William B. Umstead State Park has been my go-to hiking place for at least the past ten years. I hike in the forest, or with the forest as a starting place, at least twice per week – sometimes on my own, sometimes as a hike leader for Raleigh Recreational Hikers meetup.
Umstead has a long history: initially a wild hardwood-forested area inhabited with bison, bobcats and elk, it later became the site for indigenous peoples homes and trade, was part of a land grant for farms in 1774, and finally in 1934 – through a joint effort of Federal and State agencies – 5,000 acres were purchased to create a public recreation area. The Civilian Conservation Corp and the Works Progress Administration helped with construction, and the park was open to the public in 1937.
Spending so much time at Umstead, over such a long stretch of years, makes it hard for me to get back to basic facts about the place – but here goes!
Reason #1: Location, Location, Location
One of my personal hiking rules is that for any hike, I want to be on the trail at my destination for at least as much time as it takes me to travel there and back. I have never had to break that rule when I hike at Umstead.
Located in Wake County, NC between Raleigh, Cary and Durham, this 5,579 acre park is at most a 15 minute drive (or a 5 mile walk) from my house.
It has two entrances: one located the end of Harrison Ave after it crosses the I-40 bridge in Cary (11mi west of Raleigh), and the other off of Glenwood Avenue/Hwy 70 in Raleigh. The Raleigh entrance is where you will find the park’s Visitor’s Center.
With 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of bridle trails, tent/trailer camping, and primitive camping available, this park is by far the most convenient hiking venue of its magnitude for me and everyone else in the area. The trails available are good for kids and adults, novices and experienced hikers – -and there is no park entrance fee. There is even a boat house, and you can go fishing if you need to give your feet a break.
There are also plenty of opportunities to visit Umstead park because it is open every day of the year, except Christmas Day.
Reason #2: Variety of Terrain and Trails of all Lengths
There are rocky creeks, deeper rivers, lakes and ponds all within the park, and most of the trails cross or go along beside them. You can also see remnants of the history of the park – chimneys from homesteads, gravestones, CCC handiwork, and remnants of the dam and mill – as you walk. If you are lucky, you may also see some deer, otter, great blue herons or owls.
None of the trails have really large elevation gains, but there is some variety in the terrain – for instance, the Company Mill trail and the Sycamore Trail are much rockier and have more hills than the Loblolly trail, which is more smooth and low-lying with lots of ferns along the trail.
Trail length within the park varies: shorter sections like Inspiration Trail are less than half a mile and the longest continuous single trail, Sycamore, is a 7.2 mile loop. Other longer single trails include the Company Mill loop at 5.8 mi and the Loblolly trail, which is an out-and-back of 5.4 miles.
It is unusual to have so many trails of moderate length in a single park, especially one that is so easy to get to.
By moderate length, I mean long enough to make it worth your while going out – with kids a 6 mile trail could be a whole day! – but not so long that even fit adult hikers wouldn’t make it back to the trailhead before dark.
The only other State Park within a 2 hour drive that offers as much variety is Eno River State Park, about an hour’s drive away, in Durham.
Reason #3: You Can Build-Your-Own Day Trips
The Town of Cary greenways I mentioned earlier are not the only hike-able connections to trails inside Umstead State Park. Umstead is like the hub of a wheel with each spoke going outside the park to a different hiking venue.
- Umstead to Umstead (Co Mill and Sycamore): The trailheads for the three longer trails in the park are split between the two entrances, Sycamore on the Raleigh side and Company Mill and Loblolly on the Cary side. I do occasionally hike internally across the park with a trail combination I call the “Crazy Eight”, both for the shape the trail makes and the approximate length of the hike, which includes the Company Mill trail and part of Sycamore. The whole hike is 8-9 miles.
- Umstead to Lake Crabtree Park and Black Creek Greenway: On the side of the park closest to I40 and Lake Crabtree, hiking the Reedy Creek Multi-Use trail will take you on the bridge over I-40 to the trailhead at Old Reedy Creek road. (Or, you can simply drive to that trailhead on city streets and start from there.) From there you can go left to the Black Creek Greenway, or right to the hiking and biking trails into Lake Crabtree County Park. Depending on your starting point and direction you go, this could be anywhere from a 5 mile to a 15 mile hike.
- Umstead to Schenck Forest, Reedy Creek, NCMA: Taking the Loblolly trail to the edge of the park will bring you to the Reedy Creek Greenway, From there you can turn right to go back to Umstead, cross the street into NC State’s Schenck Forest, or go left along Reedy Creek road (choosing to step off the greenway to hike Reedy Creek trails if you wish) to get to the trails at North Carolina Museum of Art Park. Or any combination thereof. Shortest route would be about 6.5 miles, if you just do Loblolly to Reedy Creek road back into the park.
- Umstead to NCMA, House Creek Trail, Meredith College greenway: Once you are at the NCMA, you can hike the paved trails in the museum park all the way to the pedestrian bridge over the highway. Once you cross you can go to the left on House Creek Greenway which will take you all the way to Crabtree Valley Mall. Or, you could go right to hike on the paved greenway that runs alongside the grounds of Meredith College to the corner of Faircloth and Hillsborough streets in Raleigh. In both of these cases, this is an out-and-back, so save time and energy for your return trip. Depending on where you start and where you go, this could be a moderate hike of 5 miles or a very long hike of 12 to 18 miles.
Always Something New to Discover
After hiking the same forest for so many years, you would think it would get boring. Honestly, sometimes, maybe a little. But mostly I’m not bored – every season, each change of weather, even which direction you are going on the trail gives you a different perspective that makes you glad you came out.
Even after so many years, I admit that there are Umstead trails that I have not explored because they are less convenient for me.
Going forward, I promise to make it my goal to seek out those unfamiliar trails, not just for me but so I can share it with you all.
Please leave comments below and let me know what your experiences have been in Umstead State Park, and which trails are your favorites. If you have any other questions or comments please also leave them below and I will respond as quickly as I can.
Thanks for stopping by – see you next time! LJ