Company Mill Trail (see related entry) may be Umstead State Park’s most popular trail but largely because of a lack of competition. From the park’s Harrison Avenue entrance off I-40, you have the Company Mill and Loblolly Trail. Loblolly, at 2.7 miles, is an exceptionally scenic trail, switchbacking through mature pines and hardwoods, but it’s out-and-back status is a turn-off to hikers who prefer a nice loop, a la Company Mill.

But from the park’s Glenwood Avenue/U.S. 70 entrance, options abound. There’s the 2.75-mile Sal’s Branch Trail behind the Visitors Center, the 0.6-mile Oak Rock Trail, the 1.25-mile Pott’s Branch Trail — and the 7.2-mile Sycamore Trail. Oak Rock and Pott’s Branch have coveted streamside face time, Sal’s Branch is a longer (but not too much longer) leg stretcher. With so many good options, it’s easy to see why the Sycamore Trail is truly 5,579-acre Umstead’s gem.

Starting from the parking lot, Sycamore discretely slips into the woods behind a large picnic shelter. It crosses Pott’s Branch, accompanies it for a short bit, then heads upland crossing a park road and leaving bustling Umstead behind. You’ll pass through an area of noticeably ancient oaks, often the sign of an old homestead, you’ll graze one of the park’s numerous cemeteries, another sign that what is now a beloved escape from civilization was once the heart thereof.

The trail becomes a lollipop loop a little over two miles in and switchbacks down to Sycamore Creek. One of the Triangle’s best hiking experience is to walk along Sycamore Creek just after — or better still, during — a good rain. Rain transforms this quiet creek in a feisty ribbon of whitewater. Sycamore Creek is your companion for more than a mile, before the trail parts ways, heads upland and circles back to the lollipop stick.

On Umstead’s busiest days, when eager hikers circle the parking lots waiting for a space, Sycamore Trail still offers the feel of a remote mountain escape.

More info: Umstead State Park

Maps: Downloadable map available here, map available at trailhead.

Getting there from downtown Raleigh

Difficulty: moderate
Distance: 20 minutes from downtown Raleigh
Time to complete: 3.5 – 4.5 hours
Address: 8801 Glenwood Ave.
City: Raleigh
State: North Carolina
Zip: 27617
Latitude: 35.8905,
Longitude: -78.7502