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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The Creep into Trail Town

The Virginia Creeper Trail

If you are in the area of Damascus Virginia for hiking or for any reason, be sure to check out the Virginia Creeper Trail.

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And if you aren’t planning to be in the area, find a reason to be. This is a must-do for anyone living within a day’s drive…and it may just be the most popular off-road mountain biking trail in the entire Eastern United States. If you don’t believe me, check out the reviews on Tripadvisor…try to find a single bad one among the thousand or so.

One reason that it’s so popular; it very scenic. The trail runs along an old railroad grade, through forests, farms and alongside swift running streams and rivers. Another reason its so popular; the very excellent trail service provided by various outdoors providers in Damascus.

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Whitetop Station, the southern terminus of the Virginia Creeper Trail.

But the main reason it’s so popular? It’s just about all downhill. 😊

The trail follows the grade of the former Virginia Western Coal & Iron Railroad Company right of way. The rail service began in the late 1800’s, reached its peak in the early 20th century, creating several boom towns along the way which are now all but gone. The last train ran through in 1977; only the right of way and some rotting ties remain.

The line became known as a Virginia Creeper, perhaps because locals got used to watching the trains creep up the grades with heavy loads, and beings the wits they were made the obvious play on words involving the plant of the same name (Parthenocissus quinquefolia.)

Now, the major commodity being hauled along this line is people, and the locomotives being used are human powered. Some counts claim over 200,000 people do this trail a year.

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We rolled down the trail in April 2014 in gorgeous weather and greatly enjoyed it. It did not seem very crowded (though it was not devoid of people by any means.) The fact that most people do this trail in the same direction (down) means that very few people come at you in the opposite direction, and that gives one the impression of greater solitude than there really is, because most people are moving along at much the same speed as you. It was only when we stopped at the popular places like Taylor’s Valley that we really noticed it was crowded.

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Christmas Tree farming is an important cash crop in rural Appalachia, and the trail passes several farms.

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The Trail is 34 miles in length, stretching from Whitetop, VA (almost on the NC border) to Abingdon, VA, with Damascus lying at about the halfway mark. However, very few people do the entire trail in one go. In fact, most people do ONLY the 17 miles section from Whitetop to Damascus. Fewer do the Damascus to Abingdon section, which is on the whole considered somewhat less scenic, being mostly on private land — though  this section is reputed to have the  longest trestles.  We did not do the Damascus-Abingdon section, nor did we see many people embarking on it.

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But almost everyone who does either section starts in Damascus, shuttles by van to one end or the other, and then bikes back downhill to Damascus. The ride outbound from Damascus in either direction is uphill…moderately to Abingdon, while the trip up to Whitetop would involve Herculean exertions.

We can tell you that the ride down FROM Whitetop is almost ridiculously easy. 😊 It is 80% downhill, with the rest being flat. Miles pass with no need to pedal at all. It is no exaggeration at all to say that Sylvia and I spend more energy on a typical section of the paved Neuse River Greenway than on this trail.

You can use your own bikes, of course…but even if you do, you will need to arrange some sort of shuttle service. The smart thing to do is simply park in town and arrange to be shuttled to Whitetop, where you can cruise downhill at your own pace. A tire patch kit is strongly recommended because, while it is not a true dirt biking trail, it’s not flat either. The chance of popping a tire is real. Most of the outfitters do provide one.

Note that I said this is NOT a true mountain biking trail. Most hardcore dirt bikers will doubtless find this trail to be insufficiently challenging. My advice for the hardcore is to use this as an opportunity to bring along some friends who are less hardcore and introduce them to the joys of biking. It’s a trip anyone of any age and skill level can enjoy.

And to everyone who is not a hardcore mountain bike enthusiast – including people who have NEVER mountain biked, or haven’t set foot upon a peddle in twenty years – don’t worry. If you can sit on a bike for three hours or so (about the time it takes to do the Whitetop to Damascus section, with stops) then you can do this and likely you will LOVE it.

Last note involving the trail itself…you could probably do this on a road bike, but your butt won’t thank you and the bike may well fall apart. The trail is NOT paved and is definitely NOT flat. If you don’t own a mountain bike with shocks, rent one.

Along its route the trail crosses some 47 wooden trestles. Some of these are quite impressive.

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It does not cross any heavily traveled roads en-route but there are a few minor road crossings. Obey the rules of the trail and be aware of motorists and fellow bikers.

At about the midway point there is an opportunity to ‘resupply’ at The Creeper Trail Café at Taylor’s Valley. You can’t miss this café…it’s the one with about a hundred bikes parked out front. The café boasts of having ‘world famous’ chocolate cake. I believe I passed on the cake in favor of a hamburger and ice cream. It may not be the world’s best, but it may be the world’s most expensive. 🙂

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With all due respect, what the café REALLY has are three things…location, location, location. And a sizable number of hungry bikers.

