Friday, March 23, 2012

Trail Review: Falls Lake Trail - Section 1

Falls Lake Trail: Section 1
(Falls of the Neuse Rd. to Raven Ridge Rd.)

Trail Location: Falls Lake State Recreation Area | Wake Forest, NC
Falls Lake Section 1 Map

Trail Distance:
7 miles (out & back)

Trail Difficulty:
Easy to Moderate

Awesome interactive map* >>
See the Falls Lake Recreation Area map page >>


Some would say that Section 1 of the Falls Lake Mountains to Sea Trail is a very good place to start. This is particularly true in my case, because Section 1 is the portion of Falls Lake that is most convenient, in terms of geographic proximity, to my house (at the moment). Parking is usually plentiful here, too. So, I start my Falls Lake trail runs here more often than not.

Why I'm reviewing Section 1 after sections 4 and 5 is beyond me. It just worked out that way. No one said trail running had to be logically sequential.

Those of you preparing to run the marvelous Mountains to Sea Trail 12-Mile or 50K Challenge, which you should run (if you haven't done so already), will be interested to know that the eastern-most point of Section 1 serves as the finish line for the 12-mile and the turnaround point for the 50K.

In addition to my lengthy narrative below, an alternative account of traversing the Falls Lake Section 1 trail may be read in less time and with fewer complex sentences if you refer to this document, which exists on the site. I'll point out that the document in question does not have my astoundingly saturated, blurry trail photos. Just sayin'.

Running the Trail

If you want the most trail for your time, you'll start at the trail head directly adjacent to the Falls Lake fishing area parking lot, which is called the "Tailrace" fishing area and never seems to close during daylight hours.

The trail begins at a slight incline on a jeep road heading southwest from the parking area. It extends for a few meters until you see the Mountains to Sea Trail sign on your left, tempting you with single-track trail. By all means follow that sign!

Falls Lake Trail Section 1 turns to single-track for a bit here

You'll reach an intersection, at which point you have the option to take a left onto the Falls Lake Raven Ridge trail, which is not part of this review. So, continue following the MST trail (white blazes) to the right up a steeper hill unless you want to see what the Raven Ridge Trail is all about.

(Now that I think about it, I can't believe I haven't checked out this little offshoot of the Falls Lake Mountains to Sea Trail. Next time)

Falls Lake Trail Section 1: A short piece of jeep a trail
Falls Lake Trail Section 1: Follow the trail marker off the jeep trailContinue running up that incline and step nimbly over a few roots here and there. Traipse through a batch of fallen leaves that never seem to dissipate in spite of the season. Then, emerge from this foresty bit to cross a paved (gasp!) road that would take you to the Falls Lake Dam. (Turn right if you really want to see the view from the dam right now. You could see it on your way back, though)

Section 1 of the Falls Lake TrailHop the gate (or go around) barring entrance to another gravel trail and follow tire tracks through knee-high weeds, a tick-infested obstacle course during summer months. This is a short stint off single-track terrain, though, because you'll be following a trail marker to the left right

Don't be dismayed when you suddenly find yourself crossing another paved road. This is the road to the visitor center, which has bathrooms. Look to the right, and you'll see those amenities. Turn left and immediately right again to follow the trail through some smallish pine trees.

Cross a little more pavement and follow the trail marker's arrow toward a set of wooden stairs. These descend to more single-track trail with some good rocks and a nice view of the lake.

Very soon, you will find yourself crossing another piece of pavement. This is the last one until you return to the start. Veer left as you continue along the pine-needle-laden trail. Then make a right when the trail intersects again with the blue-blazed Falls Lake Trail. (Remember that you're following white blazes)

There's some pretty standard single-track terrain through the trees now. You'll skirt the edge of a hillside and leap over a few erosion barriers. Then, you will find yourself running through some fairly short growth for a short time. And, in the heat of the summer, you'll miss the tree cover at this point.

Falls Lake Trail Section 1 leafy single-track

Cross over a utility easement, which gets quite muddy after rain, and continue through more of that dense forest. There are several little hills now. But, the trail is fairly compact for a while. So, you'll feel like zoning out, as if you can just roll with the terrain.

Follow a nifty, narrow piece of the path down a hill to an exceptionally high foot bridge, which carries you over an attractive stream. The trail is sandy with several rocks to step over. Be careful.

