Usually when you think of taking an escape into the wild, you assume a long drive to an obscure trail that navigates rugged terrain, frequently loses its way through dense undergrowth, involves waist-deep stream crossings and surprises you with wild critters at every opportunity. With the Lower Haw River Trail, located on the outskirts of the booming Triangle, you get all of that without the long drive.
Despite its urban location — its southern trailhead is about 12 miles west of Apex, its northern 8 miles south of Chapel Hill — and despite the fact the river was once heavily polluted by the textile mills that dotted its banks, the lower Haw is the wildest escape in the Triangle. Hugging the Haw’s east bank, the Lower Haw River Trail squeezes through tight passages of spicebush, elderberry, honeysuckle, fetterbush and a cornocopia of additional shrubs, vines and herbacious plants; passes under a canopy of blackgums, sourwoods, tulip poplars and beech, passes through the occasional flood plain swamp, and scrambles over a rock outcrop or two. On a summer’s day you’re likely to see the fattest water snakes (non-poisonous northern bandeds, for the most part) you’ve ever seen sunning on river rocks. Hawks and the occasional bald eagle lazily swoop across the river. Deer and riparian rodents (beaver, nutria) are omnipresent. While this might describe the wildlife of much of the Piedmont, for whatever reason, your chances of an encounter increase exponentially on the Haw.
Don’t be deceived by the fact that this 5.1-mile trail is under the jurisdiction of the N.C. Division of Parks & Recreation, which has a reputation for making its trails as accessible as possible. First, in the accessibility pecking order of state parks, priority is given to recreation areas (Falls Lake and Jordan Lake, for example), then state parks (Umstead, Eno River, Crowders Mountain to name three). Preservation is emphasized at the state’s natural areas, not recreation. That explains the sometimes sketchy trail (when in doubt, stay close to the river) and the bridgeless creek crossings, only one of which (Pokeberry, the northernmost) requires some upstream hiking to find a shallow rock crossing. And ever since the 1,000-plus-acre tract, now known as the Lower Haw River Natural Area, came into the state’s hands in 2003, State Parks has been occupied with working other, higher-profile parks (most notably Grandfather Mountain and Chimney Rock) into the system. Fortunately for aficionados of the wild, little attention has been paid the Lower Haw.
Alas, loathe as I am to admit it, words fall short in describing a trip along the Haw. For a better appreciation of the hike, check it out through the camera lens of my wife, Marcy Smith, in this short slideshow.
For more on the natural and cultural history of the Haw, visit the Haw River Assembly.
To get to the Lower Haw River Trail trailhead: Northern trailhead: Take US 15/501 south from Chapel Hill to Bynum. Go left on Durham Eubanks Road and stay on it as it becomes Bynum Church Road. There’s parking just below the trailhead. Southern trailhead: Go west from Apex on US 64. Cross over the Haw River, then do a U-turn at the first left. Cross back over the Haw and park at the turnout just beyond the bridge. Walk down the hill to the trailhead.