Places to Hike in the NC Triangle Area for Beginners, Families, and Beyond

If you’re finding the State Parks a bit crowded, or perhaps you’re new to hiking and feeling a little intimidated, there are many other areas to get outside in NC Triangle area.  Read on for my recommendations on the best places for Family Friendly, Beginner Friendly, and Beyond Beginner places to hike in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill (and a little beyond).

Want to just jump to the options? Here are my suggestions for Family Friendly, Beginner Friendly, and Beyond Beginner places to get out there  

Looking to explore all the options? Click on the links to learn about each location

Family Friendly Hikes 

You say “hike” and immediately picture a pleasant walk along a trail enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of nature. Your child hears “hike” and thinks about running around in the woods picking up rocks. While you want to encourage their love of outdoors, you need to be flexible, so what do you do?  

Local Raleigh, NC has great options where you and your child can enjoy nature in different ways. We’ve got suggestions for parks that offer short hikes, interesting areas for your child to explore, and plenty of learning opportunities.  

When your child is ready, they can grow with these parks and explore more of the trails.  The flexibility is what makes these great locations for the entire family.  

Recommended Areas for Family Friendly Hikes 

Beginner Friendly Hikes 

Somewhere along the line you decided you wanted to try hiking but you don’t know how far you can go and you’re not comfortable with maps or following blazes.  

What you need are locations that offer short hikes to get started, but with the opportunity to add on the miles as you go.  

Our suggestions for beginner friendly hikes offer relatively flat and even terrain which is easy for most beginners.  These trails are well blazed and easy to follow.  Even if you get a little off trail, you can easily find your way back to the car.  

I’ve also chosen these areas because they have decent foot traffic so you’re likely to encounter other hikers who can help you out.  

Recommended Areas for Beginner Friendly Hikes 

Beyond Beginner Hikers 

Congratulations! You’ve increased your mileage, are up for more difficult terrain (perhaps a small climb or two even?)  And you’re comfortable following blazes and making judgement calls if you don’t see one. “Okay, well, the map says the lake should be on my left so I’m going to keep walking with the lake on my left.” 

Some of my recommendations for more intermediate hikers have more difficult terrain (think rocks and roots and hills), while others may be trickier to navigate in a few places. Either way, you’re growing your skills.  

Recommended Areas for Beyond Beginner Hikers 

Historic Yates Mill County Park 

Historic Yates Mill County Park is a historic site and native wildlife refuge.  It offers 174 acres with 3 miles of hiking trails. Along one of the trails you’ll find the last operating 18th century water-powered grist mill in Wake County.  

Yates Mill is also home to the A.E. Finley Center for Education and Research which offers a large exhibit hall including interactive activities.  

Be sure to read through their website before you go. Dogs and other pets are not allowed in the park, although ADA service animals are welcome.  

Family Friendly 

The parking lot offers access to both the Mill, which is a short walk down a dirt and gravel path and the boardwalk which is just off the sidewalk near the Education and Research Center.  

If your child is feeling like more of a walk, you can hike the 1-mile Mill Pond Trail which takes you past the Mill and ends at the Boardwalk.  

Not ready for a full mile hike?  Enjoy the mill or boardwalk separately.  You can also walk from your car to the mill and back, then cut through the parking lot to walk the boardwalk.  

Beginner Friendly

You can start out with the 1-mile Mill Pond Trail and take a bit of a side trek over the Wetlands boardwalk which is part of the Creekside Trail.   

When you feel up to it, try hiking the Mill Pond trail and getting on Creekside at the Pond Boardwalk then turning on High Ridge Trail which has a bit more “trail” feel.  There’s also the Creekside Trail itself which is a 1-mile offshoot shaped like a lollipop.  

All trails are well marked and easy to follow.  The terrain is relatively flat with some small hills.  

Annie Wilkerson Nature Preserve 

Dr. Annie Louise Wilkerson left her 157-acre farm to the City of Raleigh with the provision it be maintained as a nature preserve park.  

The hours are a bit unique.  The park is closed on Mondays, open 10 am to dusk Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 pm to dusk Sundays so you’ll need to plan ahead of time.  

