Thursday, March 26, 2020

American Tobacco Trail

  • Date Biked: March 14, 2020
  • Posted length: 22.6
  • Total miles Tracked: 23.36
  • Type of Trail: Rail trail, over half is paved
  • Conveniences: New Hope Church Trail Head has water fountains, bathrooms, picnic shelters, a bike repair station and a huge parking lot. There are plenty of other trail heads and access points, but New Hope Church sets a pretty high standard. 
  • Best Features: Well maintained, easy to get to, mostly flat and very wide, plenty of shade, good views in places
  • Worst Features: Can be very crowded, and new housing developments are constantly under construction, ruining the view
  • Wildlife spotted: On this particular ride, just some turtles. But, deer, herons, and wild turkeys aren't difficult to spot. Also, once it's warmer, snakes. Like, so, so many snakes.* 
  • Vegetation: Pine, cedars, hardwoods, red buds, jasmine
  • Associated Website: 
  • Primary Author: James

The fact this blog exists at all is probably due to the American Tobacco Trail. Nine years ago, Cheryl and I were couch potatoes. Two mile hikes were ambitious projects. We had bikes, but a six mile ride involved frequent breaks and left us sore. The idea that we'd one day be biking sixty plus miles in a day was pure fantasy. 

When we were biking our six mile trips, we were mainly biking on the American Tobacco Trail. When we started, the ATT was still fragmented. There was no bridge over I-40 and gaps in the trail south of 40. There were few official parking lots, and not much in the way of facilities like bathrooms or water fountains. No trail of any significant length connected with the ATT either. Our six mile trips couldn't have been extended much further if we'd wanted to.

New Hope Trail Head

Fortunately, as our stamina improved, the ATT improved. The missing gaps got filled in, the bridge over 40 was finally opened, great trailheads, like the one on New Hope Road were built. Last year, the White Oak Creek Greenway finally linked up with the ATT, and now it's possible to ride from downtown Durham all the way to Clayton on a network of trails that form one of the longest continuous segments of the East Coast Greenway, an ambitious project that will one day allow people to ride on greenways all the way from Maine to Florida. 

Mile zero

We ride segments of the ATT multiple times each month, but it had been a long time since we actually rode the whole length from mile zero to the end. At 22 miles from downtown Durham to Apex, the ATT is the second longest greenway in North Carolina. In character, it's also the most diverse, starting within sight of Durham's city center, winding past shopping centers and malls, then through seemingly endless miles of suburban development before finally reaching farmland and forests. Along the way, you're reminded constantly of the area's history. The straight, flat grades leave no doubt you're on an old rail bed. You pass old rail markers and some of the larger bridges stand on former railroad trestles. If you keep your eyes open, just off the trail you'll find old tobacco barns and see the remnants of roads.

To be blunt, the ATT isn't the most scenic trail. In some ways, it's a victim of its own success. When we first started riding the trail, everything south of Herndon Park was mostly forest. Now, large housing developments full of McMansions have replaced long stretches of peaceful woods. As the trail heads and access have improved, more people make use of the trail, which is great. I love to see people outside taking advantage of greenways. Still, there are segments of the trails that turn into rolling road blocks of families out for walks with dogs and strollers and kids on scooters. We sometimes still have the trail mostly too ourselves in very cold or very hot weather, but in nice weather on a weekend, we stay away due to the crowds. It's the Yogi Berra quote come to life: "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

The bridge over 40

Test your balance just south of Herndon Park!

Chain link fence.

Still, if you're hardcore and don't mind biking in hot weather, the ATT is probably the best trail you can ride when the thermometer starts getting above 90 degrees. You're never too many miles from a water fountain, and despite all the development most of the trail has plenty of shade. Also, south of the New Hope Trailhead, the surface is compacted fine gravel instead of pavement, which makes for a cooler ride.

Junction with White Oak Greenway. Turn here  to reach Cary, Raleigh, and one day, Florida!

