Riverbend Highlights Loop

Riverbend Highlights Loop

Published: November 20, 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 feature is a highlights loop at Riverbend Park.

Hike Statistics:
     Distance: 6 miles round-trip 
     Estimated Time: 3 hours
     Elevation Gain: 450 feet
     Difficulty: Moderate

Hike Overview:
Riverbend Park is named after its idyllic location along 1.25 miles of shoreline of the Catawba River. This 6.0-mile route incorporates the park’s most notable spots, traveling through a variety of distinct habitats past natural landmarks, historical structures, and scenic viewpoints along a river, pond and numerous creeks, through woods rich in biodiversity and across open, grassy meadows. The hike, though mostly level with a few easy hills mixed in, is rated moderate due to length.

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. Park in the main lot, walk past the front of the education building on the northeastern corner of the lot and look for a “Trail to the River” sign pointing to the edge of the woods to the left of and behind the covered picnic shelter.

Hike Description & Details:
As you approach the education and meeting facility on the northeast corner of the main parking lot for the start of the hike, you’re bound to notice Riverbend Park’s seasonal pollinator garden that explodes in color from late May through September with showy perennials including butterfly weed, black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, and milkweed. A monarch waystation, the garden provides the host plants, nectar flowers and shelter necessary for monarch butterflies to produce successive generations and sustain their annual fall migration; it also provides a nourishing habitat for other pollinators such as bees, wasps, moths, beetles and hummingbirds to support a healthy ecosystem and increase native biodiversity.

Walk past the front of the building, a 1000 square foot facility available to rent for group meetings and family gatherings, and look for an arrowed sign directing you to a “trail to the river” which originates in the woods to the left of and behind the covered picnic shelter. The trail is uneven, with large roots that form steps to aid in the steep descent parallel to the fence of a 1-acre dog park on the left. The path curves to the right and at 0.14 miles, comes to a T-junction with a gravel road from the lower parking lot. Turn left and walk along the road parallel to the Catawba River on the right, past a 20’x45’ open picnic shelter with tables and grills. Look to the left a few steps ahead for an interesting concrete structure on the edge of the woods believed to have served as platforms for the unloading of railroad cars that brought in materials for the building of Oxford Dam during its construction from early 1927 to its completion in mid-1928. The dam can be seen just upstream from the ramp at the end of the gravel road at 0.19 miles where a kayak/canoe launch provides access for paddling on the Catawba River. Additional information about the construction of the Oxford Dam and its present-day operations is located on the informational board on the edge of the open field across from the paddle launch. The field also has benches, tables and open space for picnicking and relaxation.

Retrace your steps on the gravel road, traveling back toward the trail and picnic shelter past a kiosk on the right designating Riverbend Park an access point on the Upper Catawba River Trail, an 82-mile network of blueway along reservoirs of the Catawba River from Lake James to Lake Lookout Shoals. Cut through the paved parking area, past a few riverside picnic tables and grills on the left, to the handicap-accessible observation platform at 0.34 miles. Extending out over the river, the platform makes a great spot for fishing, viewing the scenery and observing wildlife, including the pair of bald eagles that have been nesting for the last three years in the pine tree behind the communication tower to the right of Oxford Dam. An emblem bird of the United States, majestic in its appearance, a bald eagle can be observed at Riverbend Park flying along the river, resting at its banks, soaring overhead or perching atop the tower.

The trailhead for the Red trail is located on the eastern edge of the observation platform at map stand 1; continue the hike following it along the shores of the Catawba River. The path, mostly flat and level thus far, begins a gradual ascent at 0.41 miles to a switchback that leads to map stand 2 in 300 feet. Turn left, crossing a stream on a wooden platform ahead of which is the location of a geocache hidden in the stump of a fallen tree on the right (GPS coordinates: 35.82160,-81.18487). Proceed on a former railroad bed for the coal-powered trains utilized in the building of Oxford Dam, as evidenced by remnants of black coal that can still be found on the ground here. The trail closely hugs the edge of the river, offering frequent views, especially when trees are bare of leaves. 

