Mountains in Durham? Well, sort of...
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
So in January 2020, I got jazzed about visiting all the state parks, and then a few weeks later this little thing called the coronavirus happened. The bad news for exploration (and I'm not meaning to trivialize the hardships so many have experienced; I'm just sticking to the website theme) was that a wedding anniversary trip to Scotland and fall camping in Patagonia got cancelled. The good news, however, was that things turned really local for awhile. I spent some time learning about and photographing an abundance of birds in my backyard, hiked several trails along the Eno River and finally explored the Historic Occoneechee Speedway.
I also started logging my hikes in the AllTrails app, which I highly recommend for planning and researching as well as locating your hike position in real time. For a nominal subscription fee, you can also download the maps beforehand so you are able to use the app without cell coverage (I promise I'm not paid to write this; I just really enjoy this app). Always keep a backup physical map when possible, however. It's a rule of the trail I think is just as important to one's safety as staying hydrated.
That being the case, with the days getting longer and a new work-from-home policy that eliminated my daily I-40 commute, I began searching online for trails and rivers close by that I'd never explored. And two names kept popping up: New Hope Creek and Duke Forest.
New Hope Creek If you've driven around Chapel Hill or Durham, it might feel like almost every highway crosses over New Hope Creek. That's because, well, they basically do. I-40, U.S. 15-501, N.C. 86 and N.C. 54 all bridge this creek at some point, including several main thoroughfares. New Hope Creek runs southwest from just south of Hillsborough in Orange County into southeastern Durham County, draining several creeks along the way before itself drains into Jordan Lake. That lake was formed in 1982 with the damming of New Hope Creek; before then the creek winded its way into Chatham County where it met the Haw River and Deep River, which form the Cape Fear River at Mermaid Point.
The creek was dammed to control constant flooding that stemmed from the abundance of creeks in the area. Orange County has no natural navigable waterways, but it does have a number of fast moving smaller streams and creeks. That led to the establishment of numerous mills, the economic engines of the 17th and 18th centuries, within North Carolina's largely agrarian society. Remains of these mills can be found across the Piedmont, from grindstones to walls to some still standing and operating structures such as Historic Yates Mill in neighboring Wake County.
The first 20 miles of New Hope Creek has some prime spots for mills, and that stretch has remained largely undisturbed by development. And just after mile five the creek enters an area designed to keep the creek and woods around it in its natural state: the Duke Forest Korstian Division.
Jackson relished this quick dip of his paws in New Hope Creek
Duke Forest is a protected woodland of over 7,000 acres that spans 6 divisions in Alamance, Orange and Durham Counties. In the 1920s, Duke University began purchasing farms and forest land to both buffer its newer west campus and to have an area for training and experimentation for Duke's new School of Forestry. Now the Nicholas School of the Environment, the university still uses the forest for training and research, but there are a number of hiking trails and bike paths open to the public (thanks for doing something cool, Duke. Go Heels!).
The Korstian Division, named for the School of Foresty's founding dean, Dr. Clarence Korstian, is the closest area of Duke Forest to my house. It also happens to be where New Hope Creek has been cutting into the rocky landscape for hundreds of millions of years. That "cutting" is an important fact because it affects the geography of the hike in ways you wouldn't expect [foreshadowing alert].
- Map Link
- Distance: 5 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Time: 2 hours
The Hike After discovering Duke Forest's trails in the early spring, I'd gotten a lay of the land enough to know the areas I wanted to explore. So for a socially distanced Easter Day hike, I met up with my mom at one of the southern entrances along Whitfield Road along with her favorite granddog Jackson.
The trail starts out as a gravel road with a slight downhill grade. We broke off on Slick Hill Foot Trail at the fork about two-tenths of a mile in, and the trail changes to a footpath that gets continually rockier as it decreases in elevation. After about a mile, the sound of rushing water can be heard and the woods open up into a sandy shallow area of New Hope Creek that requires some rock hopping to dryly cross. Mom took a little longer to find her balance, and I goaded her for it. She reminded me it was Easter and that I should be nicer.
Once across, you can see that there are both north and south trails that parallel the creek, and we headed east on the north trail. Navigating the next section requires two hands (or in Jackson's case four paws off leash) and some nimble balancing as boulders need to be walked around or climbed over to avoid a splash in the deepening creek, which was originally called New Hope River in this location.
Then comes the steep, 200-foot ascent up Piney Mountain. For a quarter of a mile your breaths will be harder to come by and the sweat will start rolling down your forehead. And then, just about to the point where you think you'll need to slow your pace, you'll reach the top. Protruding boulders mark the pinnacle, and as you turn to your left to look back down the hill you just ascended, you'll see it - you're in the mountains.
The feeling is a bit surreal. Through the trees you can see over a valley until another ridge forms. The elevation change is steep, almost cliff-like, but with pine straw and brush covering the drop-off instead of rocks. Mom had the same look of excitement and surprise I did the first time I climbed this trail. And then it hits you: how are you standing on one mountain and looking across a valley to another one in Durham? The answer is a few hundred million years of New Hope Creek.
At the start of the hike we were at an elevation of about 460 feet. We had descended about 200 feet until we hit the creek and then ascended 200 feet when climbing Piney Mountain. We were not in fact looking at two ridges but instead looking over the valley that New Hope Creek had created by cutting into the landscape. The visual effect, however, is nearly the same as hiking a trail in the Blue Ridge.
After summitting Piney Mountain we descended to the west and made our way in the opposite direction along the creek trail. Here is where the landscape gets really fun. Bluffs and boulders abound - some as high as three stories - and the opportunities to explore parts of the creek or the rocky outcroppings are nearly endless. A concrete bridge to the west is popular with families, as it allows for a safe creek crossing, but the best view is back on the south side at Rhododendron Bluff. A sheer drop off close to 30 feet means extra caution is required, and some adjacent areas are marked off by forest management. When you get to the bluff overlook, be sure to take enough time to absorb the wonder of this place - a mountain valley respite just minutes from the hustle of the metropolitan Triangle and yet hours away from the Great Smokies or Blue Ridge. It's a gem.
From Rhododendron Bluff you can make a beeline back to the parking area or keep exploring. We chose to head back down to the creek on an adjacent path to the one we initially took in before hiking out on Slick Hill Foot Trail. And if you haven't yet figured out that you're hiking upward to finish, you will by now. Mom and I both found ourselves pacing a little more slowly, and even Jackson's usual leash tug was relaxed. It's been a full five miles, and it's likely you'll need some more gulps out of the canteen before getting back into your car.
Emotionally, however, you'll feel refreshed and renewed. You'll want to bring your friends or family back to experience this hike, and if you're local, you'll be thinking of how easy it is to explore the "mountains" the next time you're itching for a quick adventure. Mom was talking about taking my dad and her neighbors there, and I've since inspired a couple of my friends to explore and enjoy this amazing area of Duke Forest.
I hope you will, too.
All smiles from Mom and Jackson at Rhododendron Bluff
The stone wall remains of the 1800s Robson Family Mill, along with three Robson Family graves, can be found along New Hope Creek near the Wooden Bridge Road trail.
You're just a hop and a skip from Historic Bennett Place, the homestead where, in 1865, Gen. Johnston of the Confederacy surrendered to Gen. Sherman of the Union, effectively ending the Civil War.