Lake Johnson’s hiking trail is in a city, so I don’t include a rating for Views and Landscape, like I do in other trail reports. Lake Johnson doesn’t quite compete with mountain hikes in these categories.
Photo at Lake Johnson Nature Park courtesy of Autumn Welles.
If you’re looking for a good hiking spot in Raleigh, Umstead State Park’s Company Mill and Loblolly trails are popular options. But did you know there’s a 3.5 mile hiking trail that goes around Lake Johnson in southwest Raleigh? It’s a lovely trail with awesome lake views and some decent elevation change.
Okay, the trail isn’t exactly a secret. But it’s also not heavily trafficked, and unless you’ve explored Lake Johnson’s trails thoroughly, you probably wouldn’t know there’s a 3.5 mile continuous trail.
I lived next to Lake Johnson for over 7 years and spent many afternoons there writing poetry on its shady trails, lounging in the pretty native meadow, and watching the sunset from the westward facing dam.
Next time you want to try a new hike, check out quiet and shady Lake Johnson. The lake’s path also connects to the Walnut Creek Trail, one of my favorite running paths in Raleigh.
Here’s how you can take a continuous, 3.5 mile hike at Lake Johnson…
- Bathrooms ✅
- Parking here (Google Maps | Apple Maps)
- Distance: 3.5 miles of continuous trail, add another 1.5-2 miles back to your car
- Blazes: not all marked/blazed. Brown blazes on first section. Trails are easy to follow.
Navigating Lake Johnson’s Hiking Trails
There’s a little planning needed to hike at Lake Johnson. The dirt hiking trails are secondary to the wonderful paved loop around the lake, so they’re not all very well marked. But it’s well worth thinking ahead. You’ll see herons, teeter along low lakeside cliffs, and catch a great view of the boathouse across the lake. Wildlife is abundant and Lake Johnson, and there’s a native meadow full of buzzing bees, in the warmer months.
This trail will take you along a ~3.5 mile wooded hike from your car. Luckily, though, you don’t need to retrace your steps all the way back 3.5 miles to your car. You actually have quite a few options to return to your car which I’ll list at the end of this guide.
Section One: Miles 0-0.25 from the parking lot to Highland Trail
The first section of our LJ hike starts when you park at the boathouse on Avent Ferry Road. Take note: there are multiple places to hike at Lake Johnson. For the longest possible stretch of just dirt trails, park at the boathouse right here (Google Maps | Apple Maps).
From the parking lot (after perhaps checking out the lake views from the large deck), head toward Avent Ferry Road. Be careful! There is a crosswalk to access the dirt trails, but cars often come fast around the corner here.
Cross Avent Ferry Road using the crosswalk. The paved path bends to the left before opening onto a very wide, very flat, dirt trail. This trail runs parallel to the hilly hiking trail we’re going to follow. If you skip Section 2 below and carry on straight, you’ll pick up at Section 3.
To begin Section 2, you’ll walk about 0.25 miles and take the well-marked Highland Trail on your right side.
Photos at Lake Johnson Nature Park courtesy of Autumn Welles.
Section Two: Miles 0.25-0.85, Highland Trail
After turning from the wide, flat lakeside trail, Highland Trail (marked with brown blazes) leads to a low ridge which gazes lazily into the lake below. Just a short walk along Highland Trail, you’ll cross a gravel path leading toward the lake. This is for nearby residents to access Lake Johnson, so carry on straight across. Immediately after crossing this access path, the trail splits in two. To the right, up and away from the lake, is another parking lot and nature center. If you want to add this to your hike, it’ll be about a quarter mile up, and a quarter mile down. Not bad, if you want to check it out.
But if you want to just continue along the Highland Trail, go left.
About a half mile into your hike on the Highland Trail, you’ll cross a small, pretty bridge over a dry creek. It’s a great spot for pictures, especially in the fall.
Only a couple minutes after crossing this bridge, you’ll reach a green trash can. Stay right! Heading left will take you back to the wide, flat lakeside trail, which runs parallel to Highland Trail, as I’ve mentioned.
After hiking for a total of ~0.85 miles (depending on how far your car is parked from the trailhead) on the Highland Trail, you’ll exit back onto the lakeside trail. Straight ahead you’ll see a wooden boardwalk/bridge. That’s where you’re headed!
Section 3: Miles .85-2.05, to Avent Ferry Road
Head over the boardwalk/bridge. It crosses a wetland at the top of Lake Johnson.
From here, the path is easy to follow. You’ll hike for a bit on an easy-going, up-and-down path which eventually drops steeply into a forest, away from the apartment buildings you’ll see. In this section you get fun elevation change, small cliffs, and a scenic overlook at mile 1.45. It’s easy to spot the trail leading up to this impressive overlook; it’s a hill leading to a solo bench above the lake.
