Yes, there used to be waterfalls
Updated: May 10, 2021
By April of 2020, I'd explored quite a bit along the Eno River and found some fun segments of the Mountains to Sea Trail (MST). We were in full COVID-19 lockdown mode, and Sarah started joining me on some hikes as well, including a few hours near Penny's Bend on her birthday in the latter part of the month. Just across the parking lot from that area, which is off Old Oxford road northeast of Durham, there is another trailhead that parallels the river heading east. And if you traverse this footpath for about six miles, you'll not only see where the Flat and Eno Rivers meet; you'll also find the edge of a 20-square-mile reservoir that provides most of Raleigh's drinking water and loads of recreational activities: the 5000-acre state park of Falls Lake.
If you've driven around North Raleigh at any point in your life, you've certainly turned onto or crossed across a road with the name "Falls" in it. In fact, chances are high you passed several shopping centers or apartment complexes with that namesake and even heard a radio ad about some place where you could get a deal by turning off Falls of the Neuse Road. But unless you were born before 1978, you've never seen a manmade waterfall in the area, and to have witnessed one nature made, you'd have go to back another 250 years. In 1701, the famed explorer and historian John Lawson described a particular body of water 12 miles northeast of present day downtown Raleigh as "a large Creek, where lay mighty rocks, the Water making a strange noise, as if a great many Water-mills were going at once." These were the waterfalls of the Neuse River, an area about 500 feet long that dropped around 30 feet in elevation as water rushed over granite outcroppings. Lawson's audible descriptions also proved prophetic, as by 1760, there is a record of a mill here. Several mills and dams followed, including the classic 1899 granite dam that existed until the lake was formed 82 years later. So in short, the original waterfalls were flooded by dams almost as soon as colonists began settling the area, but with the manmade features still creating areas of rushing and falling water for the next quarter millennia, the name stuck! Then, in 1978, something familiar happened to a fast-moving river in the Triangle: people got tired of the downstream flooding. So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Falls Lake Dam just south of the old mill area, and when the water filled in, it effectively chopped off 23 miles of the Neuse River, which originally formed at the confluence of the Eno and Flat Rivers. The state then constructed seven access points at different areas around the lake, and in 1981 Falls Lake State Park was born.
The Hike Without a doubt, this park beckons to be enjoyed from the water, as evidenced by its four boat ramps. And thanks to some our friends Jordan and Luis, I've experienced the lightly lapping waves, warm summer rays and exploration of several lake fingers each with their own charm. During that excursion, Luis indulged my friend Adam Burke and I by locating a rope swing he'd seen on a previous trip. We didn't complete some of the gymnastic backflips we watched others perform, but we still had an amazing time.
In the spring of 2020, Sarah and I went back to the lake but with boots instead of flip flops. We located an MST junction with limited shoulder parking at N.C. Hwy 98, and we took two cars to avoid an out-and-back trek. I then found an area about seven miles north off Shaw Road that looked like it'd work for her parking spot. Side note: I was off by about three miles.
- Map Link
- Distance: 9.9 miles
- Rating: Moderate
- Time: 3.5 hours
The hike started off just as you'd expect on a spring North Carolina day - the air was crisp, the ground was slightly muddy and the sky threatened to rain. It is densely wooded in the first half mile, and then, after about 1.5 miles, the forest begins to clear as the lake comes into view. For most of this hike, in fact, the lake is just a hundred yards or so to your right, and the constant sight of water significantly adds to the experience. But there are some other treasures in this section, too.
Around 2.5 miles in, you'll pass by a pond that looks like it could have inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson and knobby trees and vines that may have appeared straight out of "The Nightmare Before Christmas." There's even an 1800s graveyard to add to the spookiness. But don't fret, as at mile three, you'll surely see and hear other visitors of the park as you enter the Rolling View access point. And boy does it live up to its name! Just past this area is my favorite of the hike, as the elevation increases and then drops more dramatically with the lake coming in and out of view. Some recent brush-clearing forest fires helped in this regard, but the real jewel are the beaches here. They are sandy, remote and peaceful, as the best spots you have to earn usually are.
These beaches made us wish we'd packed in lounge chairs
And yet the fun is only halfway over. The MST abuts a couple of horse farms as well as some private cabins as it winds its away alongside a lake finger over the next 4.5 miles. But the coolest part has to be the boardwalk. A popular fishing spot off Santee Road, there is a five-foot wide, 500-foot long wooden boardwalk with no railings that crosses one finger of the lake. Initially I couldn't tell if there was a bridge on the map, and considering we had already hiked two miles longer than I'd planned, Sarah wasn't particularly thrilled with the notion of hiking seven miles back to my car. Neither was I.
Thankfully, the boardwalk provided us safe passage to the last leg of the hike, and we ran across a nice stone marker indicating the car was less than a mile away. But I didn't fully relax until we turned off the trail to see her car was still in the spot where we left it and neither stolen nor towed. It was a successful end to an enchanting hike!
The mouth of the Neuse River, 240 miles away at Pamlico Sound, is the largest river mouth in the continental United States, measuring 6.5 miles across.
Whether after a boat ride or a trail hike, there's no better lunch tradition than Shorty's Famous Hot Dogs, a local favorite for over 100 years in nearby Wake Forest.