 or toll-free, 1-877-722-6762 or visit www.ncparks.gov to make reservations).

Completing the Center is a huge, covered porch that offers a breathtaking view of the millpond. Greenwood said this area can also be used for those looking to relax or enjoy a leisurely lunch break.

A short walk from the Center is an outdoor classroom/picnic shelter, which is open to the public. There are other short trails leading from the Center to the millpond, including one that is handicap-accessible.

Merchants Millpond, which attracts over 220,000 visitors a year, is open daily (except Christmas Day). Park hours are 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. (Fall and Spring); 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (Winter) and 8 a.m. – 9 p.m. (Summer).

For more information about Merchants Millpond State Park, call 252-357-1191. Camping reservations can be made by calling 877-722-6762.