A Walk in the Dark: 5 Hikes that Showcase the Night Sky

Just beyond the reaches of city lights, these natural areas offer great views of the moon and stars — and stay open late through the fall.
by Joe Miller

The super moon lunar eclipse seen over a pine forest in North Carolina | Getty Images

“Are you sure it’s OK to be here?” the hiker asked. I flipped on my headlamp and aimed it at my watch. It was 8:50 on a Tuesday evening in late September. The sun had set an hour and a half earlier, and it would be more than an hour before the park closed. I switched off my headlamp. “We’ve got plenty of time,” I said. “Enjoy the sky.”

Fall is generally considered peak season for hiking with its cooler temperatures, kaleidoscopic colors and absence of pesky, flying, biting things. Yet fall can also conjure a bit of melancholy as an early-setting sun also turns the lights out on midweek, after-work escapes into nature. 

It shouldn’t. The night is an enchanting time to be out, and the Triangle has some surprisingly good spots for savoring the night sky. Some require a short hike (headlamp required) and some you can enjoy from the hood of your car. Here are five of my favorites. Closing times at each location vary; please check the appropriate web site before heading out.

Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve

Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve is known in naturalist circles for its sweet, high-pH soils that support plants more common to the prairies of the Midwest. For that reason, the North Carolina Botanical Garden, which manages the 84-acre preserve (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns it) has been actively working to clear trees to improve the prospects for those plants. The result: a large clearing atop a bluff overlooking the Eno River, where the stars above earn billing with the smooth purple coneflower below. Reach the clearing by hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail a mile upstream from the parking lot, then hanging a right at the sign for a short climb to the clearing. Including the return, it’s a 2.5-mile hike.

Old Oxford Road at Snow Camp Road, Durham; enoriver.org

Horton Grove | Photograph by Joe Miller

Horton Grove Nature Preserve

A popular spot for catching a wide sweep of the night sky is Horton Grove Nature Preserve, the Triangle Land Conservancy’s largest preserve at 708 acres. Here, the main parking area sits amid a sizable meadow, the conservancy’s attempt to recreate a piedmont prairie. The venue provided a clear shot at 2017’s partial eclipse during that sunny day, and on a clear, crisp fall night it offers perhaps the region’s best view of the night sky, thanks to its remove from urban light pollution. And since the clearing is part of the parking lot, you don’t even need to hike to it — but if you want to get in an end-of-day hike, hop onto the adjoining Holman, Hart, Justice and Latta trails for a 3.2-mile loop.

6112 Cheek Road, Durham; ncmst.org

Umstead State Park, Harrison Avenue Entrance

The heart of a glowing metro area may not seem the best spot for spectacular stargazing, but this corner of Umstead State Park offers a surprisingly good view, thanks in part to the surrounding woods. It’s also relatively easy to get to, with a gravel access road that drops to the lake from the Harrison Avenue lot in less than a mile. The distance is short enough that you can bring a camp chair and settle in for a relaxing evening until the park closes (at 6 p.m. in winter — but with the sun setting not long past 5 p.m., there’s plenty of time to enjoy the end of day and the start of night).

2100 N. Harrison Avenue, Cary; ncparks.gov

Mountains-to-Sea Trail | photograph by Joe Miller

Mountains-to-Sea Trail at Falls Lake

The 2,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail is full of surprises as it explores the state from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head; its 60-mile run along Falls Lake through Durham and Wake counties is no exception. Hiking east from the access off Cheek Road in Durham, you’re in a maturing hardwood forest until, a half mile in, you aren’t. There, you skim a large, cleared area created not for reasons of nature, but for a massive power line. Fortunately, the power line is all but invisible in the dark, letting you focus on a night sky that’s particularly rewarding during the Leonid meteor shower in November or the Perseid display in August. 

7360 Jock Road, Bahama; triangleland.org

Eno River State Park, Fews Ford Access

The main access to Eno River State Park is a top candidate for night sky viewing because of its grassy expanse within the circular parking lot. Still, we recommend hiking the 3.75-mile Cox Mountain Trail loop from the parking area, then fetching your chairs afterwards to relax in the meadow under the stars. Another plus: cell reception is spotty here, meaning your escape into the heavens won’t be interrupted by a terrestrial telemarketer. This part of the park stays open until 8 p.m. in November and 7 p.m. December through February.

6101 Cole Mill Road, Durham; ncparks.gov

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of WALTER magazine.