Our Favorite Hikes Across the Triangle

Our Favorite Hikes Across the Triangle

As a father of four children under ten years old, one of our favorite ways to spend time outdoors as a family is to hike at our local parks. There is nothing better than packing up our backpacks and hiking sticks, loading up our vehicle, and traveling to a local park to explore new places and hike the trails, especially on a beautiful sunny day. Since relocating to the Triangle seven years ago, we have traveled across the area and have visited dozens of parks with hiking trails. From municipal parks to county parks to state parks to nature preserves, the Triangle has a trail for every ability, age, and family. The following are our favorite hikes across the Triangle.

Clemmons Educational State Forest – Clayton

Tree Cookie Exhibit at Clemmons Educational State Forest

Facts & Figures

Address: 2256 Old U.S. Hwy 70, Clayton, NC 27520

County: Johnston and Wake

Size: 825 acres, 1.289 square miles

Hours:

  • Saturday & Sunday: 11am-8pm
  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday-Friday: 9am-5pm

Phone: (919) 553-5651

Websitehttps://www.ncesf.org/clemmons.html

Management: North Carolina Forest Service

Activities/Amenities:

  • Outdoor Education Workshops
  • Picnic Facilities
  • Ranger Conducted Classes
  • Trails
    • Forest Geology Trail with “Talking Rocks”
    • “Talking Tree” Trail
    • Forest Demonstration Trail
    • Watershed Extension Loop

Overview

Clemmons Educational State Forest is an 825-acre educational state forest in Clayton, North Carolina. Opened in 1976, it is North Carolina’s first educational state forest and is managed by the North Carolina Forest Service. Clemmons Educational State Forest offers a variety of educational and recreational opportunities free of charge. It is situated between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions and features pine stands and hardwoods, along with streams and rock formations. There are a variety of accessible trails featuring exhibits that teach about trees and forest management practices, including the “talking trees” and “talking rocks” trails. Conveniently located on Old U.S. Hwy. 70 in Clayton, it is less than a 30-minute drive from downtown Raleigh, making it easily accessible to anyone in the Triangle.

Eno River State Park – Durham

View of Eno River at Eno River State Park

Facts & Figures

Address: 6101 Cole Mill Rd, Durham, NC 27705

Counties: Durham, Orange

Size: 4,312 acres

Hours: Open daily from 7:30am to 9:30pm

Phone: (919) 383-1686

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Paddling
  • Fishing
  • Picnicking

Overview

Located in Durham, North Carolina, Eno River State Park is a quick drive from Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, as well as other parts of the Triangle. At 4,312 acres, the state park offers five access areas along a 12-mile stretch of the Eno River. The park has a rich history with the river flowing through mature forests and historic mill and home sites. Nearly 30 miles of trails along the river provide a variety of activities including backcountry camping by permit, fishing, hiking, and paddling, and is a popular spot for photography and sightseeing.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve – Cary

View of Ravine at Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

Facts & Figures

Address: 2626 Kildaire Farm Rd, Cary, NC 27518

County: Wake

Size: 140 acres

Hours: Open daily from 9:00am to sunset

Phone: (919) 387-5980

Websiteshttps://www.townofcary.org/recreation-enjoyment/parks-greenways-environment/parks/stevens-nature-center-at-hemlock-bluffs-nature-preserve

https://www.hemlockbluffs.org

Management: Joint partnership between the Town of Cary, Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Hiking
  • Nature Programs
  • Sightseeing

Overview

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is a joint project between the Town of Cary and the State of North Carolina. The majority of land is owned by the state, with a small parcel owned by the Town of Cary. The area is named for the Hemlock trees which grow in this area, which is rare and unique for the Piedmont region of North Carolina and is why they are protected. Hemlock trees typically grow in the Westernmost part of the state in the mountains, but a small forest of Hemlocks lie here in the heart of the Piedmont and Triangle area of North Carolina, making for a unique site.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve features the Stevens Nature Center, over three miles of hiking trails with interpretive signage, and observation decks with scenic overlooks. It is a great place for families with small children, as there are several short loops for hiking, many covered with wood chips.

Raven Rock State Park – Lillington

Rock Formations at Raven Rock State Park

Facts & Figures

Address: 3009 Raven Rock Road, Lillington, NC 27546

County: Harnett

Size: 4,810 acres

Hours: Open daily from 7:00am to 7:00pm

Phone: (910) 893-4888

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/raven-rock-state-park/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Camping
  • Fishing
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Paddling
  • Picnicking

Overview

Located along the Cape Fear River Valley in Lillington, NC in Harnett County, Raven Rock State Park offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities including camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, paddling, and picnicking. Less than an hour drive from Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Pinehurst, it is a popular place for family hiking. It is especially beautiful in the fall season when the leaves begin to change color. Hiking terrain varies from easy to difficult, with a variety of loops and trails for all ages. The Cape Fear River is also a popular spot for paddling. Although there is no river access to launch or land boats, the park does offer a canoe camping spot along the river. Check with the State Park Office for information. Nearby Cape Fear River Adventuresoffers tubing and paddling trips.