The trail in this section is easy to follow, but there are a few offshoots. My advice? Stick to the main trail (it’s the most scenic) and always keep the lake on your left. This is a tough place to get lost. However, at mile 1.75 of your hike, there is an Eagle Scout Project bridge built in March of 2018. Immediatly after crossing this bridge (almost touching the bridge) is a trail on your right that leads very steeply to some extra trails above the lake. I still recommend to stick to the more scenic main trail, but these are fun to hike around if you’ve got extra time.
At about mile 2.05, you’ll spill onto Avent Ferry Road. Cross it and veer left, away from the parking lot, up an asphalt trail.
Section 4: Miles 2.05-3.5, from Avent Ferry Road to the finish
Again, veering left, hike up the short asphalt trail for about two minutes, maybe less. Right before you reach the bridge back to the boathouse (and your car–you can always cross the bridge here to finish your hike), take a right into the forest again. You’ll see the trail. Though it’s not marked, it’s well-used.
This is my favorite section of the Lake Johnson hike. You’ll cross streams, see waterfalls & wildlife, and catch some great lakeside panoramas. The trail is easy to follow, but there are quite a few connectors to the asphalt path that runs alongside this trail, just a short walk away. Again, keep the lake on your left.
At mile 2.5 you’ll arrive at a scenic overlook (though the one in Section 3 is much better). Head straight across this asphalt path and continue on the lakeside dirt trail for another mile, to the finish.
Flowers at Lake Johnson Nature Park courtesy of Autumn Welles.
Section 5: finish, return to your car
Now, this hike doesn’t end right back at your car (so I guess 3.5 miles is a bit misleading). You have a few options when you reach the end, where the lakeside trail flattens out and spills onto the asphalt trail.
- Option 1 (my recommendation): take a left where the trail ends, onto the asphalt path. It’s about 1.5 miles back to the boathouse and parking lot this way (giving you about 5 total miles for the day), but you’ll pass a pretty, quiet native meadow and Lake Johnson’s large dam. Also, the trail is totally flat and lined with towering pine trees.
- Option 2: turn around and head back to your car the way you came, about 1.7 miles to the parking lot back along this pretty trail. Just take a right onto the long bridge instead of going to Avent Ferry Road. This bridge leads directly to the parking lot.
- Option 3: take a right onto the asphalt trail and walk about 1.75 miles back to the boathouse on very hilly terrain.
So you either take a flat asphalt route toward the dam, the trail route you just came from, or a very hilly asphalt route. All three are beautiful and pretty easy walking (okay, option 3 is really hilly), but my favorite is option 1.
Why Lake Johnson Park?
I love all trails (especially local ones tucked around neighborhoods and freeways), so my ratings don’t mean that much. And while Lake Johnson’s hiking trails don’t get scored for Views or Landscape because it’s in a city, the trail network is a favorite of mine in Raleigh. It’s peaceful and shady and has great views.
I lived next to Lake Johnson for many years, so I am a bit biased.
Immersion is how well you feel wrapped in nature and far from concrete and plastic. LJ’s trails get 2.5/5 stars here ⭐⭐⭐ because you might hear some traffic and lawn mowers. You’re very close to the freeway, after all. But you know what? That makes Lake Johnson all the more appealing. There aren’t many dirt hiking trails–lakeside with turtles and herons and deer–so close to civilization. There will be many moments on the trail when all you can see is forest, which is a win in my book.
For water features, Lake Johnson’s hiking route gets 3/5 stars ⭐⭐⭐ because you spend the whole hike alongside a pretty lake, and there are some scenic moments above the water. However, we don’t get any waterfalls or strong creeks, and the lake can have some light trash in it. I’ve helped clean up hundreds of gallons of trash around Lake Johnson and the attached Walnut Creek, and the problem isn’t getting better, unfortunately.
Views and Landscape
It wouldn’t be fair to rate Lake Johnson in terms of Views and Landscape because it’s in a city (and how could it compare to my ratings for the Appalachian Trail or Alum Cave in the Smoky Mountains?), but you do get to hike along some low cliffs overlooking the lake. These trails also have moderate elevation change for being surrounded by freeways and residential areas. Lake Johnson gets a 5/5 for beauty and tranquility from me!
Out of all the parks in Raleigh, Lake Johnson is the one I’ve spent the most time at.
It’s where I’ve written many poems and read many pages in my favorite books.
And I know I’ll be visiting it for years to come.
Gear You’ll Need
This hike takes me a litle less than 2 hours to complete, hiking at a moderate place. If you’re taking photos or taking your time, a water bottle would be beneficial. You’re very close to civilization, though, so there’s no need for serious hiking gear. A good sun hat and pair of hiking shoes is all you really need. While there are some steep sections, I often wear my Teva hiking sandals. However, a good pair of trail shoes will give better traction on these climbs and descents.