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Umstead State Park, NC

If you live in Raleigh, Durham, or another town nearby, then you’ve probably been to William B. Umstead State Park. I’ll bet you’re familiar with the Harrison Road entrance leading to Company Mill and Loblolly Trails.

But did you know there’s a lot more to the park? I’m talking three lakes, a campground, remnants of an old mill, camping, and more.

Read on to see if you’re ready to explore more of your favorite NC State Park.

woman in red shirt and orange ball cap sitting on grassy hill next to brown lake.

History

Umstead State Park has an interesting history. Way back when, bison, elk, and bobcats roamed through forests of oak, hickory, and beech trees. Later, Native Americans inhabited the area which was convenient to nearby trade routes.

Things changed in 1744 when the area was opened to settlement via land grants. Unfortunately, forests were chopped down for agricultural interests which then failed, leaving the soil depleted.

In 1934, federal and state agencies bought 5,000 acres of this land for recreational use. Like many NC State Parks, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was critical in building the infrastructure. If you know where to look, you can find remnants of CCC camps in the park.

And in 1937, Crabtree Creek Recreational Demonstration Area officially opened.

But we’re not done.

In the 1940s, the state purchased the area and, ten years later, added 1000 acres for a separate African-American park known as Reedy Creek State Park. The two parks were united in 1966, becoming William B. Umstead State Park.

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What to Know Before Visiting

The park is bordered by Raleigh-Durham International Airport on one side. If you opt to park at the Old Reedy Creek Road entrance to mountain bike and veer off the multi-use trail, you may be trespassing on airport property.

You’ll see bikers do this, and you’ll see the trails they leave. While it’s not usually an issue, once or twice a year some entity shows up to stop people from trespassing.

Bicycles and horses are only allowed on the multi-use trails (MUTs). You can learn more about MUTs in this section.

Outside of the MUTs, the hiking trails can be tough. There are a lot of roots making the trails more technical than you may expect, they’re longer than most people think, and it gets hot in the summer.

Dirt road lined by trees that is Turkey Ridge Multi-use trail.

What’s a Multi-Use Trail?

This is going to come up frequently when visiting Umstead State Park. The park has several hiking trails but is also known for its network of multi-use trails (MUTs). These are dirt and gravel roads where hiking, biking, and horseback riding are allowed.

There are five multi-use trails, (okay, possibly six if you count North and South Turkey Creek MUTs separately).

Bicycles and horses are only allowed on the MUTs. Hikers may hike on any trail.

Mountain biking on the MUTs is popular at the park. They’re great for beginners or someone that’s training for a big race. You can easily turn around or loop multiple trails together for a solid training run.

It’s rare to see a horse on the trail. There are better places around for horseback riding.

Entrances

There are two main entrances and five additional gates off main roads. The five non-entrance gates lead to multi-use trails.

Be aware that regardless of which entrance or gate you use, there is an actual gate and rangers will close them at the given hours. If you’re thinking you found a great way to sneak in after hours, think again.

Reedy Creek Entrance

Most people know the Reedy Creek Entrance as the “Harrison Avenue entrance.” It’s right off the Harrison Avenue exit ramp from highway 40.

Reedy Creek is home to the Company Mill and Loblolly trails. While many people think of this as the main entrance, the Visitor Center is at the Crabtree Creek Entrance.

There is a lot of parking at Reedy Creek, but it fills up on the weekends due to its proximity to Raleigh, Durham, Apex, and Cary. Trail runners and hiking groups love this section.

There are two covered pavilions that can be rented as well as two open picnic areas with tons of picnic tables and grills. You’ll also find restrooms with running water and flush toilets.

Picnic tables in wooded area with leaves on the ground and a grill nearby.

Crabtree Creek Entrance

Also known as the “Glenwood Avenue entrance,” Crabtree Creek is home to the Visitor Center, Sycamore, Sal’s Branch, and Pott’s Branch Trails. There’s also the Oak Rock TRACK Trail.

The family campground is also located at this entrance. While the parking lot in front of the Visitor Center is small, there is plenty of overflow parking and I find this section of the park less crowded.

The trailhead for Pott’s Branch and Sycamore Trails are further down the road, which helps to spread out visitors. There’s an extensive road system, including gravel roads, that lead to a variety of side entrances to trails.

The Five Additional Gates

Bikers know that they can access the MUTs via the side gates. Parking is usually roadside and fills up fast.

Graylyn Gate is easy access to Graylyn and Turkey Creek MUTs. If you’re looking for the log art, it’s along the Graylyn MUT less than a quarter mile from the gate.