Tunnel under Highway 64

End of the trail!

Also, don't let my talk of crowding and overdevelopment steer you away from what is still a really great ride. There are still a few pristine stretches of forest, and about a mile from the Apex end the trail goes across beautiful wetlands full of cattails. There are wildflowers all along the way, and on some of the long, straight, flat sections you can go into a zenlike oneness with the trail, just riding toward the vanishing point. It's well worth the journey.

During warmer weather, you'll likely spot herons through here.

Chase the vanishing point! 

* Seriously, something about this greenway is a snake magnet. Mostly black snakes on the gravel, but copperheads are fairly common on the paved sections, especially in the evenings during the spring. And not in the middle of nowhere like you'd expect. There's a two mile section between Massey Chapel Road and Scott King Road that's pretty heavily trafficked and we've seen multiple copperheads here on the same ride. That said, don't let a few venomous reptiles scare you away. They won't bother you if you don't bother them.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

McAffe Knob and Tinker Creek Greenway

  • Dates we visited: February 7, 2020
  • Posted length: 7.8
  • Total miles Hiked: 9.92
  • Type of Trail: Hiking
  • Conveniences: Parking lot
  • Best Features: Stunning views
  • Worst Features: Not a gripe, but know this is fairly strenuous
  • Wildlife spotted: None (too cold!)
  • Vegetation: Galax, Mountain Laurel, Spotted Wintergreen
  • Associated Website: Nothing official, but it's part of the Appalachian Trail. 
  • Primary Author: James

We hiked to McAfee Knob on a day with highs forecast in the 40s. But, most of the hike runs very close to the mountain ridge, and winds were fierce at 25 miles per hour, making this one of the coldest hikes we've ever tackled. There's more photos from the beginning of the hike, because by the end our gloved fingers were too cold and still to operate our cameras!

White blaze of the AT

Despite the cold, we've no regrets about making this hike. The views are spectacular, and while it's a strenuous hike, it's not unbearably so. The nearest parking lot is large with plenty of signage. Be warned that you have to cross a road with blind curves in each direction. After that, you head more or less straight up several hundred feet until you reach the ridge of the mountain. Most of the remaining hike will keep you running along this ridge or in sight of it, so the elevation changes really aren't bad for most of the middle section of the hike.

A brief moment of sunshine during the hike

There are two primary trails leading to the final section that heads up to McAfee Knob. One is the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the other is an old fire road. We hiked on the AT, expecting this to have the best scenery, but it's so rocky and rooty that we spent most of the hike looking at our feet. There were lots of small creeks to hop across, and if you're looking for an actual hiking experience across challenging terrain it's definitely the route to take.

Snow flurries on Galax

Once the AT and the fire road converge again after about three miles, you start heading up toward McAfee Knob. This is a fairly gradual climb and will take you past several large boulders until you reach the small side trail that takes you out onto the Knob itself.

Remember those twenty five mile per hour winds? Being on the Knob itself was like being in a wind tunnel. It was blowing snow and pushing us so hard we could barely stand up. Hopefully you won't make the trip under the same challenges, because the view is amazing. You're only a few miles from Roanoke, but looking west toward scenic valleys and further along the AT. Given that the snowy wind felt like needles, it was literally breathtaking.

Not trying to pose dramatically - bracing against the wind gusts!

Coming back down, we decided to take the fire road, not expecting much of it. It turned out to have great views down both sides of the ridge and numerous large rock formations. And, since it's a smooth, fairly level surface, you can actually look at your surroundings instead of where you're placing your feet.

But wait! There's more!

While we were in the area, the weather greatly improved on Sunday morning, and our hotel was less than a mile from the Tinker Creek Greenway. We popped over to it and found it to be delightful. After a short walk through a field you enter a an evergreen forest and walk along gentle hills by the creek. The mossy ground gives the whole walk a fairy tale feel. So, if you're in Roanoke to hike McAfee Knob, throw this walk in as well!