A bench awaits at 0.59 miles at a spot dubbed “Turtle City,” so named for the outcropping of rocks that is exposed when river level is down. The rocks attract various species of turtles to bask in the sun during warm season months, often in numbers exceeding one hundred. The reptiles retreat to the depths of the water in winter, but birds like the blue herons, egrets, kingfishers, hawks, and ducks can be observed from this spot year-round. They are joined by ospreys and neotropical migrants like the warblers, grosbeaks, tanagers and flycatchers in early spring to late fall; various swallows flock by the thousands to eat insects off the surface of the river from March to May. Throughout the park, woodpeckers, crows and owls can be heard and seen, making Riverbend a popular spot for bird watching.

The trail swings away from the river at 0.69 miles and passes through an area known as “Mayapple Meadows” for the impressive outcropping of mayapples that grow here in masses from April to June, after which they disappear completely. Cross another wooden platform over a stream and return to parallel the river at a fishing area built in the fall of 1999 by Eagle Scout Daniel Baird of Troop 300, marked with a commemorative plaque. The path remains flat, with a few roots noticeable over the next quarter mile, swinging away from the river again on the approach to the junction with the Blue trail at map stand 3 at 0.95 miles.

Turn left onto the Red/Blue trail, which curves to the right and travels on a gentle downhill alongside the park’s main creek that splits the property in two. The Green trail joins in from the right at 1.2 miles at map stand 4. Turn left on the combined Green/Blue/Red trail, cross the creek over a culvert and pass a spur path immediately on the right leading to a picnic table at an inviting and peaceful spot next to a small water feature. In spring, the hillside next to the table is decorated with wildflowers; in warmer months, kids can wade in the stream and look for salamanders. Continuing on the main path, the Blue trail splits off to the right at map stand 5 at 1.26 miles; keep straight on the doubletrack crushed gravel surface of the Green/Red trail to a Y-junction at map stand 6 at 1.38 miles. Take the right fork onto the Yellow/Red trail ascending gradually on a wide path covered in pine needles. Avoid the connector trail that splits off to the right at a Y-junction at 1.44 miles, bearing left instead. Just before the crossing of the Orange trail at map stand 9 at 1.53 miles, look for an interesting tree on the left notable for its height, spread and unique shape resembling a 6-tine pitchfork.

The pond just ahead on the right, with numerous benches scattered around it, is a peaceful spot for a break, wildlife observation or fishing. Bass, bream, yellow perch and catfish are the common species thriving in the three-quarter acre pond which attracts river otters and is home to terrapins like snapping turtles noted for their large size and aggressive nature and red-eared sliders easily identified by their red ear mark located just behind the eye. Created when a stream was dammed for a railroad route to Oxford Dam’s construction site, the pond is nearly 100 years old! The scenery around the pond — lush in spring and summer, colorful in autumn — is contrasted with the view on the opposite side where a large concentration of ash trees died after an infestation by the emerald ash borer beetle eight years ago. A more cheerful sight awaits ahead in early spring when a fringetree along the trail displays fragrant, creamy white-fringed flower clusters that give the tree the nickname of “old man’s beard.”

At 1.6 miles at map stand 10, the Yellow trail splits off to the right, next to an interesting stacked rock formation affectionately named “Smiley Rock” for the crack on its side that looks like it’s smiling. Continue on the Red trail leaving the riparian habitat you’ve been traveling through thus far and into an upland forest at the center of the park. On a gradual descent that gets more noticeable at 1.86 miles, pass a boulder dubbed “hitchhiker rock” on the right which is shaped like a hand with the thumb up as if it’s hailing a ride. The path, covered in a duff of pine needles, begins an ascent into a loblolly plantation with neat rows of tall pine trees towering overhead. At the junction at map stand 33 at 2.02 miles, take the next two left turns to continue the hike on the Orange/Yellow trail.

