Last week was a bit of a disaster on the trails of North Carolina. An ironic perfect storm of great weather and minimal entertainment options in these stay-at-home (soon-to-be safer-at-home) times meant hordes of hikers inhabiting our trails, especially those in our state parks. As we reported Wednesday, Pilot Mountain, Hanging Rock, Eno River, Stone Mountain and Raven Rock all had to close their gates Saturday morning because they had reached capacity. Hanging Rock reported 1,000 more visitors than it had ever recorded.
It started two weeks ago with a serenade by spring peepers in a pond at Horton Grove Nature Preserve. It was reinforced a day later by the sudden appearance of perky yellow daffodils near an old homestead along the Eno River. Then, last Friday, on a hike through bottomland forest at Ayr Mount in Hillsborough, I got the sign I’d been waiting for: a trout lily unfurling its delicate yellow and maroon petals.
This weekend will feel like mid to late October throughout much of the state.
Consider: As of noon today, the temperature atop Mount Mitchell was 53 degrees, with winds out of the southeast at 14 miles per hour, gusting to 18. Overnight, the temperature dropped to 45, with a wind chill of 40 degrees. Saturday, the temperature is expected to top out at 61.
That’s fleece weather.
Granted, this is on top of the East Coast (though these readings are from a station at 6,200 feet, nearly 500 below the Mount Mitchell summit). But these types of temperatures can be expected throughout the high country this weekend.
Even in the Piedmont, cool temperatures will prevail. Forecast highs for Saturday are in the low 70s with overnight lows dipping into the mid 60s.
This translates to one thing: a fall-like window for hiking.
Be advised, you won’t be the only one to have this thought. The trails are likely to be jammed. Here’s a little advice on how to avoid the expected crowds.
Go long. Probably the most popular trail at popular Umstead State Park in Raleigh is the Company Mill Trail — at least the first mile. That initial mile takes you over three small ridges down to Crabtree Creek. For many, especially those with small kids, Crabtree is a good opportunity to frolic for a few minutes, may have a snack, then head back. The traffic is probably halved by the time you cross Crabtree. And Jon Holliday, founder of the Raleigh Trail Hikers Meetup, says the numbers really dwindle once you hit the 3-mile mark and meet the Sycamore Trail in the center of the park.
Avoid the popular spots. Well, duh. So how do you know what’s popular? A few ways to narrow the list. Is it a place you hear frequently mentioned? If so, don’t go. Does it have a spacious, paved parking lot (or worse yet, a visitor center)? Nix it.
Avoid the popular spots, II. Last year, nearly 1.2 million people visited Umstead State Park in Raleigh. Proximity is part of the reason: about as many people live in Umstead’s MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area). It’s also a great park. But there are a lot of other great State Parks in North Carolina that don’t get near the love they deserve. A prime example: Medoc Mountain State Park, which barely got 100,000 visitors last year. Medoc Mountain is located near … well, that’s the problem, it’s not near or on the way to anywhere of note. But it’s just an hour and a half from the Triangle and well worth the drive. You can find a list of other underloved state parks here.
Avoid the popular spots, III. Another way to find a State Park that may be under visited: Get a state road map that has state parks on it and seek out the more remote ones. Medoc Mountain, again, is one example. Other good one: South Mountains State Park which is just far enough off I-40 and from Morganton to require a little extra effort to get to. South Mountains has 18,000 acres and had only 194,000 visitors last year.
Look for secondary entrances. Most parks have a main, advertised entrance, but they also have lesser-known secondary entrances. Get a map of your favorite place to hike and see where the boundaries brush up against roads. If there’s a trail near that point, you may well have a secondary entrance with roadside parking.
Check out preserves, conservancies and land trusts. They often have smaller, but less popular, trail networks. And because the land is being preserved, you can bet there’s some thing extra special about it. (Find a land trust near you by checking out the Conservation Trust for North Carolina website.)
Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. To help ease the transition, every Monday we feature a 90 Second Escape — essentially, a 90-second video of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s not under a fluorescent bulb.
Today’s 90-Second Escape: Everybody Loves Umstead
Not only was parking lot full — which I had never seen before — but the road leading into Umstead State Park from I-40 was sidewalled with cars. “I’ve never seen it this full,” observed avid hiker Liz King, hiking the Company Mill Trail.
Impressive, but not surprising. It was a Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the mercury was zeroing in on 70. A good hiking day anyday, but especialy in January, when you never know when your next shorts-and-T-shirt day will come. And Umstead, located in the heart of the Triangle, is one of North Carolina’s most popular state parks.
So what’s it like when you need practically need a ranger to direct traffic over foot bridges? If you weren’t one of the hundreds at Umstead on Saturday, spend 90 seconds and take a look.