Whether it’s for exercise, a romantic activity for Valentine’s Day or just plain fun, hiking is the ultimate triple threat: entertaining, free and right in your neck of the woods.
The Durham-Chapel Hill area has hundreds of hiking trails to choose from. For this story, Southern Neighbor Managing Editor Cole Stanley trekked out to three of our most popular spots to get the scoop.
Our first stop is Carolina North Forest. Just off Martin Luther King Jr Blvd in Chapel Hill and bordering Horace Williams Airport, the location doesn’t exactly scream “oasis of natural beauty.” But after parking next to a row of squat, beige maintenance buildings and following a narrow gravel path, one approaches a clearing in the dense forest — complete with cut log benches and a small flower box — that marks the entrance to the pristine trails within.
The landscape of Carolina North Forest is almost alien when you consider the urban sprawl just a stone’s throw away. The sky is dominated by maritime pines — gigantic, unending stripes in your sightline against the dense underbrush.
Carolina North is a wonderful choice for both our oldest and youngest hikers. The excellent maintenance of these trails prevents much root overgrowth, rock outcropping and earth mounding that can prove troublesome for those of us prone to tripping.
The only downside to these trails is that despite the variety of flora to be found, the landscape is fairly monotonous. The seemingly endless sea of trees and brush makes for an enchanting stroll that feels secluded from the day-to-day, but there are fewer photo-worthy breathtaking views to be had than at some other spots.
Which brings us to Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. Located between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough, right off Mt. Sinai Road, this gem is a bit more of a challenge than Carolina North. After stepping out of the car, it’s a fairly steep trek down to a small valley which is accented by a glossy, twisting creek, and an immediate climb over the next hill. This is typical of Johnston Mill, which has numerous large hills and giant outcroppings of rock.
Through the middle of the preserve, there is a small river, beside which the ruins of a colonial settlement can be found. Each trail at Johnston Mill feels unique, some crossing a half dozen bridges over sections of the river, others scaling the large hills that surround it, and still others crossing over the horse trails that the Preserve houses.
The trail maintenance, although good, errs on the side of letting nature run its course, so you may encounter more than your fair share of large tree roots, rocks and logs blocking your path. That said, the splendor of the landscape at Johnston Mill is only rivaled by the abundance of gorgeous barred owls, who can be seen and heard throughout the Preserve.
Finally, I visited the largest of the three spots, Eno River State Park. If you visit Eno in the coming few months, you may not be able to enjoy its main attraction — which you can probably deduce from its name — hands-on (or should I say, feet-in), but taking it in with eyes and ears is a joy unto itself.
It’s easy to forget that we have such a magnificent body of water right here in our backyard. The Eno’s power is palpable, with hundreds of boulders cut through by its flow now serving as stepping stones for those of us not willing to take a full-on plunge. Even in the winter, frogs, salamanders and various waterfowl can be found.
Eno River State Park’s impressive size allows for great diversity in the difficulty level of its trails. The various paths away from the ferny riverbank wind through small flower-covered hills and low lying tree cover, to a relatively flat pine forest (where woodpeckers abound), all the way to the steep ascent up to Cox Mountain Trail, perfect for the experienced hiker.