Our Five Faves

Our favorite state parks in the Triangle and beyond

Posted April 11, 2016

A trail at Raven Rock State Park ends with a glimpse of the Cape Fear River.

The days are getting longer and warmer, and if you haven't already emerged from your winter's hibernation it is time to put down the remote and get outside.

North Carolina's state parks offer places to hike and splash your way through spring, summer and fall. And if you of a mind to spend the night, the state's online reservation system lets you reserve a camp site online.

And since 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of North Carolina's state park system, now is a great time to check out what they have to offer. I can't claim to have visited all 41, but here are my favorites within a reasonable drive of Raleigh.

RAVEN ROCK: Located near Lillington in Harnett County, Raven Rock State Park is about an hour drive from Raleigh.

The trails in the park are easy-to-moderate, and most trails are through shady areas so they're not oppressive even when the mercury is up.

If you visit when it's hot, bring some shoes and clothes you don't mind getting wet. My kids enjoy cooling off in the river and riding the current over the smoothed over rocks.

The park is situated around the Cape Fear River, which is popular with the canoe paddling set, although there are no access points in the park itself.

For smaller kids, a visit to the display the park office can be an educational opportunity – and welcome bathroom break – between trails.

WILLIAM B. UMSTEAD: William B. Umstead State Park offers bike trails and is a favorite with my friends who are serious runners, especially when they're in the mood for a challenge.

You're definitely in a share-the-trail sort of situation here because along with hikers, runners and bikers, you'll also run into horseback riders around the park. For me, that's part of the attraction.

One of the biggest conveniences for Umstead is location. It is tucked between Raleigh Durham International Airport, Glenwood Avenue and 440, making it easily accessible form in town or from the highway. But that's also one of the reasons it's not my favorite spot for camping. After a relatively peaceful night's slumber, early morning takeoffs from RDU tend to roust my camping crew out of bed earlier than is ideal.

FALLS LAKE RECREATION AREA: If you are in the mood for a quick escape that let's you pitch a tent, roast some marshmallows, and spend the night under the stars, the recreation areas around Falls Lake provide a quick escape in northern Wake County.

This spot is a favorite for cub scout groups, Y-Guides and the like, so definitely hop online and make a reservation for a camp site once you know a trip is in store. And if you are part of a larger group, check out the B. W. Wells area.

This is another park that offers trails for the mountain biking set in the Beaverdam area, as well as navigable trails for hikers throughout.

JORDAN LAKE: My kids are all about the swimming, and Jordan Lake has four areas open to day trippers as well as three swimming areas set aside for campers. This is a nice option when you don't want to struggle through traffic all the way to the beach or get chlorine in your eyes.

My friends who fish have plucked some nice bass and catfish out of the lake, and you'll certainly see plenty of boaters out on the water.

And for birders, Jordan Lake offers a chance to spy a bald eagle, especially during April, May and June.

HANGING ROCK: I know, I know. It's all the way on the other side of Greensboro. Gas up the car and make the trip to Hanging Rock. It takes about two hours and hardly seems like any time at all if you make the appropriate back-roads stops for snacks and such.

The park's lake offers fishing year round, as well as swimming and canoe rentals in the summer. There are trails for bikers, but this is a hilly section of state and you'll be pumping hard.

There are more walking trails than you can shake a walking stick at, but the signature trek is to the top of the namesake rock, which offers a commanding view of the surrounding area. If you want to make the climb, do yourself a favor and go early before the bulk of the day-tripping crowd gets started.

Fall is my favorite time to make the trip out. You get a hit of colorful foliage without making it all the way out to Boone or Asheville. And the increased elevation gives you an escape from high temperatures during the summer, so gear up accordingly if you plan on camping overnight.


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