You’ve now entered into a southern grasslands ecosystem comprised of a rich biodiversity of non-woody plants including flowering forbs, sedges, rushes and grasses with relatively few trees. One of the most rapidly disappearing habitats in the world, grasslands support a wide range of species and contribute to overall soil health, air quality and water clarity; Riverbend Park has the only public native grasslands in Catawba County. With the area exposed to sun all day, every day, a succession of wildflowers including goldenrod, wingstem, ironweed, crownbeard, butterfly weed, and milkweed bloom here all summer and fall, peaking in late August into September. 

The next 2 miles of the hike offer little shade, so come prepared with sun protection such as a wide-brimmed hat, UV protective clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen. The trail meanders on a rolling terrain through open meadows with long-range views. Big oak trees over 100 years old dot the landscape, with benches or picnic tables in the shade of the wide canopy inviting you for a moment of rest and relaxation. Bypass a service road that branches off to the right at 2.1 miles; beyond it, two structures come into view — a house and a barn —part of the former estate of the late Harriet Bean at whose bequest 209 acres of her family land was donated to Catawba County for the expansion of Riverbend Park in 2019. More information about the expansion and the history of the land is on an informational board you come to at map stand 34 at 2.3 miles. Resist the temptation to turn right at this intersection for an up-close look at the chimney in the distance; the hike will get you there shortly. Turn left instead, continuing through the grasslands on the Orange trail. It swings to the right and comes to the junction with the Woodland Stream Trail at 2.39 miles.

Turn left onto the Woodland Stream Trail, a 0.31 mile sidetrack along a scenic stream. The wide, grassy path narrows and enters a wooded area on a descent, then meanders on a rolling terrain parallel to a small creek on the left. After passing a bench, look for an interesting bush on the left at 2.52 miles; it’s hard to miss in the fall with its yellow fruit resembling a small orange, for which the plant is named hardy orange. The fruit, extremely sour and full of seeds, can be consumed as juice to flavor beverages or made into marmalade but is best left for ornamental value instead. In addition to the oranges, you’ll notice the bush’s prolific sharp thorns 2-3 inches in length so be careful not to get too close. 150 feet ahead on the left, pass a hollow tree which makes a good photo prop especially for kids to be pictured inside the cavity. While at this spot, turn around to look on the opposite side of the trail for a large boulder covered in resurrection fern. More common to coastal areas and rare for our area, resurrection fern is so named as it appears grey-brown and dead at times of drought but returns to its green color, uncurls and reopens (thus “resurrects”) upon exposure to even a small amount of water. (Fun fact: it is estimated that resurrection fern can last 100 years without water and still revive after a watering.)

The trail gets rooty and rocky as it curves to the right and climbs away from the stream to reunite with the Orange trail at a T-junction at 2.7 miles; turn left and continue through the open grasslands to a connector trail at 2.76 miles. Turn right and descend gradually, bypassing a service road that splits off to the right at 2.85 miles; bear left instead and come a few steps ahead to a corn crib on the left.  Made of wood slats to allow for ventilation and air flow, corn cribs like the one here were common in the 1930s for storing and drying out ear corn. Continue straight past the structure, bypass the junction with the Yellow/Green trail at map stand 39, cross a stream over a culvert and a bench on the right, and aim toward a “connector trail” sign at a T-junction ahead. Turn right here onto the Yellow trail and travel on a slight uphill, meandering to the intersection with the Green trail at 3.1 miles at map stand 35.

Turn right onto the combined Green/Yellow trail and cross a stream over a culvert immediately thereafter. The trail begins a slight ascent that gets more noticeable as it curves and arrives at a T-junction at map stand 40 at 3.65 miles. Detour to the right to view the chimney located there, the only remains of the house built by A.L. Little whose family operated a ferry on the Catawba River before the dam was constructed and whose ascendants raised cattle on the property since the 1870s. Return to map stand 40 and continue on the Green trail away from the chimney, past an old barn on the right. The wide, mowed-grass path veers to the left and ascends, meandering through the grasslands past a grove of black walnut trees on the approach to map stand 41 at 3.55 miles. Keep straight onto the Grasslands loop, a 0.45 mile loop through the open meadow ahead. A chimney swift tower, installed in April of 2023 as an Eagle Scout project by Anna Kmosko, is located at 3.75 miles. Chimney swifts use the tower to nest in May; migrating birds heading south use it to roost starting in August with peak usage around mid-to-late September. The corner spot also houses a bench for birdwatching and offers views of Barrett’s Mountain in the foreground and the iconic Grandfather Mountain in the distant background.

