Camping in the City: An Umstead State Park Adventure

Some adventures involve traveling to the remote parts of the world and witnessing nature’s profound majestic beauty in isolation, but there are other trips where such luxuries cannot be found. Instead of isolation, you find yourself landlocked by highways and shaded by concrete forests. Fortunately, even in these situations it is still possible to seek escape from the day-to-day hustle and bustle of the city, or at least it is possible in Raleigh.

Raleigh is nicknamed the City of Oaks for a reason and it is in large part due to the countless trees that can be found throughout the city and numerous greenspaces that are available (such as Johnson Lake and Lake Crabtree to name my two favorite). But, there’s more than just simple day parks inside the city limits of Raleigh there is also Umstead State Park. Umstead is bordered by interstate 40 and 70 with the RDU airport next door, but it offers over 22 miles of hiking trails, 13 miles of combined horse, hiker, and cyclist trail use, and several man-made lakes for fishing. It is truly an oasis within the City of Oaks.

A view of Sal’s Branch hiking tail

It was mid-April when Michelle and I decided to camp at Umstead; we had just returned from my ACS trip to San Francisco and were both needing an escape from the rigors of reality. The problem was that neither of us wanted to drive a couple of hours to escape the city and arrive at the campground late in the night (the chemistry program has a Friday evening seminar that doesn’t end until 5pm. This results in a stressful rush home through rush-hour traffic and a late arrival to any weekend destination). We consulted the Google and decided that our best option was a weekend at Umstead State Park; the Adventure-Mobile was quickly loaded!

When we loaded the car the sun was shining and the skies were blue, but there were dark clouds looming on the horizon as we rushed to our campsite. Once we arrived we immediately began our tent in a race against the approaching clouds and barely managed to secure the rain-fly before the rain began to fall. Unfortunately, I still had to stake the tent down in the rain and as soon as I finished staking the tent so did the rain. We would be plagued by off-on rain throughout the weekend. Once the rain stopped we started a campfire and were preparing dinner when the State Ranger stopped by our campsite to say hello. Typically, we let Athena wonder around our site off-leash since she doesn’t wander very far (and have never had anyone comment about it), but this State Ranger was a rule enforcer and told us to keep her on a leash. The poor puppy’s freedom was revoked.

Athena wasted no time finding dirt to roll in during her few moments of freedom!

That night instead of falling asleep to the sounds of crickets, frogs, and the wind in the trees, we fell asleep to jet-engines as airplanes took off from RDU. It was a strangely soothing sound. Then sometime in the middle of the night it started raining again, but we had successfully and correctly pitched the tent so no rain-water made it inside; however, we awoke to find a giant puddle of water! We had forgotten to lock the hose valve of our Camelpaks and the packs had depressed the bite valve causing water to leak everywhere! The lesson learned here is that it doesn’t matter if you can keep rainwater out if you dump water inside your tent.

After a slow lazy morning consisting of hobo breakfast pies and campfire coffee we decided to hike the Sycamore trail (a seven mile trail). This trail would be one of our longest hikes and would help condition us for out west trip later this year. We decided to shorten the trail and only hiked five miles (Athena was very grateful as even five miles left her exhausted).

Campfire coffee and kisses!

The Sycamore trail presented some beautiful views of the RDU Forest as it started atop of a hill, that then went down and followed a small river bed. We even found a small side trail that ran next to the river back to a man-made dam with a small fishing pool that was a great gathering place for fish, fisherman, and snakes. While exploring the surrounding rocks we saw four different snakes swimming in this pool (one confirmed water snake, harmless, and the other three are unidentified). At one point, one of the snakes started swimming towards a fisherman and he casually whacked it with the tip of his rod causing the snake to coil up and play dead. The current then took this snake downstream where a small fish bumped it; the snake proceeded to uncoil and darted straight at the fish! It was quite a site to see.


The view from above with Michelle, Athena and the fishermen standing by the pool of water

After our hike it was back to the campsite to prepare dinner and hide in the tent from another quick shower. The on-off rain all weekend soaked all of the available kindling creating a challenging situation for starting fires. A challenge so tough that it resulted in the loss of my ‘man-card’ and Michelle was the fire starter for the entire weekend. My inability to start a fire even resulted in the loss of my privilege to ridicule the neighboring college students who had forgotten to bring matches, lighters, or anything essential to creating fire. Michelle never failed to remind me of my failures.

That night it started raining again and never stopped (well at least not until Wednesday). This meant we would have to tear-down camp in a downpour creating a new challenge: How to keep our stuff dry? The simple answer is that your gear doesn’t stay dry. We started by packing everything inside the tent and then quickly transferring it to the car. This kept most of the small things dry, but we still had a standing tent. There was no stopping the tent from getting completely soaked once the rain-fly was taken off. Our solution was to stuff it into a garbage bag and then hang it up on our porch for the following week!

Our back porch became a forest of drying camping gear for the following week!

Our adventure to Umstead may not have involved isolation or grand mountains and it didn’t even escape the sounds of Raleigh as each night the planes of RDU sang us to sleep with their giant jet engines. This adventure didn’t even involve driving outside of Raleigh, but the beautiful, universal truth about the woods is that it doesn’t matter where they are located. Nature anywhere has the power to wash away your stress and worries.

Hey there Mr. Toad. Whatcha doin?

This simple truth is why it’s so important for all of us to visit our local State Parks as well as the grand locations. It’s also why it we need to voice our passion for hidden treasures of greenspaces within the city, such as Umstead, which is currently in danger of being re-purposed by RDU into new airport property. Luckily, the efforts of various groups across the Triangle (such as TORC and the Umstead Coalition) have successfully advocated for Wake County and RDU to consider a Trail Center instead of the initially proposed expansion (hotels, parking, etc.).

The future of Umstead and Lake Crabtree County Park are currently unknown as RDU is still waiting on Wake County’s trail center report before making a decision. If you are interested in advocating for Umstead State Park and Lake Crabtree County Park or learning more about this issue, please visit the RDU Forest website (

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What hidden trails or campsites have you visited lately? Tell me about them in the comments below.

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Here are a few more of my favorite pictures from the trip!


Written in response to:

Tuesday Photo Challenge: Weather

Daily Prompt: Triumph


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