Featured Hike: Riverbend Family Loop

Featured Hike: Riverbend Family Loop

Published: February 21, 2023

2023 is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina and we invite you to spend it at Catawba County Parks! This series of articles will help you do that with details on suggested routes across our four parks. Our next featured hike is the Family Loop at Riverbend Park.

Hike Statistics:
     Distance: 2 miles round-trip (plus optional 0.6m add-on to creekside picnic area)
     Estimated Time: 1 hour
     Elevation Gain: 200 feet
     Difficulty: Easy

Hike Overview:
Riverbend Park is named after its idyllic location along the Catawba River. This 2.0-mile route begins at the park’s riverfront observation platform for a view of an eagle’s nest at Oxford Dam upstream. The trail follows the edge of the Catawba River on a former railroad bed along a riparian habitat, passes through an upland forest once the site of a pine plantation, and returns to the river to complete the loop. A variety of wildlife, plants and insects can be observed along the way, at sites with nicknames like “Turtle City,” “Mayapple Meadows,” and “Twisted Sisters.” An optional add-on to a creekside picnic area is offered midway, adding 0.6 miles to the hike.

Directions to Trailhead:
From I-40, take exit 132 and travel North on NC Hwy 16, turning right onto 1st Avenue North to stay on Hwy 16. The entrance to the park is on the right in 7.6 miles, just before the bridge over the Catawba River at Oxford Dam. Once in the park, follow signs for the river parking area. The hike begins to the right of the observation platform at the trailhead for the Red Trail at map stand 1.

Hike Description & Details:
As you follow the sidewalk from the parking area to the observation platform to begin the hike, a unique tree growing to the right of the picnic table may attract your attention. One of the world’s rarest trees and categorized as a glacial relic, the Florida torreya is an evergreen conifer historically found only along a 40-mile stretch of the Apalachicola River of northern Florida. Classified as “critically endangered” and almost extinct, its cultivation is encouraged outside of its natural range to save the species; since the torreya grows so well in our climate, a specimen was planted at Riverbend Park five years ago for conservation efforts and has been thriving here ever since.

Another unique sight awaits at the observation platform a few steps ahead. Look left to see a view of a bald eagle’s nest in a pine tree behind the communication tower to the right of the dam upstream; the birds themselves are often seen hanging out atop the tower or soaring overhead. A national emblem of the United States since 1782, bald eagles measure approximately 34-43 inches long with a wingspan of 6-8 feet, and the sight of them in flight is quite impressive. The same pair has been nesting here for the last three years and can be observed year-round though they are most active in late spring and early summer while feeding their juveniles, which take flight from late summer through the end of winter. A closer view of the nest can be obtained from the canoe/kayak access a short walk upstream. 

To begin the hike, follow the Red trail from its trailhead at the right of the observation platform at map stand 1. The trail follows the edge of the Catawba River, climbing slightly to two switch backs, reaching map stand 2 at 0.13 miles in. Turn left here, crossing a stream on a small wooden bridge and continuing the flat walk along the river. This section of the trail is a former railroad bed on which coal-powered trains brought materials in for the building of the Oxford Dam, which was completed in 1927; remnants of black coal can still be found on the trail here. Also noteworthy as you walk this stretch is the fluctuation in the river’s water levels, which are determined by releases from the dam upstream (the schedule of releases can be checked on the Duke Energy website).

When water levels are low, various species of turtles can be observed basking in the sun on logs and the exposed rocks of the riverbed, sometimes gathering there by the hundreds. River cooters, with their bright underside and yellow hairpin stripes on their head and neck are the most common species; they are often accompanied by painted turtles marked with vivid colors of red, yellow and olive on their neck, head, tail, legs and lower shell. An occasional spiny softshell turtle can be seen in the mix, noticeable for its large size (up to two feet around) and flat, leather-like shell. In winter, these cold-blooded reptiles spend most of their time in the water but never resist the warmth of a bright sunny day to laze above surface. 

