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5 Best Running Trails in Raleigh, NC

Raleigh, NC is consistently listed as one of the best places to live in America and the southeast. For a city a few hours from the mountains, my hometown has awesome running trails. It’s not always easy to find dirt trails in large-ish cities, but Raleigh doesn’t disappoint. The best running trails in Raleigh, NC are all pretty tame (no crazy climbs this far from the Smokies). They’re also often near paved paths if you forget your trail shoes or need to sprinkle in some speedwork.

From Umstead State Park (home of the Umstead 100) to the various lakes and greenways around the city, Raleigh has some of the best trail running I’ve seen in a city of its size.

Ready to get started?

Here are my 5 best running trails in Raleigh (with some honorable mention paved routes at the end).

5. Company Mill trail (5.8 miles), Umstead State Park

  • Where to park: Harrison Avenue park entrance
  • Link to a park map
  • Terrain: easy-moderate. Easy hills with a few short, steep climbs.
  • 636 feet of elevation gain (AllTrails link)

Company Mill trail is a moderate 5.8 mile loop trail in Umstead State Park. It’s easy to get to and has plentiful parking just off the highway (but is still quiet). It crosses gentle streams with plenty of tree cover, and you’ll likely see others using it.

Per usual in the southeast, the trail is home to plenty of rocks and roots, so trail shoes are recommended. And while Company Mill trail is super easy to follow, it twice crosses bridle trails. Umstead is a large park; use these bridle trails to get deeper into it.

I’ve seen all sorts of wildlife on this trail, and while I think it’s one of the best running trails in the area for our leashed furry friends, make sure you keep an eye out for copperheads.

I give the Company Mill trail five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for its medium length, exciting terrain, and natural beauty. Plus, it’s quite easy to get to and you’ll feel safe throughout your run.

4. Lake Johnson Nature Park trail (4.2 miles)

  • Where to park: Lake Dam Road parking lot (easy side of lake) or Avent Ferry Road boathouse
  • Link to a park map
  • Terrain: easy-moderate. Easy hills with a few short, steep climbs.
  • 636 feet of elevation gain (AllTrails link)

At Lake Johnson, the east side of the lake has a loop, and the west side has a loop. Both of these loops overlap at the pedestrian bridge running parallel to Avent Ferry Road. So, there are basically three loop options: the east side of the lake (east of Avent Ferry Road), the west side of the lake, or the entire lake loop. The pedestrian bridge also helps form a sort of figure-eight course.

Looking at a map might help make sense of this…tap here to see the entire 4.2 mile loop.

The east side of Lake Johnson can be run totally paved, but where the hills begin, you’ll see plenty of trail offshoots. Half of this loop is extremely hilly and has a troublesome reputation southwest Raleigh runners.

The loop on the west side of the lake is shorter, but entirely trail. If you park at the boathouse on Avent Ferry Road, you’ll cross the road for access. Half of this course is totally flat, soft, and straight. It’s a fun place to do speedwork with a nice pine needle and dirt landing. The other half is quite hilly with a few stream crossings and nice views of the lake.

I give Lake Johnson five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ because I get to run basically the entire shore of a big lake. It has various terrain and a couple nice places to soak in morning lake views.

As you can see on the map, it has a lot of trail offshoots to explore that reach into surrounding neighborhoods. If you feel lost, just head toward the lake, find some pavement, and locate a map.

3. Sycamore Trail (7.2 miles), Umstead State Park

  • Where to park: at the end of Umstead Parkway off of the Highway 70 park entrance
  • Link to a park map
  • Terrain: easy-moderate
  • 610 feet of elevation gain (AllTrails link)

Sycamore Trail is a gentle 7.2 mile loop trail in Umstead State Park. You have to drive deeper into the park on gravel roads to reach Sycamore, but it’s well worth the effort. This park map will help.

Just like Company Mill (#5 on this list), Sycamore Trail is a shady, well-maintained, gentle trail. Very popular for locals to run and hike!

Being in the city (Raleigh is so fortunate to have this park), views and scenery in Umstead aren’t what you’ll get in the mountains, but the closeness of nature is well-worth spending time here.

I give the Sycamore Trail five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for its decent length, being a loop course, and ease of access for those close to the north side of Umstead State Park.

2. Falls Lake Trail (60 miles), Wake Forest – Durham, North Carolina

  • Where to park: lots of parking along the 24 segments, but I prefer Falls Lake Dam
  • Link to a park map
  • Terrain: easy-moderate
  • Unknown elevation gain/loss over the 60 miles, but the trail is gentle.

