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The Golden Hour

Chapel Hill's Perfect Sunset-Viewing Spot

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Photo by Kristin Prelipp

I have very few complaints about living in Chapel Hill. Within a 10-minute walk of my historic downtown home, I can see an art exhibition, enjoy a top-notch meal (or a pretty great cheap bite), sip a local craft brew, catch a theatrical performance or a concert, listen to an academic lecture, shop the farmers’ market and find just about any gift I could possibly need.

But here’s the thing: I’m nestled at the bottom of the hill, surrounded by magnolia trees. So is most of town. Which brings me to my complaint: Where do you go to watch the sun set?

I’ve been on a quest for years to find the perfect spot. Sure, there’s the famed Top of the Hill patio and the lucky few westward-facing porches in Greenbridge, 140 West and The Courtyard. But I want a tried-and-true place, a backdrop for a ritual. And I want to really see the sunset in all its glory, not just a few orangey-red hues casting a picturesque glow on stoplights. (Although it’s pretty remarkable how much more appealing an evening commute through downtown can be!)

At long last, I’ve found it: Merritt’s Pasture. You’ve seen it – a roughly 32-acre plot of land on the east side of 15-501, which is to the right as you cross over the James Taylor Bridge heading into Chapel Hill. For years, it’s been maintained as a pasture and quietly owned by the Town of Chapel Hill. Residents in and around Morgan Creek have long used the pasture as a sort of private park, but it’s always been tricky to access without cutting through a backyard or two.

Last year, the Morgan Creek Trail greenway was completed, linking paths in Southern Village to paths near Scroggs Elementary, all the way to the pasture. Now there’s a parking lot, paved trails and two brand-new pedestrian bridges en route to the pasture; it’s quickly become a favorite for runners and bikers alike, as you can easily create a six-plus-mile route out of all the greenway trails.

Back to my quest, though, and the sunset. Accessing the Morgan Creek Trail parking lot closest to the pasture can be a bit tricky. If you’re merging onto Highway 54 toward Carrboro from South Columbia Street (aka from campus), you take the first left-hand turn and do a U-turn, and the lot is the first thing you’ll see on your right. If you’re traveling down 54 toward Chapel Hill, you’ll see a parking lot entrance on your right before you see the exit for Columbia Street/15-501/Chapel Hill. There’s new, clear signage for the Morgan Creek Trail; once you get yourself to the right vicinity, you won’t miss the turn!

From the lot, it’s just under a mile down a wide paved trail to the pasture. You will be flanked by bikers, runners, dog-walkers, strollers and all sorts of other active Chapel Hillians, so prepare yourself for some hustle-bustle, in the most encouraging of ways. Once you reach the pasture, though, things simmer down. Bikes are not allowed (bike racks are provided) and the wide paved trail gives way to a narrow, naturally maintained footpath. It really is a pasture, and that quiet spirit has been maintained.

Walking the pasture’s perimeter will be about a mile-long walk, meant more for peaceful strolls than marathon training. I encourage you, however, to veer left not long after entering the grassy plot. There’s a narrow little route evidently less-traveled, and it goes straight up a steep hill in the middle of the pasture. At the top is a single tree and a bench – and that’s the spot. From there, you have an unobstructed view of the sky, and, boy, are the sunsets glorious.

Be sure to note that from November through February, the greenway is open from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and from March through October, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. That includes the golden hour for the vast majority of the year!

So there you have it. Within five minutes of my downtown, downhill home, there is, indeed, a panoramic sunset vista. This place might be perfect after all.

Jessie is a former Chapel Hill Magazine editor-turned freelance culture writer based in Chapel Hill. She tends to structure her days around a morning cup of coffee and evening glass of wine.