5 Shady Hikes in the Triangle to Explore this Summer

Tall trees and cool breezes make these areas near Raleigh great options for getting outside on the hottest days of the year.
by Joe Miller

The beauty of a summer hike in the Triangle? Fewer people. The less beautiful part? The heat. Unless you know where to hike.  According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, a full tree canopy can lop 10 degrees off the air temperature. But a full canopy doesn’t tell the full story. A crowded under-story — the shorter dogwoods, ironwoods and redbuds — and a carpet of shrubs can prevent cooling breezes from making it feel even cooler. To make your summer hike as pleasant as possible, you want a thick, green ceiling above and little greenery below. The following five trails meet that criteria, offering some of the coolest summer hiking around. Keep ‘em in mind the next time you’re tempted to sit out a walk in the woods on a hot summer day.

George and Julia Brumley Family Nature Preserve (South Tract)

University Station is where you’ll find the best tree cover and least understory in the region. (Note: This is not Brumley’s North Tract on Old State Highway 10, which offers great hiking but is exposed to the sun, nor is it the South Tract entrance off New Hope Church Road, which is popular with mountain bikers.) The short (0.4 miles) Lava Loop Trail introduces you to house-size boulders beneath towering oaks and hickories; from there, the 0.8-mile Black Cohosh Trail leaves the boulders behind as it rolls over gentle hills, still sheltered by that protective canopy. You’ll find a modest mid-layer on the Running Cedar Loop (nearly a mile), but by the time you circle back to Black Cohosh, you’ll have developed only a hint of a… glow, which will disappear on your cooling return to the trailhead.  You can hike less than a half mile, or you can do the full route described here, which is open only for hiking, for about 3 miles. If you’re really ambitious, hook into Brumley South’s nearly 16-mile multiuse network for a very long day hike. | 3801 University Station Road, Chapel Hill; 4 miles of trail; triangleland.org 

White Pines Nature Preserve

It’s not so much the preserve’s namesake white pines that soothe summer hikers. Rather, it’s the more dominant hardwoods that create a cooler microclimate here, with temperatures generally 10 degrees cooler than in downtown Pittsboro just 8 miles north. White Pines was the first nature preserve opened by the Durham-based Triangle Land Conservancy more than 35 years ago. It was targeted for those cool-weather-loving white pines, which once peppered the Piedmont but largely disappeared 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age. Today, they exist here only on cooler, well-shaded north-facing slopes.  White Pines is further blessed by the convergence of two rivers — the Rocky and the Deep — which also help hikers keep their cool. From the lower parking area (the first encountered driving in), Shiner’s Way Trail takes hikers to the half-mile Rocky Bluffs Trail, which catches ridgeline breezes, before T-ing into the mile-long Schoolkids Trail. Schoolkids descends into a mature bottomland forest before following an old roadbed that will make you think you’re in the Southern Appalachians. Stick with the outer edges of this trail network and you’ll have a nice 5-mile hike. | 548 South Rocky River Road, Sanford; 5.8 miles of trail; triangleland.org 

Eno River State Park, Pleasant Green Access

From the access off Pleasant Green Road, the trail follows the Eno River downstream through a rich floodplain forest. The flat first third of a mile makes for a nice warmup before the trail climbs a bluff overlooking the Eno. You’ll encounter some tight, but brief, passages through mountain laurel before being deposited in a forest of high pines. Drop back down to the Eno and moments later you’re at the Eno Quarry, the deep green waters of which will cool you even more. Spend roughly three-quarters of a mile circling the quarry before returning the way you came. One caveat: The quarry’s cooling waters are especially popular on summer weekends. If you value solitude, this route is best explored on weekdays or on a quiet Sunday morning. Of course, these rules apply to nearly all of the popular Eno River State Park trails. But this option is the state park’s coolest! | 4770 Pleasant Green Road, Durham; 3.6 miles (Laurel Bluffs and Eno Quarry trails); ncparks.gov

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area

Think of a big rock with a bunch of trees glued to it, and you’ve got Occoneechee. The natural area is small, just 230 acres, and 3 miles of trail may not seem to some like it’s worth the drive — but it is. For one, this isn’t a 3-miler you’ll hammer out in an hour. At 867 feet, the summit rises 350 feet above the Eno River, which marks the park’s northern boundary.  Despite its rocky nature, the mountain is covered by mature hardwoods. There’s understory and ground cover in spots, but even they will inspire a sudden chill: on a stretch of trail along the Eno, a 30-foot north-facing cliff face supports not only mountain laurel and rhododendron, two Appalachian staples, but also pungent galax, the defining ground cover of the high country. And that 3 miles of trail is deceptive. You’ll want to hike the entire 2.2-mile Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail, which circumnavigates the mountain. But you’ll also want to explore the Chestnut Oak Trail (0.9 miles) to explore higher elevations; the Overlook Trail (0.3 miles, out and back) for unobstructed views to the north; and the tenth-of-a-mile Brown Elfin Knob Trail, named for a rare butterfly that calls the mountain home. With doubling back, you’re looking at 4 miles easily. | 625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough; 3 miles of trail; ncparks.gov

Seven Mile Creek Natural Area

Seven Mile Creek? You likely haven’t heard of the creek (a tributary of the Eno River), let alone the natural area. But there it sits, on 360 acres that slope from a plateau down to the creek (and slightly beyond). The slope is dominated by rich hardwoods, including what is believed to be the last remaining large stand of sugar maples in Orange County, making it not only a cool summer hike, but a colorful one come fall.  The preserve’s obscurity bodes well if you like solitude. Though the low thrum of traffic on I-40 just a half mile north is ever-present, the preserve excels at offering escape that outsizes its size and location. It also begs to be hiked early in the morning, with a high canopy and west-facing slope that accommodate early morning sunlight knifing through the woods. It’s an especially good hike after a rain as well. Seven Mile Creek has a nice, rocky drop through the preserve, creating a torrent akin to a mountain creek. A good place to take folks visiting from out of town who don’t hike, but might, after exploring here. | 2187 Moorefields Road, Hillsborough; 2-plus miles of trail; orangecountync.gov  

This article originally appeared in the July 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.