The TMB Hits a Snag, the Next Hike…and Waterfall Week!

We are now weeks away from the Tour Du Mont Blanc, and it’s beginning to sing in that we are actually going to do this thing. There is no turning back now!

Finally, we going to be in the Alps! It is a dream of mine of as long as I have been a hiker. It’s also the next of our Bucket List Hikes, and it is by far the most challenging thing either of us have ever attempted.

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The challenges of the Tour Du Mont Blanc far exceed our other adventures such as Macchu Picchu via the Salkantay Route

But amidst the excitement we also got a bit of unfortunate news. The first serious hitch was thrown into our plans when we received an email from the Refuge Lac Blanc, which we were booked to stay on the final night of the hike, is going to be closed for the foreseeable future. Apparently there is some legal trouble.

This is bad news because many of the refuges are now booked up. The Lac Blanc, situated high above Chamonix is one of the most scenic areas of the trail, was perhaps the most picturesque on the hike. I was really stoked about staying there. ☹

Here’s what we’ll be missing…

Photo courtesy the Lac Blanc Refuge.

We now have to try to hastily book a night in the nearby Refuge La Flegare. We hope there’s space left…if not, things could get interesting. Lac Blanc was one of the hardest places to book on the whole circuit and a Flegare does not look any easier. But we have confidence it will work out.

We have also finalized the bookings for our train passage from Paris to Chamonix. I am also looking forward to riding on the TGV…still the world’s fastest train.

Meanwhile…we’re preparing as best we can on this end. We should have details soon about our final conditioning expedition of the year, which should yield some fantastic pictures.

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We’re also purchasing mid-sized backpacks for hut to hut trekking. We had in fact hoped to have them ready for this outing but…there simply wasn’t time. Is there every enough time to do all the things we need? Modern life seems to give everything but.

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I am also still hunting around for a good mapping software to replace my past attempts at ‘cartography.’

Also on deck…waterfalls. Everybody loves waterfalls, right? We’ve visited a ton in the area and therefore I am going to do an entire week’s worth of features on them…waterfall week, some of the best spots in the southern Appalachians (and maybe other places) where gravity and H2O meet. Look for it soon on…BecauseItzThere!!!

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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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Hike the High Country

The Grayson Highlands, VA

*We hiked the Grayson Highlands in April 2014 over a period of two consecutive days, first starting from the Mount Rogers Trailhead and later from Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands State Park. We covered a variety of trails on these hikes and saw virtually every part of the highlands, excepting the treed-in summit of Mt. Rogers itself. So if our ‘wardrobes’ appear to shift somewhat in the photos, be advised that it is not as a result of any malfunction.

**We have added the Grayson Highland to our list of Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians. It currently holds BecauseItzThere’s title of “Best Southern Section of the AT.”

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The Grayson Highlands below the AT

If you were to poll knowledgeable hikers on what the best section of trail in the Southeastern United States is, you would get many answers. But it’s good bet that this quartet would come to the fore…The Roan Mountains, The Smoky Mountains, The Grayson Highlands and the Art Loeb Trail. Three of those four are sections of the Appalachian Trail, no surprise.

Sylvia and I consider ourselves fairly knowledgeable hikers. If you polled us, we would rank them this way…

  1. Art Loeb Trail (Shining Rock Wilderness)
  2. Grayson Highlands
  3. Roan Mountains
  4. Smoky Mountains

…with the caveat that we have not done most of the interior sections of the Smoky Mountains, and that we did the Roans on a day when the views were almost entirely socked in. If we were to do all four of them again, and in full, right now, our ranking might well change.

BUT…we would also rank the Old Rag hike/rock hop ahead of all of them.

Today we’ll talk a bit about the Grayson Highlands. This is the remarkable series of alpine meadows on the flanks of of Mt. Rogers, which at 5,729 feet is Virginia’s highest point. Like a good many southern mountains, the summit of Rogers is entirely treed in, and the best views are actually not from the top. In this case, the best views are from the Grayson Highlands.

There are many trail options in the Grayson Highlands. Here Sylvia consults the map as Brian practices his befuddled face in advance of actually being ‘misplaced.’

In fact, the highlands link Virginia’s two highest summits…Whitetop Mountain, the second highest, is also accessible via the AT (though if you want to cheat, there is also a road to the top. Again, a too familiar story in the south.)

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The Mount Rogers Trail

The easiest way to access the meadows is via Grayson Highlands State Park, which has a trailhead with a large parking area right at Massie Gap where the Highlands begin. From here it is just a half mile to the AT. Easy-peasy!

Too easy-peasy, in fact. ☹.  Sylvia and I greatly prefer mountains you have to actually climb in order to experience rather than those that allow a motor to do all the work. Because of the easy access, the beautiful Highlands are pretty much open to everyone who owns a car and a GPS. And that means crowds.

