Top 3 Reasons William B. Umstead State Park is my Favorite Forest

Kiosk at the Harrison Ave entrance.

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.

Watching the horses on Reedy Creek greenway.

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
Millstone and plaque along the Company Mill Trail

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.

On the rocks beside the mill stream on Company Mill 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.

Hikers with two and four legs enjoy the Loblolly Trail.

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.

Hikers take pics of carving beside the Sycamore Trail.
  • 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.

    View from the lakeside trail on Crabtree Lake.
  • 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.

    Horses graze alongside Reedy Creek Greenway outside of Schenk forest.
  • 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.
    Pillar at entrance to NCMA pedestrian highway bridge from House Creek Greenway.


    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




Why Hiking is the Best Exercise for Non-Conformists and Introverts

Looks like we’re walking…

Hiking is going on a long walk on purpose – not just if your car broke down!  You can go on your own or with a group of other hikers.


Hikers May Have Nothing in Common except the Hike

There are hikers of all ages, sexes, nationalities, and fitness levels – – and they may all show up for the same group hike!  That said, hiking with other people doesn’t require the same level of interaction or cooperation as other group exercise.  On most hikes, people string out along the trail according to their pace and only re-group at break points.

Group Hiking near Mont Blanc, Chamonix, France

Be sure to read the hike description before joining a group hike to find out if it’s meant to be a slower hike for beginners or a  faster hike for experienced or fitness hikers.   The description should include a pace (in mph) and length.


Social Not-Social for Introverts

People can talk on the trail or remain silent with their thoughts listening to the forest.  If someone insists on telling you about their dating adventures or why kale is the best food ever, you can simply increase your pace or slow down until you can hear the forest again – without breaking any kind of social contract. When you all come together again at the break point, all is still good.  So you are with people doing a thing together, but you don’t really need to interact on a deeper level unless you want to.

Non-Conformist Hiker Eaten by Bears

When I am leading a group hike, I tell the hikers that if they want to get ahead of me on the trail, that’s fine – with the understanding that if they do so it’s no longer my problem if they get lost or injured, and I now consider them to be our “rabbit” for bears.

Ferocious beast on the California coast.

I am joking around, but it is truly bad form to try to run ahead on a group hike, especially if you are unfamiliar with the route – or any local wild beasts.

If you join a group hike, be respectful of the leader and the rest of the hikers (who joined the hike based on the given description).  Depending on the trail, a rogue hiker could spoil the hike for others or even put himself and others in harm’s way.

He didn’t need a guide.

If you are a nonconformist, want to be an explorer, or simply have trouble taking direction, then group hikes are probably not for you.

You should get out and explore on your own!  You can go on your own unguided solo hikes, using trail maps and GPS, and every hike will be an exciting adventure at your own pace.

How exciting the adventure is may depend on how well you do your research before you go.

The Benefits of Hiking for all Humans

Social interaction and exercise are two good reasons to hike, but people also hike to see new places, learn about nature, to have an adventure, or even to meet a lifelong goal – such as hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (did it) or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (not yet).

Hiking for exercise, even if you don’t break a sweat, is a good way to get moving.  It is an exercise that involves your whole body, is weight-bearing (especially important for older folks), and can be done practically anywhere.  The human body was built to walk, so this is a very natural exercise for us.

Machu Picchu – this was 15 years ago already!

One of the best things about hiking for exercise is that you can easily modify the intensity of the workout yourself by varying the length of your hike, the speed, and how much weight is in your pack.

How Long Does the Hike Have to Be?

The meaning of “long” varies with the individual, and can change over time.  For me currently, a long hike would be something over 12 miles. Years ago, when I first started joining hikes with others, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up after 3 or 4 miles.

Just a little bit farther.

Some people starting out may be worried about committing to even go a single mile.  That’s ok – it’s not a competition:  everyone starts from a different level and you are in charge of your own goals and pace.  If you start out and find that you just don’t feel well enough, you can always turn around and try again when you are feeling more energetic.

I am not a medical practitioner, but in my case it seems that exercise – especially where I work hard enough to break a sweat – makes me feel better and seems to fend off incipient illness.

Consistent cardio exercise, even mild exercise, has also been useful in keeping my asthmatic lungs strong and clear. 

Again, I can only speak to my own experience.  If you are going to try hiking for the first time and have any doubts or special conditions, please consult your medical advisors before you begin!

Is it better to hike with a group or go solo?

Whether you choose to hike solo or join a group may depend on how you interact with other people (or not), but there are other factors, too.

Group Hiking:

  • Increased my confidence and my endurance
  • Allowed me to learn from other hikers about what venues were available locally and around the region
  • Gave me the opportunity to talk to other more experienced people

I also made some friends who enjoy the same outdoor activities as I do!

The things I learned from other hikers in the group, along with my increased hiking abilities from going on regular scheduled hikes, made me confident enough to venture to more remote and challenging places regionally and internationally for day hikes or extended hiking vacations on my own.

When to Solo Hike

I prefer to hike on my own when I am scouting out a hike for the first time (before leading a group on it), or I am doing a difficult trail with a tight schedule to get back to the trailhead before dark.

It is also very convenient to be able to spontaneously roll out solo and take advantage of a couple of unexpected hours (or days) of free time or good weather with a minimum of fuss for a quick trip to the mountains or the woods!

There may also just be times when you prefer the quiet of the woods and your own company to joining a group.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  If you do go on a solo hike, DO YOUR RESEARCH BEFORE YOU GO!  Also, always leave a note or check in with a ranger so someone knows where to start looking if something goes wrong.  I usually email a complete itinerary with phone numbers to my family before I leave for longer trips, so they can reach me and know where to start looking if there is a problem.

Please leave comments below and let me know what your experiences have been with group and solo hiking,  which kind works best for you.  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