Haw River State Park, NC


Haw River State Park is known by locals as a great place to get away for a quiet walk. In my humble opinion, it wins the award for prettiest State Park.

There are two entrances, offering very different experiences. The main entrance is home to The Summit Environmental Education and Conference Center which feels like an upscale corporate summer camp including a conference center and lake.

The facility has overnight housing for 180 guests in motel and dormitory-style cabins. It’s a beautiful facility formerly owned by the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, which sold it to the state.

The North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation (NCDPR) uses the facility for education, including park rangers, public school teachers, and other state employees. When not in use by NCDPR, organizations can rent the facility for retreats, conferences, and family reunions.  

In contrast, the Iron Ore Access is more rugged with a pit toilet and almost 4 miles of hiking trails.

Both sections of the park offer easy terrain making Haw River State Park the perfect location for hikers of any experience level.

What to Know Before Visiting Haw River State Park

Before heading out, visit the park’s website and look at the map to determine which section you would like to visit. The entrances are 10 minutes apart by vehicle and there are no connecting trails between the two sections.

The park trails are well-marked with blazes and signs, making it difficult to get lost. If you don’t see a blaze or sign after 2 minutes of hiking, you’ve done something wrong and should backtrack to the last known point where you saw one.

Small wooden sign that says trail with an arrow pointing right in a small area of grass with flowers and trees behind.

If you’re hiking at The Summit entrance, look for the lake. That will help orient you back to the main office and your car. You can also just stay on whatever trail you’re on. All the trails are either loops or connect to a loop. It’s best to know which blazes are loops so you can ensure you’re following a trail that will lead you back to the start.

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As mentioned above, there are two entrances to Haw River State Park. They do not connect internally via trails or roads. You will need to drive out of one entrance and go down a few roads to reach the second entrance.

The Summit Environmental Education and Conference Center and Park Office

This entrance is in Browns Summit, North Carolina. There are several signs along the last few roads leading to The Summit.

It’s a quiet entrance with plenty of parking. This is home to the conference center including several cabins, dorms, meeting spaces, a recreation room, gym, and lake.

A two story wooden building with railing around the top that houses one of the conference centers at The Summit.

The Piedmont Loop, Lake Loop, and Wetlands Boardwalk Trails are at this entrance. You’ll also find a short disc golf course on the far side of the lake.

The Wetlands Boardwalk isn’t noted on the trail, but it’s easy to find. On the map, it’s the series of lines that look like railroad tracks leading from the hiker to the Haw River. At the park, you’ll reach an old roadbed with a sign indicating the River Overlook is across and to the left and the Piedmont Loop Trail is across to the right.

The Wetlands Boardwalk and River Overlook are the same trail.

Iron Ore Belt Access

This entrance is in Greensboro, North Carolina. It’s the more popular section of the park. As you enter, there’s a long, paved road that leads to a small parking lot. I’ve never had an issue parking here, even on weekends.

There is a pit toilet and picnic tables near the parking lot.

From this entrance, you can take the Connector trail to the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail. There’s also the Iron Ore Pit Trail which creates a small loop with a section of the Great Blue Heron Trail for an extra 0.35 miles.

Things to do at Haw River State Park

Haw River State Park offers 6 hiking trails, fishing, birdwatching, and a disc golf course. There is no camping at the park, although Hanging Rock State Park is about 30 miles away and could be an option.

Trails at Haw River State Park

All of the trails at Haw River State Park are loops or small connectors that lead to loops. Overall, they’re easy trails, perfect for almost any hiker.

Tree with blue square, red square, and orange circle blaze alongside trail.

Piedmont Loop Trail

Mileage: 1.4 miles
Blaze: Blue square
Rated: Easy
Location: Behind the main office at The Summit entrance

The Piedmont Loop Trail starts behind the main office building at The Summit entrance. You’ll see a tree with the three blazes for the three trails in the area. From here, there will be a sign indicating the lake is to the right and the red square blaze will break off from the other two.

Continue straight to stay on the Piedmont Loop in the counterclockwise direction. When you reach an intersection with an old dirt roadbed, the Wetlands Boardwalk will be across the old road to your left and the Piedmont Loop will continue across the road to your right. It’s well marked and there is a small bridge.

You’ll wander through beautiful forest for a quiet hike. Eventually, the trail will connect with the Lake Loop Trail before heading back to the office.

I found the trail easy and peaceful.

View of lake from the trail with green meadow on the other side.

Lake Loop Trail

Mileage: 0.6 miles
Blaze: Red square
Rated: Easy
Location: Behind the main office at The Summit entrance

From the connector trail behind the main office building at The Summit entrance, you’ll see a sign that says “Lake Views” pointing to your right. Follow this to the Lake Loop Trail.

