Off the Beaten Path

Turtles take advantage of a sunny day.

Mike Gannon hits the water every chance he can get.

“This is the third season I’ve been going,” said Gannon. “Every week, sometimes multiple times a week.”

Robertson Millpond Preserve is a favorite destination of Gannon, a Raleigh local who loves to get away from the city life to enjoy the seclusion of the 85-acre bald cypress-gum blackwater swamp. 

As Buffalo Creek passes through the pond, leisurely making its way southeast, the slow-moving water picks up tannins from decaying vegetation. Like leaves in a teacup, the tannins stain the water dark, giving the blackwater swamp its name.

The preserve is distinctive in the Piedmont for being home to many species usually found only in the Coastal Plain region. The trunks and roots of the cypress trees, which grow in the watery depths of the swamp, create a habitat for many other plants. 

“There’s two really dominant flora,” said Gannon. “There’s the baldhead cypress, which form little islands all the way through the swamp. At the base of those trees is where the Swamp Tupelo grows. It’s a really heavy bloomer in June. During June it will be all filled up with these pinkish purplish flowers at the base of the trees.”

Many animal species also call the swamp home. Gannon has seen fish, frogs, migratory birds, and turtles. During our visit I lose count of the number of Yellow-Bellied Sliders I spot sunbathing on cypress roots and floating logs.

“The coolest thing this time of year would be the herons,” claims Gannon, referring to the Great Blue Herons that nest in the forest canopy. “They all nest in a big group called rookeries. There will be about two dozen nests in one section of the swamp.” 

The squawking of these giant birds can be deafening, but somehow the cacophony only adds to the tranquility of the preserve. 

The millpond was created by a dam built in the 1820s and the gristmill was operated until the  1940s. Once a popular fishing and boating spot, the land was purchased by Wake County in 2013 and the park opened in 2015. 

The mill has been removed, but visitors can still view the dam, mill foundation, and an original millstone. Visitors can kayak, paddleboard, or canoe a 1.15-mile paddling trail. Numbered buoys throughout the trail are breadcrumbs that mark the way. Motorized boats are not allowed, but visitors are still welcome to fish in designated areas. 

The park also offers ADA accessible paved paths and boardwalks. There are no bathrooms or potable water at the park, so visitors should come prepared. Currently there are no rentals being offered on-site, so visitors will need to bring their own paddleboat or find a rental prior to visiting.

“Be prepared to paddle into a different world,” advises Gannon. “It’s not like going onto a river or a lake. Every little turn is different-looking as you go through the swamp. It’s like you’re going into a whole other world back in time.”