Come out of the Grassland Loop at 3.99 miles and pass another bench, the junction with the Green trail at map stand 41, and a portable toilet on the right. Cross a paved service road and continue straight through the junction with the Orange trail at map stand 32 at 4.04 miles, walking through a tree tunnel at 4.1 miles formed by a sweetgum tree and cedar bushes. A tenth of a mile ahead, arrive back at map stand 33, bypassing the Yellow/Orange trail that goes off to the right and enter the woods straight ahead. Turn left onto the Red/Yellow trail and meander through the shaded forest of young trees to map stand 12 at 4.37 miles. Bear left to stay on the Red trail on a hard-packed surface past the crossing of the Blue trail at map stand 14 at 4.47 miles. Descend down to a creek crossing at 4.53 miles, then ascend steeply out of the valley, paralleling a creek on the right and meandering through the creek bottom. Cross the creek again and come to map stand 15 at 4.72 miles.

Bear left at the junction to stay on the Red trail, bypassing the connector trail that splits off to the right. The rolling terrain littered with roots continues to follow alongside of the stream on the left, traveling through a beech bottom habitat dominated by the American beech. Dubbed “the queen of all trees,” the tardily deciduous beech is a versatile and elegant tree that provides a stunning visual display year-round: in spring, with its thin, long, copper-colored leaf buds resembling cigars; in summer, with its shiny green, elliptical leaves; in fall, with its yellowish-gold foliage; and in winter, with its brown, papery leaves that hang on until spring.

The trail begins an ascent out of the beech bottoms at 4.81 miles, becoming steeper before leveling off and curving to the left at 4.93 miles. It continues on a slight but noticeable incline past map stand 16 at 5.03 miles where the blue trail crosses over. A noticeable habitat change occurs here as you enter a former plantation of tall, straight loblolly pines originally planted in neat, evenly spaced rows to produce power poles for Duke Energy. The closed canopy of the towering pines through this monoculture, coniferous forest provides shade year-round; the wide path is covered with a duff of pine needles and pine cones litter the ground. The climb levels off on the approach to map stand 17 at a junction with the Green Trail at 5.24 miles.

Keep straight to continue on the Red trail which turns to singletrack briefly then widens again and swings to the right. The pasture of a neighboring private farm is visible through the trees on the left and cows or goats can sometimes be seen grazing the field fenced off by barbed wire. The trail meanders, swings to the right and descends; a service road branches off to the right at 5.42 miles. Past a curve to the right, the route crosses a stream at 5.55 miles and begins to parallel it on an incline for the next tenth of a mile to the start of the Open Meadow Loop on the left. The 0.55 mile loop is a mowed path through a grassy meadow under the clearing of the powerlines for the Oxford Dam and was the only grassland habitat within Riverbend Park prior to the addition of the Bean tract.

Continue on the Red trail as it veers to the right and descends to a stream crossing over a culvert at 5.72 miles. It swings to the left, passes a bench along the stream and begins a noticeable incline to the junction with the Blue trail at map stand 20 at 5.8 miles. The woods in this section are comprised primarily of hickory and oak trees, and it’s the only spot in the park where water oak trees are found, the variety rare for the area as they are usually found along the Coastal Plains and Piedmont of North Carolina.

The route continues on a rolling terrain before a final climb to map stand 21 at 5.94 miles where the Blue trail joins in from the left. Turn right on the Red/Blue combined trail and reach the overflow parking lot on an exit out of the woods. Turn left past the storage shed onto a gravel path leading to the office and restrooms and descend the stairs to return to the main parking area where you parked for the completion of the hike at a total distance of 6 miles.