The bench located a quarter mile into the hike is a great place to view this section of the river affectionately called “Turtle City” by the park rangers. Also from this spot, various birds can be viewed flying overhead or perched on the banks. The great blue heron is a regular along the Catawba River, often found standing motionless scanning for prey or seeking out its next meal, or cruising the shoreline with slow, deep wingbeats. Egrets, kingfishers, hawks, and ducks are here year-round as well, joined by the distinctive osprey often seen early spring to late fall flying low to the water before plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons. Various swallows flock by the thousands to eat insects off the surface of the water from March to May. Neotropical migrants like the warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers and flycatchers come to breed in the spring, filling the air with their cheerful song in concert with the sporadic hammering of the woodpeckers, the caw of the crows, or the hoot of the owls that make their residence at Riverbend Park. 

The trail swings away from the river at 0.3 mile, crossing on another wooden bridge over a stream. This area, dubbed “Mayapple Meadows,” is known for the impressive outcropping of mayapples that make their first appearance in this spot in late March. Sometimes referred to as the “umbrella plant” for its deeply lobed, umbrella-shaped leaves, the wildflower is unique for the single, fragrant white flower hidden in the Y of the stem underneath its leaves. Mayapples grow here in masses, flowering in April and blanketing the area through early June. Two different species of Jack-in-the-pulpit can be found among them and in the area between map stands 2 and 3 in spring, with their intriguing cylindrical, hooded flower curled over a spadix, blooming in May and lasting well into July when they develop their distinctive clusters of brightly colored red berries. This section of the trail is also host to pink turtleheads found nowhere else in the park but here, the mountain species not native to the area and speculated to have had seeds brought in during a flood. Named for their tubular two-lipped pink flowers whose shape resembles the head of a turtle, turtleheads blossom here from August to September in dense spikes that rise above their lustrous deep green foliage.

The trail returns to the bank of the river at 0.43 miles, passing a fishing area built in the fall of 1999 by Eagle Scout Daniel Baird of Troop 300, marked with a commemorative plaque. Continue the mostly flat walk along the river as the trail swings in to a junction with the Blue trail at 0.61 miles, at map stand 3.

For an add-on to your outing, you may opt here for a side trip to a creekside picnic area accessed by turning left and traveling a quarter mile to map stand 4, turning left onto the combined Green/Blue/Red trails and crossing over the creek to a spur path immediately on the right at 0.87 miles at the sign marking the site. A picnic table sits just off the main trail, an inviting and peaceful spot next to a small water feature on the park’s main creek that splits the property in two. This is a great spot for kids to get into the water in warmer months to wade in the stream and look for salamanders. In spring, the hillside is decorated with wildflowers like bloodroot, round-lobed hepatica, and wood and rue anemone. After enjoying a snack, picnic or rest break next to the babbling brook, retrace your steps back to map stand 3 and turn left onto the Blue trail to continue the loop. You’re now 1.18 miles into the hike, and mileage adjusted for the optional side trip to the picnic area will be indicated in () in the paragraphs to follow (mileage outside of the parentheses is without the add-on).

The hike thus far has traveled along the river and creeks through a riparian habitat forested by sycamores, river birches and poplars. As the Blue trail climbs up the hill at map stand 3, it enters an upland ecosystem populated with pines, oaks and hickories. It levels out at a split at 0.66 miles (1.23m); turning right here would make a slightly longer hike that rejoins our route further down the trail. Stay straight at the fork instead, entering a former plantation of loblolly pines that was clear cut about 15 years ago. An interesting feature awaits at 0.69 miles (1.28m) with the “Twisted Sisters,” a pair of curved pine trees on the left side of the trail, more of which can be seen throughout this section as the trail winds and climbs gradually for the next 0.1 mile. These weren’t formed through any natural occurrence; on the contrary, they were caused by the incomplete cutting of seedlings that came up after the mature trees were harvested. Not cut all the way through and left lying to the side, the seedlings continued to grow curved before straightening up vertically toward the sunlight. They are a curious sight and an interesting photo subject.