The great thing about the trip is you can go entirely at your own pace, as fast or slow as you want as long as daylight remains. You simply coast or pedal in leisurely fashion back into town, to either drop your bike off at the rental place or (if its yours) put it right back on your car.

We signed on with a rental company who provided bike, helmets, pump, repair kit, and a shuttle to the top. There are many in town and we make no particular endorsements recommendations…there is a list of agencies here on the Damascus chamber of commerce website. Adventure Damascus, Sundog, Blue Blaze and Shuttle shack are a few of the more established ones.

Brian’s ‘trick brain’ doesn’t fully recall the details but he THINKS we used Sundog. This is NOT an endorsement. Caveat emptor.

http://www.sundogoutfitter.com/#

(Note that the website has a lot of busted links last I checked. But hey…they’re outdoor outfitters not webmasters, right?)

On the way into Damascus, be sure to check out one of the original steam locomotives that ran on this very line, now on display.

We would strongly recommend adding the Whitetop to Damascus section to your list of things to do. And while you are in the area don’t forget to hike the Grayson Highlands, and maybe through in the summits of Mt. Rogers and Whitetop Mountain as well. You will not be disappointed.

Though there maybe better places to hike, the combination of things to do in the Damascus area makes in unsurpassed. It ranks with Brevard NC as one of our favorite small towns in the southern Appalachians. We hope that it continues to retain its small town charm and character as it grows into the outdoor mecca that it has rightfully become. Don’t be a creep…visit Trail Town, USA.

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Damascus VA: Adventures In Trail Town, USA

Grayson Highlands and the Virginia Creeper Trail

*Sylvia and I visited Damascus VA and vicinity in April 2014. Some things may have changed since so please check with the locals before heading out. But you will NOT be disappointed is all we can say.

Located in the very far southwestern corner of Virginia is the town of Damascus. It is probably the closest thing the Eastern US has to a ‘summer sports’ outdoor enthusiasts mecca. In fact, excepting Moab Utah and Bend Oregon, it might be as good as any hiking/biking town in the entire country.

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The never ending views of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands

They call it trail town partly because the Appalachian Trail runs right through it. But the trail actually runs through many towns; Damascus is not unique in this respect. It IS unique in the fact that the town has fully adapted itself to being a part of the trail and its culture. Each year it hosts a festival known as Trail Days that attracts perhaps 20,000 visitors to this town of less than 1000 people…tourism is booming here in this (for the time being) tiny town.

Photo from http://www.visitdamascus.org/

 

But while it is still very remote if approached from the eastern side, the state was widening the approach roads in from the I-81 corridor when we visited in 2014. We hope the town grows and prospers as it needs but maintains that small town feel.

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You never know what’s going to come up when you hike.

Another Trail that is associated with the town is the Virginia Creeper Trail, a mostly downhill biking trail that follows old railroad grades. The section of it between Whitetop and Damascus is very popular with cyclists of all abilities.

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Creeping along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Nearby Damascus is the Mount Rogers Scenic Area and Grayson Highlands State Park. Mount Rogers is the highest peak in Virginia. The mountain’s treed in summit is unremarkable, but the open areas just below its summit – the Grayson Highlands – are remarkable. A considerable section of the Appalachian Trail passes through the highlands, which for many are rivaled only by the Roan Highlands of Tennessee for views.

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The area is also known for being inhabited by a certain herd of wild ponies. Many go here just to see the ponies, but there is a LOT more to see.

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Wild Pony

Sylvia and I made the 5+ hour drive up from the Raleigh area in April 2014 to visit all of these fantastic attraction, among the very best Virginia has to offer. There is easily enough to do here for a four day weekend or even longer.

We’ll start by highlighting some of the adventures on two (and four) feet before moving on the two-wheeled kind.

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Next up: Hike the High Country

 

The Path to Green

The Neuse River Greenway

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Not every step you take in the outdoors has to be of the wild sort. Sometimes all you want to do is go for a walk in a peaceful place. Or go for a bike ride. Or jog to keep in condition for the bigger adventures to come. It’s always nice to have such a place close at hand.

For us that place is Wake Count’s Neuse River Greenway. It is an excellent place to go for a morning or afternoon’s getaway.

https://www.raleighnc.gov/parks/content/ParksRec/Articles/Greenways/NeuseRiverTrail.html

Fully completed in 2014, it runs all the way from the Falls Lake Dam to the Wake County Line – a full twenty-seven miles. That means a round trip bike ride of the whole trail from end to end is over fifty miles…more than most people could even do in a day. It would take days to see it all by foot.

Image from www.raleighnc.gov

We were pleasantly surprised when the first sections of it opened just a 15-minute walk from our (then new) house. Seldom does a week pass when were aren’t on it at least once, and we have since walked or biked every section of it.

