William B. Umstead State Park, northwest of Raleigh and sandwiched between two busy thoroughfares, exemplifies what the N.C. state parks system is all about. Here, close by the burgeoning cities of Raleigh, Durham and Cary, nature is preserved for the enjoyment of the people. In 2014, Umstead passed Fort Macon and Jockeys Ridge to become the most-visited park in the system, logging more than 1.29 million visits.
What’s the draw?
Unlike most others in the state, Umstead has no major geographical feature or landmark to recommend it – no lofty peak, majestic waterfall, sandy beach or cypress swamp. Instead, the park is centered on three man-made lakes and offers the simple pleasures of nature.
Reedy Creek Lake and Sycamore Lake cover 25 acres each; Big Lake spreads across 55 acres. Fishing is a popular activity at all three lakes, as well as along the banks of the streams that feed them; common varieties of fish include bass, bluegill and crappie. Boating is allowed on Big Lake, and from April through mid-October, you can rent a rowboat or canoe at the boathouse.
Over 13 miles of bridle trails wind their way through the most secluded areas of the park and Umstead is one of the few state parks providing trails for mountain bikers. Twenty miles of easy-to-moderate walking trails crisscross the park. Some paths feature trailside markers that describe major features. Others pass the last remnants of check dams built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, or by the last vestiges of the mills that once operated along the creeks.
Two shelters for group picnics and numerous tables and grills for individuals and families are available. For those interested in enjoying nature after dark, Umstead features tent and trailer camping; three group camps including mess hall, dining area, and washhouse; and primitive group camping. Rounding out activities is an exhibit hall where visitors can gain an appreciation for the natural and cultural history of the land. The hall includes oral histories of former residents, an overview of the park’s development and a replica of one of the gristmills found in the park.
The park had its origins back in the midst of the Great Depression, when federal and state agencies worked together to purchase a little more than 5,000 acres of overworked, low-yielding farmland to show how sub-marginal land could be converted into a recreational area. The Crabtree Creek Recreation Demonstration Area eventually became Crabtree Creek State Park. In 1955, it was renamed the William B. Umstead State Park to honor the late governor, a staunch advocate of early conservation efforts. (Until the mid-1960s, the park was segregated, with the northern end of the park open to whites and the southern portion open to blacks.)
Entrance to the park is free; modest fees are charged for renting a canoe or rowboat. N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission permits are needed for fishing; reservations are required for overnight camping. Although trails within the park connect the north and south sections, there is no road for vehicles connecting the two.
The park has two entrances: at Crabtree Creek on the north side off U. S. 70 and Reedy Creek, on the south side, off Interstate 40. May through August, Crabtree Creek is open 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; April, September and October, hours are 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Reedy Creek opens one-half hour later.
The N.C. State Parks centennial celebration at Umstead is scheduled for Sept. 17 and will focus on environmental education activities. Info: 919-571-4170 or www.ncparks.gov.
The capital city boasts the N.C. Museum of History (www.ncmuseumofhistory.org) and the N. C. Museum of Natural Sciences (www.naturalsciences.org) – side-by-side attractions adjacent to the state capitol grounds. Hours are the same at both museums – 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5p.m. Sunday – and admission is free.
Mordecai Historic Park includes the Andrew Johnson house, the simple, two-story frame structure where the future president was born. A highlight of Pullen Park, one of the nation’s oldest public parks, is the century-old Dentzel carousel. For information about Mordecai or Pullen: www.raleighnc.gov/parks.
For a true step back in time, try the Mecca Restaurant (www.mecca-restaurant.com), a favorite place for Raleigh politicians to eat since the days of the Great Depression.