It’s difficult to overstate the profound influence of Duke University on its hometown of Durham, North Carolina. Established in 1924, the university, which has a current enrollment of nearly 15,000, is the driving force behind business, development, and culture in Bull City.
But for outdoor enthusiasts looking for a natural escape from the urban landscape, Duke Forest might just be the most beloved aspect of the university’s offerings.
The 7,060-acre forest is primarily an outdoor lab for Duke University researchers studying soil conservation and water quality. But with more than 150,000 visitors each year, the designated trail system that weaves through dense stands of pine and hardwoods also draws adventure-loving types near the heart of Durham.
The majority of the “trails” in Duke Forest are actually crushed gravel roads open to foot traffic, mountain bikes, and the occasional official motorized vehicle. A thick layer of pine needles provides a cushion, creating quite a comfortable surface on which to stroll, roll, or run. The smaller network of single track trail connects the roads to points of interest into the small valleys cut by the many creeks and streams that flow through the forest.
Officially, the forest is actually divided into seven separate divisions, each of which has miles of gravel road and singletrack trail. To access any trail, look for a numbered gate (most also some roadside parking nearby). Initially, they’re easy to miss from the main road, but once you see one you’ll notice these gates throughout the forest.
The Duke Division, adjacent to the Duke University campus, is one of the most popular among hikers. A trail to the highest point in Duke Forest, the deceptively named Piney Mountain, is a one-mile stroll from Gate 21, directly across from Mt. Sanai Presbyterian Church. At the top, a loop singletrack trail descends quickly to the creek bed about 200 feet below. Take a left at the bottom, and the trails turns from amble to scramble over the rocky riverbank while the walls of the shallow valley block signs of civilization.
At an elevation of 450 feet, neither the view from the top of Piney Mountain nor the walk up to it will take your breath away. But the magic of this hike, as is the case throughout the forest, is the ability to so quickly travel from the downtown steel-and-concrete canyon to a lush forest brimming with rhododendron blooms, babbling streams, and song birds.
Just west of the Piney Mountain hike and the rest of the Duke Division is another popular area for recreational visitors: the Korstian Division. Access the Shepard Nature Trail, a one-mile loop of singletrack decorated with informational signs detailing some of the work done in the forest. Several paths and roads connect to the SNT, allowing for miles of trail running or forest strolling. Gates 5, 6, 7, and C, provide access to the trail.
The importance of “Leave No Trace” at Duke Forest is underscored by its primary purpose as living laboratory. Keeping dogs leashed and cleaned up after and staying only on designated paths is crucial in preventing damage to delicate experiments. Outside of a picnic pavilion, which rentable by contact the Duke Forest office, there are few amenities for hikers. Plan to bring plenty of water. Maps of the forest trails are available for sale on the Duke campus. Many of the gates also have a kiosk map a short ways into the trail. Snap a cell phone picture of it if you haven’t yet purchased your map.