There are lots of wonderful trails for vigorous hiking or biking in Orange County. Occoneechee Mountain, Duke Forest and the Pumpkin Trail in the Carolina North forest, among many others, all are great for exercise and will get your heart pumping and your quads straining.
But what if you just want to commune more peacefully with nature or just stroll slowly through bucolic surroundings? What if you just want a quiet place away from traffic where you can go for a pleasant, calming walk in the woods?
Or what if, like me, generally acknowledged as the world’s slowest runner, you want to go for a jog where there are no cars, no crowds and — most importantly — very few quad-straining uphills?
Fortunately, Orange County has those, too.
When I go out for my morning run, my preferred route for my easy jog is along the Bolin Creek Greenway. Just north of Chapel Hill’s downtown, it’s a 10-foot-wide paved trail that runs from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Bolinwood Drive all the way to the Community Center Park off Estes Drive.
Because it’s so close to downtown, this is a trail used by everybody — slow joggers like me, fast runners like the high school cross-country kids who are always racing by me, parents with strollers, geezers out for their morning constitutionals, bird watchers, toddlers learning how to ride their bikes and college students biking on a shortcut to campus.
And yet it never feels crowded.
If you start at Bolinwood Drive, like I do, and head east, you’ll move through a mile and a half of meadow and wooded floodplain. In other words, no hills. If there’s been a recent rainfall, you’ll jog — or stroll — with the gurgling creek on your right.
Just past a dirt trail turnoff, where — if you want, and I don’t — you can run steeply uphill to East Franklin Street, the greenway gets a bit hilly. But then it quickly flattens out again until the very last part, a reasonably steep path to the curb of the Community Center’s driveway.
I, however, generally stop before the hill, turn around and head back to Bolinwood Drive. If I make it all the way, that’s a little over 2.3 miles — a good, slow run or nice walk. If you go all the way to MLK, and then back, you’ve just about done your 5K.
Just in case, there are a few stone benches along the way.
The trail is so secluded, it’s hard to believe a bustling town is so close. It’s the same feeling — but even more so — that you get on the Riverwalk, along the Eno River in downtown Hillsborough.
Access is just off Churton Street, by the downtown parking deck. But as soon as you descend a wooden-planked trail toward the river bed, you’re immersed in overflowing greenery. The foliage is so lush, it feels like you’re moving through an arboretum.
About 1.8 miles total stretching along the Eno River, the Riverwalk goes west toward Gold Park and east before hooking up with the historic Ayr Mount plantation house, Poet’s Walk and the Speedway Trail.
I go east. That’s the flatter part of the six-foot wide path, which changes from planked wood to pavement to a packed dirt trail, passing by some benches and a few informational signposts (In 1780 during the Revolutionary War, I’ve learned, British Gen. Cornwallis led his Southern Campaign from along here.)
The western part of the Riverwalk — also just under about a mile – is, I must admit, a little more challenging. (There’s even a sign, heading back to the access point, that warns of a “steep slope ahead.” So be forewarned.
But really, it’s not much of a slope, and if I can do it, so can you. If you can’t jog it, you surely can walk it.
If, however, you’re looking for a trail that’s even easier on the quads, a little bit more accessible, quite a bit less green, and, well, significantly shorter, try the Elizabeth Cotten Bikeway. The bikeway is just under four tenths of a mile and runs along an active rail spur. It’s named after Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, best known for her song “Freight Train,” about the locomotive that traveled on this stretch of tracks past Cotten’s nearby home.
In truth, it’s not a particularly scenic path. But running from Roberson Street in Carrboro’s central business district to the western end of Cameron Avenue, it’s a useful trail that provides a perfect shortcut for joggers, walkers or bikers heading to or coming from the University of North Carolina campus.
On the bikeway you get a chance to see some sights you wouldn’t ordinarily notice, like the Old Carrboro Cemetery and a working asphalt plant.
Like the Bolin Creek Greenway and the Hillsborough Riverwalk, the bikeway is blessedly flat and consequently popular with joggers and bikers. And even though it’s so close to the center of two towns, it’s also remarkably quiet, a respite from the hustle and bustle.
The other thing these trails have in common is friendliness. Whether you are running fast, jogging, strolling or just plain meandering, everyone you pass says hello, or good morning, or at least nods in your direction. The trails are among the friendliest places in the area.
Oh, and did I mention that they’re all flat?