Sandero Gate is access from Ebeneezer Church Road to the Turkey Creek MUT. This is going to put you the furthest out from the main trails, allowing for a quieter visit.

Ebenezer Church Road Bridge Gate is access from Ebenezer Church Road to the Cedar Ridge and Turkey Creek MUTs.

Trenton Road Gate is where Trenton and Reedy Creek roads connect. It provides access to Turkey Creek and Reedy Creek MUTs.

Old Reedy Creek Road is off the road of the same name and is one of the most popular entrances for cyclists. It leads to the Reedy Creek MUT and borders land owned by RDU airport.

Things to do at Umstead State Park

Given its urban setting, there are surprisingly a lot of activities offered at Umstead State Park. The park sports three manmade lakes for fishing and paddling, seven hiking trails, and a network of multi-use trails for cycling and horseback riding.

Of course, there are also tons of picnic tables and a campground.

Man standing near blue lake known as Big Lake at Umstead State Park.

Fishing and Paddling

Umstead has three manmade lakes. Big Lake is the largest and can be accessed via the Crabtree Creek entrance. Drive all the way down the paved entrance road to the last parking lot. There’s a short trail with good signage that leads directly to the lake.

If you’re hiking on Sal’s Branch Trail, you’ll also pass by the lake. I recommend taking a moment to stop, relax, and enjoy the view.

The second, and most popular, lake is Reedy Creek Lake. You’ll find this gem on Reedy Creek Lake MUT. 

Last is Sycamore Lake. From the Crabtree Creek Entrance, follow the signs for the cabins which are down Sycamore Road. This is a left on Maintenance, a right on Group Camp Road, then a left onto Sycamore Road. Park in the lot and head to the back. Make a right and hike toward the spur trail to the lake.  

Rowboats and canoes can be rented in-season at Big Lake, and fishing is allowed with a valid NC fishing license.

Hiking

There are seven hiking trails at Umstead State Park. While some are fairly easy, others, like Company Mill, can be challenging. You can see details for each trail below.

Overall, the trails do have quite a bit of erosion and you’ll find a lot of roots. While there are trails suitable for beginners, make sure you look through the trail descriptions before starting out.

Woman in red shirt and orange hat standing on side of small bridge, looking over the side.

Cycling

The multi-use trail system is one of the best in the area. Cyclists can weave together 20-mile loops on the dirt and gravel roads.

Many cyclists head off into the woods on social trails. While this is technically a no-no, it’s difficult to police. Be aware that the land off of Reedy Creek MUT is owned by RDU airport. If you head off trail, you may be trespassing.

They’ve been known to send someone out once or twice a year to stop cyclists from heading into these areas.

Horseback Riding

The same multi-use trails used by cyclists are open to horseback riders. Equestrians can park in a lot off Sycamore Road and access the Graylyn MUT. It requires driving down two dirt and gravel roads to get to the parking lot.

Camping

Umstead State Park has two group campgrounds for organized groups like the Boy Scouts. There’s also a campground at the main entrance.

NOTE: The family campground at the Crabtree Creek Entrance is currently under renovation and is closed for 2023. They expect to open in spring 2024. This is going to be a massive renovation and (I’ve heard) worth the inconvenience of closing.

Due to the fact this is a large renovation, I will update the section on the campground when it is complete. The amenities and setup will likely be different than the current layout.

Also, know that the Sycamore Cabins are not available for rent due to the need for renovation. You can rent Maple Lodge which is a single room that holds a maximum of 25 people. There is a 2-person bathroom nearby with flush toilets. Contact the park for more details about Maple Lodge.

If you’d like to camp in the area, nearby Eno River State Park has several options available.

See the Chainsaw Log Art

Old red log that is carved into shape of alligator with other animals carved in its side.

Back in 2015, a 25-foot red oak tree in the park fell to the ground. It had been standing for an estimated 100 years.

Rather than chop it up into firewood, Smoky Mountain Art was hired to transform it into something beautiful. In November 2017, Jerry Reid and Randy Boni came out with their chainsaws and created a masterpiece. You can see a video of them using their chainsaws here.

The tree was carved to resemble an alligator with other animals carved within its sides. It sounds crazy, but it’s beautiful.

Over the years, the bright red coloring has faded, but that’s part of the charm. A living (or dying) piece of art.

While it looks like it’s on Sycamore Trail using the map, it’s actually on Graylyn Multi-Use Trail.