Williamson Nature Preserve – Raleigh

Old Farm Structures at Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve

Facts & Figures

Address: 4409 Mial Plantation Road, Raleigh, NC 27610

County: Wake and Johnston

Size: 405 acres

Hours: Open daily from 8:00am to 6:00pm

Phone: (919) 908-8809

Websiteshttps://www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves/williamson-preserve

Management: Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC)

Activities/Amenities:

  • Hiking
  • Mountain Biking
  • Nature Exploration

Overview

Opened in late September 2020, the Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve is the Triangle Land Conservancy’s newest nature preserve in the Triangle area of North Carolina. With nine miles of hiking and mountain bike trails, the preserve is a prime place for exploring nature and wildlife. Situated on the border of Wake and Johnston Counties, the 405-acre preserve lies along the Neuse River and is accessible from the main parking lot off of Mial Plantation Road, as well as along the Neuse River Greenway. The preserve is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) “with a shared vision and commitment to open space by Wake County, the Land and Water Fund, Johnston County, the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program, individuals who supported TLC’s Our Water, Our Land campaign; and the Williamson family who donated more than 60% of the land’s value.”

Join the #RecreateResonsibly Movement!

As an outdoor leader, parks advocate, and travel blogger, I am proud to join the #RecreateResponsibly coalition and encourage others to join the #RecreateResponsibly movement.

“During this public health crisis, spending time in outdoor spaces has become more important than ever. Yet these unusual circumstances mean that all of us, from seasoned outdoor enthusiasts to families heading out to their local park for the first time, could use a little guidance about how to stay safe. The Recreate Responsibly guidelines offer a starting point for getting outside to keep yourself healthy and to maintain access to our parks, trails, and beaches.” (source: Recreate Responsibly)

As stated in my previous blog post, Parks Were Essential in 2020, local, state, and national parks across the country saw record visitation during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. However, that visitation came with a toll on many parks, with visitors leaving trash and negatively impacting trails by not following Leave No Trace principles. Therefore, I am encouraging everyone reading this to #RecreateResponsibly by following these seven guidelines for keeping yourself healthy and protecting the places we love and enjoy. The following are the seven Recreate Responsibly guidelines from their website:

  1. Know Before You Go – Check the status of the place you want to visit. If it is closed, don’t go. If it’s crowded, have a back up plan.
  2. Plan Ahead – Prepare for facilities to be closed, pack lunch, and bring essentials like hand sanitizer and a face covering.
  3. Explore Locally – Limit long-distance travel and make use of local parks, trails, and public spaces. Be mindful of your impact on the communities you visit.
  4. Practice Physical Distancing – Keep your group size small. Be prepared to cover your nose and mouth and give others space. If you are sick, stay home.
  5. Play It Safe – Slow down and choose lower-risk activities to reduce your risk of injury. Search and rescue operations and health care resources are both strained.
  6. Leave No Trace – Respect public lands and waters, as well as Native and local communities. Take all your garbage with you.
  7. Build an Inclusive Outdoors – Be an active part of making the outdoors safe and welcoming for all identities and abilities.

In closing, the outdoors will continue to remain essential for exercise, relaxation, and stress relief throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Therefore, it is all of our responsibility to do our part to keep ourselves and others healthy while protecting the places we love and enjoy.

10 Places to Explore in North Carolina in 2021

Original Photos from Places Featured in Explore NC

Although travel remains limited to when and where it is safe to do so, our hope is that we will all be able to get back to traveling normally again in 2021. With the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine now being administered across the state and country, there is hope!

The hospitality and travel and tourism industries are two industries that have suffered the most due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why we all need to do our part to help prevent and reduce the spread of the virus, so that businesses affected the most by the pandemic can fully recover.

One way we can show support here in North Carolina is through the Count On Me NC initiative. Count On Me NC is a public health initiative that empowers visitors, guests and businesses to help keep everyone safe from COVID-19. Businesses can register for training and become certified to help keep customers safe, while individuals can sign the pledge.

As we remain optimistic about 2021 and traveling normally again, the following are a list of ten places across North Carolina that we’ve enjoyed in years past and recommend exploring when it is safe to do so.

1. North Carolina High Country

View of Grandfather Mountain

Facts & Figures

Counties: Allegheny, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, Yancey

Cities: Banner Elk, Beech Mountain, Blowing Rock, Boone, Burnsville, Jefferson, Linville, Sparta, Spruce Pine, Sugar Mountain, West Jefferson, Wilkesboro

Attractions:

Overview

North Carolina’s scenic High Country encompasses some of the highest elevations in the state and includes areas like Blowing Rock, Boone, Linville, and others. There are many attractions in High Country including The Blowing Rock, Grandfather Mountain, and Linville Falls, to name a few. This area offers spectacular hiking and sightseeing. With many tourist attractions, there is enough to see and do to spend an extended weekend or an entire week.