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Nope, that’s not Colorado. It’s Virginia’s High Country.

But it’s still a wonderful place. And as always, I am surprised by how very much difference there is to be gained by simply walking away from the trail head. Most would-be hikers will not go more than three miles from a paved road, if that much.

The highlands have great views, unobstructed for miles. Because they are so expansive, the tree-line is often far off and the views over meadows and scrub are quite scenic. We found these more impressive than other ‘balds’ we have visited, such as Gregory Bald.

Sylvia and I climbed from the North side via the Mount Rogers Trail, which leaves out of Grindstone Campground, where we staged out of for the hike. This campground is notable to me as the place where, in 2008, just months after relocating from Texas to NC, I got a flat tire and was forced to do a bit of ‘auto-mechanicking’ on the spot. I still recall the fact that no less than three people stopped and offered to assist me.

The Mount Rogers Trail is a fairly well graded trail that reaches the AT at Deep Gap, and then shortly after that, views appear on the right side of the trail. The trail keeps on going, back into the trees and then out again, passing the spur trail for the summit. But here, at the open area known as Brier Ridge, we decided to get off. We wanted to explore the highlands and not the closed in summit.

The Highlands are BIG. As in hundreds of acres. It’s not just a small area around the trail, they stretch on for miles. We walked cross country for at least a half mile out to a prominence on Brier Ridge. The open meadows kept going for at least another mile past this point – there was no end in sight.

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This was taken a half mile from the AT…meadows larger than football fields stretch on beyond!

We saw many signs of bootleg campsites. Note that while camping is not permitted inside the state park, camping IS permitted in the Mount Rogers Recreation Area. If you want to camp, check the regulations and be aware of where you are in relation to the park boundaries.

Also, there are hiker shelters and a developed campground in the state park. Check the regulations for fee requirements.

Be aware that if you do go cross country we recommend you wear long pants. The briers of aptly named Brier Ridge were quite sharp.

Another notable attraction of this place is the ‘Wild Ponies’ of the Highlands. There are over a hundred of these, famed for their docility, and in fact they have a reputation of licking the salt right from the clothes of sweaty hikers.

We saw at least a score of them. They were right on the trail, minding their business.

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We did not ask the pony to stand there. Honest.

While they are often called wild, feral-but-managed might be a better term. The ponies were relocated to the park from elsewhere in the 1970’s intentionally to keep the growth on the meadows under control. Like many southern ‘balds’, the Highlands are a temporary phenomenon caused by fires and clear cutting, bound to return to their native woodland state in just a few generations if left alone. The ponies help keep them in their present open state for the enjoyment of all. The ponies are in turn managed by the park service as combination mobile tourist attraction/lawn mowing service.

Try to refrain from touching them. They may seem friendly but the ponies are not house pets. And it’s against the rules to approach too closely.

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One of the things we really liked about the Highlands is the presence of several rock pinnacles and domes, some of which can be climbed. Too many of the southern balds are just flat, open, mundane places with the aspect of pastures. The presence of these rock formations adds to the wild character of the place and enhances the views, giving the hiker a viewing platform from which to take in the surroundings. Just be careful climbing them.

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As stated, the AT runs right across the highlands. Though it was too early in the season for thru-hikers when we visited.

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We consider the Highlands to be the best section of the AT we have done so far in the South, with the very strong caveat that we have NOT done the entire trail in the South. Particularly, we might change our mind if we ever catch the Roan Highlands on a day of good weather. This is an honor that is far from decided.

We strongly recommend a visit to the highlands to anyone who is interested in hiking. In fact, it is such a great place as to be worth the investment of at least a couple days. You could hike up the Mount Rogers Trail to the summit one day, then spend the second or even a third exploring Whitetop from the Elk Garden side or the areas around Massie Gap, where the ponies frequently are. Combine this with a visit to Damascus and a day on the Virginia Creeper Trail and there’s enough to do here for the better part of a week!

In fact, we did spend four whole days here and one of the things on our agenda was biking.

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Note the appearance of yet another of Brian’s Legendary Lost Hats. The Hilton Head hat, last seen at Road’s End in Kings Canyon NP.

Next up: The Creep into Trail Town

 

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

 

What’s Been Going On?

Taking a much needed rest the last few days. But we’ll have more posts soon! The the meantime we have updated our Bucket List, Best Hikes in the Southern Appalachians and Local Hikes pages. We are also finished with all of our preparations for the Tour Du Mont Blanc, now just a few weeks away! Brian is hastily cramming to increase his Tarzan-fluency en Francais.

We have plenty of stuff upcoming. Look for a trip report of our last foray out to Damascus, VA…America’s Trail Town, coming very soon. Also I am putting together a few reports about waterfalls of note.