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 – start of hike in front of the education building on NE corner of main parking lot
  • 0.14 – T-junction with gravel road; turn left
  • 0.19 – canoe/kayak river access
  • 0.34 – observation platform at map stand 1
  • 0.47 – Y-junction at map stand 2; turn left
  • 0.59 – bench with view of “Turtle City”
  • 0.72 – 2nd wooden bridge over stream at “Mayapple Meadows”
  • 0.78 – fishing area
  • 0.95 – junction with Blue trail at map stand 3; turn left
  • 1.20 – junction with Green trail at map stand 4; turn left
  • 1.22 – spur path to waterfall picnic area on the right
  • 1.26 – Blue trail splits off to the right at map stand 5; keep straight
  • 1.38 – Y-junction at map stand 6; take right fork
  • 1.44 – connector trail splits off to the right; bear left
  • 1.53 – cross Orange trail at map stand 9
  • 1.57 – spur path on right to eastern edge of pond
  • 1.60 – Yellow trail splits off to the right past “Smiley Rock” at map stand 10; stay straight
  • 1.86 – “Hitchhiker Rock” on the right
  • 2.02 – junction with Orange/Yellow trail; turn left then left again
  • 2.10 – service road goes off to the right; keep straight
  • 2.30 – Yellow trail splits off to the right at map stand 34; turn left
  • 2.39 – turn left onto Woodland Stream Trail
  • 2.52 – Mock Orange bush on the left
  • 2.55 – hollow tree on left; resurrection fern on rock on the right
  • 2.70 – T-junction with Orange trail; turn left
  • 2.76 – turn left onto Connector trail 
  • 2.85 – service road split to the right; turn left to corn crib on the left
  • 2.90 – junction with Yellow/Green trail at map stand 39; keep straight
  • 2.94 – turn left onto Yellow trail
  • 3.10 – T-junction with Green trail at map stand 35; turn right
  • 3.27 – chimney on the right at map stand 40; turn left onto Green trail
  • 3.55 – keep straight onto Grassland Loop at map stand 41
  • 3.99 – continue straight through junction at map stand 41
  • 4.04 – cross service road and keep straight through junction at map stand 32
  • 4.10 – “Tree Tunnel”
  • 4.20 – turn left on Red/Yellow trail at map stand 33
  • 4.37 – Orange/Yellow veers off to the right; bear left to stay on Red trail
  • 4.47 – continue straight through junction with Blue trail at map stand 14
  • 4.72 – connector trail splits off to the right; bear left
  • 5.03 – keep straight through junction with Blue trail at map stand 16
  • 5.24 – continue straight through junction with Green trail at map stand 17
  • 5.42 – service road veers off to the right; continue straight
  • 5.64 – junction with optional 0.55m Open Meadow Loop to the left; bear right
  • 5.80 – keep straight through junction with Blue trail at map stand 20
  • 5.94 – turn right onto Red/Blue trail at map stand 21
  • 5.97 – turn left past storage shed at overflow parking lot
  • 6.00 – completion of hike at park office and restrooms; descend stairs to main parking lot

Visitor Reviews:
Very well maintained and extremely well marked trails, nice parking and bathroom facilities, a mix of sun and shade, more easy than moderate in my opinion. Lots of benches, many connector trails so you can easily extend or shorten your route, overall a very pleasant park. AllTrails Review
We love hiking at Riverbend Park. The trails are so well-marked and easy to follow, the forest is so beautiful. This is a good hike that I was able to complete with my 3 kids. AllTrails Review

Well-marked trails.  Somewhat easy terrain with some moderate hills.  Most trails are wooded, some are in pasture land.  Pet and family friendly.  Not very busy this Saturday.  Will return… Google Review

Very clean and kept up. Staff were helpful and informative.  What a beautiful place! Great for hiking!! Google Review

Well-maintained trails, clean facilities, friendly rangers, and beautiful views. Google Review

Hike Video:

Other Routes in the Series: