For more than 20 years, William B. Umstead State Parkhas hosted one of the Southeast’s premier ultra-distance trail races. Making use of the park’s 20-plus miles of naturally diverse and forgiving trails, the race has been the launching pad for scores of runners looking to push themselves in the world of ultra running.
Organizers and volunteers play a big role in the popularity of the race, but the park’s trail system is a star of the show as well. Mild elevation changes, serene lake views, and miles of wilderness—as well as the peace that comes with losing yourself in it—draw trail runners and hikers to Umstead throughout the year.
The park is divided into two sections: Crabtree Creek, located generally to the north, and Reedy Creek to the south. While there are no barriers between the two contiguous sections and footpaths connect both, there are no drivable roads between the two entrances. For most hikers, this means exploring one part of the park or the other on a given day.
Reedy Creek Entrance
Directly off of I-40 (Exit 287), the Reedy Creek entrance is the starting point for trails in the southwest section of Umstead. Picnic facilities, bathrooms, water, and ample parking are all located just past the gate.
The Company Mill trail, a favorite training route for local runners, is a 5.8-mile loop of well shaded, easy-to-navigate trail. Alluding to the parks past, the Company Mill Trail is named for the grist mill that once operated near where the southern part of the loop passes. There are dozens of similar points of interest throughout the park, all offerings a small glimpse into what life was like for the early settlers who made the area home in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
For extra mileage, Company Mill connects to the multi-use Reedy Creek and Cedar Ridge Trails. Adding these effectively doubles or triples the distance and includes some of the most remote parts of the park.
Crabtree Creek Entrance
The access gate to the Crabtree Creek, or northern, section of Umstead is directly off highway 70, about 12 miles southeast of Durham. This entrance has the same amenities as its southern neighbor, plus the park’s visitor center and a boathouse. The park rents canoes on weekends from the boat pier, which is also a favorite spot to photograph Big Lake.
Much of that infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Core in the 1930s. The cabins and buildings are under constant maintenance by the park, allowing visitors to see their handiwork up close.
The longest hiking path the Crabtree Entrance is the Sycamore Trail. Sort of a lollipop, the 7.2-mile trail heads south and then makes a loop in the center of the park. Sals Branch Trail is another favorite, offering great views of the lake on the eastern edge of its 2.8-mile loop.