2. Pilot Mountain State Park

View from Top of Pilot Mountain State Park

Facts & Figures

Address: 1792 Pilot Knob Park Rd., Pinnacle, NC 27043

County: Surry and Yadkin

Size: 3,872 acres

Hours: Open daily from 7:00am to 6:00pm

Phone: (336) 325-2355

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/pilot-mountain-state-park/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Paddling
  • Picnic Shelters/Tables
  • Rock Climbing/Rappelling
  • Sightseeing

Overview

Pilot Mountain has been a prominent landmark of North Carolina, with the summit rising more than 2,000 feet. Its rock outcroppings that appear as a “dome” rising out of the mountains create a unique feature that can be seen from miles away. Pilot Mountain State Park offers an array of activities, including camping, hiking, padding, rock climbing, and sightseeing. With a park access switchback road that makes its way to the summit, it provides a spectacular experience for all abilities and ages. Whether you’re stopping briefly for the scenic overlook, spending a few hours hiking loop trails around the top, or camping out for the weekend, Pilot Mountain State Park will not disappoint.

3. Pinehurst Resort

View of Pinehurst #2 Course

Facts & Figures

Address: 80 Carolina Vista Drive, Pinehurst, NC 28374

County: Moore

Phone: (855) 235-8507

Websitehttps://www.pinehurst.com

Activities:

  • Boating
  • Croquet
  • Cycling
  • Golf
  • Tennis
  • Swimming

Accommodations:

  • Carolina Hotel
  • Holly Inn
  • The Manor
  • Carolina Villas
  • Condos at Pinehurst

Overview

Opened in 1895, Pinehurst Resort is known as “The Cradle of American Golf.” Located in the Village of Pinehurst in North Carolina’s Sandhills region in the South Central part of the state, it is less than a 2-hour drive from Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte, making it an easily accessible retreat. Known for hosting the US Open golf championship many times, golf is the primary activity at Pinehurst. However, it also offers swimming in the pools, tennis on the tennis courts, fine dining and shopping in town, a spa for relaxation, and boating at the marina, a short drive from the main resort. It features luxurious overnight accommodations, offering a comfortable retreat away from busy life.

4. North Carolina Zoo

Elephants at North Carolina Zoo

Facts & Figures

Address: 4401 Zoo Parkway, Asheboro, NC 27205

County: Randolph

Size: 2.142 square miles = 2,600 acres

Hours: Open Daily from 9:00am to 4:00pm

Phone: (800) 488-0444

Websitehttps://www.nczoo.org

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources

Animals:

  • Antelope
  • Baboon
  • Black Bear
  • Bobcat
  • Bison
  • Cheetah
  • Chimpanzee
  • Elephant
  • Elk
  • Flamingo
  • Giraff
  • Gray Wolf
  • Grizzly Bear
  • Lemur
  • Lion
  • Ocelot
  • Ostrich
  • Polar Bear
  • Seal
  • Zebra

Exhibits:

  • African Pavilion
  • Africa Bushlands
  • North American Sonoran Desert
  • North America Marsh
  • North America Rocky Coast
  • R.J. Reynolds Forest Aviary
  • Africa Lemur Island
  • Africa Patas Monkey Exhibit
  • Africa Forest Glade
  • North America Streamside
  • North America Honeybee Garden
  • Africa Watani Grasslands
  • North America Northwoods
  • North America Prairie
  • Africa Kitera Forest
  • Africa Forest Edge
  • North America Cypress Swamp

Overview

Located centrally in the geographic center of the state in Asheboro in Randolph County, the North Carolina Zoo is the world’s largest natural habitat zoo at 2,600 acres in size. The North Carolina Zoo offers daily admission, group pricing, and annual memberships, offering a variety of options to explore all the zoo has to offer. With dozens of exhibits and over 1,800 animals, the North Carolina Zoo provides educational opportunities time and time again, even for repeat visits with an annual membership. From the smallest of insects to the largest of mammals, there is fun for everyone!

5. Eno River State Park

View of Eno River at Eno River State Park

Facts & Figures

Address: 6101 Cole Mill Rd, Durham, NC 27705

Counties: Durham, Orange

Size: 4,312 acres

Hours: Open daily from 7:30am to 9:30pm

Phone: (919) 383-1686

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/eno-river-state-park/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Paddling
  • Fishing
  • Picnicking

Overview

Located in Durham, North Carolina, Eno River State Park is a quick drive from Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh, as well as other parts of the Triangle. At 4,312 acres, the state park offers five access areas along a 12-mile stretch of the Eno River. The park has a rich history with the river flowing through mature forests and historic mill and home sites. Nearly 30 miles of trails along the river provide a variety of activities including backcountry camping by permit, fishing, hiking, and paddling, and is a popular spot for photography and sightseeing.

6. Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

Trail Map Sign at Oconeechee Mountain State Natural Area

Facts & Figures

Address: 625 Virginia Cates Rd, Hillsborough, NC 27278

County: Orange

Size: 206 acres

Hours: Open daily from 8:00am to 9:00pm

Phone: (919) 383-1686

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/occoneechee-mountain-state-natural-area/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Hiking
  • Fishing
  • Picnicking

Overview

Located in Hillsborough, North Carolina in Orange County, Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is 206 acres and features Occoneechee Mountain, the highest point in Orange County, rising more than 350 feet above the Eno River below. It is a spectacular place for hiking and sightseeing. The area offers several hiking trails, including the 2.2-mile Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail around the mountain. It also offers access to the Eno River below for fishing, as well as picnic tables in a grassy knoll near the main parking lot. The Occoneechee name comes from Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation. With its central location to the Triangle area of North Carolina, it is easily accessible from Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, just off of Interstate-40.

7. Raven Rock State Park

View from Scenic Overlook at Raven Rock State Park

Facts & Figures

Address: 3009 Raven Rock Road, Lillington, NC 27546

County: Harnett

Size: 4,810 acres

Hours: Open daily from 7:00am to 7:00pm

Phone: (910) 893-4888

Websitehttps://www.ncparks.gov/raven-rock-state-park/home

Management: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Camping
  • Fishing
  • Hiking
  • Horseback Riding
  • Paddling
  • Picnicking

Overview

Located along the Cape Fear River Valley in Lillington, NC in Harnett County, Raven Rock State Park offers a variety of outdoor recreational activities including camping, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, paddling, and picnicking. Less than an hour drive from Raleigh, Fayetteville, and Pinehurst, it is a popular place for family hiking. It is especially beautiful in the fall season when the leaves begin to change color. Hiking terrain varies from easy to difficult, with a variety of loops and trails for all ages. The Cape Fear River is also a popular spot for paddling. Although there is no river access to launch or land boats, the park does offer a canoe camping spot along the river. Check with the State Park Office for information. Nearby Cape Fear River Adventuresoffers tubing and paddling trips.

8. Oak Island

Sunset Over the Beach in Oak Island

Facts & Figures

County: Brunswick

Websitehttps://www.oakislandnc.com

Attractions:

Overview

Oak Island, North Carolina is a small beach town located in Brunswick County, about 45 minutes south of Wilmington. Oak Island is unique in that the beach runs East to West, rather than North to South, due to North Carolina’s coastal geography. Unlike many of the other numerous beach towns along the coast, Oak Island is not commercialized like other beach towns in the Outer Banks and nearby Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. This makes for a very laid back atmosphere. However, the town is much quieter during the off-season, with some restaurants and stores closing down until the peak summer beach season. Oak Island offers a wide variety of attractions, including golf courses, recreation, restaurants, stores, and multiple beach access points, as well as a salt marsh inlet in between the beach and mainland.

9. The Outer Banks

Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills

Facts & Figures

County: Dare

Areas: Kill Devil Hills, Manteo, Nags Head, Roanoke Island, Hatteras Island

Attractions:

Overview

North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX) are barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina, separating the mainland from the Atlantic Ocean. They are a popular tourist and travel destination offering a wide variety of attractions, including an aquarium, beaches, state parks, national wildlife refuges, and more. Roanoke Island, known for “The Lost Colony,” was the site of England’s first settlement in the New World, an expedition by Sir Walter Raleigh. The area is also known for pirate history, including the famous “Blackbeard.”

10. Ocracoke Island

Ocracoke Island Light Station Sign

Facts & Figures

County: Hyde

Population: 948

Zip Code: 27960

Area: 9.6 square miles (8.6 square miles of land, 640 acres of water)

Resources:

Overview

Ocracoke Island is a remote barrier island off the coast of North Carolina and is part of the Outer Banks region. It is accessible by ferry only, which makes it a very remote and special place. It was the location where the famous pirate Blackbeard died in 1718. It has a rich history dating back to the Algonquian-speaking Indians. The main economies are fishing and tourism. The island was devastated by Hurricane Dorian in 2019, but NC-12 has since reopened to the general public.

Parks Were Essential in 2020

Parks Were Essential in 2020

I began Explore NC in mid-January 2020 with a simple mission: to connect people to North Carolina’s natural and built environments and to inspire people to get outside. My goal with this blog was to share our family’s adventures and the resources for exploring all that North Carolina has to offer. Little did I know two months after starting this blog that we would experience the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic and it would change life as we once knew it almost overnight. Sporting events were cancelled, travel was limited, and it required a completely different way of doing things.

However, one thing that did remain and had the highest demand was parks, open space, and greenways. Parks proved essential for exercise, relaxation, and stress relief during the COVID-19 pandemic. While gyms were shut down across the state and country due to executive orders, parks and greenways remained open for exercise. It is where many people found relaxation and stress relief during an extremely stressful time.