When people talk about running trails near Raleigh, the 5,500+ acres of Umstead State Park are mentioned most. With its many popular trails and ample bridle path, it’s no wonder. However, just north of Raleigh is Falls Lake State Recreation Area.

Falls Lake is a massive recreation area with a lot of cool trails, but the Falls Lake Trail, part of the 1,175 mile Mountains to Sea Trail, runs for 60 miles in one direction on the south shore of the lake. Most people do sections of this trail (obviously), but it’s incredible that this metropolitan area has a 60 mile continuous hiking/running trail.

The trail runs from Penny’s Bend in Durham County to the Falls Lake Dam in Wake Forest (just north of Raleigh). The 60 mile trail is broken into 24 sections, each with some parking at a trailhead. My favorite place to park is at Falls Lake Dam, but AllTrails has plenty of info on the other segments of the trail.

If you park at Falls Lake Dam, you’d head north along the Mountains to Sea Trail (here called Falls Lake Trail), but you could also take it south on some wonderful, mostly flat, paved greenway that is the Neuse River Greenway (also part of the Mountains to Sea Trail, just heading the other direction). The Neuse River Greenway runs for a scenic 33 miles away from the dam to the town of Clayton, a favorite of mine for paved running. It’s wide and flat with very few road crossings.

For more info on the awesome Mountains to Sea Trail, check out their website here.

Falls Lake Trail gets an obvious 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for being Raleigh, NC’s longest singletrack, continuous running trail.

1. Loblolly Trail (6.4 miles), Umstead State Park

The Loblolly Trail is named for the towering loblolly pine trees that pour pollen onto Raleigh every spring, and it’s my personal favorite running trail in Raleigh (maybe because it’s the first place I ran trails when I moved to Raleigh!). Loblolly is accessible from the same parking lot as the aforementioned Company Mill loop trail, so if you’re looking for a higher mileage run or hike, this parking lot will make the transition between the two very easy.

Loblolly (like a lot of trails in Umstead State Park) crosses bridle trails a couple times; this makes it easy to explore the rest of the park with the rolling gravel hills designed for gravel bikes, horses, and Park Ranger access.

Just over 10 kilometers, this is a fun out-and-back trail to race, or you can follow it forward into Schneck Forest. With some clever planning and utilizing the bridle trails, you can also easily turn this trail into a loop. Tap here to check out a park map and plan your run!

Loblolly gets five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ for being a popular trail with easy parking and lots of opportunity to explore the park further.

Some Honorable Paved Mentions

Look, we love trail running too. But sometimes convenience or training needs mean you have to hit the pavement (we certainly don’t mind the even footing and speedy feel of a paved run after a weekend hitting trails). Raleigh has one of the most connected and well-planned greenway systems in the country, so most of these places run right into the others. Here’s a link to the incredible Raleigh Greenway system map.

Here are the best places to run in Raleigh (paved):

  1. Neuse River Greenway (Raleigh Greenway Map): plenty of parking access, few road crossings, beautiful, and over 30 miles long!
  2. Shelley Lake loop: 2.2 mile loop in North Raleigh that has gentle terrain, nice lake views, resident bald eagles, and connection to the Raleigh Greenway system
  3. Art Museum Park: this 164 acre campus of walking, jogging, and biking trails is a popular spot for locals to hang out outdoors and features a plethora of commissioned works of art
  4. Lake Raleigh, NC State Centennial Campus: parking right at the lake can be tough (it’s a small lot and only open to the public outside of school hours), but Lake Raleigh sits right on the 12-mile-long paved Walnut Creek Greenway. If you park at Lake Johnson on Lake Dam road and head east on the greenway, this lake will be just over 2 miles from your car.
  5. American Tobacco Trail (map): this is a 22+ mile long rails to trails project running through Durham, Wake county, and Chatham county. A short drive from Raleigh is well worth this long, flat, smooth, and well-maintained trail. I prefer to park at South Point Mall in Durham, taking the trail south into a rural section of the path.

Happy running!

George
Georgehttps://pinetreepoet.com
George Callahan is the creator of Pine Tree Poet. He is an author of short fairy tales, fantasy stories, and magical adventures. He prefers mountains and pine trees to most other things, and usually takes his dog Cowboy along for the ride.

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