Short trails of the Triangle

Just starting out as a hiker? Odds are you won't want to chew off the entire Falls Lake section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail on your first outing. (It's 60 miles long, fyi.)

While the Triangle is rife with long trails (the MST is the longest), it also has an impressive collection of short trails, hikes ideal for the hiker yet to develop her endurance. Below is a list of 13 such trails, including name, length, location, a short description and where to find more information.

1. Umstead State Park
Sal’s Branch Trail: 2.7 miles (with option for 1.9 additional miles)
Umstead has 20 miles of hiking trail, with several options for long hikes. But it also has some shorter treks that expose you to the urban park’s wild wonders. Sal’s Branch Trail begins behind the Visitors Center off the Glenwood Avenue entrance, crosses a small creek, then takes you on a mellow climb through a maturing hardwood forest. At the midpoint, the trail briefly brushes with Big Lake. There, you can extend your day by tacking on the 1.25-mile Pott’s Branch Trail and the 0.6-mile Oak Rock Trail, both of which offer scenic passage along a Piedmont creek. Post hike, spend a few minutes in the Visitors Center museum and learn about Umstead’s human past.
Directions and more info here.

2. Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve
1 mile
There’s a lot of exploring to be done in this linear 23-acre preserve. The trail begins in a floodplain forest, then quickly snuggles up to the base of a 100-foot bluff populated by towering beech. Either return the way you came or loop around to the top of the bluff and enjoy the mature beech stand and Swift Creek below for a different perspective. The Triangle Land Conservancy does a good job of maintaining the trail through the preserve.
More info here.

3. Historic Yates Millpond
3 miles
Three trails for three moods of hiking. The Midland Trail loops around the millpond for an easy mile-long circumnavigation. The High Ridge Trail takes the high road on the west side of the lake for a slightly more challenging hike (match it with the Midland Trail for about a 1.25-mile hike. The one-mile (two miles out-and-back) Creekside Trail parts with the lake and explores a scenic meadow. Bring your camera on this hike: the old mill   may be the most photographed spot in the Triangle.
More info here.

4. Harris Lake County Park
6 miles
New Hill
Harris Lake’s Peninsula Trail is a little on the long side: it’s also relatively flat and the tread is foot-friendly. And, it’s scenic. Intimate views of the lake dominate the first part of the hike. There’s a nice passage through an old longleaf pine forest, some easy cove exploring and passage through the remains of the park’s human past. It’s six miles that pass quickly.
Directions and more info here.

5. Johnston Mill Nature Preserve
3.0 miles
Chapel Hill
What’s good to know about Triangle Land Conservancy properties is that they were preserved for a reason — their natural uniqueness and esthetic importance. In the case of Johnston Mill that includes both the region’s human history — the Europeans settled in the early 1700s, the hunter-gatherers were here thousands of years before that — and it’s natural splendor. Hike through a mature bottomland hardwood forest, a meadow and atop a bluff with ancient, stately beech trees. The trail does climb in a couple spots, but it’s tread is smooth and largely devoid of rocks and tree roots.
Directions and more info here.

6. American Tobacco Trail

Wake, Chatham, Durham counties
22 miles
You hear a lot about the American Tobacco Trail: about the soon-to-be-completed missing link over I-40, about the crime on the far north end. What you may not know is that the trail atop an old rail bed is flat, hard-packed and a great venue for extending your mileage. The southern trailhead off New Hill-Olive Chapel Road offers ample parking and easy access. Mile markers along the way let you gauge the length of your walk (remembering, of course, that this is an out-and-back; when the mile marker reads 2.0, that means in addition to having gone 2 miles, you also have a 2-mile hike back; plan accordingly).
Directions and more info here.

7. Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center
Four Oaks
7 miles of total trail
Don’t let the mileage fool you, for two reasons. One, the terrain is the flattest you’ll find in the region (attribute that to the fact this 2,800-acre resource of Johnston Community College is on the western fringe of the coastal plain). And two, the trails are divvied up into short connectors, none of which are more than three-quarters of a mile long. Pick up a trail map at the Learning Center and piece together a hike as long or as short as you like, through pine savannah and flood plain forest — the trail flirts with the Let’lones section of the Neuse River, a run where the normally assertive Neuse has trouble deciding where exactly it wants to go — so it goes everywhere. Another plus: it’s rarely crowded.
Directions and more info here.

8. West Point on the Eno city park
3.6-miles (Eagle Trail)
A hike at West Point on the Eno is about more than just hiking. That’s not to belittle the hiking, especially the 3.6-mile (out-and-back total) Eagle Trail, which takes you along prime Eno territory, a stretch that includes the drop (some might go so far as to describe them as falls) into Sennett Hole, a deep hole popular for cooling off during a summer hike. But you’ll also want to explore the working West Point Mill, the restored McCown-Mangum House, the millpond (where you can rent a canoe or kayak most weekends) and more.
Directions and more info here.

9. Little River Regional Park
4.2 miles
Ridge Trail (3.0 miles out-and-back)
North Loop Trail (1.2 miles)
The 1.5-mile Ridge Trail offers a mellow ridge-line climb on an old roadbed through a maturing Piedmont forest. At the 1.2-mile North Loop Trail go right and dip down to the Little River for passage along this rocky creek. Then climb a bluff where a bench encourages you to set and savor the view of the river you just ascended from. Continue on the loop to the Ridge Trail for your 1.5-mile return. Lots of good views for the sweat equity invested.
Directions and more info here.

10. Horton Grove Nature Preserve
3 miles
Northern Durham County
This Triangle Land Conservancy property opened in 2012 and remains, in part due to its remote location, a hidden gem. You’ll find the hills a little higher in northern Durham County, but the new and well-designed trail does a nice job of letting you savor the climbs, not suffer them. Plus, because the trail is fresh, the tread is relatively smooth, devoid of the roots and rocks that can add double meaning to a day trip. The trail also takes in an emerging Piedmont Prairie, the TLC’s effort to reestablish a landscape

Directions and more info here.

11. Eno River State Park
4.1 miles (1.5 miles with a 2.6-mile option)
Buckquarter Creek Trail (1.5 miles)
Holden Mill Trail (2.6 miles)
Orange County
Eno River State Park, which follows its namesake river for about 11 miles, has lots of great hiking — 28 miles worth, in fact. You get the most bang for your hiking buck, though, on the 1.5-mile Buckquarter Creek Trail in the park’s Few’s Ford Access area. Hiked counterclockwise, this route follows an old roadbed along a ridgeline (with good views of the river in winter), before dropping into a floodplain forest and returning along an especially rocky and scenic portion of the river. Extend the fun by adding the Holden Creek Trail, making for a 4.1-mile figure-eight loop.
Directions and more info here.

12. Clemmons Educational State Forest
1.8 miles
Clemmons is best known for its talking trees and rocks (the “educational” part of the forest’s title), which is understandable, but glosses over the small forest’s big scenery. The trail winds through mature forest, past a three-acre pond and, here on the cusp of the coastal plain, even manages to find a waterfall.
Directions and more info here.

13. Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Section 7
2.3 miles (one way; 4.6 miles out-and-back)
I have no documentation to prove this, but based on anecdotes (and personal bias), this may be the most popular section of the 60-mile stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail along Falls Lake. There’s a surprising amount of diversity on this stretch: good lake views, short stretches of fragrant pines, clearings, scenic coves, a beach, mature hardwoods, a short remnant of paved roadbed from the pre-reservoir days. A friendly stretch of trail with mellow ascents and descents.
Directions and more info here.

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