Outdoor Life: Exploring the Triangle’s hidden beauty

CorrespondentMay 26, 2014 

The beauty of spring and summer in the Triangle is that some of the most rewarding family outings are free ones: parks, trails, and playgrounds – we have all these in abundance. In fact, the sheer number in any given town or county can be daunting, as checking them all out would take a load of time and effort.

We’ve gathered some of the more remarkable ones that somehow seem to be hidden in plain sight – or maybe they’re a few miles out of town, or in a place where a 200-plus acre wooded park just seems unlikely. Regardless, you don’t have to leave the immediate region to take a long walk in the woods, or even to climb a mountain.

Occoneechee Mountain

It’s possible to drive right by Occoneechee Mountain without seeing it – in fact, thousands do so every day. This weathered mountain sits hundreds of yards from rushing traffic, where interstates 40 and 85 split in Hillsborough. The other side of the mountain is quiet, though, where a trail leads by the Eno River and reveals Occoneechee’s quarried north face, a testament to its industrial past. The summit path is easy enough – it’s a wide, straight shot to the top – while an overlook atop the quarry provides a surprisingly long view.

It’s the closest mountain-ish experience to the Triangle – even considering the Uwharries, near Asheboro – and the side trails make for easy hiking. For parents of young kids or folks looking for light exercise and calming scenery, it does nicely.

Getting there: The park entrance is at 625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough.

Durant Nature Preserve

Durant Nature Preserve was once Camp Occoneechee – at least until the city of Raleigh bought it from the Boy Scouts. True to this history, there are trails through the woods and two lakes. What’s fascinating, though, is how it blends the qualities of rural and city living. To illustrate, two of its draws are outdoor day camps and dog walking, all just outside of I-540. As Raleigh spreads, it’s nice that large, wooded parks like this remain.

Getting there: The preserve is at 8305 Camp Durant Road, Raleigh.

Big Woods Road

Big Woods Road runs north from the Pittsboro side of Jordan Lake, ending near U.S. 15-501 a few miles south of Chapel Hill. It’s a pleasant drive and one that’s popular with cyclists, with two spots along it perfect for family outings.

Near the north end of Big Woods, Northeast District Park has a good, though small, playground and a neighboring pond. A trail around the water can be an excellent place to find snakes sunning themselves without accidentally getting too close. Unlike many rural playgrounds, it has bathrooms – essential for anyone making the trek from, say, Chapel Hill.

A few miles south, the Talking Tree Trail is a short loop of not even a mile through the Jordan Lake Educational State Forest. Kid-sized stations play recorded descriptions of nearby tree species as the path winds out to the water before circling back.

Getting there: The Northeast District Park is at 5408 Big Woods Road, Chapel Hill; the educational forest is at 2832 Big Woods Road, Chapel Hill.

Clemmons Educational State Forest

Clemmons Educational State Forest in Clayton is a lot like Big Woods Road’s Talking Tree Trail, which is appropriate since it’s part of the same system. As well as talking trees, though, this one has rocks that introduce themselves via recorded messages. Where Clemmons differs from Jordan Lake State Forest, though, is that there are more trails, and not all of them are oriented toward young children. Here, older kids can learn in-depth lessons about the local ecosystem, which is particularly fascinating since this forest sits in the transition zone between North Carolina’s Piedmont and Coastal Plain.

Getting there: The educational forest is at 2411 Old U.S. 70 West in Clayton.

Carolina North Forest

Tucked between Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Carolina North Forest provides a respectably secluded feel almost despite the densely populated towns neighboring it. Like Durant, it’s a remnant of what the area may have looked like before it was developed. The forested tract forgoes the relative order of the other parks on this list, though, instead offering numerous walking and biking trails. It’s walkable to some Chapel Hill and Carrboro neighborhoods, though the potential for traffic on Estes Drive, one of the main routes to the forest, makes it less convenient to those coming from elsewhere.

Getting there: This tract is on either side of Seawell School Road, which runs between Homestead Road and Estes Drive in Chapel Hill.

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