Where to Hike Near Raleigh

WALTER’s guide to trails, greenways and city walks to explore the Triangle and beyond, any time of year.
by WALTER staff

Neuse River Trail / photography by Geoff Wood 

Even as Raleigh and the Triangle grow, we’re still lucky to have natural areas just minutes from downtown. Our extensive greenway systems offers more than 100 miles of paved pathways for bikers, joggers and runners. Raleigh city parks offer more than 10,000 acres of parkland for recreation, and nearby North Carolina State Parks and preserved areas offer forests, rivers, lakes and plains to explore. In honor of The Year of the Trail, we have gathered a selection of trails near Raleigh that work for any time of year or any style of hike, whether you want to see fall leaves, learn a little bit about North Carolina history, see the stars or just get moving as quickly as possible. Read on — then get going!

Trails to Explore in the Spring

Spot Spring’s First Flowers in the Forest

In the Triangle, springtime happens bit by bit. Bottomland hardwood forests bloom first: those wildflowers need to grab life-giving sunshine before the canopy fills and hogs it all. South-facing slopes are next, benefitting from their extended exposure. Meadows are typically last; no rush, they’ll have sun in fall. Here are 5 under-the-radar in the Triangle good for catching early spring flowers as they bloom.

Wander the Colorful Sarah P. Duke Gardens

Sarah P. Duke Gardens in Durham brim with the beauty of a new season as thousands of cherry trees, tulips, daffodils and poppies burst into bloom. In early March, you can find yourself in a tunnel of Akebono Yoshino cherry trees as their blush-toned blossoms unfurl and twirl to the ground. Click through for a tour of these romantic landscaped pathways.

Go on a Walk that Ends at a Fishing Spot

Hiking and fishing go hand in hand — sometimes, a long walk in the woods is the only way to access a secret pool of crappie and catfish. And while hiking has assumed a recreational life of its own , intertwining the two can be one of the best ways to escape and relax, especially as the weather starts to warm up.

Trails to Explore in the Summer

Take a Hike Where You Can Go for a Swim

In the Triangle, we’re surprisingly close to waterfalls, swimming holes and sandy shores — all a welcome break when it gets hot in the summer! While many are well-known, they can get crowded. Here are five of our favorite lesser-known spots to where a quick hike can offer a chance to cool off in the water.

Cool Off in a Waterfall in Western NC

When the temperature rises, it can be easy to stay inside your cold, air-conditioned house. But the heat can also offer exciting opportunities for outdoor fun — and in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the waterfalls are always chilly. Here are 7 mountain hikes with cool creeks and waterfalls to jump into.

Stroll the Shaded Paths of Hemlock Bluffs

Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary offers about as close as you can get to mountain paths in the Triangle: here, the trails and overlooks offer big changes of elevation, leaf-softened pathways and majestic views of trees. Hemlock Bluffs was dedicated as a state nature preserve in 1976, and the town of Cary took over operations in the 1980s (North Carolina still owns much of the acreage, but leases this land to the town). The majority of the 140-acre preserve is dedicated to observation, study, and education, but it’s also a popular spot for a shady walk and a way for kids to interact with nature.

Trails to Explore in Autumn

Check Out Fall Leaves Along These Raleigh Hikes

While the Blue Ridge Mountains are known for autumn color, you truly don’t have to drive hours to get your fix of those beautiful fall leaves. We’ve rounded up our favorite Raleigh spots for easy hikes with wonderful fall vantage points of those warm shades of crimson and ochre.

Take Advantage of Early Sunsets to See 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. 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.

Enjoy a Day Hike Along the Mountains-to-Sea Trail

The Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) is exactly what its name implies — a 1,175-mile trail that crosses North Carolina from Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near the Tennessee line to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks. Roughly 60 percent of the trail is on natural surface, greenway trail, unpaved forest roads or beach — much of it officially designated as MST by State Parks. In between, a series of connectors on back roads knits together finished sections to span the state. While the weather is at it’s best, make an effort to experience the diversity of North Carolina with these day hikes along nearby portions of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail.

Trails to Explore in the Winter

Go On a Hike That Offers a History Lesson

In winter when the trees are bare, you’re more likely to notices traces of past civilizations: : a depression maybe 4 feet deep, 8 feet long; a stand of brilliant yellow daffodils amid the brown of late winter; a pyramid of stones, seemingly gathered intentionally — but why? Where your wandering today was likely once a thriving community. That depression? A root cellar, where food was kept cool. Those daffodils helped brighten a homestead, a sign that spring was nigh. And those rocks were painstakingly gathered by a family decades ago, as a new field was being cleared. History is everywhere along North Carolina’s trails; you just need to know what to look for. Here are six nearby trails that invite a deeper dive into what our area was like as far back as the 1700s.

Sneak in an Urban Hike in the City

In the Triangle, you needn’t drive far to escape; in fact, you can probably walk. Here, we’ve got a preponderance of trees and a climate that produces lush greenery in even the smallest patch of dirt — meaning that even a storm drainage corridor near a housing development can yield a sense of wild adventure. These five hikes epitomize the types of gateway getaways tucked throughout the area. Some, such as Raleigh’s Reedy Creek Trail, mix nature with urban amenities. Others, such as Schenck Forest, offer a sense of woodland adventure just a couple miles from town. And all are easy hikes, without much time behind the wheel — an with restaurants, bars and coffee shops nearby to warm up afterwards.

Take a Quick Trip to Williamson Preserve

In 2020, a new preserve opened in the Triangle with woodlands, trails, a farming initiative and more. This 405-acre property was once a portion of a large cotton plantation, and is now the Triangle Land Conservancy’s largest nature preserve in Wake County. About 12 miles from downtown Raleigh, it encompasses pasture land, fields, streams, ponds, woodlands and historic buildings with both walking and biking trails— and is close enough to see something new on one of our surprisingly warm winter afternoons. 

Want to Explore More?

If these hikes make you want to carve your own trail through North Carolina’s greenways, parks and natural areas, pick up one of these guidebooks. Each has ideas to hike, bike, float, skate or fish your way through the Triangle area — a place full of great adventures for those of us who love to be outside.

This article was originally published on February 2, 2023 on waltermagazine.com