In our five-part Winter Wild monthly adventure series, we go off trail to explore some of the wildest places in the region. Our January hike will be to the Butner Game Lands, more than 40,000 acres of wetlands and bottomland woods on the north side of Falls Lake.
It’s a common challenge over the holidays: you have family and friends visiting from afar — now, what are you going to do with them?
Take them on an adventure! Or, rather, let us help you take them on an adventure!
We’ve got several outdoor adventures this holiday season that are ideal for getting everyone out of the house and showing off the region’s great outdoor attributes!
If you want proof of the healing powers of nature, look at the extended spring with which we’ve been gifted. A handful of days in the 80s, some rain, but for the most part, temperatures in the low 70s, dry skies, sun. The kind of days you expect (but still greatly appreciate over) in early spring, the kind you marvel over on the doorstep of summer. It’s hard not to think we’ve been given this wether to help us cope with the weird times we live in.
This thought occurred to me again Sunday. We lead a small — and yes, physically distanced — hike on a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake. It was a stretch, 4.2 miles in Durham County extending from Red Mill Road on the east to Pennys Bend on the west, I hadn’t hiked in several years, but rediscovered a couple weeks ago. An oh-so-gentle climb starting from Red Mill Road, through a Piedmont forest of mostly hardwoods, some pine. Quiet shortly after escaping the road. A couple of bluffs climbed a mile and a half in, single track trail intermixing with long abandoned roadbeds. A smaller bluff formed by an oxbow, bottomland dominated by tulip poplars. A relatively narrow strip of land bound by the Eno River to the north, farmland to the south, but wide enough to accommodate a large sense of escape. And all enjoyed as part of our endless spring.
A comment or two was made about the weather, but I think it flew under the radar: people were simply so glad to be out with other people. Typically on these hikes, there’s a lull in conversation. Not now.
The next two days continue to look springlike. Then, we switch to summer, but for how long? The 7-day forecast won’t say. The smart money is on getting out today or tomorrow; take advantage of this extended gift of spring. You know you need it.
Intrigued by our 45-second share of Sunday’s hike on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake, Section T? Find everything you need to know about hiking this stretch in our GetHiking! Guide to Local Hikes, Hike 11: Mountains-to-Sea Trail | Falls Lake DH-T. Key details, an overview of the hiking experience, a route guide and map, which you can find on our GetGoingNC.com website, here. Download a copy by Wednesday, June 3, enter code NZ6HE3B7 at checkout, and the $ 0.99 fee will be waived. Check out the guide here.
Stormy weather sticks around, for much of the region, though Saturday: Sunday, it’s low 70s and sunny. Perfect weather for getting outside.
But will everyone be thinking along the same lines?
Today, we direct you back to some of our strategies for avoiding the crowds that have caused some state parks in North Carolina to close their gates.
- Hike Where the Horses Do. In this post from yesterday, we tout the virtues of hiking trails developed with horses in mind — but open to hikers as well. North Carolina State Parks, for instance, have 118 miles of horse trails in 11 parks, while hundreds of additional miles of equestrian trail can be found in the state’s four national forests. Read that post here.
- Hike the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. The state’s best known trail also, curiously, offers your best bet for a quiet ramble. We offer tips on how to identify some of the statewide trail’s less trod treat, in a post you may read here.
- Finding the right time and place. A few tips in this post about the best time of day to hike and how to find trails that may not be as populated.
- Hike in the rain. Perhaps your best bet at solitude is to hike Saturday, in the rain. Unless there’s also thunder and lightening in the forecast, we’re big fans of hiking in a light to moderate rain. It’s a much different experience, and one in which you’re unlikely to encounter any fellow hikers. Read that post here.
- Embrace the heat. Most people hang up their hiking shoes and boots when the hot, humid weather rolls in. And that’s the perfect time to enjoy a little me-and-only-me time on the trail, Read our post about embracing a hot-weather hike here.
Also, because the number of trails open and closed is constantly changing, we suggest checking ahead to make sure the trail you’d like to hike is actually open. Below are the websites of some of the region’s largest public land managers where you can find the latest trail status:
North Carolina National Forests
Hiking trails continue to be over-run. Thank the run of great weather (OK, there’s been a little rain here and there) and a lack of other recreational options during the age of Coronavirus for that.
But this overcrowding is more of a situation for trails intended for two feet. What about all the trails built for four?
In North Carolina’s State Parks system alone, 11 locations have equestrian trails, from the 32-mile network of interlocking horse trail at South Mountains State Park, to the 2-mile Bridle Out & Back Trail at Stone Mountain State Park (which visits a still!). Those 11 parks have a total of 35 equestrian trails offering 118 miles of riding.
Or hiking, depending upon your recreation perspective.
And that’s just in the state parks. The state’s four national forests offer hundreds of miles of trail open to both horseback riding and hiking.
