When we first moved to Durham a couple of years ago, my fiancé and I made a pact: to hike a different trail every weekend. I’d say we kept this up for a good six weeks before our streak was broken. And it wasn’t for a lack of options—there were fifteen parks within a fifteen-minute drive from our South Durham apartment. 

The multitude of ways to enjoy the outdoors—from hiking and biking to water sports and ropes courses—is among the Triangleís best assets. There’s a lot of variety, both in terms of skill level and landscape.

In Durham, not far from downtown, there’s the seven-thousand-acre Duke Forest, with gravel and dirt trails shaded by more than one hundred species of trees, including some two hundred years old. If you’re into plant life, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, also in Durham, offers fifty-five acres of botanical gardens—think roses, water lilies, a Chinese garden, and a “carnivorous plant bog.” The mostly paved, undulating paths in between make for a scenic stroll perfect for spending the afternoon with out-of-town visitors.

Raleigh’s Art to Heart trail is also a must-see. The paved six-mile route runs from the N.C. Museum of Art through a 164-acre park surrounding the museum, dotted with its own art installations, and past Meredith College, N.C. State, and Pullen Park right to downtown. 

When we want to get outdoors but don’t have a lot of time to spare, we head to Hollow Rock Nature Park in Southwest Durham. Hollow Rock has two mostly flat connecting loops, each under a mile. If you want to extend your hike, another trail connects to Duke Forest across the street.

Durant Nature Preserve in North Raleigh and Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve in Cary also offer easy trails and easy access. If you need to wear out your kiddos, try Hinshaw Greenway in Cary—an 0.8-mile section connects MacDonald Woods Park with the two-acre Kids Together Playground.

For a more challenging hike, try Eno River State Park. There are inclines and steps along the state park’s thirty miles of trails, but the views of the swift, rocky river are worth it. There are plenty of spots to take a break (and maybe soak up some sun on one of the larger rocks in the water), making it a popular place to bring kids and dogs. 

Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area in Hillsborough contains the highest point in Orange County and some of the best views of the Eno down below. Nearby you’ll find the Historic Occoneechee Speedway, one of the first two NASCAR tracks ever built (it closed in 1968), and walk the only surviving dirt speedway from NASCAR’s inaugural 1949 season. 

The 296-acre Johnston Mill Nature Preserve in Chapel Hill feels almost prehistoric, with vibrant ferns and lush moss surrounding the trails. You’ll pass creeks, meadows, and more than 150-year-old trees. Near Hillsborough, Brumley Forest is one of the Triangle’s newest nature preserves. In the 1990s, a subdivision had been planned for part of the 613-acre forest, but when that failed, conservationists purchased the land. Trails range from a third of a mile to two miles, but it’s easy to string a few together and spend a day. Half of the trails are for hiking only, but the other half offer some of the best biking options in the area. Don’t be dissuaded by a hot day—like Johnston Mill, it’s noticeably cooler under the tree canopy. For multiuse trails in Raleigh, try William B. Umstead State Park, which opened in 1937. Biking enthusiasts should also check out the six miles of mountain biking trails in North Durham’s Little River Park, which are moderate but have some switchbacks and short, steep climbs. 

Both Falls Lake in Raleigh and Jordan Lake in Apex offer opportunities for water sports and camping in addition to hiking and biking. Both state parks border undeveloped reservoirs. At Jordan Lake, you can also sail, rent kayaks and pontoon boats, and, depending on the time of the year, spot bald eagles. At Falls Lake, you can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddle boards.

The Neuse River Trail in Raleigh is perfect for beginning bikers. The trail, which has some paved portions and some boardwalks, follows the river for about thirty miles from Falls Lake to the Johnston County line. If you don’t have a bike, rent one at the Falls Lake end. 

But if I was going to kayak or canoe—which I haven’t actually done, so heed my advice at your own risk—I’d head to the Haw River in Saxapahaw for a Stargazing Float. The nighttime tours, complete with an astronomy lesson, are offered by the Haw River Canoe and Kayak Co. 

If none of this sounds quite stimulating enough for you, Xtreme Park Adventures in Durham should get your adrenaline going. Choose from ropes courses, paintball, zip-lining, and gem mining. There are even escape rooms—but who wants to be stuck inside?