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5 North Carolina Hikes Guaranteed to Inspire Your Creative Mind

By Joe Miller | August 26, 2015 | Explore NC

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Got a complex problem you’re wrestling with?

Go for a walk.

Not to avoid dealing with it. Quite the opposite. A study out of Stanford University suggests that a person’s creative output can increase an average of 60% on a walk.

The study also suggested that it didn’t seem to matter where a subject walked — on a treadmill in a stuffy gym or on a high mountain trail. We’re sure you know what you’re doing, Stanford, but we think it does make a difference. Plus, other studies have shown a variety of benefits to spending time outside.

To play it safe, we’ve come up with five forested trails that we think should be especially helpful when it comes to jumpstarting your creative juices. Because it’s hard to think when oxygen is in short supply, or when you’re constantly checking for tree roots, we narrowed our suggestions to trails that won’t trip you up with rocks and tree roots, and won’t rob you of breath with steep climbs. These North Carolina hikes are meant to be enjoyed.

So, tell the boss you need to buckle down and focus. Then lace up your hiking shoes, grab your water bottle and tell her you’ll be back tomorrow.

Photo: Joe Miller. Salem Lake Trail.
Photo: Joe Miller. Salem Lake Trail.

Salem Lake Trail

  • Winston-Salem
  • 7 miles

This trail just east of downtown (near North Carolina A&T) rims its namesake lake, ducking in and out of coves, always keeping site of water (which adds a calming influence, also good for cogitating). There’s a spot of rolliness on the south side of the lake, pretty flat on the north. The natural surface trail is wide (to let the runners and bikers who use the trail pass comfortably) and foot-friendly. After taking a lap, should you feel the need to keep thinking, continue down the Salem Lake Greenway, which connects to the Strollway, which ends on downtown’s vibrant Fourth Street.

Image: NC Parks. Umstead
Image: NC Parks. Umstead

Bike & Bridle Trail, Umstead State Park

  • Raleigh
  • 13 miles

How is it that a 5,600-acre forest wound up smack-dab in the middle of the nation’s 46th largest metropolitan statistical area? That’s something to think about as you walk the 13 miles of bike and bridle trail that explore the park. True, Umstead has an additional 20 miles of hiking-only trail, but navigating the rocks and roots of these well-loved trails (1.2 million people visited Umstead in 2014) could keep you from solving the great issues of the day — not the least of which will be “How the heck do I get out of here?” after wandering deep into these urban woods.

Tip: To keep the oxygen flowing to the brain, enter from the neighborhood entrance off Old Reedy Creek Road: the two miles out to the cemetery are the flattest in the park.

Image: Joe Miller. McAlpine creek.

McAlpine Creek Park

  • Charlotte
  • 3.1 miles

Ironic that the 3.1-mile trail we suggest here is actually designed for speed. The McAlpine Creek Cross-Country Course is known in collegiate and high school distance running circles as one of the best cross-country courses in the state. But like a well-rounded scholar athlete, which distance runners tend to be, McAlpine also has its contemplative side. And should 3.1 miles cut short your thought process, you’ll find another four miles of paved greenway, which might just be the breakthrough trail you need.

Image: - Moses Cone Memorial Park
Image: – Moses Cone Memorial Park

Moses H. Cone Memorial Park

  • Blue Ridge Parkway, MP 294
  • 25 miles

Let’s say you’re really stymied, that you’ve got a problem that’s evolved from mere head scratching to smoke coming out of your ears. A problem that demands a really long walk and fresh air — fresh mountain air. A problem that only the extensive trail network at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway can help solve.

This 3,516-acre park is the former retreat of Greensboro Denim King Moses Cone, a man who no doubt found inspiration (denim leisure suits!) on the carriage trails of his beloved Flat Top Manor. The trail network extends from Bass Lake at the base of the mountain to a fire tower atop Flat Top Mountain, offering some of the most thought-provoking strolling around.

Image: Joe Miller, Piedmont Trail
Image: Joe Miller, Piedmont Trail

Piedmont Trail

  • Greensboro
  • 2.75 miles (5.25 out-and-back)

Frankly, any of the 50 miles of trail around Greensboro’s three watershed lakes north of town are good thinking trails, especially those designated for hiking only. A favorite, though is the Piedmont Trail. In part, that may be because it’s on the north side of the lakes (Lake Brandt, to be specific), which gets fewer visitors. It’s also pancake flat, which makes it ideal for runners and philosophers alike.

Starting from the trailhead off Strawberry Road (it’s a quarter mile or so down the Atlantic & Yadkin Greenway to the official trailhead), you begin through an open area covered in kudzu, then enter a cozy bottomland forest. Something about the mix of exposure and intimacy makes this a hike where it’s easy to let your mind drift and focus on life’s persistent problems.

[Topmost image: Shuterstock, Moses Cone Trail]