If you’re not interested in hiking miles to reach it, there’s a shortcut. Enter through the Crabtree Creek entrance. Make your first left past the Visitor Center onto Maintenance Road, then a right onto Group Camp Road, then another left onto Sycamore Road. (Follow the signs to Sycamore Cabins). Be aware that these are dirt and gravel roads.

Sycamore Road ends in a parking lot. From here, head to the back of the lot and go left onto a dirt and gravel trail. You’ll pass an old, abandoned cabin. The trail T’s into Graylyn MUT. Take a right and the log art is on your left about a quarter mile up. You won’t miss it.

Trails at Umstead State Park

Umstead has a variety of trails, perfect for all levels of hikers. You can also walk the multi-use trails if you’d like an easier adventure. Just turn around and head back to your car when you feel you’ve gone far enough.

Rocks lined to make crossing over stream on Loblolly trail.

Loblolly Trail

Mileage: 2.7 miles one way
Blaze: Blue square
Rated: Moderate
Location: Reedy Creek Parking Lot

Loblolly is my favorite trail at Umstead State Park. It’s the only one-way (non-loop) trail in the park so plan accordingly. At the end of the trail is a simple sign, “end of trail.” This is your cue to turn around.

The trail is gentle with a few climbs and a cute stream crossing with rock steps. I enjoy winding through the woods on Loblolly. It is well-marked, but there are a lot of social trails as people head down to the nearby creek. For some reason, people tend to lose attention and wander down the social trails, making this the primary trail where new visitors get lost.

If you do find your mind wandered and you stopped following the blazes, just check your map and head back the way you came. Loblolly is a popular trail, and you’ll likely see other hikers nearby which will help get you back on track.

Sneakers are fine for Loblolly, but hiking shoes with tread are better. A lot of people take this trail to Turkey Creek MUT, hang a left, then turn on Reedy Creek Lake MUT and enjoy the lake. For a quick exit, continue on Reedy Creek Lake MUT across the bridge, make a left on the paved road, and hike until you see the sign for Loblolly. Make a right and you’re less than 0.2 miles from the parking lot.

Bridge that crosses creek on Company Mill Trail.

Company Mill Trail

Mileage: 5.8 miles
Blaze: Orange square
Rated: Moderate
Location: Reedy Creek Parking Lot

Company Mill Trail is probably the most difficult trail in the park. The first part of the trail, from the parking lot to the bridge crossing the creek, used to be a separate entity called “Company Mill Spur Trail.” However, the trail was redone in 2020-2022 and it’s all one trail now. This is also why you may notice the mileage is different.

From the parking lot, you’ll wind down to the water and cross a bridge. Once over the bridge, the trail becomes a loop. Personally, I like to go counterclockwise. You’ll pass what’s left of Company Mill and can sit by the water, then you’ll weave around the rest of the trail.

At one point it crosses Reedy Creek MUT. The junction is well-marked. It also connects (somewhat) to the loop on Sycamore Trail if you’d like to add 2 miles to your hike. There’s a sign that points you across Graylyn MUT to pop onto Sycamore Trail. When you finish the Sycamore loop, you just cross the MUT again and pick up the rest of Company Mill Trail.

Keep going and you’ll cross Reedy Creek MUT again, then head downhill. You know you’re getting close when you see the water. You’ll cross the bridge a second time, then wind your way uphill to the parking lot.

The new route takes you more gently back to the parking lot. It’s longer than before but less steep.

White stand with information about loblolly tree on Inspiration Trail.

Inspiration Trail

Mileage: 0.4 miles
Blaze: Blue diamond
Rated: Easy
Location: Accessed from Company Mill Trail

Inspiration Trail is a nice way to end your hike on Company Mill Trail. One note, you have to hike down a good portion of Company Mill to reach Inspiration Trail. With the new route on Company Mill, it’s about 0.25 miles to reach Inspiration Trail, then a half mile on Inspiration, then 0.25 miles back up Company Mill.

While Inspiration Trail itself is easy, the climb back up Company Mill to the parking lot is more difficult and has a few areas with a lot of roots.

That being said, it’s a beautiful trail with benches and little stands explaining the different trees and foliage.

Narrow eroded trail alongside creek in wooded area.

Pott’s Branch Trail

Mileage: 1.3 miles
Blaze: Orange diamond
Rated: Easy
Location: Crabtree Creek Entrance, second parking lot down Umstead Parkway

How I love this trail. Pott’s Branch may be the most relaxing trail in the entire park. It starts in a lovely picnic area. As you begin your journey, the first thing you see is a wooden deck overlooking the woods. It’s large enough for several people and has two benches.