Although my family and I took a break from traveling and exploring our local parks here in North Carolina from mid-March to mid-May due to our state’s quarantine orders, we did get back out again on the weekends beginning in mid-May with our first post-quarantine trip to Oconeechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough. It was weird to see people wearing face masks while hiking the trails, but it is the reality we lived in this year.

Our adventures continued in the summer with safe and smart trips to Oak Island near Wilmington and even a visit to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro in July. We continued exploring local parks and new nature preserves in the fall, including places like Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary and the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve east of Raleigh.

Local, state, and national parks across the country saw record numbers of visitors this year…proof that people needed time outside to help get through a difficult year. There is lots of data from many studies on the benefits and positive impacts of spending time outside. Some studies suggest just thirty minutes a day can reduce stress and help our mindset. For my family and I in 2020, it did.

As 2020 draws to a close, I am extremely grateful and thankful for our local parks, state parks, open spaces, and greenways. Some of my family’s best and happiest memories this year were the trips to our local parks and playgrounds. Parks helped my family and I get through a difficult year. We plan to continue exploring new places across North Carolina in 2021 when it is safe to do so and I will continue to share our experiences from those places through this blog site.

To those reading this blog and who have read my blog posts this year, Thank You! Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous new year in 2021. Happy Trails! 🙂

Triangle Land Conservancy’s Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve

Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve

Triangle Land Conservancy’s Newest Nature Preserve

Facts & Figures

Address: 4409 Mial Plantation Road, Raleigh, NC 27610

County: Wake and Johnston

Size: 405 acres

Hours: Open daily from 8:00am to 6:00pm

Phone: (919) 908-8809

Websiteshttps://www.triangleland.org/explore/nature-preserves/williamson-preserve

Management: Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC)

Activities/Amenities:

  • Hiking
  • Mountain Biking
  • Nature Exploration

Photos

Overview

Opened in late September 2020, the Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve is the Triangle Land Conservancy’s newest nature preserve in the Triangle area of North Carolina. With nine miles of hiking and mountain bike trails, the preserve is a prime place for exploring nature and wildlife. Situated on the border of Wake and Johnston Counties, the 405-acre preserve lies along the Neuse River and is accessible from the main parking lot off of Mial Plantation Road, as well as along the Neuse River Greenway. The preserve is managed by the Triangle Land Conservancy (TLC) “with a shared vision and commitment to open space by Wake County, the Land and Water Fund, Johnston County, the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program, individuals who supported TLC’s Our Water, Our Land campaign; and the Williamson family who donated more than 60% of the land’s value.”

Our Experience

I first found out about the preserve through a local Parks and Recreation Director before the preserve was opened to the public, when the trails were being developed. Although the ribbon cutting was initially scheduled for the spring of 2020, it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The preserve officially opened to the public in late September of 2020.

I had kept my eye on their website and Facebook page in anticipation of the opening, as my oldest son and I had recently gotten into mountain biking together in late summer of 2020. Once the preserve was open to the public, my son and I hit the trails with our mountain bikes the first week it was open one weeknight after dinner. We had just enough daylight during our first visit to ride a few miles of the looped trails towards the front of the preserve. We made a second trip later in October, riding almost five miles over several loops throughout the preserve. Although we’ve only ridden a few parks on our mountain bikes here in the Triangle, the trails at the Williamson Preserve are truly spectacular for mountain biking!

On the Sunday following Thanksgiving, my four children and I returned to the preserve for a Sunday morning family hike on the Twin Ponds Loop trail, which is only open for hiking. It was an absolutely beautiful hike that my children were easily able to do. The scenery varies, from old farmland to meadows to open fields to wooded forest. With mild temperatures in the upper 50’s, abundant sunshine and Carolina blue skies, it made for a gorgeous day for hiking!

Our Favorite Playgrounds Across the Triangle

Our Favorite Playgrounds Across the Triangle

From All-Inclusive to Modern to Traditional…Something for Every Child!

As a father of four children under ten years old, one of our favorite ways to spend time together as a family is on the playground at a local park. There is nothing better than packing a picnic lunch, loading up our vehicle, and traveling to a local park to play and enjoy a picnic lunch, especially on a beautiful sunny day. Since relocating to the Triangle seven years ago, we have traveled across the area and have visited dozens of parks with playgrounds. From traditional to modern “American Ninja Warrior” style to natural to all-inclusive playgrounds, the Triangle has a playground for every ability, age, and child. The following are our favorite playgrounds across the Triangle.

Apex Community Park – Elevate Fitness Course

Do your kids love American Ninja Warrior? If so, check out the Elevate Fitness Course at Apex Community Park! This state-of-the-art fitness course will test their agility, balance, and strength. Constructed fully over astroturf, this course includes multiple elements that flow from from one to another and challenges both arm and leg strength. This “playground” has always been a favorite of our kids!