Parking by the Office is limited so be sure to arrive early.  There is an auxiliary parking area, and you can use the Epps Forest Loop trail to walk to the Office area and meadow.   

Pets are allowed but must remain on a leash.  

Family Friendly

Annie Wilkerson Nature Preserve was made for children. The park office features hands-on displays specifically designed for children.  To make the most of your visit, they also have free loaner equipment such as binoculars and kites.   

Children not ready to take on a hike can enjoy the butterfly meadow just behind the office to the left. In the same area is a small lake with a short path. And, in the spirit of being a nature learning area, the Epps Forest Loop Trail has a little offshoot right off the parking lot with an interactive play area for children.  

As your child grows, you can take them on the 1 mile Hidden Rocks trail which is easy to follow and fairly flat.  They can “find” the hidden rocks and enjoy that area.  The trail Ts into the Lake loop.  All the trails can be looped together for an almost 2 mile relatively easy nature walk.  

Beginner Friendly

The terrain is flat, and the trails are short and easy to follow with frequent blazes. There are plenty of things to see, providing several stopping areas. You can add on mileage by looping the trails together or taking the spur off the Epps Forest Loop trail to the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).  The MST is a 1175-mile trail from the mountains of NC to the beach. You’ll find sections of it to enjoy throughout the Piedmont and Triangle areas.  

Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park 

The Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park is adjacent to the NC Museum of Art.  It links to the Capital Area Greenway. The park features public art installations by international artists, gardens, trails, a pond, and environmentally sustainable landscapes.  It’s a perfect area to have a relaxing family outing, bike, or get in a run.  

Most of the park is out in the sun so be sure to take some sunscreen and plenty of water.  Shaded and wooded areas tend to be off to the side.  

I highly recommend printing the park map from their website before you go or taking a photo of it once you arrive.  Finding the installations can be a fun scavenger hunt.  

The park is free and open dawn to dusk. If you park in the main lot for the NC Museum of Art, you’ll see many of the larger installations.  Just aim for those and you should easily see the beginning of the trails.  

Family Friendly

While your child may not “get” all the art, there are at least two installations they’re encouraged to play on, as well as fields where they can run.  The park connects to the Capital Area Greenway for those that live nearby, and you’ll often see runners taking advantage of the park.  In the summer, there’s a small sunflower field near the Gyre installation which is the three large rings you can see from a distance.   

One thing to note: The Cloud Chamber can be difficult to locate, but many locals on the trail can guide you.  This unique piece of art may be a bit scary for children as it involves entering a small, dark, earthen home and closing the door.  It takes a minute for your eyes to adjust and see the lights.   

Beginner Friendly

The park offers easy terrain and, even though there are no blazes, with nothing blocking your view it’s easy to know where you are at all times. You can add on the Greenway for extra miles or pick up your speed as you progress.   

It’s a pleasant walk with many things to see and enjoy, perfect for when you only have a short amount of time and want to get in a small hike.  

Brumley Nature Preserve (North) 

George and Julia Brumley saved this piece of land from becoming a subdivision.  They purchased it to be used for conservation, forestry, farming, and hunting.  After their passing, the land was sold to the Triangle Land Conservancy.  

There are two sections, North and South.  South Brumley Forest is home to multi-use trails, and a popular place for mountain bikers. North Brumley is for hiking only and your better bet if you’re on foot.  

Both sections are open every day from dawn to dusk.  

Brumley North has a fairly large parking lot but can become crowded on weekends.  While the trails are mainly flat, I put this on the Beyond Beginner list because the trails are not well marked, and the signs can be confusing.  

I highly recommend downloading the map from their website or taking a photo of it from the kiosk in the parking lot.   

You’ll start out on Stony Creek Bluff Trail which then leads you to the Dairy Farm Trail loop.  The Cedar Grove Trail loop is off Dairy Farm, and the A train Trail is off Cedar Grove.  They’re all loops except for Stoney Creek Bluff Trail.  

Putting all the trails together, you can make a 3.75-mile loop. This can be shortened to 3 miles using the Cemetery Connector which bypasses most of the Stoney Creek Bluff Trail.  Trail runners love this area as do local hikers. For additional mileage, you can run through the loops twice as you begin to ramp up your training.  

