The Back Forty: Umstead State Park

William B. Umstead State Park, NC

**We have added William B. Umstead State Park to our list of local hikes. It is one of our favorite places to go for a conditioning day trip in the Triangle Area!

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If you live in the Raleigh/Durham area you almost can’t help but have heard of William B. Umstead State Park. It is the most significant natural area in the Triangle. There may be larger undeveloped areas (The Falls and Jordan Lake impoundments) and longer trails by mileage (the Falls Lake Trail without doubt) but none of these exist specifically to keep an area in something close to its native wild state while promoting outdoor recreation, as Umstead does.

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In fact, Umstead State Park is one of the largest and most impressive state parks that we have ever seen located right inside an urban area, very close to heavy development. What is most surprising is that, hiking its trails, one can easily forget one is inside a metropolitan area of a half million people.

The 5600-acre park was formed in 1934 when the government bought up several hardscrabble farms that had failed during the Great Depression. Opening in 1937 with help from the Civilian Conservation Corps, the park was eventually re-named after former Governor William Bradley Umstead.

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This being the South, the park was not spared the unfortunate effects of segregation. The southernmost 1000 acres was kept aside as a completely separate “Jim Crow” unit for African Americans, while the Northern side (accessed from I-70) was whites only. This sad situation was corrected in 1966 when both sides were merged. Ironically, today the former ‘colored only’ section of the park is in fact by far its most popular.

The almost entirely wooded park has three man-made lakes, twenty miles of hiking trails, and 13 miles of ‘multi-use’ trails (basically, gravel roads.) One can hike, bike, boat, fish…even horseback ride. And probably do it all in one busy day.

Sylvia and I constantly use this park as our training ground for larger adventures. It is quite convenient…the nearer of the two entrances, Crabtree Creek, is barely 20 minutes from home, and the more popular Reedy Creek entrance in Cary is about a half hour away. We prefer the Reedy Creek access, though it is much more crowded.

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Hard to believe that you are just 10 miles from downtown Raleigh when hiking in Umstead

There are two long and outstanding lollypop-loop trails in this park…the Sycamore Trail and the Company Mill Trail. The latter is the most popular in the park. In fact, it is entirely possible to do BOTH trails (or at least the best parts of them) in one big double-loop hike. And that is just what we did this June, when training for the Tour Du Mont Blanc.

We accessed the Company Mill Trail from the park’s Reedy Creek entrance, located just off the Harrison Blvd exit of I-40. The parking lot is large, but on weekend mornings when the weather is good, it will always be filled to capacity. Hikers, bikers, dog walkers, trail runners and people just out for a stroll abound.

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Most of Umstead is eastern hardwood forest

The Company Mill Trail is considered a loop, but is more accurately termed a lollipop loop. Hikers access the loop portion along an out-and-back access trail. But both sections of the trail are scenic and worthy. Note that the park’s other trail, the Sycamore Trail, is also a lollipop loop, but with a longer ‘handle.’

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The trail leaves from behind the picnic pavilion at the end of the Reedy Creek day use area. It immediately starts a short but somewhat steep descent down into the bottomlands of the creek. This is in fact the most significant climb on any trail in the park, but it is still quite modest by the standards of any mountain trail.

Look out for stones and roots on the eroded sections of trail in this area. We have noted that erosion has become much more pronounced in recent years, proof that the trails are seeing increased foot traffic. Umstead park was host to 1.5 million visitors in 2017…actually DOWN from the previous year. In 2011, by comparison, visitation barely exceeded 800,000. Umstead is now the most popular unit in the NC State Park System, and it shows.

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Signs of erosion abound in the park.

Do be careful in this area…when hiking it generally presents no issues, but both of us have been injured in falls while trail running on this very section of trail back before Brian’s ‘trick knee’ put an end to his running career.

At the bottom of the slope is Reedy Creek, where there is a bridge and some old foundations. These are the remains of The Company Mill, originally founded in the early 1800’s. It was just one of several mills on the creek that ground cornmeal. Some old stone foundations, the remains of a dam, and some obviously quarried stones can be seen in this area, which is often crowded.

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Reedy Creek at Company Mill location.

There’s also an old mill wheel and a plaque commemorating the Company Mill.

Across the bridge the loop begins. This time we chose the counter clockwise direction. Once away from the Mill the trail departs the creek and becomes much more deserted, entering the less travelled interior of Umstead. Even on the more crowded days you don’t see too many people this far in.

The trail leads up and over some small ridges, soon crossing the Reedy Creek Road, a popular place for dirt bikers. A short time later it reaches Sycamore Creek. A short connector trail crosses a bridge on the Graylyn Trail (a gravel road) and brings you to the other of the parks two major trails – the Sycamore Trail. By doing the loop part of the Sycamore Trail and the Company Mill Trail in its entirety (a sort of double lollipop) we were able to hike ten miles in a single day…approximating the distance, if not the elevation chance, of a routine day on the TMB.

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If hiking isn’t your primary concern, you can visit some of the historical sites of the park. There are several old graveyards here, one belonging to the King family, who once owned much of the land that now comprises the park. At least two of the graveyards are right off the Reedy Creek Road.

What we like most about Umstead is the complete lack of development along the trails. Unlike the Falls Lake Trail, for example, no yards or buildings encroach on the trail. It is a surprisingly wild-feeling place, where one can often seem to be many miles out in the wilderness.

What we like least about the park is probably the lack of viewpoints. There aren’t any vistas at all in this park (excepting one or two ‘overlooks’ of the runways of RDU Airport on the gravel roads.) It can be crowded too, especially on weekends, but that is to be expected in a park that’s just a few miles from a busy downtown. Most of the hikers we have seen here (unlike in other NC state parks)  are friendly and respectful. There’s also some noise encroachment from the airport and the highways that surround…we find this to be much less the case on the southern (Reedy Creek) side of the park.

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Brian celebrates his birthday a few months late with some birthday cake Gu ‘inadvertently’ purchased in a local outfitter. 

We think Umstead is a great place to practice for our bigger hikes, and to just get away for a few hours. I specially love listening to the songs of the wood thrushes that inhabit the park…some of my favorite areas of Umstead are prime wood thrush habitat.

If you live in RDU you are probably already aware of Umstead and are enjoying what it has to offer. If not…well, we don’t know what you are waiting for, it’s a great place to get outdoors. I strongly recommend at least once you come here o n a weekday when everybody else is at work. I did once and was surprised at how much wildlife I saw. Get out and see what your own back forty has to offer!

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