Johnston Mill Nature Preserve is like a “best-of” of hiking in the western Triangle. It’s got the requisite rocky creek: a 2-mile stretch of New Hope Creek penetrates this 296-acre preserve operated by the Triangle Land Conservancy; the 1.2-mile Robin’s Creek Trail traces a goodly portion of the waterway. It’s got a healthy sampling of mature bottomland forest, also accessed via Robin’s Trail. Maturing Piedmont oak-hickory forest dominates Johnston Mill’s higher reaches, while it boasts an impressive stand of stout beech trees, some more than 150 years old, that cling to a bluff on the preserve’s west side. There are meadows, especially welcome on a cold winter’s day when the sun is a welcome friend.

And, the preserve has history. Evidence of man in the lush New Hope Valley dates back to hunter-gatherer days, though the more evident signs of our presence only date to the 1700’s. You’ll find the remains of a pair of old gristmills along New Hope Creek and you’ll find crumbling stone chimneys and foundations scattered throughout. The range in hiking time — 1.5 to 3 hours — depends upon how taken you are by the preserve’s cornucopia of natural and human history.

The well-designed trail network exposes you to much of what the preserve has to offer. And the trails themselves are well-tended: you’ll find a climb or two to be sure (especially on the Beech Loop Trail), but the rocks and roots that conspire to trip you up elsewhere are largely missing at Johnston Mill.

Missing, too: the crowds. The preserve remains something of a hidden secret in the Triangle, making it especially attractive on busy fall and spring weekends.

More info: Triangle Land Conservancy

Maps: Downloadable here, also available at the trailhead.

Getting there from downtown Chapel Hill
Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 20 minutes from downtown Chapel Hill
Time to complete: 1.5 to 3 hours
Address: Mt. Sinai Road, 1 mile east of NC 86.
City: Orange County
State: N.C.
Zip: 27705
Latitude: 35 59.520
Longitude: 79 03.141