Address: Apex Community Park, 2200 Laura Duncan Road, Apex, NC 27511

Hours: 6:30am – 10:00pm (hours vary by season)

Phone: (919) 249-3402

Website: https://www.apexnc.org/1187/Elevate-Fitness-Course

East Clayton Community Park – Harmony Playground

Opened in late October 2020, the Harmony Playground at East Clayton Community Park includes opportunities to play for every child. With the vision of “every child deserves a chance to play,” a collaborative partnership of private and public funding made this playground possible. It includes a wide variety of elements, from natural play with sand and water to a traditional playground constructed over compressed rubber. It includes a slightly sloped climbing wall that even our 18-month old toddler could climb on his own!

Address: East Clayton Community Park, 1774 Glen Laurel Road, Clayton, NC 27527

Hours: 6:00am – 11:00pm

Phone: (919) 553-1550

Website: https://www.townofclaytonnc.org/Parks-and-Recreation/universal-playground.aspx

Knightdale Station Park

Knightdale Station Park is a beautifully designed park, with athletic fields, paved multi-use trails, multiple shelters, and a railway themed playground. The playground includes traditional playground equipment with ladders, slides, and swings along with agricultural themed structures, including a chicken coup and grain silo. It definitely makes for a fun playground experience for kids!

Address: Knightdale Station Park, 810 North First Avenue, Knightdale, NC 27545

Hours: 7:00am – 7:00pm

Phone: (919) 217-2230

Website: https://www.knightdalenc.gov/departments/parks-recreation-and-cultural-programs/parks-and-greenways/knightdale-station-park-1

Smithfield Community Park

Our favorite park close to home in Johnston County is Smithfield Community Park. It includes two playgrounds, athletic fields, picnic shelters, the Buffalo Creek Greenway, and the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatic Center (SRAC). The new playground opened in 2018 through the Partnership for Children Park and Miracle Field, an inclusive project for children of all abilities. The new playground is constructed over compressed rubber and offers multiple elements including bouncy seats, climbing structures, stump jumps, swings, and a pirate ship themed playground. There is enough to keep you busy for an entire day at this park!

Address: Smithfield Community Park, 600 Booker Dairy Road, Smithfield, NC 27577

Hours: SRAC Hours – 5:30am-9pm, M-Th; 5:30am-8pm, F; 8am-5pm, S; 1pm-5pm, S

Phone: (919) 934-2148

Website: https://www.smithfield-nc.com/page/parks_home

Laurel Hills Park – Sassafras Playground

Sassafras All Children’s Playground at Laurel Hills Park in Raleigh is the largest, most expensive playground in the Triangle. With a project cost of $2.3 million, $1 million of the project budget was funded from the 2014 parks bond. This 3.5-acre site includes a playground for children of all abilities with a variety of play experiences. The playground is fully accessible and is constructed over compressed rubber and includes picnic areas and shelters for shade during the hot summer months. One of the highlights is a pair of 50-foot zip lines that hover above the ground. This playground is a favorite for our kids!

Address: Laurel Hills Park, 3808 Edwards Mills Road, Raleigh, NC 27612

Hours: Laurel Hills Community Center Hours – 8:00am-5:00pm

Phone: (919) 420-2383

Website: https://raleighnc.gov/projects/sassafras-all-childrens-playground-laurel-hills-park

Clemmons Educational State Forest

Clemmons Educational State Forest

North Carolina’s first educational state forest

Facts & Figures

Address: 2256 Old U.S. Hwy 70, Clayton, NC 27520

County: Johnston and Wake

Size: 825 acres, 1.289 square miles

Hours:

  • Saturday & Sunday: 11am-8pm
  • Monday: Closed
  • Tuesday-Friday: 9am-5pm

Phone: (919) 553-5651

Websitehttps://www.ncesf.org/clemmons.html

Management: North Carolina Forest Service

Activities/Amenities:

  • Outdoor Education Workshops
  • Picnic Facilities
  • Ranger Conducted Classes
  • Trails
    • Forest Geology Trail with “Talking Rocks”
    • “Talking Tree” Trail
    • Forest Demonstration Trail
    • Watershed Extension Loop

Photos

Overview

Clemmons Educational State Forest is an 825-acre educational state forest in Clayton, North Carolina. Opened in 1976, it is North Carolina’s first educational state forest and is managed by the North Carolina Forest Service. Clemmons Educational State Forest offers a variety of educational and recreational opportunities free of charge. It is situated between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain regions and features pine stands and hardwoods, along with streams and rock formations. There are a variety of accessible trails featuring exhibits that teach about trees and forest management practices, including the “talking trees” and “talking rocks” trails. Conveniently located on Old U.S. Hwy. 70 in Clayton, it is less than a 30-minute drive from downtown Raleigh, making it easily accessible to anyone in the Triangle.

