Sunday Stroll: Carolina North, UNC Chapel Hill

Carolina North, tucked away from the main campus area, offers gravel and singletrack trails for hiking, running, and mountain biking

I've got to tell you this: I love Carolina North at UNC Chapel Hill. The last time I lived in Chapel Hill I rented an apartment right across the street from Carolina North so I would just run across the street and hop on the Pumpkin Trail for my regular run. The Pumpkin Trail is a local area favorite: there are UNC students, community running groups, local area high school cross country runners, neighboring folks out walking their dogs, trail runners, annual Pumpkin Run and Philosopher's Way participants, power walkers, mountain bikers, and all other variety of people.

The Pumpkin Loop crosses with a paved greenway in some places.

The Carolina North Forest (usually just called "Carolina North" but also known as the Horace Williams Tract named for the philosophy professor who bequeathed the property to the university) is owned by UNC Chapel Hill and is easily accessible via MLK, Jr. Blvd (Hwy 86). The forest has a few twisty single-track trails that are more popular among trail runners and mountain bikers, but the Pumpkin Loop is a very popular wide dirt/gravel trail that's about 2.5 miles long. Access it from Municipal Drive off Hwy 86 (MLK, Jr. Blvd.) and start where the pavement meets the gravel or drive up the gravel a bit to the parking lot for the trail. The Pumpkin Loop itself is just 2.5 miles but if you run the gravel access from Municipal Drive and back that will put you just short of 3 miles. You also have the option of doing the loop multiple times or exploring the single track trails to tack on more mileage.

Some of the single-track paths are very popular with mountain bikers and have ramps and jumps. The Pumpkin Loop is frequently used as an access trail for mountain bikers.

The Pumpkin Loop is a pleasant hike or run with just enough elevation change and twists and turns to make it interesting, but not so much that it isn't accessible to those newer to trail running and hiking. (This was my first ever trail run and still holds a special place in my heart).

My dad pauses for a break on a rock by the gravel trail.

I recommend the trail for spring or fall when the hardwoods look their best, but it's a great option year-round. Bring water, be mindful of signs posted at the gate, be respectful and don't get on the single-track trails if they're closed - usually right after heavy rains, and enjoy the peaceful greenwood tucked in the heart of Chapel Hill.

We found a few blackberry patches beside the trail.

The trail is maintained by UNC; don't trespass if the gate is closed and locked and mind the signs at the trailhead.

Hike It:

Get there: You can access the trails at the parking lot at Carolina North Forest.

Pumpkin Loop actually shows up on Google Maps, but the parking lot doesn't. To get there:

Get to MLK Jr. Blvd (Hwy 86) in Chapel Hill. You can get here by taking exit 266 from I-40 and heading south towards UNC, or you can start at UNC's campus and head north on N. Columbia St and then continue onto MLK Jr. Blvd. Just north of Estes Dr. there's a light for Piney Mountain Road. You want to turn at this light, but not onto Piney Mountain, turn instead on Municipal Drive, as if you were going to the animal shelter. You'll follow an S-curve along Municipal Drive and then it will turn sharply left towards some municipal property. Don't follow the road to the sharp left, instead pop onto the gravel road that keeps going straight. You'll stay on the gravel road for a good 0.4 mile or so. The gravel road will take you past a wooded area and some outdoor storage for UNC, but it will eventually end at the trailhead for Pumpkin Loop with a parking lot to the right. I've got it marked on the map below. If you look on the official trail map the parking lot is marked as "Locust Lot."

Distance: Pumpkin Loop is a wider trail that's mostly natural surface with some added gravel that is about 2.5 miles. You can add mileage by tacking on The Vine trail - as an out-and back bringing you up to about 4.6 miles - or popping onto some of the mountain bike trails, but please note that you do so at your own risk. The mountain bike trails are not marked and they twist and turn considerably, so they aren't the most fun hiking trails, and mileage may vary depending on your trails.

Just Pumpkin Loop:

Create Routes or find more routes in Chapel Hill from millions at MapMyRun

Pumpkin Loop with Vine Trail:

Create Routes or find more routes in Chapel Hill from millions at MapMyHike

Difficulty: Easy. There is some elevation change (they don't call it "Chapel Hill" for nothing) but there are occasional benches and the trail is well-trafficked.

Dog friendly? Yes, but dogs must be leashed.

Kid friendly? Yes.

Tips: Google maps doesn't provide very useful navigation to get there, but never fear! Follow my directions above on how to get there and if you have any trouble or feedback please let me know and I'll update it. The mountain biking trails are convoluted and not well-marked. Either be prepared to go on an adventure and be flexible with your distance or make sure you bring a printed copy of the trail map to get your bearings.

What else can you do in the area? Check out all that UNC has to offer! From events on campus to touring the university to cheering a Tar Heel team to victory to great eating options on Franklin Street and the surrounding area, Chapel Hill is a great place to visit.

Park website:

Trail map:


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