Hiking Sal’s Branch Trail in Umstead State Park (good for all levels)

When you visit Raleigh (or live in Raleigh) and love nature trails through the forest, biking, trail running, picnicking, camping, canoeing, or even horseback riding, don’t miss William B. Umstead State Park.

Lake view on Sal's Branch Trail, Umstead State Park
Lake view on Sal’s Branch Trail

With more than 5,000 acres of forest, the park is easily accessible from Interstate 40 and US-70, and is located just 15-minutes drive from downtown Raleigh.

This is one of North Carolina’s most visited state parks and our favorite of the parks in Raleigh – it’s literally a natural oasis surrounding three man made lakes.

And the Sal’s Branch Trail is probably the most popular of the Umstead park trails.

  • Length: 2.8 miles
  • Trail type: Loop
  • Elevation gain: 183 ft
  • Difficulty: low to moderate 
  • Surface: natural surface
  • Trail Blaze: Orange Circles
  • Umstead Park Hours: currently 8am-8pm (check website)
  • Umstead park map: click here.

For your first visit to Umstead State Park, we suggest starting here as it’s one of the most family-friendly trails in Raleigh. But if you’re looking for something longer, the 7 mile Sycamore Trail is the longest trail in Umstead Park.

Sal’s Branch Trail is an easy to moderate 2.8 mile loop trail good for all fitness levels through the woods with lake views about half way. Dogs can use this trail too but must be kept on leash!

For perspective, we hiked this trail with our two kids (aged 13 and 9) which took about an hour at a leisurely pace with stops for photos and a brief rest at the lake.

Getting to Sal’s Branch Trail

people walking through a forest
Sal’s Branch Trail

Located on the northeastern side of Umstead Park, to get to Sal’s Branch Trail drive to the Crabtree Creek park access and visitor center off US-70 (Address: 8801 Glenwood Ave). 

We started the trail from behind the visitor center (currently closed because 2020), but you can use the bathrooms and fill up your water bottles from the water fountains outside. 

You can also access this trail from near the boathouse at Umstead Dam.

Hiking the Trail

A sign in the middle of a forest
Well sign posted

Starting out from behind the visitor center, you walk a short ways along the trail, then cross through the extended car parking area then the service road before heading into the woods following the “orange circles” as markers.

We quickly realized that this trail would be more like a walk than a hike, with gentle rises and falls in elevation and nothing too strenuous.

Although there are several tree roots in sections (not the whole way) so it’s important to watch your step in those spots to avoid tripping. 

People walking down a trail in a forest
Sal’s Branch Trail, Umstead
people walking on a forest trail
A walk in the woods

Although a very popular trail in Umstead park that was also recommended to us as their favorite by other Raleigh locals, even on a Saturday we didn’t find it that heavily trafficked, passing people here and there. Weekends would be busier than weekdays.

Keep in mind we have hiked in the most visited National Parks in the USA like Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Smoky Mountains so our perspective of what’s busy may differ from yours!

people walking on a forest trail
Beautiful trees

We love walking through the woods, but a highlight was near the halfway point when we came out of the woods and upon Big Lake.

The lake was a nice place to relax for a few minutes, take some more photos, and talk about coming back here with our inflatable stand up paddle boards and get out on the water for a different perspective.

At the lake you can fish or kayak or paddle board, but swimming is not allowed.

people standing next to a body of water
Big Lake
A gi4rl standing next to a lake Pott\'s Branch Trail
Would love to paddle board here next

When you come out of the woods to the lake, there is a sign directing you back onto Sal’s Branch Trail to continue the loop.

Simply turn left and head back into the woods and follow the trail back to the start.

Despite the few tree rooted sections and minor ups and downs, it was overall a nicely maintained and clean trail and a great starting point for when you visit William Umstead State Park – you get the woods and the lake!

As mentioned, the elevation change is very minimal and manageable and enough to get a decent workout without getting tired (you would get a good workout if you ran it).

people walking on a forest trail
Don’t forget water even though shady

We passed other walkers who looked like they had varying degrees of hiking ability and fitness levels, young kids and dogs.

As a loop trail, we found it easy to navigate and well marked.

All up, this is a very nice trail that we’d be happy to do again, and it’s always rewarding to escape the pressures of everyday life and the city and get back into nature, and that we can go hiking right near Raleigh downtown!

girl standing next to a tree
Our kids enjoyed this hike!

As always, whether you’re hiking in Raleigh or anywhere, always bring enough water to stay hydrated – we hike with our 40 oz Hydro Flasks. And you might also want to bring some insect repellent in the summer months!

Video: Sal’s Branch Trail, Umstead

More Umstead Park Trails

Check out these posts on other hiking trails in Umstead State Park:

What Umstead trails would you recommend? Leave us a comment below!

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