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5 Quick Holiday Hiking Escapes in the North Carolina Triangle

By Joe Miller | November 26, 2014 | Explore NC

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Let’s face it, sometimes you need a holiday escape… from the holidays. But with limited time on our schedules, there’s no way we can manage a full-fledged week of outdoor adventures.

So how about a short trip? A brief escape? If you live in the Triangle, you really don’t have to go far to explore nature and get some exercise in the mean time.

If you’re a coastal North Carolinian, or visiting the Coast during the holidays, you can follow my guide here.

Swift Creek Bluffs, Cary

Talk about a big escape in a tiny space! This Triangle Land Conservancy property sits on 23 acres spread along a half mile stretch of Swift Creek. Surrounded by Cary, the property is insulated north of Swift Creek by forested wetlands and to the south by the 100-foot bluff that earns the property its ecological distinction. The bluffs are home to towering beech trees, some more than 100 years old, that help insulate the property and give harried visitors a sense of their place in the universe. There’s no better escapist bang for the acreage in the Triangle.

Johnston Mill Nature Preserve, Chapel Hill

Johnston Mill is no secret among the west Triangle crowd, despite its inconspicuous perch along New Hope Creek north of Chapel Hill and southwest of Durham. Within 15 minutes of both locales, this 296-acre retreat offers several forms of escape: in a mature bottomland forest, beneath towering beech trees, in Sound-of-Music-inspiring meadows. The 3.5 miles of trail will get you to all of it, but you needn’t hike more than a quarter mile to reap the calming benefits of the preserve. Another plus: the natural surface trail is some of the most foot-friendly around, the smooth path offering thoughtful retreat minus the tripping.

Image: Joe Miller – Wilkerson Nature Preserve

Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD Nature Park, Raleigh

Raleigh’s first designated nature preserve wasn’t the vision of city planners, but rather Dr. Wilkerson, who left the city 157 acres along Falls Lake in 2006. Because the preserve is relatively new, it has yet to be discovered; thus, the three loop trails that combine for two miles of hiking are rarely crowded. And they offer diverse experiences: the half-mile Pond Trail spends most of its time in the company of an old farm pond; the Epps Forest Loop trail, at two-thirds of a mile, explores an oak-hickory forest; and the mile-long Hidden Rocks Trail treats explorers to impressive rock outcrops. If you decide you’re up for a longer escape, the preserve connects to a stretch of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that runs from Clayton in Johnston County to near Hillsborough in Orange County. Escape for two hours or the remainder of the holiday season.

West Point on the Eno City Park, Durham

Stroll along the mile-long millpond, hike a two-mile stretch of trail through mature, riparian woods, explore the short trails that loop through the Piedmont woods that engulf the park. Not up for hiking? A grassy meadow occupies the center of the park, perfect for unwinding with a Frisbee or catching some unobstructed rays on a sunny December day. Or maybe you’d like to retreat to simpler times: the working mill, which dates to 1778, and other restored structures in the park take you back to a time when the general store, the blacksmith shop, the cotton gin, and the saw mill — not the mega mall — dominated daily life.

Clemmons Educational State Forest, Clayton

For escape, it’s hard to beat a place where the trees and the rocks talk to you. This educational state forest on the east side of the Triangle is an especially great place to take kids, what with all the chatty, inanimate objects. But it’s also a gorgeous piece of land, whose rock outcrops and waterfalls belie its location on the cusp of the coastal plain. Though it opened in 1976 as the state’s first educational forest and has great hiking, it remains off the local radar, making a visit a personal — not to mention educational — experience.

What should you take on a short escape? Keep the list like the escape: short and simple. Find a short list of what to take on your short escape at