Gift of Nature: The New Williamson Preserve

A new preserve in the Triangle with woodlands, trails, a farming initiative and more.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre

This year, the Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve quietly opened. This 405-acre property was once a portion of a large cotton plantation, and will soon be the Triangle Land Conservancy’s (TLC) largest nature preserve in Wake County.

Williamson Preserve provides all four benefits of conservation that TLC strives to address in all our work,” says Executive Director Sandy Sweitzer. “It safeguards water that flows into the Neuse River, offers trails that give people a chance to connect with nature, provides natural habitats through forests, and supports local farms and food security.”

About 12 miles from downtown Raleigh, it will encompass pasture land, fields, streams, ponds, woodlands and historic buildings. “When it opens, we’ll have five miles of trails, with another eight miles that will open in the next few years,” says Christine Wilson, Director of Advancement for TLC. Some of these miles will be on the Neuse Riverwalk property, through a partnership with the Town of Clayton, and the majority of the system will be for shared use by walkers and mountain bikers.

In addition to access by car, the Williamson Preserve can be reached by the Neuse River Greenway and Mountains-to-Sea Trail, connecting it to more that 2,500 acres of conservation lands and 30 miles of greenway. It’s also contiguous to the Johnston County River Walk. “The Marks Creek Rural Land Initiative has been a conservation priority for more than 25 years,” says Wilson.

The preserve will also include a portion dedicated to regenerative agriculture. “Farmland is disappearing fast in the Triangle, so we wanted to honor the community’s farming tradition, and also use and demonstrate sustainable farming methods,” says Sweitzer. “One day people will be able to purchase local produce after a bike ride or walk.”

The preserve is named for previous landowners Bailey and Sarah Williamson, whose family owned this land for more than two centuries. “There was no other place where Dad was at peace with the world than at the farm, riding on a tractor cutting pasture, fixing fences or checking on his cattle,” says one of their daughters, Sally Greaser. “Our parents loved the land, and they passed that sentiment down to the next generation,” says their other daughter, Betty Brandt Williamson. “This is about protecting the land forever.”

The women are honoring a wish of their late parents: In the early 2000s, Bailey and Sarah Williamson initiated talks with Triangle Land Conservancy to donate a portion of the land for conservation; unfortunately, both passed before the project was completed. In 2013, their daughters sold the land to TLC at a steep discount; it was purchased using funding from the Wake County Board of Commissioners, the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, individuals who donated to TLC’s Our Water, Our Land campaign, Johnston County and the Environmental Enhancement Grant Program.

The land has a complex history, including the role of slavery in its early years and changes in farm labor after emancipation. To honor that history, TLC is working with University of North Carolina’s Community Histories Workshop to research and catalog materials related to the area and develop interpretive displays and events.

The preserve will be open dawn to dusk most days, with a second phase of trails being built on the adjacent River Walk property managed by the Town of Clayton. “As Wake County experiences explosive growth, it’s important to preserve open space for wildlife, plants and trees to thrive,” says Williamson. 

“We hope that Williamson Preserve becomes an important place for the community, providing recreation and educational opportunities, a diverse habitat for hundreds of species of plants and wildlife, and a hub of regenerative agriculture the helps feed the community and will serve as a model for other farmers,” says Sweitzer. “The opening is a big milestone, but there’s still so much more to come!”

Update September 2020: Triangle Land Conservancy postponed the Grand Opening of Bailey and Sarah Williamson Preserve, which was scheduled for April, due to the covid-19 pandemic, but was able to open the preserve earlier this month. For updates, visit