The ground is covered with a duff of pine needles and some roots protrude from the surface as the Blue trail that split off earlier rejoins the path at 0.81 miles (1.38m). Continue straight here; the trail soon swings to the right, begins a gradual descent, then rolls up and down gently before turning right and down to a wooden bridge at 0.98 miles (1.57m). The banks are decorated with lush evergreen fronds of the Christmas fern and the path is rooty as the trail climbs gradually via a series of turns and switch backs to 1.22 miles (1.8m) before leveling off and traversing a monoculture area through a former pine plantation that had not been harvested. Looking into the woods at a certain angle in this section of the hike reveals that the trees had been planted in evenly-spaced rows; it may also yield a glimpse of the wild turkey, deer, possum, and raccoon that call Riverbend home. Sightings are rare, except for the common grey squirrel that is sure to cross the path as it scurries up a tree to look for nuts or chase away another in a territorial dispute so common among them.

At 1.38 miles (1.96m), the Blue trail turns right at a junction with the Green trail at map stand 19. It travels on a crushed gravel surface atop a carpet of patchy moss decorated with pine needles from the Virginia pine predominant in this area and leads to the overflow parking area at 1.58 miles (2.18m). Keep along the right edge of the parking lot past the well house and look for a “Hiking Trail” sign indicating where the Red trail turns right and winds back down to the river. The trail drops more steeply and swings to the right on the descent down to map stand 2 at 1.9 miles (2.47m).

Turn left here onto the section of Red trail where the hike started, reentering the riparian habitat along the river. Spicebushes explode here in early spring with eye-catching yellow flowers and red berry-like fruit in late summer, their leaves aromatic with a spicy, citrusy smell when crushed. Also known as wild allspice, the bush is the host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly that can be seen fluttering about from May to September, joined by other butterflies, dragonflies, damselflies, cicadas, and tiger beetles that leap low to the ground across the sandy soil. The riverbank also attracts the muskrat, a stocky rodent with a flat, scaly tail measuring nearly a third of its body length. On a rare occasion, a family of river otters may swim alongside of you, frolicking about as you follow the trail back to the observation platform to complete the hike at 2.02 miles (2.59m).

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 - start of hike at observation platform (map stand 1)
  • 0.13 - map stand 2
  • 0.15 - 1st wooden bridge over stream
  • 0.23 - bench with view of “Turtle City”
  • 0.37 - 2nd wooden bridge over stream at “Mayapple Meadows”
  • 0.43 - fishing area
  • 0.61 - junction with Blue trail (map stand 3)

   Optional side-trip to creekside picnic area:

  • 0.85 - junction with Green/Blue/Red trails (map stand 4)
  • 0.87 - spur path on right to creekside picnic area
  • 1.18 - junction with Blue trail (map stand 3)

   Mileages without picnic side trip are listed first below; adjusted miles with side-trip add-on are in parentheses.

  • 0.66 (1.23) - trail splits off to the right 
  • 0.69 (1.26) - “Twisted Sisters” loblolly pines
  • 0.81 (1.38) - split trail rejoins from the right 
  • 0.98 (1.55) - wooden bridge over stream
  • 1.38 (1.95) - junction with Green trail (map stand 19)
  • 1.58 (2.15) - overflow parking area
  • 1.64 (2.21) - trail turns right at “Hiking Trail” sign
  • 1.90 (2.47) - map stand 2
  • 2.02 (2.59) - end of hike at observation platform

Visitor Reviews:
Very nice, well-kept trails. Mostly flat but some good hills to get your heart pumping. Great variety of trails here. Will be back. (AllTrails Review)
Beautiful trail! My four-year-old and I loved it. (AllTrails Review)

Awesome trail for people of all levels. Beautiful scenery! I’ll definitely be back! (AllTrails Review)

Nice trail in the shade through the woods. During one portion you are walking along the river... Public restrooms were clean. (AllTrails Review)

Good trail, lots of shade, borders on river. A little rooty at the end. (AllTrails Review)

Nice family trail. (AllTrails Review)

Hike Video:

Other Routes in the Series: