90 Second Escape: Two Hillsborough gems in the rough

Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. To help ease the transition, every Monday we feature a 90 Second Escape — essentially, a 90-second video or slide show of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s not under a fluorescent bulb.

Today’s 90-Second Escape: Two Gems in the Rough

It had been four or five years since our last visit to the Historic Occoneechee Speedway in Hillsborough and we were curious about what to expect. On our last visit, the last remaining track from NASCAR’s inaugural 1948 season was just beginning to be reclaimed from the woods. The concrete grandstand was entangled in vine, like an ancient Mayan ruin discovered centuries after collapse. It was impossible to see from once side of the mile-long dirt oval to the other and the remaining buildings — the ticket office, the concession area — were dilapidated. You had to look hard for clues to the track’s celebrated past, which closed in 1968 with Richard Petty taking the closing checkered flag.

We discovered that since our last visit a lot of work had been done by the non-profit Historic Speedway Group. Fortunately, though, not enough to diminish the 44-acre track’s natural beauty. If you want to see how busy nature can be in 45 years, the four miles of trail here give you a good idea.

We were even more taken though by an adjoining gem, the James M. Johnston Nature Preserve, a 76-acre natural area affiliated with nearby Ayr Mount, a property of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. The trust is more into preserving historic homes than nature, but in this case they’ve got some extra land along the Eno River that’s some of the most scenic — and rugged — in the Piedmont. A trail covers a mile and a half of riverfront, some of which climbs a bluff towering high above the Eno (it’s also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail). Together, the Speedway and James M. Johnston Nature Preserve offer seven miles of memorable hiking.

We’ll be back soon with details on exploring the area. For now, here’s a slideshow from our expedition.

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