You’ll find a few key differences between equestrian trails and dedicated hiking trails:
- Fewer bridges. Horse trails crossing major rivers will have bridges, but otherwise you’ll be fording streams when you reach water. Reason: it takes a substantial bridge to support a one-ton horse, and horses are less averse to getting their feet wet than we are. One of the reasons we focus on state parks in this post is that water crossings within their boundaries are likely to be less challenging than those in national forests. If water crossings make you nervous, get a good scouting report before hiking an unknown equestrian trail. And if you can’t find a good review online, at least get a topo map of the trail and look for what might be significant crossings.
- Typically wider. To allow for a horse’s greater girth and to allow for two of these greater girth’s to pass on the trail, horse trails tend to be wider, often piggybacking on old roadbeds. Though wider, they often aren’t wide enough to create an opening in the canopy overhead, so you still benefit from shade on a summer’s day.
- Typically have more overhead clearance. Because of the overhead clearance required for a horse and rider, these trails generally are trimmed high above the trail. Coupled with the fact these trails are also wider, you tend to get better air flow, which is especially helpful on a summer’s day.
- Can be more sloppy. Because a one-ton horse makes a greater impact on a trail than a 180-pound person when they go through a low-lying wet area they can leave divots that become small holding ponds. Thus, they can be a bit sloppier. Sturdier hiking shoes or boots are advised when hiking an equestrian trail.
There’s a chance you’ve already hiked on a horse trail. If you’ve hiked the Multiuse Trails at Umstead State Park in Raleigh, you’ve hiked on horse trail.
But more likely, you haven’t. Three quick recommendations:
- Raven Rock State Park, Avents Creek Access. East Loop, West Loop. 8 miles. We’ll let the accompanying video tell the story on this one. In short these are two 4-mile loops with the same trailhead. Start with the West Loop hiked clockwise; three-quarters of a mile in you’ll hit Jumping Fish Falls, a 5-foot drop followed by a 3 footer. Surprisingly steep terrain, considering this is the cusp of the coastal plain.
- South Mountains State Park, 32 miles. Ninety percent of the visitors to South Mountains go to Upper Falls, which means you have the vast majority of this, the biggest state park in North Carolina, to yourself. Probably the best horse trails for hiking in the state.
- Morrow Mountain State Park, 19 miles. These trails are more intimate than you might think for horse trails. They also offer the opportunity for long stretches seeing no other hikers. And conveniently located — for folks in Charlotte, the Triad and Triangle — in the center of the state.
Miles of equestrian trails await in North Carolina for the hiker eager for something different — and less crowded. Saddle up!
=&7=& equestrian trails. Find a rundown of the 35 equestrian trails in the system’s 11 state parks here.
=&8=&. North Carolina’s four national forests — the Croatan, Nantahala, Pisgah, and Uwharrie, include hundreds of miles of horse trails open to hiking. Find those trails starting here.
=&9=&. Nineteen Virginia State Parks have, or offer access to, more than 250 miles of equestrian trails. Find those trails here.
Not surprisingly, some of North Carolina’s more popular state parks filled to capacity again this weekend. Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, South Mountains, Raven Rock, Stone Mountain, Occoneechee, part of Eno River all had to shut down at one point because they had reached capacity.
On our scheduled 5-mile GetHiking! hike Sunday afternoon, we didn’t see a soul.
We’ve been focusing our efforts of late on the region’s lesser-explored gems, the trail’s less traveled. Sunday, at the Butner-Falls of Neuse Game Land, we hit the jackpot. At 1 p.m., when our socially distanced, 10-foot-spaced group of 12 hit the trail, there wasn’t a soul in site. And we never did see anyone outside our group during our nearly two hours on the trail.
I reckon there’s a good 15 miles of hiking, possibly more, on this 40,000-acre spread of land, mostly on the north side of Falls Lake. The N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission gives general direction to its 2 million acres of land in the state; it’s up to you to flesh out the trails, mostly in the form of closed-to-traffic gravel access roads. It’s a truer form of exploration, the kind a bottled-up-soul is particularly in need of right about now.
If you plan on getting out today, Memorial Day, we refer you to last Wednesday’s post on seeking solitude in a time of trail saturation. You’ll find guidance on how to find your own trails less traveled. As incentive, we provide a video peek at our hike yesterday on the peaceful paths above Falls Lake.
GetOut! and enjoy!
Typically, this much-anticipated three-day hiatus marks not just the beginning of summer, but the end of the year’s most sustained run in the salt mines. For five straight months, we typically toil away, indulging in a federal holiday or two, but saving our sacrosanct vacation days for summer. From New Year’s Day to Memorial Day, it’s pretty much work, work, work.
Not this year.
Which isn’t to say this Memorial Day is totally devoid of the holiday’s usual welcome-to-summer cheer. With Phase 2 of Gov. Cooper’s reopening plan set to kick in at 5 p.m. today: