Great Escapes

Hiking local trails is a chance to unwind and enjoy nature

As we make our way through the forest, leaves crunch underfoot, a slight breeze whispers among the treetops, sunlight slants through bare branches, and quiet conversations respect the peace that settles upon us. We tramp up and down, across streams, over bridges, escaping the traffic and to-do lists — if only for a couple of hours.

But even a short time in nature can have lasting benefits. Researchers say people can concentrate better, be more creative and even heal faster after looking at clouds, listening to a stream or hiking in the woods.

Vicki Sell adn others take part in an organized group hike at Umstead Park, led by outdoor writer and guide Joe Miller.

Joe Miller, a Cary-based outdoor writer and guide, says he sees this effect all the time.
“There’s just something about getting away from technology — kind of flipping a switch,” he said. “Just getting out in the woods can have a profound impact on people.”  

Since 2013, Miller has organized hikes like a recent outing in Umstead State Park which was part of Quintiles' corporate wellness program. Originally he thought the benefits of getting desk jockeys out on the trails would be physical, but that was only part of the story.

“Really the benefit is the stress relief and being able to get away from the office for even just a short amount of time,” he said. “People will show up directly from work, and they are so frazzled. But after about 5 minutes on the trail, their whole disposition has changed completely.”

Guide Joe Miller, above, second from left, says time spent in nature can have both physical and mental benefits.

Lifelong hiker Chris Underhill, of Cary, agrees.

“When I get out on the trail, I forget everything that’s pressing on me and concentrate on the trail in front of me and the beauty all around me,” he said. “It relaxes me and puts me in a better frame of mind.”

Places to go

Underhill, 65, appreciates the area’s network of greenways but prefers a more natural setting like the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. There are 105 contiguous miles of the trail in the Triangle, and roughly 77 miles of unpaved footpath meander from the Eno River State Park in Durham to Falls Lake Dam north of Raleigh.

“We are so fortunate to have so much public land as we do in the Triangle,” said Underhill, who has helped maintain the trail, volunteering with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, since 2004.

Although the trail at Swift Creek Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary is short, it winds through massive beech trees and across a narrow floodplain. In spring, the creek which gives the preserve its name is a breeding ground for spring peepers and other frogs. Wildflowers such as trout lily and bloodroot can also be seen starting in late February.

“We really are fortunate to have that situation this close to a major metropolitan area. We’ve got a lot of public land that is going to stay public land,” he continued.

The wealth of places to enjoy the outdoors makes the Triangle a great place to live, says Diana Hackenburg, with the Triangle Land Conservancy.

“We enjoy a really high quality of life here, and part of that quality of life is the outdoor opportunities,” she said. “Part of that also is clean air, clean water, access to local farms and food — all of these things are related to the land.”

The TLC places a premium on protecting wildlife habitat and wetlands, so the group encourages visitors to experience the outdoors and learn about the land.  

“You can see some really diverse habitat,” said Hackenburg. “That’s another cool thing about hiking in the Triangle — it’s not all just forest. There are different types of forests, streams, rivers, wetlands and grasslands. Once people get out and explore, they can see that diversity.”   

The Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Orange County, owned by the Triangle Land Conservancy, has about 3 miles of trail. It’s an attractive place to go after work in the summer because the mature forest canopy provides shade, cooler temperatures and the New Hope Creek, right, runs through it. Joe Miller calls it “a nice little escape.”

Miller is also a fan of the TLC’s properties. For hiking, he suggests visiting Swift Creek Bluffs, Johnston Mill and Horton Grove nature preserves.

“Triangle Land Conservancy has some great properties that a lot of people don’t know about, and it’s some of the best hiking in the Triangle,” he said. “Some of the trails aren’t very long, but they are great little escapes and they’re pretty close to where people live.”

Something for everyone

The accessibility of local trails makes it easy to get outdoors, and hiking itself is an easy activity for most.

“So many people can do it,” Miller said. “It’s a lifelong activity; that makes it attractive. It’s not something you have to do a lot to remain proficient at.”

It is also extremely versatile. Depending on your mood and energy level, a hike can be a strenuous workout or a slow stroll in the woods. Either approach gets people outside and moving.

Group hikes offer the chance to learn about local land.

Quintiles employees Kevin Benz and Damien Fernandez wait for cyclists to cross a bridge in Umstead State Park.

“With a good pair of shoes and a little bit of time, anyone can go out and hike,” agreed Hackenburg. “It’s something you can do at any age. You just have to decrease or increase the challenge level that you give yourself, whether that is mileage or the terrain of the trail.”

Mike McKinney, 67, has enjoyed hiking and being outdoors since he was a kid. The Cary retiree also volunteers with the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and hikes regularly with a local outdoor group.

“It’s a great way to meet people and enjoy interesting conversations while walking and enjoying nature,” he said. “Plus it helps me stay physically fit.”
Hackenburg says one of the conservation group’s challenges is encouraging young people to spend more time outdoors, forging that connection that will keep them interested in protecting the land.

“Past generations have a lot of memories of being outside, not necessarily hiking, just spending time outside,” said Hackenburg. “They remember having a favorite tree in their neighborhood or going to a farm. I’ve met so many kids now who have never been in the woods, or don’t even know the woods exist 5 or 10 miles from their house.”

One way the TLC is trying to attract a younger crowd is with its Hiking Challenge, she says. The activity allows TLC members to find and rate a trail and share nature photos online. Miller also encourages his hike participants to take and share pictures.

Kellsey Lequick of Durham and her dog, Shadow, wade in a creek during a hike in Umstead State Park.

Austin Whitehead, left, and Phil Cox, during a hike at White Pines Nature Preserve with Grand Trees of Chatham, a Triangle Land Conservancy partner organization.

“Hiking has had a reputation of being something that older people are more into, but a lot of younger people really enjoy it,” he said. “And a benefit to getting people out early in life is they develop a keen appreciation of the natural world and the importance of preserving it.”

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