Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Hardest Hill in Raleigh

Have you ever wondered which hill in Raleigh was the hardest to run? Of course you haven't. You're the type who always sees the forest past the trees. You don't waste your time with trivial, irrelevant questions. It's not as if knowing which 1,000 feet of Raleigh terrain is most challenging to ascend makes you jump in the car to find it. These aren't mountains we're talking about. It's rolling piedmont for pete's sake!

Elevation Profile out of context
Disclaimer: I dislike elevation profiles. Their dramatic, pointy peaks and valleys make small hills look perilous. But, I concede that they are necessary.

Well, I find time for these thoughts during my runs. And, now that I've got you wondering — surely you had a certain hill in mind when you read the title of this post — I'm going to present you with my version of scientific research to determine which hill in Raleigh is hardest. (Apologies if I offend actual scientists with my methods)


Obviously, this whole examination was subjective. I could only consider the hills I've run here. And, I had to be the one to make up the definition of "hardest" as it would apply to a hill in this project.

So, I spent a few moments recalling the most memorable hills I've run in Raleigh. I came up with eight. Then I nixed two of them, because I arbitrarily determined that the hardest hill would have to be a single incline rather than a series of inclines punctuated by slight declines. Thus, the two I omitted were single-track trail hills.

So, my first requisite for hardest was that the hill could only consist of increasing elevation—no dips.

I also decided that the hill should fit within the space of a single mile. But, I also wanted the hill to be longer than 1,000 feet, because there are a lot of short, steep inclines in Raleigh. And, I just don't think it's worth arguing about those short ones. If that were the case, my driveway would win.

Using's excellent mapping interface, I collected one-mile segments containing the hills in question so that we could see the surrounding terrain.

Thus, each elevation profile below represents a one mile distance. And, the challenging hill is marked by vertical magenta lines. (You can click the elevation image to see the profile in conjunction with its map)

I further relied on the mapping interface to measure the distance and calculate the elevation gain. With those two numbers, I figured out the grade (rise/run) of each hill to sort of account for the hill's degree of challengingness. Of course, a spread sheet made all of that a pleasure to analyze.
hill data

With all those numbers, I pretty much calculated myself into a corner, forcing the results to depend almost entirely on the grade of the hill. (I'll save the undeniable subjective variables for later in this post) So, without further ado, I present to you six of Raleigh's hardest hills to run.

The Hills
in order of increasing grade and referenced by vague geographic location

Lassiter Mill Rd. Hill

Lassiter Mill Rd.

Elevation Gain (ft): 171.8 | Distance (ft): 4,276.8 | Grade: 4.02%
(False dip due to hwy overpass)

Turkey Creek to Graylyn Trail Hill

Umstead N. Turkey Creek Trail to Graylyn Trail

Elevation Gain (ft): 148.8 | Distance (ft): 3,590.4 | Grade: 4.14%

Umstead Reedy Creek Lake Trail hill

Umstead Reedy Creek Lake Trail

Elevation Gain: 159 | Distance (ft): 3,801.6 | Grade: 4.18%

Crabtree Creek Trail East Hill

Crabtree Creek Greenway off Milburnie Rd.

Elevation Gain (ft): 74.3 | Distance (ft): 1,108.8 | Grade: 6.70%

North Hills Park Hill

Greenway to North Hills Park

Elevation Gain (ft): 107 | Distance (ft): 1,320.0 | Grade: 8.11%

Umstead N. Turkey Creek Trail (shorter) Hill

Umstead N. Turkey Creek Trail

Elevation Gain (ft): 88.6 | Distance (ft): 1,003.2 | Grade: 8.83%

For Discussion

Okay, you probably would have guessed that one anyway. Of course the Turkey Creek Hill is the winner! I mean, the fact that there are so many surrounding hills on that same trail pretty much merit this particular hill's win for the sake of respect.

That element of the surrounding terrain had me perplexed, though. I mean, my question was singular in nature. And, if a scientist asks a singular question, he can't allow for weird variables to interfere with the experiment. That just wouldn't be scientific, would it? (Would it?)

So, after much internal debate, I decided not to factor in the surrounding terrain when figuring out which of these hills was hardest. Otherwise, I would have had to account for ease of access, exposure to sun, proximity to food and beverage establishments, etc.

And, that would have just been too difficult. Hills should be difficult, not my scientific method.

Of course, none of this matters. A hill is a hill, and it's grade is only important to you while you're running it. Some days that steepness might be murder on your calf muscles. Some days you'll feel like you're visiting from the Rockies and running on the beach.

Really, I was just aching to post something new for you.

Feel free to suggest other hills for consideration or berate me for a lack of scientific training. And, as always, thanks for reading!


  1. Yep, that's a hard hill alright. Did you measure the spillway hill? That one always seems really hard to me as well.

    1. Hmm... Which one is the spillway hill, Scott?

    2. Do you mean the one that starts by that small parking area next to the lake and ends at the intersection with the camp road, just before you emerge onto Reedy Creek Rd. at the water fountain?

      Great post! I have run some of these but don't know where a few of them are (N Hills?), which is odd considering that I live in North Raleigh. The hill the Peeps use for repeats during the week is the Sawmill Drive hill between Leadmine and Six Forks. It's about a half mile and great for running up-and-overs.

  2. Nice! It seems pretty hard to me! But then again . . . pretty much all the hills kick my butt!

  3. If the number of horsefly attack induced fartleks while ascending factors in then I submit for consideration Umsteads' cemetery hill ... based on Sundays run.

  4. Haha! As a non North Carolinian I have NEVER wondered this but I like how you get into it.

  5. Fun report. I have cursed a few of these while traversing them.The horseflies were out Thursday as well. Part of the Umstead trail was closed (leading from the bridge towards cemetery Hill). Probably some storm damage.

  6. I have a hill workout on the docket today, so thanks for this - although I’ll likely not be thanking you later.



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