Run through some rather overbearing vegetation and spider webs (probably) before breaking through to a spacious portion of the trail. More scenic views of the lake can be enjoyed here as you run near the shore.

Pay attention to a steep dip in the trail, which acts as a runoff stream when there's a surplus of water. Get your feet wet if necessary.

Falls Lake Trail Section 1 gets rolling
Falls Lake Section 1 at Raven Ridge Rd.

The sounds of speeding cars will crescendo as you get closer to Raven Ridge Road. The lakeside byway is visible and, before you know it, you'll see bright sunlight reflecting off the pavement in front of you. You've reached the end of Section 1.

Turn around to run it all again for a full 7 miler. Or, maybe you're feeling adventurous and want to check out Section 2, which will add another 5.2 total miles (out and back) to your run. Turn right and follow the road by the lake to find Section 2, you crazy runner, you.

My Favorite Features of Falls Lake Trail Section 1:

  • Easy access to the trail head on the east side.
  • The rolling terrain (for the most part) gives a nice flow to the trail. And, the hills are a great workout.
  • Marvelous views of the lake make it hard not to love this section. The dam is worth checking out before or after your run.
  • Crazy-ass deer with no fear of people. They just stand in your way and dare you to make them move.

Features I Dislike:

  • I'm not fond of the pavement crossings. It kind of feels like you don't really get started until you're finally done with those. But, they're not terrible.
  • Spider webs and deer flies are plentiful in the warmer months.
  • Hunting season makes me nervous.

Getting There

Falls Lake Trail parking area near the damAs I mentioned above, my favorite way to access Section 1 of Falls Lake is via the Tailrace Fishing Area parking lot at the intersection of Falls of the Neuse Rd. and Pleasant Union Church Rd. This is a great place for parking, because the gate here does not close at silly times like the gate at the main entrance to the dam and visitor center. Plus, there are bathrooms.

Of course, you could always park at the other side of Section 1 if it's convenient. You would just park on the shoulder of Raven Ridge Rd. and run. Obviously, there's no gate to bar your way at off hours here.


Falls Lake Trail Section 1 is one of my favorite trails in the Triangle, mostly due to time spent running there. I wish I had better photos posted in this review, because the trail is significantly more appealing than what I'm showing you.

Essentially, you just need to go over to Falls Lake and check out the trail for yourself. Or, hey, sign up for the MST 12-Mile and 50K Challenge!

The Falls Lake Trail Section Four Elevation Profile.

Once again, I've borrowed the elevation profile below from the MST 12-Mile Challenge race website. This image depicts elevation for Falls Lake trail sections 4 through 1. So, guesstimate the last 3.5 miles indicated on the right side of the profile image to get an idea of Section 1's elevation profile.
Mountains to Sea Elevation Chart from Bull City Running

More Triangle-Area Trail Reviews >>

* Albeit not accurate in relation to the map pictured above, which is the map I generally follow. And, you're most likely going to follow that map, too, since your a runner; the map pictured above.


  1. Great write up! These miles are actually my favorite section of the MTS 12 mile challenge course, probably because they have some of the biggest elevation changes. I don't mind all the renegade road crossings either. I'm still (stupidly) considering running MTS even though I won't be getting any sleep the night before.

  2. Thanks Scott! I've read somewhere that the quality of sleep a runner gets the night before a race is not as important as the quality of sleep he gets two nights before. So, your lack of sleep on the eve of the MST 12 miler/50K shouldn't hurt your potential performance in that race at all.

  3. That looks like a gorgeous trail! I spent some time out there in the 90s when I worked at Duke Press but I was not a runner then yet (more of a smoker and drinker - erm) and it looks like I missed an opportunity.

  4. This section is super fun after you get past the weird road crossings and wood stairs. A different vibe for sure than the Upper Barton Creek/Shinleaf sections. I liked the part of the trail right before the utility easement.

    My only complaint is the amount of leashless dogs! Wow!

    Thanks for the review, it was nice to see some of your photos appear before me as I ran along!

    1. Yes, I have a special fondness for this section, Jordan. The road crossings are discombobulating at first. But, they're not such a bother once you get used to them.

      And, I can understand what you mean about the leashless dogs. They're rarely a problem, though. I think many people feel liberated enough to let their dogs run free at Falls Lake, because the trails are not necessarily as busy as the ones at Umstead.



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