Johnston Mill Nature Preserve 

Triangle Land Conservancy purchased two tracts of land in 1999 to form Johnston Mill Nature Preserve as part of an effort to protect natural areas along the New Hope Creek corridor. These 296 acres offer a smaller hiking area packed with many features.  Several areas along the trail follow the New Hope Creek where you may see children playing.   

My recommendation is to take a photo of the map on the kiosk as you enter and make a note of your route, but you can plan ahead by checking your routes on their website.  Be sure to note right or left where you want to turn. 

There are a few small hills, but nothing even newer hikers can’t manage.  

What most people don’t know is that there are two parking lots. Both are small, but the lot on Mt. Sinai Road fills up quickly most weekends. You can head to nearby Turkey Farm Road for additional parking.  If that lot is full, most people park along the side of the road which isn’t doable on Mt. Sinai.  

Johnston Mill offers around 3.5 miles of hiking trails.  You can easily string several of the trails together for a 3-mile loop.  Like many of the local nature preserves, trail runners love this area as do local hikers. You can go around the loops more than once for additional mileage.  

I put this on the intermediate list because, while fairly well blazed, there are a few areas with no blazes and sharp turns with confusing signs.  There’s is also an intersection where a yellow and orange trail meet. While it is well marked, some of the blazes are weather worn and confusing if you’re not paying attention.  

There are some stairs and steeper climbs, but nothing that lasts long. This is a good area to get used to “less easy” terrain.   

Lake Johnson Park 

Lake Johnson is both a park and a nature preserve. It offers both paved and natural surface hiking areas and has a QR Fit Trail.  

The park is open sunset to sunrise. Pets are allowed on a leash.  

There are several places to park, but some of the lots fill quickly.  I prefer to park by the Thomas G. Crowder Woodland Center off Jaquar Road. From here, you’ll have to walk around the back of the outdoor pool to catch the connector trail to natural surface Lake Johnson Segment.  

This is a great place to hike, but I put it on the Beyond Beginner list because the routes can be confusing. The trails are not blazed, and the signs are confusing. Rather than use trail names, the signs list structures and areas you are heading towards.  But since it’s a loop, this can be misleading.   

In one spot, the signs are so confusing you could go the wrong way, and in another there’s no sign where there really needs to be one.  

For more details on how to stay on track, you can check out my video of Lake Johnson Park here.  

From the Connector Trail, go counterclockwise (make a right).  If you do this, you’ll always keep the lake on your left.  If you begin to stray from the lake, head back towards it.  

The good news is that even if you become completely frustrated moving forward, you can easily retrace your steps back to the car.  

Durant Nature Park 

The city of Raleigh purchased Durant Nature Preserve in 1979. Prior to this it was a Boy Scout Camp. The land received designation as a Nature Preserve in 2010 as part of the goal to protect and preserve natural resources and provide nature-based recreation.  

The park is open from 7 am to dusk daily.  Pets are allowed but remain on a leash.  

There is a park office, however it is only open Monday through Thursday 8 am to 1 pm. Maps are available at kiosks throughout the park and online.  

Durant Nature Park falls into the “not always well blazed” category.  The terrain is fairly easy, and most people will find the hikes easy.  You can string together multiple trails and easily create a 5-mile hike.  

The map can be confusing as there’s no “you are here” so you have to figure that part out.  I also found the Lake Trail seemed to give up blazing on one end. This is where a deep breath and some reasoning come in.  I looked at the map and noted the direction I was hiking meant the lake should be on my left.  

Continuing to walk with the lake on my left, I soon areas noted on the map including the pavilion and fishing pier.  

Eventually, the blazes appear again, however I lost them as I neared the parking lot.  The cars were clearly visible, and I reached the lot via a spur trail, but to this day, I still don’t know where the trail turned.  

This is Just the Beginning 

There are many other places you can find to hike in the area.  This is just a taste of what’s available. From Duke Forest to the MST to the State Parks, North Carolina offers several options for hikers of all skill levels to get out and explore.  

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