The virtue of the short hike

It was a cloudless 50-degree late fall day, a day that was intended only for being outdoors. We dream of days like this, days when every minute of sunlight — and there were 607 and change on this particular day — should be spent outside. Alas, I was bushed: low biorhythms, iron-poor blood, ennui? I didn’t know and it didn’t matter, because I barely had 60 minutes in me., let alone 600. And if I could only get in a couple miles on a day meant for 10, what was the point. Which brings me to the point.

Too often we get the idea that if we can’t hike long, well, why hike at all? Hiking has become defined by distance. The Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail — those are the trails with cache. The longer the sexier, sexier still when you throw speed into the mix. (If you haven’t noticed, during the pandemic in particular, the hiking community has become FKT obsessed. In fact, until this year, I’m guessing most hikers didn’t even know that FKT stands for Fastest Known Time.) Even our own statewide Mountains-to-Sea Trail is victim to this longer-is-better fixation. Rather than focus on the hundreds of short sections that can be bit off in 2- to  5-mile stretches, the emphasis is on thru-hiking — on a trail that’s really only about two-thirds through. (As a sign this mindset might be changing, however, the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail this year published “Great Day Hikes on North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail,” featuring 40 MST day hikes statewide.)

Morning light at Seven Mile Creek

Nothing against long hikes, but how many of us have time to hike them? And, as I learned last week when the mind was willing but the body weak, sometimes not even long day hikes are an option — for a variety of reasons.

On a hike Sunday at Little River Regional Park I overheard one hiker tell another of a friend she tried to recruit to the group.

“She asked, ‘How far do you hike?’ and when I told her we do around 6 miles she looked at me like I was crazy.” 

The virtues

Whether that look was due to the distance itself or the perceived time it might require to complete a 6-mile hike was unclear. But it doesn’t really matter. The point: never overlook the virtue of hiking short. A few virtues of the short hike:

Bobbit Hole

A chance to hike with non-hiking friends and family. Especially over the holidays and especially this year, a short hike is a great way to expose the outdoor world you love to the uninitiated. Take ‘em on a 5-mile hike and they may never want to hike again — or have anything to do with you. But given them a whiff of a short trail, especially a short trail suited to the novice (few hills, limited rocks and tree roots, plus good scenery), could be the conversion tool you’ve been looking for. 

A chance to begin those New Year’s Resolutions early. Why decide now that you want to be healthier, but wait more than a month until New Year’s Day? If you’re like many and have four days off over Thanksgiving, take a short hike on all four days and you’ll be on well your way to a more active lifestyle long before Jan. 1.

Eases the stress of the holidays. Non-hikers associate hiking with losing weight. Established hikers associate it with keeping their s—tuff together. That’s especially important during the holiday season. Free up an hour for trail time and it will be so much easier to handle whatever the holidays toss your way. 

It may be the only option you have during the holidays. This is more for established hikers who are pressed for time and feel they don’t have time for a hike. You can find an hour here or there. Take what you can get and hike. Even a 2-mile hike can help get you through the holidays.

It’s rejuvenating. As I discovered on my one-hour “consolation” hike last week, I may not have emerged energized enough to run a marathon, but man was my outlook improved. I returned to the office, got a couple hours of work done, and felt like I’d salvaged the day.

Five short hikes — and why we like them

Below are five of my favorite short hikes and why. Stay tuned afterward for details on how you, too, can hike these hikes.

  1. Seven Mile Creek Nature Preserve, Orange County. The preserve has less than two miles of trail, all of which are immaculately kept and accessible: if you can walk, you can hike here. In fact, if you can’t hike, there’s an Americans with Disabilities Act trail. Passes through a mature hardwood forest and it’s less than 0.4 miles to the creek. Learn more here. 
  2. Jordan Lake State Educational Forest, Chapel Hill. A total of 3.5 miles of trail with loops ranging from a half mile to 2 miles. Flat trail leads to some expansive views of Jordan Lake, their are educational kiosks throughout (though the talking trees currently aren’t talking), and there’s some old forest-fire-fighting equipment near the trailhead, adding extra inducement to the reluctant. Learn more here.
  3. Bobbit Hole and Cole Mill Trail loop, Eno River State Park, Durham. 2.7 miles, with a shorter option. Much of the hiking along the 33-mile Eno River is marked by pleasant strolls along the river and climbs (sometimes challenging) along the ridges. This is one of the flatter all-around experiences you’ll have. Plus, the river, plus the sizable pool that is Bobbit Hole. Learn more here.
  4. Duke Forest, Korstian Division, Gate 25, Durham. 3.2 miles, with shorter options. If there’s been recent rain, this is the place to go. When New Hope Creek rises it’s forced through a narrow valley here where the creek’s gradient creates the closest thing we have in these parts to waterfalls. Learn more here. 
  5. Mountains-to-Sea Trail: James M. Johnston Preserve, Hillsborough. 2 miles. The first quarter of this trail (and the last; it’s an out-and-back) is a nice warm-up, because after you cross Cates Creek and enter the preserve, you’re met by a stout climb to a rounded peak, followed by an even more stout descent to the Eno River. Lots of mountain laurel and other montane good vibes. Learn more here.

You can also find suitable short hikes at your local North Carolina State Park or your neighborhood municipal or county park. They may not get the publicity of their more glamorous longer siblings, but they’re out there. 

Get out and hike them!

Guides to our Short 5

Interested in hiking our Short 5 (above)? We have hiking guides for all 5 venues, and we’ve compiled them into one package: 5 Short Hikes in the Triangle. Learn more about the guides and check out the package here. And if you download them this weekend, enter the code B75MJU9U and get a 50 percent discount.

For more information and to download the 5 Short Hikes guide, go here.

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