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The NRG rolls on and on, all the way to Johnston County

We have tried out some of the other Greenway in the Raleigh area and found them less to our liking. Generally, these paths are not well designed, with steep, sudden grades and hairpin turns poorly suited for bikers. Most of them also pass through sketchy and un-scenic areas, industrial parks or close to noisy highways.

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Why Can’t more Greenways be like you, NRG?

The Neuse River Greenway on the other hand is very well designed for hiking. There are only a few steep grades along the way and perhaps two sudden turns that might be termed even mildly risky. The rest is mostly flat, mostly well maintained and mostly very scenic.

For almost its entire length, the trail follows the route of the Neuse River. The Neuse begins in Durham county just before the present Falls Lake and meanders seaward, never very deep, to empty into Pamlico sound at New Bern, NC. At 273 miles it is the longest river contained entirely in North Carolinas.

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The meandering Nuese

Much of the drainage are of the Neuse is Swamp, but thanks to the Fall Lake Dam, the area south of it now have fairly well defined banks that seldom flood.

I don’t know if there’s any sort of rating system out there, but the NRG has to be one of the finest urban greenways in the nation. I lived in Dallas for five years and it has nothing comparable. Boston does have some fine greenways, but still the Neuse blows them away.

One issue I have with many urban greenways is that are not very green. Many run all or part of their way alongside busy roads, railroad tracks, golf courses, power lines etc.

At NO time does the NRG run adjacent to any major paved roads at all. (It crosses some, and there is one very short section where it is actually on a back road.) There is also surprisingly little development adjacent to the trail, especially along the sections near the beginning and end of the trail. There are some sections in the middle where the trail does seem almost to run through apartment complexes, especially around Anderson Park, but most of these sections are short.

We always see wildlife on this trail. Two or three times we have seen bald eagles. Ospreys and hawks are common, as are many other types of birds. Herds of deer frequently browse along the woods and fields at the margins of the trail. Once we had to take a detour around a copperhead that was crossing the trail, head lifted warily as it watched us.

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Atop that power tower is an Osprey Nest, and one of the parents can be seen circling overhead.

Bikers and walkers share this trail. We are, at different times, both. We have often heard walkers complain about the bad behavior of discourteous bikers. But when speaking to bikers, we hear complaints about how rude walkers can be. 😊 The point is, share the trail.

Sometimes during VERY heavy rains sections of the trail have been flooded. This happened in April 2017 after nearly 5 inches of rain fell in a single day on the Triangle Area, and the river rose 25 feet…ten feet above flood stage. Sections of the Greenway returned briefly to the swamps and vernal ponds of bygone days and stayed that way for days until flood waters subsided.

The County also does a pretty good job keeping the Grewnway safe. Bicycle Patrols by the Raleigh Police are common. The vegetation at the trail margins is kept under control to give joggers a good line of site up and down the trail way…which helps in spotting fast moving approaching bikers as well as providing less cover for potential muggers and other potential bad actors to lie in wait. Even so, we would suggest that no-one bike or jog this alone.

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Don’t go alone!

The country has always built an impressive series of suspension bridges and wooden boardwalks for sections that criss cross swamp areas or the river itself (the trail swamps banks many times.)

Also, in late fall, one of the major attractions of the southern end of the trail is the City of Raleigh’s sprawling 50-acre sunflower farm. The city raises them to use the seeds to make biodiesel, but it’s become a major pop-up tourist phenomenon. This place is gorgeous in later summer and fall but attracts HUGE numbers of gawkers and selfie takers, so be aware if you are on the trail. People will be looking at the sunflowers and not necessarily at what’s coming at them on the trail.

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Acres of Sunflowers!

https://www.visitraleigh.com/plan-a-trip/visitraleigh-insider-blog/post/the-neuse-river-sunflower-fields-in-raleigh-nc/

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Our favorite spot? Maybe.

Oh…I should mention that despite the huge throngs that visit the sunflower seeds are technically close to the public. 🙂 Observe them from the safety of the Greenway and do not enter the fields like the scofflaws pictured above.

Besides the Sunflowers, our favorite section is the one closest to home…from Falls Lake Dam to about Rte. 1. But there are many other great sections.

Our favorite single spot on the trail may be the Neuse River Bend Overlook about midway between Rte. 1 and the WRAL Soccer Complex.

 

The NRG is, by the way, yet another part of the Mountains to Sea Trail. But I do not believe it is blazed as such…if it is I have not seen the blazes. Anyone, you can’t miss the trail.

Note that while the NRG ends at the Wake County Line, the trail continues South into Clayton, NC for at least four miles as the Clayton River Walk. I believe there are plants to expand this. And north of the damn  there is the wilder, unpaved Falls Lake Trail.

If you live in the Raleigh area you should not be missing out on this experience. The Neuse River Greenway is a great way to get outdoors at any time. And if you don’t live in the area, well, there may be a similar place near your own home.

Don’t have one? Demand action from your local officials. Every city and town should have a clearly defined path to green.