I start out going by the book, hiking a few miles on a well-trodden way called the Company Mill Trail. But as the marked footpath arches over a wooded rise,
I start out going by the book, hiking a few miles on a well-trodden way called the Company Mill Trail. But as the marked footpath arches over a wooded rise, I spot a subtle opening off to the side, where sprigs of greenbrier are snipped at waist height. Looking carefully, I can make out an indistinct opening in the vegetation. It’s a deer trail, subtle and inviting. Off-trail I go.
This sort of hiking isn’t for everyone, but it’s perfectly suited to me: I’ll accept spiderwebs in my hair for the discovery of some secluded hillside devoid of human presence. And I don’t mind the feeling of not knowing exactly where I am when it pays off with the thrill of losing myself in a big piece of woods. Which is surprisingly easy to do in William B. Umstead State Park.
Umstead is a sort of Central Park for the Triangle area, a 5,000-acre respite from the hubbub of urban life. Being so close at hand, it’s called to be many things to many people — hikers, bikers, horseback riders — and its trail network goes a long way toward giving different users their space. But as I follow a furrow of gently disturbed leaves along the forest floor, I’m soon off the map, yet just where I hoped to be.
My deer trail skitters across a pitch and roll of forest where history is writ in the land. Two American Indian trading routes skirted these woods — the Occaneechi trail to the north and the Pee Dee trail to the south. Sherman’s troops hiked along the park’s Crabtree Creek on their way to Bennett Place in Durham. In the early 1900s, rows of cotton clad nearly every corner of what is now Umstead State Park; my deer trail wends around piles of quartz rock likely stacked by farmers plowing their fields.
By the 1930s, many local farms had been abandoned, as constant cropping wrung fertility from the soil. Most of the land was sold to government agencies in 1934, and four Civilian Conservation Corps camps were sited across the ruined landscape. Today, dams, cabins, and picnic shelters speak of the CCC’s legacy. And the park’s soaring oak and hickory and sweet gum evidence the healing hand of nature.
I follow the deer trail for half an hour, until I see the colored jackets of other hikers. I wait for them to pass before I rejoin the designated trail. Umstead is a place rooted in all that came before. To truly experience that, you just have to put one foot in front of the other — and know that veering off the beaten path every now and then might be the best way to get where you’re going.
William B. Umstead State Park
8801 Glenwood Avenue
Raleigh, NC 27617