Take the Kids Hiking: Seven Favorite Spots

Bear exploring the climbing tree by New Hope Creek, Johnston’s Mill


By Adam Searing

Besides bicycling, I also love hiking the amazing woods and trails in our area. Since I was a kid in the 1970s we’ve lost some trails but gained significantly more. As former UNC President Kemp Plummer Battle described walking about Chapel Hill in 1912, “there is a vast wealth of lovely flowers, gray crags, noble trees, graceful curves of hills and beautiful, diversified scenery.”

And who better to share Battle’s outside wonders with than our kids?  I’ve been hiking outside with my guys for years and somehow still get them as teenagers to come with me regularly. When they were younger there were multiple favorite hikes we had around and near town. Given we are all spending more time outside and especially thinking about families with younger kids, I was inspired to put together a list of my kid-favorite hikes:

  1. North Carolina Botanical Garden
    The garden is still closed but there are great kid-friendly trails and creeks on and over the hills off the back.  Park here and not in the main lot.  Trail entrance is on the right and just go straight until you come to a Y-intersection then head down to the small creek and cross the bridge.There are lots of ways to climb the hill but it’s worth it to get to the top.  Don’t be afraid to go down the back of the hill on the one trail to Elephant Rock. There was an old mill and cabin located here and this was a favorite swimming hole over 100 years ago when the dam still existed. The creek you are on is Morgan Creek, and the trail is memorialized as “Copperline” in the James Taylor song.

    Daffodils along Morgan Creek, Near UNC Botanical Garden

  1. Duke Forest Korstian Division
    Hiking is great everywhere here, but my favorite with kids are the cliffs.  Go in here and hike down to the cliff then go downstream. Sticking by New Hope Creek means endless places to play on the rocks and small rapids. If you took a pic of the map at the entrance you can use it to continue downstream until you take a small trail to the right and rejoin the long fire road that will loop you back up to where you parked.
  2. Eno River
    Durham’s hiking gem, the Eno River, is a short and amazing drive away. My kids and I spent hours on our favorite trail — the one to Bobbit’s swimming hole and back — where you swim, wade and see long-nosed gar among other fish. Just long enough of a hike to tire the kids out but not too long that they get cranky.
  1. Bolin Creek Greenway
    You can’t mention kids and hiking without talking about the Bolin Creek Greenway starting here at the community center.  I’m usually about biking here, but if you look carefully you can find some great places to play by the creek.  My kids’ favorite is about a 15-minute walk from the rose garden as you go upstream. You’ll be passing by an apartment complex to the left. Look carefully to the right for a trail that goes down to a small series of beaches with rocks and sand.
  2. Forest Theater
    I played in UNC’s Forest Theater as a kid and my kids did too — all the time. Where else can you learn the basics of rock climbing by scrambling up the fitted stone walls? And where else can you give your mother a heart attack by jumping from the same? Added benefit is the several miles of now well-maintained trails through Battle (yes, that Battle) Park, now under the expert care of the NC Botanical Garden.  Note: Go really early on Saturday and Sunday and you can likely park in the small lot adjacent to the Theater.

    Climbing Forest Theater in winter, UNC campus, Battle Park

  3. Johnston’s Mill
    This is one of the newest trail systems in the area. By the reaches of upper New Hope Creek, it has several excellent long and short loops with lots of views and places to play.  One of my kids’ best stops: Head down the main trail from this parking area, stay right at the four-way intersection, and you quickly get to where the creek goes under a wooden bridge. There’s a great tree there to climb on with an amazing root system that extends over the creek.
  4. Carolina North
    Of course, no discussion of where to take the kids in the woods in Chapel Hill would be complete without talking about UNC’s Carolina North. Park here at the main gravel lot and either do the fire road Pumpkin Loop or take some of the more challenging single-track trails. Check the Trailforks app or take a picture of the map at the start so you don’t get lost. Check out the benches and lookout point at the side of the old farm pond, about a 15-minute hike from the parking lot.

After all your hiking, don’t forget to drive west of town past the Calvander intersection to Maple View Farm Ice Cream. It’s about 15 minutes outside town and they have a hillside overlooking beautiful farm fields where the cows who make the milk for the ice cream enjoy life.

Adam Searing is a lifetime resident of Chapel Hill, a mountain bike coach and attorney. He can be reached at adamsearing@gmail.com.

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2 Comments on "Take the Kids Hiking: Seven Favorite Spots"

  1. Julie McClintock | August 31, 2020 at 5:18 am | Reply

    Great article Adam. Thanks for sharing your experiences on the trails in and near Chapel Hill.

  2. Carter and I are missing our hikes with you!

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