Meanwhile, here’s some pictures taken last week of us on the Neuse River Greenway near Horsehoe Bend Park.

 

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Nah they don’t serve German beer on the Greenway, this was after at the Guglhupf.

And here’s some leftover pics from Sylvia’s Iphone of the Santa Cruz Trek! Don’t you just wanna?

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Check back soon for more!

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.

 

A Trail to Fall For

 

The Falls Lake Trail, Raleigh/Durham. NC

*We had added the Falls Lake Trail to our list of recommended local hikes in the Raleigh/Durham area.. We often train here for the bigger adventures.

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Falls Lake is easy to fall for. Just don’t fall in.

Being an outdoors adventurer requires a willingness to travel long distances in search of the great adventures of life. Adventures don’t generally come to you, after all. Especially those in the wild places.

But one should never overlook an opportunity for adventure that is close to home. It would be nearly impossible to maintain hiking form if nothing existed locally to fill in the gaps between out big adventures. That would be a sad situation indeed. And it is often surprising how little distance you need travel to end up in an area most would consider wild.

Sylvia and I are fortunate enough to live in a place that does offer a multitude of these ‘urban oasis’ type areas where one can go on the weekend, on a day off or even before or after work. To hike, bike, exercise or just stroll and relax.
We have already blogged about one of these areas – the newly opened Forest Ridge Park. Today we’ll showcase another…just a mile from our home is the Falls Lake Trail.

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Pond along the old route of NC 98

The Falls Lake Trail is approximately 60 miles in length, a very long distance indeed considering that the entire trail is within the boundaries of a major US urban population center (Raleigh/Durham.) The trail takes its name from 12,000 acre Falls Lake, a long and meandering man-made reservoir full of coves, inlets and bays. The lake was created by the damming of the Neuse River, completed in 1981 by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Historically, the area was prone to frequent flooding prior to the creation of the dam. If not for the dam, we probably could not live where we now do. Which would be a dam shame.

Most of the surrounding woodlands are part of the Army Corp of Engineers reserve, the Falls Lake State Recreation Area or various state-owned game lands. It’s a fine trail to hike. There’s plenty of wildlife and birds. Bald eagles commonly nest here (we have seen several) as well as red shouldered hawks, owls and ospreys (one pair nests just a mile from our house.)

Image provided by getgoingnc.com

We like the views of Falls Lake and the peaceful surrounding woodlands. Thought are no real hills along the trail it’s not flat, either…the trail goes up and down quite a lot as it crisscrosses the oft steep banks of the lake. The trail is generally in good shape, though it gets washed out sometimes in high water. We also noted that as the years have passed it has become more eroded than before. It may be suffering from lack of maintenance or simple increased use. But we seldom see many people on the trail, far less than we do in crowded Umstead State Park.

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Somewhere North of Raleigh

This is also a great place for trail running. I don’t do much of this anymore because of my ‘trick knee’ but we have done so in the past.

One thing we don’t like as much about the trail is that it is encroached upon in many places by development, much of it recent. The back yards of very large, fancy houses push right up to the edge of the trail. Often the noise of noisy dogs, radios, power tools and screaming children intrude. We hope that the state of North Carolina, the cities of Raleigh and Durham, and Wake County will do everything possible to keep this area wild for recreations of all types…hunters, anglers and boaters as well.

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Some of the signs of people are quite old. Including the remains of old homesteads, wreck autos from bygone days, and even the ghosts of highways past…old roads whose rights of way now lie beneath the waters of the lake. The dry land approaches of these abandoned roads are strange and silent, being taken back into the forest almost with gentleness. A reminder that while humans can conquer nature, nature is patient and persistent, and often gets the last laugh.

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The road of yesterday

 

We have yet to hike even half of this great trail. Because the trail cuts roads in many places it is entirely possible to section hike it, especially if you have two cars. We have done most of the sections in Wake County. We have yet to do those that extend into Durham County and the Eno River. (Note that despite what you might have heard of Durham, the areas of the trail within it are generally safe for hiking.)

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Neuse River from atop the Falls Lake Dam

The Trail, by the way, is part of the ubiquitous Mountains to Sea Trail, the trail that links NC’s dual treasures…its coast with its mountains. Yes, the same trail we hiked here. And here. Like all the MST it is blazed with a round white dot that is distinct from the AT’s trademark vertical rectangle.

This is a great place to hike any time of year except maybe summer, when it is hot, buggy and muddy from the thunderstorms of summer afternoons. Hike it from Fall to Spring.

The sunset from the Falls Lake Dam is nice as well. There’s also good fishing here, so I hear.

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But the path doesn’t end there…the MST extends south to the Johnston Country line, nearly 25 miles away, and even further…but that’s a post for later. That’s…the Neuse River Greenway.

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