At the airport end of Glenwood Avenue, sandwiched between a carpet store and a tarot card reader, sits the entrance to a 5,600-acre forest – an unlikely slice of wilderness hiding in the state’s second-largest city.
At certain points in William B. Umstead State Park, a hiker stands less than a mile from a pawn shop, an Auto Zone and the Ample Storage Center. And yet, walk three miles down the Sycamore Trail and the noise of 450,000 people disappears. No cars. Hardly any planes. Just cicadas.
Offering a love poem to a state park that draws more than a million visitors a year may seem like an obvious gesture, but this year marks the 100th anniversary of the North Carolina parks system, and the state is throwing its celebration all the way up on Mount Mitchell, site of the first state park. And as the nonprofit Umstead Coaltion warns, airport development threatens the park’s borders.
So I took a walk Friday, a 7.2-mile walk that winds into Umstead’s middle and back. And even though Umstead is only 50, half the age of its mountaintop cousin, I wished it a happy birthday anyway – hoping every tree remains when my fourth-grade kid has white hair.
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As I started for Sycamore, I found Peggy Poe from Cape Carteret sitting under a tree with a sketch pad, painting a watercolor portrait of pine trees. Though her 24-year-daughter attended N.C. State University, she had never wandered into the park.
“I was just flabbergasted by how close it is to downtown,” she said.
And that’s really what’s special about Umstead. The scenery isn’t as majestic as Gorges State Park in the west, and the wildlife isn’t as varied as Carolina Beach State Park at the coast. But it’s hard to find a city with nearly half a million residents with undeveloped forest six times the acreage of Central Park.
For me, the first real milestone on the Sycamore Trail, which starts just south of the visitor center, is the King family cemetery. A hiker passes by hollow trees and ferns, crosses wooden bridges over granite boulders and green water and then stumbles into a neat row of headstones surrounded by a wooden fence – a reminder that this young forest has grown up over farmers’ front yards.
The second landmark for me is the arched stone bridge over Sycamore Creek, a beauty built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression. Underneath it, I saw speckled fish swimming in shallow water, their shadows showing on the creek bottom.
By this point, the trail is almost silent, even though it sits halfway between U.S. 70 and Interstate 40. Even in relatively flat Raleigh, the trail offers some bluffs steep enough that one could generously call them cliffs. I counted two switchbacks. Once, coming around a corner, I saw a pileated woodpecker on a pine tree, its head Wolfpack red. Then, stepping off a bridge, I walked straight in the path of a good-sized buck. We stood sizing each other up for maybe a minute, and I counted six points on his foot-long antlers.
Even on a Friday when the temperature sizzled, I counted a dozen other hikers in the woods, one with a pair of binoculars and another leading a Chihuahua. I felt like a lucky birthday guest. I’m hoping for 100 more.