Our Experience

Our family has made many visits to Clemmons Educational State Forest over the years. It’s one of the first parks we explored locally and we make a few trips there every year. A huge highlight for our kids and what keeps us coming back are the “talking trees” and “talking rocks,” a series of electronic educational kiosks that talk about the different types of trees and the different types of rocks located in the forest. These educational exhibits are a huge hit for our family!

There are several different trails ranging from less than a mile at the shortest to a 3-mile loop at the longest. These trails are mainly rolling terrain and are great for family hikes with smaller children. In addition to the trails, the educational kiosks make for great learning opportunities for kids. With only a 20-minute drive from home to the forest for us, we typically head there for late morning hikes on the weekends, followed by picnic lunches on one of the many picnic tables available for use.

Our oldest son also had a field trip with his 1st grade class from his elementary school a couple years ago in the spring to learn about forestry and trees, which I was able to help chaperone. The forest rangers did a wonderful job teaching the students about forests and trees while making learning fun for the students. Clemmons Educational State Forest offers educational programs for school groups by reservation.

Be sure to check the hours of operation, especially on the weekends! The forest does not open until 11am, which we learned the hard way the first time we visited. Also, during COVID-19, all indoor facilities are closed to the public, including the information center, shelters, and restrooms, so plan your trip accordingly.

Lake Wheeler Park

Lake Wheeler Park

A lakefront recreation area centrally located in Raleigh.

Facts & Figures

Address: 6404 Lake Wheeler Road, Raleigh, NC 27603

Size: 800 acres (650 acres of lake, 150 acres of land and buffer)

Opened: Constructed in 1956 with the aid of the Army Corps of Engineers

Hours: Open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (closed on Mondays – October through March)

Phone: (919) 662-5704

Websitehttps://raleighnc.gov/places/lake-wheeler-park

Management: The City of Raleigh, Department of Parks, Recreation, & Cultural Resources

Amenities/Attractions:

  • Boat Rentals
  • Fishing
  • Site Rentals and Picnic Shelters
  • Sand Volleyball Courts
  • Playgrounds

Photos

Overview

Lake Wheeler Park, conveniently located on the south central side of Raleigh, is 800 acres (650 acre lake and 150 acre park) that offers a wide variety of amenities for enjoyment. While all types of boating are the primary attraction, the park offers picnic shelters, a playground, and sand volleyball courts, as well. The lake was constructed in 1956 by the Army Corps of Engineers and once served as Raleigh’s second auxiliary water supply lake. The park offers boat rentals including canoes and kayaks, as well as launch ramps for personal boats. Launch fees are charged through daily or annual rates. The lake is also a popular spot for fishing by foot, with the purchase of a fishing permit.

Our Experience

My wife and kids had been to Lake Wheeler without me years ago to play on the playground while I was working. They met up with a friend and her kids for a play date. My wife told me how beautiful the park was, but words can’t describe how beautiful the lake and park truly are until experiencing it first hand.

As a kayaker, I had not been to Lake Wheeler over the past seven years since living here until this past Thursday. With four young children at home with two in remote learning, 8+ hours per day of screen time of emails, Zoom meetings, and projects while remote working for the past seven months, and everyday life, I decided to take a day of vacation for some self care for both my wife and I. I spent the morning kayaking around the perimeter of the lake for a couple hours and gave my wife the afternoon to herself. Just getting out on the lake for a couple hours helped me clear my mind and recharge myself. I felt like a new person going back to remote working on Friday!

I got off to an early start and loaded my kayak on top of my vehicle and left home about 7:30am. Even in rush hour traffic, I was able to get to the park right at 8 a.m. when they opened. After stopping to pay the daily launch fee, unloading my kayak and gear, using the restroom, and suiting up, I hit the water about 8:30 a.m. I headed east toward the dam along the northern shore of the lake. I paddled the entire perimeter of the lake over the course of 1 hour, 36 minutes for a total of 5.8 miles, according to my Garmin VivoActive HR connected to my Strava app. I stopped several times along the way to enjoy the beauty of the wildlife, take photos, and admire the private residences located along the southern shoreline of the lake. I could not believe the homes along the lake and their views! Wildlife I saw out on the lake included a snow goose, Mallard ducks, Great Blue Heron, and an Osprey in flight. It was incredible!

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve

A Joint Project between the Town of Cary and the State of North Carolina

Facts & Figures

Address: 2626 Kildaire Farm Rd, Cary, NC 27518

County: Wake

Size: 140 acres

Hours: Open daily from 9:00am to sunset

Phone: (919) 387-5980

Websiteshttps://www.townofcary.org/recreation-enjoyment/parks-greenways-environment/parks/stevens-nature-center-at-hemlock-bluffs-nature-preserve

https://www.hemlockbluffs.org

Management: Joint partnership between the Town of Cary, Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources and the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Division of Parks & Recreation

Activities/Amenities:

  • Hiking
  • Nature Programs
  • Sightseeing

Photos

Overview

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is a joint project between the Town of Cary and the State of North Carolina. The majority of land is owned by the state, with a small parcel owned by the Town of Cary. The area is named for the Hemlock trees which grow in this area, which is rare and unique for the Piedmont region of North Carolina and is why they are protected. Hemlock trees typically grow in the Westernmost part of the state in the mountains, but a small forest of Hemlocks lie here in the heart of the Piedmont and Triangle area of North Carolina, making for a unique site.

