Sandy Creek: A City of Durham Park

With a forecast of 97 degrees on tap, I did what any sensible person would do—I headed for the great outdoors.

The thermometer was already (or only) registering 82 when I turned off of Pickett Road and onto Sandy Creek Drive. My destination: an abandoned wastewater treatment plant. (Perfectly sensible, right?) Rewind—or fast forward, to be exact. My destination: Sandy Creek Park.

A sign warned that there was “No Outlet” and I followed the road to the end. I found myself in a parking area facing the open expanse of a largely wooded and wild 103-acre park. I immediately liked what I saw.

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Sandy Creek Park in Durham, NC (Saturday, 6/13/15)

Sandy Creek Park was once a wastewater treatment facility, built by Duke University in the early 1900s to serve West Campus and the Hospital. Around 1928, the facility was turned over to the City of Durham. The City operated the plant until its closure in the 1970s. In the 1990s, many of the buildings were razed and a park rose out of the rubble.

Since then, several organizations have partnered with Durham Parks & Recreation to make Sandy Creek Park what it is today. Organizations such as New Hope Creek Corridor Advisory Committee, Friends of Sandy Creek, Keep Durham Beautiful, and Alta Planning and Design of Durham. (Not to mention the park’s landscape designer, Kenneth Coulter.)

What is Sandy Creek Park like today? I’m glad you asked.

In a nutshell, Sandy Creek Park is a thriving wetlands and pine uplands habitat complete with a two-mile walking trail system, butterfly garden, picnic area, restrooms, a creek (for which the park is named), and two small lakes.

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The Sandy Creek Park trail system is a combination of natural and paved surfaces. Pictured here is a part of the Sandy Creek Greenway trail. –Durham, NC

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Here’s the start of the 0.4 mile unpaved nature trail around one of the wetland ponds. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

The park is recognized by the National Wildlife Federation as a certified wildlife habitat because it offers the four basics: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. It’s also a registered ebirding site, which means that one can report bird sitings or see the sitings of others at eBird.org.

I didn’t venture too far down the trails this first visit. Nevertheless, there were plenty of flowers and critters to capture by camera. Placards along the way apprise visitors of the various wildlife and plant life around them. I won’t duplicate those efforts here, but suffice it to say that the signs were informative and would add to the overall experience for those with heightened curiosities. Instead, I’ll highlight a few of my favorite things.

Friends of Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden
What a cute little garden this is—complete with all the right perennials to attract pollinators. I was partial to the coneflowers. (Translated: Be prepared to see a few coneflower pictures.)

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Coneflowers in the Butterfly Garden attract butterflies. (One fluttered away just as I snapped this picture.) A butterfly house adds both function and charm to the habitat. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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The Sandy Creek Butterfly Garden is a workplace for bees as well. –Durham, NC

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A butterfly (Duskywing?) on a coneflower in the Butterfly Garden at Sandy Creek Park. –Durham, NC

(Not-So) Out With the Old, In With the New
For some, it might seem kind of icky to tromp around a place where wastewater was processed. Personally, I found remnants of the treatment plant—two water tanks and a Pump House—important reminders of the past that added to the park’s charm.

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Vestiges of the bygone water treatment facility (“Vacuator” tank far left; Pump House on right) stand alongside new park features such as this inviting arbor swing. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Native Flora
Throughout the park, native wildflowers spring up deliberately as well as naturally. With scenery along the trails dominated by green leaves and shrubs, it was a pleasant surprise to encounter reds and yellows popping up here and there.

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Bee Balm plants, attractors of butterflies and bees, grow tall in front of the old treatment plant’s “Digester.” (Bee Balm is also in the nearby Butterfly Garden.)  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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Just past the creek, along the Sandy Creek Trail, I spotted these Black-Eyed Susans. Sure, Black-Eyed Susans are a commonplace wildflower, but did you know that there are several different varieties? For example, these Susans—with their big cylindrical eyes and dipping petals—are different than the ones in my own garden. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham NC

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Red Honeysuckle Alert! Nector-rich vines such as this one growing on the arbor swing beckon to the hummingbirds. Trumpet Creepers, which I also spotted along Sandy Creek, attract such local birds as the Ruby-throated hummingbird.  –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

Sandy Creek Wildlife
As I made my way toward the Sandy Creek Bridge, I came upon an older lady out for her morning walk.

“See that gray-looking tree over there?” She pointed beyond the wetlands toward the upland pines a good quarter of a mile away.

I nodded expectantly.

“It’s a big herons’ nest.” She stated this with the matter-of-fact confidence of a park veteran.

My untrained eyes saw nothing.

Having done her duty to nature and her fellow man, she left me to my neck craning. Fearing that I was missing out on something spectacular, I did the only thing I could think of: I zoomed in as far as my camera would go and snapped away. Once home, here’s what I saw:

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Great Blue Herons nesting in the pines at Sandy Creek Park. I count EIGHT! — Durham, NC

Next time, I’ll know where to look! …And you will too, should you visit the park. Also, it might be useful to carry along a pair of binoculars.

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A black Swallowtail in the brush by one of the lakes. –Sandy Creek Park; Durham, NC

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At least three types of turtles make their homes on the waters of Sandy Creek Park. In one of the small lakes, I spotted four Yellow-bellied Sliders. (There were several other turtle logs, too!) — Durham, NC

Despite living in Durham for ten years, I didn’t know this park existed until recently when web searches for local birds repeatedly referred me to Sandy Creek. The number of birds sited at the park is astounding! And now that I’m out of my shell—play on previous picture intended—I hope to return and photograph some of them.


The City of Durham has more than 60 public parks. I’ve visited and written about three of them. The other two include Leigh Farm Park and Orchard Park.

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