Thursday, December 22, 2011

Umstead Trails vs. Mountains to Sea Falls Lake Trails

This is not going to be a very scientific comparison of the single-track trails at Umstead State Park and the Mountains to Sea Trail at Falls Lake. At the time of this post, I have yet to run all 37.5-miles of the Falls Lake Trail.

Plus, I'm writing this post without doing much planning, because I am essentially inspired by a question Diana posed in a comment on another post. And, as I responded to that comment, I realized I could really just make a blog post out of my answer, since I'm so wordy and all.

So, here's my totally subjective, off-the-cuff, trail runner's perspective on experiencing the Umstead trails and the MST at Falls Lake.

Most runners would probably say that the two trail systems are pretty similar. And, most runners would be right. I mean, we're not living in the mountains here. And, Falls Lake is roughly a speedy 15-minute drive from Umstead. So, aside from that lake; the terrain, flora, and fauna are largely the same.

Umstead State Park Company Mill Trail
Umstead Trails Have Rocks

But, if you really wanted to be particular about differences, some people would say that the hills at Umstead are a little more severe than the ones at Falls Lake. By "severe" I mean that I'm more aware of a significant hill climb when I'm running Company Mill or Sycamore than I am of the hill climbs at Falls Lake. And, by "aware" I mean that the hills seem more challenging at Umstead.

Falls Lake MST Trail
Falls Lake Mountains to Sea Trail
(not as rocky)

However, I should quickly add that there seem to be more hills at Falls Lake. But, the Falls Lake MST hills feel more like they're helping me roll along the trail, up and down—like floating on a small boat over slightly rough water. But, take out the floating feeling, because you're actually running. And, running is not like floating (Except in those still photos that some race photographers manage to capture. And, even then, running only looks like floating. I mean, you know perfectly well that running is not what you do to feel floaty) Anyway, the frequent hills at Falls Lake are fun!

Moreover, if you are the type to count rocks, I'd bet that you'd find more rocks at Umstead than you would at Falls Lake. There are some rather large rocks at Falls Lake, though, especially along Section 2. So, don't leave your trail shoes and strong ankles at home. I'm just saying that there are most likely a larger collection of rocks along the Umstead trails.

Roots are equally challenging to traverse and see on both trails.

If you like stopping to admire scenic vistas or forest animals, then the Falls Lake MST would offer the best opportunities for those trail running extras. Umstead is pretty much in the middle of Raleigh and right next to the airport. So, animals that have managed to adapt to the bustling human activity surrounding the acres comprising Umstead are most likely not interested in letting you look at them for very long. Although, the deer seem to like looking at people there.

On the other hand, Falls Lake is on a gigantic lake, which pretty much guarantees at least a few scenic vistas. And, the animals at Falls Lake, in spite of the fact that they're allowed to be hunted, show up more often in varied forms. (Once, I almost collided with a deer on the path at Falls Lake)

Similarly, I encounter more people walking their awesome dogs at Falls Lake, while I usually have to run around larger groups of people at Umstead. This discrepancy is probably due to the times of day and days of the week that I choose to run the trails.

Some runners might like to know that running between the various sections of the Falls Lake MST usually requires traveling along the wide shoulders of various roads for a few meters. This isn't a big deal. But, if you prefer to go to a trail so that you can feel secluded from cars until you decide to leave the trail, then Umstead will be a better choice.

Okay, I've covered a few major points that come to mind in this Umstead vs. Falls Lake MST analysis. Let's sum up:

Falls Lake MST has...

  • More frequent but (mostly) smaller hills
  • Forest animals and scenic vistas you'll remember after the run
  • Necessary encounters with roads (oh, and backyards of private residences)
  • A lake
  • More frequent, friendly encounters with people and awesome dogs
  • Awesome trails

Umstead has...

  • Fewer but bigger hills to consider
  • More rocks over a wider area
  • Less wildness and lake scenery (but the creeks are great)
  • But, strangely, more of a sense of seclusion from cars and stuff
  • Larger groups of people on certain days
  • Awesome trails

So, that's me being nitpicky about the differences between Umstead and Falls Lake trails. But, really, I love both of these places! Seriously! My only preference for one over the other on a given day is governed by my geographic proximity (Umstead is closer to work. Falls Lake is closer to home)


  1. Nice comparison! I've been hoping someone would do something like this for all of the local trails. Sort of a compendium of trail descriptions. But the comparisons are even better, especially from a runner's perspective.

  2. Thanks Scott! I've wished for a source of info about various local trails, too. That compendium-of-local-trails project is something I've been very slowly attempting to accomplish with my "Trails" page on this blog. When I have more trails reviewed there, I'll make it more conspicuous.

  3. This was awesome!! Thank you so very much! It was a great read and very helpful, especially since I am thinking of Mountains-to-Sea!!!

  4. Hi Scott,

    The Falls Lake Trail has recently been completed with many new sections now open. The finished total length is now just short of 60 miles. The new bridge across Little Lick Creek is being installed this week which marks the final link in the chain.

    You can get a free printed map of the Falls Lake Trail from me. Information on that is at my web site

    While the net elevation change from end to end is nearly zero you will actually do a lot of climbing and descending. I've calculated that from Shinleaf Campground to the Falls Dam (MST Section 27) there is roughly 1700 ft of climbing (with the matching 1700 ft of descending). From Penny's Bend to Shinleaf (part of MST Section 26), there is roughly 2150 ft of climbing/descending.

    There is also a companion map of Eno River Trails which are to the west of Falls Lake.

    Check out the links for how to get your copy.


  5. Diana: I'm so glad this was helpful to you. And, I really hope you decide to run the MST Trail Challenge in April, whether it's the 50K or the 12-miler. Either option should make for a great race. I'm looking forward to it!

    Art: Thanks for the fantastic information! It is so incredible to have almost 60 miles of trails around one lake in the Triangle. I'll definitely check out your links. And, thanks for reading!

  6. Nice write up Ash, and thanks for the info on the Falls Lake trail Art! I am checking it out now.



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