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve features the Stevens Nature Center, over three miles of hiking trails with interpretive signage, and observation decks with scenic overlooks. It is a great place for families with small children, as there are several short loops for hiking, many covered with wood chips.

Our Experience

We discovered Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve after seeing a post on Facebook with a link to an article from OnlyInYourState.com titled: Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in North Carolina is So Hidden Most Locals Don’t Even Know About It. Boy were they right! Our family has lived in the Triangle for almost seven years and all the dozens of hikes through the years around our area, we had never even heard about Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve!

So, I made a point that the next time we went out to explore a new area, this would be it. With the cooler temperatures and fall-like weather last week, we decided to go for a hike on Saturday morning. So, I did some research on the hiking trails in the area, packed up our hiking gear and a picnic lunch, loaded the kids in the vehicle, and made our way to Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve. Upon arrival, the Stevens Nature Center was closed due to COVID-19, but the restrooms were open. There were tons of families with children out hiking, as well, with the same idea as we had: get out and enjoy hiking in this beautiful weather.

We explored the Western half of the park, starting toward the Chestnut Oak Loop Trail, right toward the Beechtree Cove to the West Hemlock Bluffs Overlook, then to the Beech Tree Cove Overlook, then to the Chestnut Oak Overlook, finishing the entire Chestnut Oak Loop Trail, then right on the main trail back to the Stevens Nature Center, then back to our vehicle in the parking lot. Altogether we hiked just under two miles, that included an additional half mile double back, after we realized that our toddler son had lost his sandal while being carried on our backpack child carrier as we were almost finished with our hike. We ended our adventure with a tailgate lunch in our vehicle, which our kids greatly enjoyed! Of all of the places we have explored here in the Triangle, I can see this as our new local favorite destination for hiking…

A Fall Family Hiking Tradition

A Fall Family Hiking Tradition

Our Favorite Way to Connect with the Outdoors for the Past Decade

As I recently mentioned on the Let’s Talk Parks podcast episode 2.16: Connecting Youth to the Outdoors with Dave Herpy and as I shared in my Fall Favorites Around the Triangle article last September 2019 in Carolina Parent Magazine, my favorite way to connect our children to the outdoors has always been hiking. With an abundance of city, county, and state parks in every state, hiking is a great activity to get outside and fun for all ages. Some of my fondest memories with our children through the years has been our family hikes at local parks on the weekends. Likewise, some of my fondest memories as a child growing up were family hikes with my parents through the years. There is no better time to hike than the fall season, with cooler temperatures and the changing colors of leaves. Fall is the perfect time to hike and to begin your own hiking tradition!

As Northeast Ohio natives, what got us inspired to begin hiking regularly was the annual Fall Hiking Spree through the MetroParks Serving Summit County (Akron, OH), hosted September 1 through November 30 each year. It is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the nation. Trails range from easy to challenging. This program is free for all hikers to participate and the rewards are free for Summit County residents and only $10 for non-county residents the first year and $5 for following years. There are a total of twelve designated trails at each of their parks and you must complete at least eight hikes to finish the challenge over the three month period. Hikers who finish the challenge receive a wooden hiking staff and metal shield their first year, then a metal shield every year after.

One of the first pieces of outdoor gear that we bought as young parents was a nice backpack child carrier, which has proven to be a great investment! I began hiking with all of our children when they were about 5-6 months old. Our oldest two children earned their own hiking staffs and shields each year until we relocated to North Carolina seven years ago.

Last year we decided that we would continue our family hiking tradition here in North Carolina and continue adding to our hiking staffs. We have hiked dozens of trails since we moved here, but last year we decided to focus on North Carolina State Parks, which sell hiking medallions for each of their state parks in their nature centers. Since that decision, we have added four new medallions to our hiking staffs, with a fifth yet to be claimed for our hike in May at Oconeechee Mountain State Natural Area, which doesn’t have a nature center.

As for destinations here in North Carolina, the following are links to previous blog posts in Explore NC with some of our favorite State Parks for hiking:

In closing, the fall season is here! The cooler weather this week has really got us excited about getting outside hiking again. Although COVID-19 has changed life as we know it, our parks have always been open for hiking throughout this pandemic. As stated many times, hiking is great for all ages and the entire family. We encourage you to begin your own fall family hiking tradition if you don’t have one already. You will be glad you did.

Happy Trails! 🙂

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