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Brumley North

  • Dates we visited: Various dates in January & February
  • Posted length: Multiple trail options, 2.9 miles total
  • Total miles tracked: Varied, see below
  • Type of Trail: Dirt hiking trail
  • Conveniences:  Parking
  • Best Features:  Well-marked trails, varied terrain in a small area
  • Worst Features: No bathrooms or water
  • Wildlife spotted: Ducks, rabbits, and occasionally deer
  • Vegetation: Daffodils, hardwoods, pines, cedars 
  • Associated Website:
  • Primary Author: James

Most of these blog posts try to capture a single visit, but Brumley North is worth a mention because it's a site we go to repeatedly to get in short hikes after Cheryl gets off from work. In January and early February, when the sun sets before 6, Brumley North is a convenient destination to get to a little after 5:00 and still work in a hike of a mile or two.

Note that there are two Brumley Forest Nature preserve parking lots. Brumley North is the one off Highway 10. The parking lot isn't gated, so even though the preserve closes at sunset, you don't have to deal with the paranoia about getting locked in if your hike runs a little long. Which is great, since Brumley has a couple of good places to watch sunsets.

There's a site map at the parking lot showing the various trails. Most are under a mile but can be linked together. Nearly every trail makes a loop that intersects with other loops. It's easy to adjust the length of your hike as needed, adding on another mile or half mile if you've got the daylight. The trails are plainly marked. Some follow old farm roads, while others just meander through the trees.


Brumley used to be a working farm, and there's evidence of its previous life scattered throughout the preserve. February is a prime time for daffodils that mark the sites of now vanished structures. When Cheryl and I spot them blooming in the woods, we know that if we start poking around we'll find rock foundations or maybe the remnants of a tin roof. 

For a fairly small hiking area, Brumley North has a nice variety of scenery. There are open, grassy fields, creeks and ponds, forests, wetlands, and some of the trails take you along side an active railroad line. You can hike here three times in a week and get a different experience each time. You should definitely check it out if you're in the area! 


Thursday, February 20, 2020

Ayr Mount

  • Date we visited: 1/26/2020
  • Posted length: 1 mile
  • Total miles Walked: 1.45 miles
  • Type of Trail:  Walking path/crush
  • Conveniences:  Parking
  • Best Features:  River views, sweeping landscapes, benches, history
  • Worst Features:  gates close early, no bathrooms
  • Wildlife spotted:  None at this visit.
  • Vegetation:  Fern, crocus, daffodils, pine, cedar, native hardwoods
  • Associated Website:

On a sunny Sunday afternoon we went to Ayr Mount and walked the Poet’s walk, a 1 mile loop around the property. While tours of the house are only offered certian times throughout the year, the grounds are available for anyone to enjoy without an entry fee. The Poet’s walk is one of Hillsborough's hidden gems.

The parking lot is generous and there were many people out walking the grounds. We headed to the right of the house past the private cemetery. There's a small seating area and picnic tables for folks to enjoy the grounds, then the trail drops down, heading towards the river. Just before you enter the woods, you have the option to cut over towards the pond

The trail is lined with fences made from fallen branches.

While many people utilize the poet’s walk for exercise, there are numerous places to sit and contemplate your surroundings.

You can look across the river and see one of the trails at the Historic Occoneechee Speedway.  There are plans to connect the two properties in the future as well.

Along the path there were ferns, squill and crocus popping out of the ground.  Daffodils, scammed by the unseasonably warm January, were also beginning to sprout.

As you leave the river and exit the woods, the pond comes into view.

During the hot summer months, they place a cooler of water for those on the Poet’s walk.

As we looped back to the house, you can see the depression from the old trading path, and a Little Free Library.  If only we had some books to add!

The Poet’s Walk at Ayr Mount is the perfect length for a quick walk.  But don’t forget to take in the serenity and the beauty that this property has.  Take a moment and sit on one of the benches and listen to the Eno bubble by, or the wind slip though the willows.