The trail is an easy loop around the lake. Just keep the lake in sight as you wander around for a leisurely stroll through forested areas and then out in the open to enjoy unobstructed views. The Office and one of the conference buildings are viewable from most sections of the trail making it easy to navigate.

There are benches in several locations to stop and enjoy the lake.

Brown wood boardwalk over swamp area with wooden bench on the left.

Wetlands Boardwalk

Mileage: 0.4 miles (one-way)
Blaze: Orange circle
Rated: Easy
Location: Behind the main office at The Summit entrance

From behind the main office at The Summit entrance, follow the connector trail blazed for all three local trails. When you reach the intersection with the old dirt roadbed, go across and to your left. There is a small wooden sign that says River Overlook. As soon as you cross to the sign, you will see the beautiful boardwalk.

If you go after a good rain, the boardwalk will take you over a scenic swamp area. There’s a small bench to enjoy the view.

At the end of the boardwalk is a deck where you can sit and enjoy the Haw River.

Connector Trail

Mileage: 0.35 miles (one-way)
Blaze: White circle
Rated: Easy
Location: Next to the pit toilet at the Iron Ore Belt Access Entrance

If you plan to hike any of the trails at the Iron Ore Belt Access, you’re going to have to get on the Connector Trail. It leads from the parking lot to the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail.

At the intersection, you can choose to hop on the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail clockwise or counterclockwise. Either way, you’ll finish back at this point and return to your car via the Connector Trail.

It’s an easy hike, but it trends downhill on the way in. You won’t notice it until it’s time to head back to your car when you realize you’re walking up a slight, but consistent hill.

Tall grass with middle section mowed to create a grassy trail with a wooden pole holding an orange blaze.

Great Blue Heron Loop Trail

Mileage: 3.2 miles
Blaze: Orange square
Rated: Moderate
Location: From the Connector Trail at the Iron Ore Belt Access Entrance

The Great Blue Heron Loop Trail is the main trail at the Iron Ore Belt Access. It’s rated moderate mainly due to the 3.2-mile length. There are no technical areas requiring special skills or steep up or downhills.

The trail wanders through forest, past patches of green, and through a pretty meadow. At times you’ll see parts of the Haw River. How much water you see depends on the last time it rained. I like to come out after a good rain when the water levels are up and there’s a lot to see.

From the Connector Trail, if you continue straight, you’ll go clockwise around the loop, starting with the meadow and ending in the forest. Starting with a left at the intersection will reverse the loop.

Several locals like to walk their dogs here, so you’re sure to see a few people on the trail. It’s rarely crowded through. Be aware that there are sometimes trail races here, so check the park website.

Iron Ore Pit Trail

Mileage: 0.35 miles
Blaze: Blue hexagon
Rated: Easy
Location: From the Piedmont Loop Trail at the Iron Ore Belt Access

I’m gonna be honest, I don’t really get the point of the Iron Ore Pit Trail. It’s a small 0.35-mile trail that juts off the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail only to connect with it again. That’s it. It doesn’t even really shorten the distance of just hiking the Great Blue Heron Loop Trail.

It is pretty and there are spots where lush green spreads around the trees. It’s a nice variation from hiking the Great Blue Heron, but overall, it doesn’t change much of what you see.

Tips for Visiting Haw River State Park

Haw River State Park is a great place to visit on the weekends and during the week. Definitely get a map from the website or stop at the office at The Summit entrance. The staff is really nice and they know the park well.

I’ve never found either entrance overly crowded, although evenings and weekends are when you’ll see the most people.

On your way home, check out Cattywampus General Store and Coffee Shop. You can grab a coffee, refresher, smoothie, vintage soda, and any number of baked goods that will completely negate your workout but you won’t care.

White building that has an outdoor eating patio with black iron tables and sign noting Cattywampus General Store and coffee.

Dress Accordingly

Because there’s a lot of water, it can get buggy in Spring and Summer. You’ll also be wandering in and out of tree cover. I highly recommend sunscreen and bug spray.

The trails are not taxing so you may want to dress slightly warmer than you would for more intense hikes. Also, bring a little extra water.

Ask for Help

Most of the people enjoying the park are locals or regulars who are here frequently. If you aren’t sure where you are or how to get back to your car, just ask. They’ll be happy to help you out.

Phones seem to work well at both entrances allowing you GPS and cell access.

Haw River State Park – Wrap Up

This sleepy little park has a lot to offer. It’s perfect for new hikers, families, and just getting out for a peaceful hike.

You can enjoy all of the trails in sneakers, although it can be muddy.

If you’re new to hiking, The Summit will be your best bet. The mileage is lower and the views will keep your mind off hiking.

Even if it’s a bit of a drive, give this pretty park a try. It’s truly one of the best in the state.

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