Get outdoors on Carolina’s hiking trails

Whether you’re a novice or seasoned hiker, Carolina’s campus boasts five hiking trail systems to add to your list of ways to stay active and healthy this semester.

A person hiking in the woods.

Staying active has never been so important — or so challenging.

While UNC Campus Recreation has instituted new safety measures at its facilities and developed an array of resources to help Tar Heels stay active at home, physical activity doesn’t have to be limited to the gym or home. Don’t underestimate the power of the great outdoors.

Whether you’re a novice or seasoned hiker, Carolina’s campus boasts five hiking trail systems to add to your list of ways to stay active and healthy this semester.

“It’s something that anyone can do,” says Russell Hobart, assistant director of climbing programs at Campus Rec. “You don’t need a lot. Most of the time I’m just hiking in my running shoes.”

And the benefits of getting outside aren’t only physical. “Being in nature brings us back to our original state of being,” Hobart explains, and can be great for mental health.

It’s only in recent centuries, as cities sprang up and flourished, that we’ve become increasingly separate from our natural environment. Hiking can help ground us in important ways and eliminate stress. “It’s almost like we’re out of balance when we don’t get in touch with nature,” Hobart says.

So, ready to do some cardio while improving your mental health? Grab your backpack, some water and a light snack, and hit one of five trails within walking distance to campus:

  1. Battle Park Trails: These are the easiest trails to access from campus. Pass by the Koch Memorial Forest Theatre and pause to check out the elevated view of Battle Branch Creek.
  2. North Carolina Botanical Garden Trails: These trails are situated close to the North Carolina Botanical Gardens, but they also pass by Morgan Creek. Make sure to stop and check out the Elephant Rock, though there’s some debate about whether it looks like its name or not.
  3. UNC Outdoor Education Center Trails: The newest trails on Carolina’s campus, these are located close to the Outdoor Education Center and include Quail Hill Loop and Hillbilly Holler.
  4. Coker Pinetum Trails: While all trails take hikers through forested landscape, this shorter trail system lines the border of the Coker Pinetum between Manning Drive and Laurel Hill Road.
  5. Gimghoul Trails: Care for a side of lore on your nature hike? Read up on the myth of Gimghoul Castle before you head out on these trails, which pass close to the storied estate.

Hobart recommends returning to the same trails throughout the year to see trees change from season to season. (Photo by Russell Hobart)

If you’re not sure where to start, Hobart recommends the Battle Park Trails. “They’re pretty weather resistant, so when we have five days in a row of rain, you can still get out and enjoy it,” he explains. But there are newer trails by the Outdoor Education Center that took four years to plan and implement. “Those are the trails we’re super proud of,” says Hobart.

Maps for all five hiking systems are available on HikingProject.com, which also offers an app. Make sure to look over the trail map before you begin, especially if you’re newer to hiking. “At first, it can be a bit bewildering to read the trails and understand them, but if you take it piece by piece, know your intersections, you’ll be fine,” says Hobart.

Although beginners don’t need special equipment to get going, remember to use bug spray during spring and summer when mosquitos and ticks are especially active. It also doesn’t hurt to know trail etiquette. Typically, when hikers traverse narrower paths, they yield to hikers coming uphill, but that kind of wide berth is even more important during COVID. Hikers should still maintain physical distancing and wear masks while hiking, making sure to step aside and clear the path for others on the trail.

Hobart recommends returning to the same trails throughout the year. Watching trees change from season to season is yet another grounding technique that can help promote mindfulness and in turn better mental health.

Chapel Hill also sits in an area abundant with bio-diverse forest, so there’s a lot to take in. “If you’re out west and you get to a forest, every single tree in the area is ultimately the same kind of tree,” says Hobart. “Here, you might see 10 oaks, but it might be a white oak and a red oak and a willow oak.”

Learn more about getting outdoors with Campus Rec