Piedmont: Fall escapes that escape the crowds

“I can’t believe we haven’t seen anyone,” Krista said midway into our 15-mile hike.
“I wonder what Umstead’s like right now?” Amy wondered. “Probably bumper-to-bumper people.”
Probably, considering: 1) It was the second weekend in October and the first true weekend of fall color in the Piedmont, 2) It was a Saturday afternoon, 3) There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, 4) The temperature was struggling to get out of the 60s.
In short, it was a perfect fall day. The kind of day where it occurs to everyone to go for a hike, and it occurs to everyone to go to the same places. To Umstead State Park in Raleigh, to Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks in the Triad, to Crowders Mountain near Charlotte.
Need proof?
The Crowders Mountain Web site offers this warning front and center on its home page: “Expect parking delays on nice fall weekends.”
Which isn’t to say you should hide at home and experience fall through silde shows such as the one above. If you know where to go — like Amy and Krista did — you can experience the magnificence of fall in magnificent solitude.

Falls Lake/Mountains-to-Sea Trail
60 miles

The statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail spends 60 miles along Falls Lake through the Triangle, running nearly unencumbered from Penny’s Bend in Durham southeast to the Falls Lake dam in northeast Raleigh. The trail accommodates both short hikes — the shortest stretch between trail access points is less than a mile — and long: you can go for more than 5 miles at one point without encountering signs of civilization. And as Amy and Krista discovered earlier, there’s plenty of diverse color as the trail dips in and out of coves and, on occasion, takes the high road through established upland forests. A particularly nice stretch in fall is the 8 miles (divided into a pair of 4-mile stretches) between Penny’s Bend off Old Oxford Highway and Red Mill Road.
More information on the trail here, maps here.

Sauratown Trail
35 miles

Ironically, one of the state’s most underused trails connects two of the state’s most poplar parks for viewing fall color. The 35-mile Sauratown Trail (also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) links Hanging Rock State Park on the east with Pilot Mountain State Park to the west (and takes in a third peak in the ancient Sauratown range, Sauratown Mountain). The trail is rolling Piedmont, mostly on private property, much of it brushing past pastures. A particularly nice stretch is the 2.4 miles heading west from the Sauratown Trail Center off Rock House Road.
More info here.

Ridgeline Trail
8.7 miles

Irony, again: The new Ridgeline Trail (dedicated in 20XX) starts in Crowders Mountain State Park, home of the aforementioned parking lot jam, and ends across the state line in South Carolina’s also-popular Kings Mountain State Park. Thus, you might want to avoid both ends. Rather, start at the Boulders Access, a popular bouldering area that’s part of Crowders Mountain but removed from the main park, and head north. You’ll get much of the same scenery that lures people to Crowders Mountain, save the views from Kings Mountain and the Pinnacle. But as its name suggests, there’s lots of ridgeline hiking with good views along the way.
More info here. http://www.ncparks.gov/Visit/parks/crmo/activities.php

Northern Piedmont
Medoc Mountain State Park
10 miles

Medoc Mountain is less than an hour and a half drive from the Triangle, yet is one of the least-visited parks in the North Carolina State Parks system. You won’t find yourself jockeying for the next available parking space, you won’t find yourself tapping someone on the shoulder to ask if you can hike through. Medoc Mountain is on the cusp of where the Piedmont gives way to the coastal plain, but don’t be deceived: despite the fact Medoc Mountain tops out at just 325 feet, there’s plenty of up and down here. That leads to a more mountainous experience than you might expect, and more diverse foliage than you might anticipate as well. The 3-mile Bluff Loop Trail offers a nice mix of upland forest and good streamside foliage viewable from on high.
More info here.

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