Continue on the trail for an easy stroll along a creek. You can hike the trail in sneakers, although I always recommend shoes with good tread. There’s a connection with Sycamore Trail, but I enjoy just hiking Pott’s Branch.

The last part of the trail ends at the third parking lot. You’ll need to walk along the sidewalk toward the area where you parked. There are blazes to guide you and a nice restroom along the way.

Tree on right with orange circle blaze alongside flat, wooded trail covered in red pine needles.

Sal’s Branch Trail

Mileage: 2.8 miles
Blaze: Orange circle
Rated: Moderate
Location: Crabtree Creek Entrance, behind the Visitor Center to the right

Sal’s Branch Trail is a solid 2.8 miles and good for a workout. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite trail, but it’s a nice trail. There’s just not a lot to see.

You’ll pass the remnants of an old primitive camping area with fire rings. And you’ll wander through the forest and along a lake. But the lake is down a hill.

Eventually, the trail comes out along Big Lake. This is a nice place to stop and take in the views. Afterward, the trail dips into the woods again, then eventually comes back out across a dirt road for parking and the back of the Visitor Center.

It can be crowded because people who don’t know the park stop at the Visitor Center and the trailhead is right there. This is also the trail that the campground spur trail connects to.

Overall, nice trail, a good hike, nothing special.

Oak Rock Trail

Mileage: 0.6 miles
Blaze: White square
Rated: Easy
Location: Crabtree Creek Entrance, second parking lot on Umstead Parkway

Oak Rock Trail is Umstead State Park’s TRACK trail. These are designed to encourage children to explore the outdoors. You can sign up online and there are stands with QR codes that provide information and have activities.

This is a nice, easy trail, perfect for children. You can enjoy one of the picnic tables nearby after your adventure. An extra bonus is the nearby restrooms.

Tree on left with blue triangle blaze in wooded area with flat trail.

Sycamore Trail

Mileage: 7.2 miles
Blaze: Blue triangle
Rated: Moderate
Location: Crabtree Creek Entrance, third parking lot on Umstead Parkway

There are a couple of different ways to reach Sycamore Trial, but the trailhead is at the location noted above.

This is a lollipop trail. It starts with a stem, then turns into a loop, and then you have to walk along the stem again to reach your car. It’s also the longest trail in the park.

I wouldn’t say it’s difficult; the trail is fairly flat. But the length is what gets you. You’ll wander down a hill, across a MUT, through the woods, past a cemetery, across a creek, and then some. Most people don’t do the entire trail, so you’ll find it a quiet hike.

It’s easy to stop and turn back at most points if you want to cut down on the mileage.

For me, Sycamore Trial is the heart of the park. It’s the one hiking trail that connects the two main entrances. It’s also the main reason you can come to Umstead State Park to train for a big hike. Sycamore allows you to easily loop trails together for 14-20 miles of hiking.

Tips for Visiting Park

Umstead State Park gets crowded on the weekends. Despite having a ton of parking, the lots can fill quickly with all the trail runners, hiking groups, and families visiting the park.

There’s a sweet spot around 10 am when the trail runners are finishing up. If you can’t arrive when the park opens, try around 10. I like to visit on weekdays whenever possible and it’s a great place for an evening hike after work.

Definitely go online to get a map or grab one at any of the trailheads. Due to all the social trails, it’s easy to get off course if you’re not paying attention. The good news is you’re unlikely to veer too far off course. And with the crowds, someone is probably within earshot.

Woman in red shirt and orange ball cap sitting on rock alongside swift moving creek.

Dress Accordingly

Most of the trails are covered with trees, but the multi-use trails are out in the open. Regardless, I would recommend a liberal application of sunscreen.

For some reason, the trails always seem hot and humid here. In the spring and summer, bug spray is going to be your friend.

Whatever you think you need to wear, take a layer off. Pack it in the car and see how it feels at the park. Layering is key at Umstead. I recommend a short-sleeve shirt under a long-sleeve so you can remove layers as needed.

Also, bring 500 ml to 1 L more water than you think you need and a snack.

Ask for Help

Because Umstead State Park is heavily used by regular visitors, many people on the trails know it like the back of their hand.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you become confused. If you know where you parked, there’s going to be someone that can get you to your car.

I’m also a fan of dropping a pin at the parking lot.

Umstead State Park – Wrap Up

Umstead State Park is an oasis in the middle of Raleigh, Durham, and Cary, North Carolina. With two entrances, seven trails, three lakes, and multi-use trails for cyclists and equestrians, there’s a lot to do.

Go for a short hike and enjoy a lake, or string together trails for a crazy day of training. And if you have questions stop by the Visitor Center or call. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable.

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