Hiking to Big Lake and Oak Rock at William B. Umstead State Park

Big Lake with people fishing on shore

On May 10th, 2020, I went to William B. Umstead State Park for the second time. It was the second day of the partial reopening of state parks in North Carolina, and I was eager to get some much-needed outdoor activity in the short time before parks are closed again. (As mentioned previously, exemptions to the stay-at-home order in North Carolina are in place for both outdoor and health-related activities — both of which hiking is.)

While there, I covered 4.1 miles on three trails and had one of the most enjoyable hikes of the past year — during which I encountered a big lake, several blackberry plants, a scenic creek, a tulip poplar in bloom, and an oak tree growing straight out of a rock.

Map of Sall's Branch Trail, leading to Big Lake, at William B. Umstead State Park

Arriving from the west, I turned right into the Crabtree Creek Entrance (8801 Glenwood Ave., Raleigh, NC 27617) and drove about a mile down the heavily wooded Umstead Parkway until I came to the first parking area.

Finding a spot, I parked my car, got out, and joined Sal’s Branch Trail.

Sal's Branch Trailhead

After navigating a jumble of overlapping paths, I soon found myself hiking north up a hill through a forest of pine and maple trees on a counter-clockwise course. Along the way, I heard the rumble of aircraft overhead, headed to and from RDU Airport, situated less than a mile to the west.

After a quarter mile, I reached the northernmost extent of Sal’s Branch Trail and gradually veered south as the trail slowly reversed direction along its looping course. Around this time, I crossed one of several small wooden footbridges dotting the landscape.

Wooden footbridge over creek

Before long I was hiking south behind two middle-aged women, each with a small dog of her own, who were enjoying the beautiful weather and socializing at a distance. Pretty soon, however, I was able to move ahead of them as they made one of several pit stops for their canine companions.

Trail going under branches into clearing

Hiking south over gently sloping hills and valleys, I covered a half mile before reaching a side trail that turned to the west. Following it, I soon came to a clearing in the forest canopy.

Maintenance road with power lines and forest

Emerging from the forest, I came to a clearcut running north and south, with a maintenance road beside it.

Wild blackberry flower

Alongside the maintenance road, there were a number of wildflowers, including numerous blackberry plants with flowers and immature fruits.

Big Lake with people fishing on shore

Turning south, I followed the unpaved maintenance road for a quarter mile until I reached the south shore of Big Lake, where a number of people were fishing, reclining, and enjoying the beautiful weather.

As I kept hiking south, I switched over from Sal’s Branch Trail to Pott’s Branch Trail, going another tenth of a mile before reaching the junction of Sycamore Creek and Pott’s Branch.

Creek winding under a fallen tree

Along the banks of Pott’s Branch, the trail turned sharply north. Following it, I headed north too and soon passed a fallen tree which spanned the creek.

Young beech tree with gnarly trunk, shaped like half of an infinity symbol

For about a half mile, I kept hiking north through the emerald canopy of the forest, which now included more beech and oak trees. After climbing up one hill in particular, this little American beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) came into view, with a distinctive sideways s-shape to its trunk that I’ve hardly ever seen before or since.

Creek with big stones and wooden footbridge

Turning back to the north, I kept hiking and soon came to a scenic view of a small wooden footbridge with a hand rail crossing Pott’s Branch, perfectly framed by a beech tree on the right and two pine trees on the left.

Trail hugging edge of a riverbank through forest

Descending another hill, I continued on Pott’s Branch Trail and soon passed the small wooden footbridge. Still heading north, I quickly came to a narrow stretch of trail that nearly overhung the edge of the riverbank.

After rounding a bend in the trail, I came to a small stone embankment over Pott’s Branch, which effectively terminated the northern stretch of the creek. Still following the trail, I hiked up another hill and came to an observation deck of some kind, which had been cordoned off to prevent its use.

Wooden staircase up to closed observation deck

In less than a hundred feet, I noticed a flash of color on the ground. As I approached, I made out a distinctive yellowish-green flower with six petals and a brilliant orange outline around the pistil in the center.

Tulip poplar flower with leaves

Recognizing it as the flower of the tulip poplar tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), I reached down, picked it up, and admired it closely before returning it to the forest floor.

Within another hundred feet, I came to a fork in the trail where Pott’s Branch segued into Oak Rock Trail. Noticing an odd tree in front of me, I would soon learn the origin of this trail’s name.

Oak tree growing out of rock outcropping

Hardly believing my eyes, I approached and looked closely at a northern red oak tree (Quercus rubra) growing sixty feet tall out of an outcropping of rock at least ten feet wide. From the side, it almost looked like an oversized upside-down ax, with the rock outcropping for the head and the tree for the handle. How this strange geobotanical formation came into being was left unexplained by park signage. But most likely it occurred when an acorn fell into the rock, found a moist spot with a little dirt, and started growing.

Heading north on Oak Rock Trail, I hiked another tenth of a mile before coming to a paved road, which I then crossed onto. After another tenth of a mile on this road, I came back to the parking lot where I started, got into my car, and headed home. And as I drove off, it occurred to me that in the end, nature always wins.

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10 thoughts on “Hiking to Big Lake and Oak Rock at William B. Umstead State Park

  1. An interesting post and lovely scenes from your woodland walk to the lakes. That tree is amazing. Nature can be determined sometimes. It’s great to be so far away and visit these places vicariously through your video and commentary. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Beautiful place, superb photos! Not sure which one would I prefer, the footbridge or the fallen tree! You’re a keen observer not missing even the tiniest things in nature.

    Liked by 2 people

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