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Graveyards and ghost towns: These NC hiking trails lead to abandoned ruins

Many places in the Triangle area are known for beautiful hiking trails - but did you know several popular hiking spots lead to the remains of abandoned structures, mills and even cemeteries dating back as early as the 1700s?
Posted 2021-07-18T13:39:51+00:00 - Updated 2023-03-17T17:38:59+00:00

Many places in the Triangle area are known for beautiful hiking trails – but did you know several popular hiking spots lead to the remains of abandoned structures, mills and even cemeteries dating back as early as the 1700s?

If you've ever trekked around the woods near Umstead Park, the Eno River, Falls Lake or Jordan Lake, you've likely walked right past these crumbling old structures – possibly without even realizing it.

So here's a guide to some great summertime hiking that'll also lead to historic adventures. The places listed are on public spaces, but it's advised to look from a distance – please do not touch or climb on these antique remnants.

1. Occoneechee Speedway

Frozen in time in the woods along the Eno River is the last remaining dirt speedway from NASCAR's inaugural 1949 season.

Owned by the king of NASCAR himself – Bill France, Sr. of Daytona Beach fame – the overgrown, one-mile track still holds rusted race cars with tattered seat cushions and steering wheels.

Visitors can see the grandstands with faded paint and Pepsi logos, as well as overgrown stone seating.

The track ran for around 20 years during its heyday, when legends like Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty roared around the track.

Before that, it served as a racetrack for the 'sport of kings:' Horse racing.

In the 50-or-so years since it closed its gates, the Occoneechee Speedway has been added to the National Register of Historic Places and is preserved by the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust.

See the Occoneechee Speedway for yourself.

2. Abandoned, overgrown stretch of old Highway 98 beneath Falls Lake

A crumbling, overgrown stretch of old Highway 98 stretches through the woods near Falls Lake before disappearing beneath the water's surface.

Hikers can walk for about 10 full minutes down the old ghost road.

In fact, abandoned segments of old roads can be found all around Falls Lake. Prior to 1978, the lake didn't exist. When it was built, it swallowed several roads – including Old Six Forks Road, Possum Track, Choplin and Old Bayleaf, which also have portions underwater.

When Falls Lake was created, the surrounding rural community was heavily impacted. Some local family farms were relocated, leaving their houses and old roads behind. Some people have said old moonshine stills can still be found out in the woods surrounding the lake – remnants from another era.

3. Old mills, chimneys and homesteads at Umstead Park

Hidden in the miles of trails and wilderness at William B. Umstead State Park are the remains of homesteads, farms, mills and even graveyards of the families that called that land home in the 1800s and early 1900s.

An occasional stone chimney hiding amidst the trees may reveal the site of an old homestead.

The community that lived there long before it became a state park was a thriving, self-contained community that produced its own corn meal and dairy. There was a school, a church, a little store, a cotton mill and a grist mill.

The farming community was destroyed when it was purchased in the 1930s.

Hikers with a watchful eye may notice small patches of tulips growing in special spots around the woods. Anywhere you see tulips – or a very large, old oak tree – that's where someone's front yard used to be.

4. Old water pump station on the Eno River

Maps of the Eno River show multiple pockets of historic remnants from the generations of people who lived on the riverbanks.

Places like the Cole Homesite, Dunnagan's Grave and the Holden Mill Road Settlement are marked on hiking maps, indicating places where hikers can explore remnants that have survived from centuries ago.

The towering stone walls of the Water Pump Station overlook the riverbank; inside, the basement is like a labyrinth of stone walls and rusted pipes.

Built in 1887 by a Boston firm called A.H. Howland, it supplied water to the growing Durham community. It also became a popular summer hot spot for swimming and picnicking along the riverbank.

Even today, more than a century later, the giant pump house still draws swimmers and hikers.

5. Cabelands Cemetery and mill on the Eno River

If it seems like the Eno River has a lot of abandoned, historic hiking sites – that's because it does! The waterway has been the lifeblood for North Carolina communities dating all the way back to when the Shakori, Occoneechee and Eno tribes made their homes there.

The land was also settled by early European colonists – including the Cabe family, who settled the land in 1780 and left behind remnants of their homes, mills and family cemetery.

Near the Cabelands section of the Eno's trails, hikers may spy a crumbling mill with iconic archways or the broken headstones and sunken graves of the Cabe family cemetery

Only 12 graves bear official markers; however, historians say the burial site holds 51 graves. Some graves are notable only by the way the ground sinks nearly a foot deeper, forming coffin-sized divots in the earth.

6. Carbonton Dam on the Deep River

Along the foggy banks of the Deep River stands an eerie remnant from a century ago. The overgrown, hollowed remains of the Carbonton Dam date back to an era when rivers were the lifeblood of North Carolina communities.

Still standing tall along the shore after roughly 100 years, the dam was built in the 1920s as the first electrical power plant in the Sandhills.

As old as it is, this antique dam was built in the footprint of even older mills and dams, possibly dating back to earlier than the Revolutionary War and the founding of North Carolina itself.

Podcast: Hear the history behind hiking trails with abandoned ruins

WRAL's Hidden Historian Heather Leah is a seventh-generation North Carolinian with a passion for preserving the state's culture and history. Listen as WRAL's Amanda Lamb and Heather Leah discuss which hiking trails in the Triangle lead to the most interesting and historic abandoned ruins.