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Falls Lake Dam near Raleigh is a Major Recreation Hub

By Johnny Molloy • May 6, 2018 at 7:00 AM

Falls Lake, located on the North Carolina Piedmont north of Raleigh, is a huge impoundment of the Neuse River, built for flood control and also to provide drinking water for the Triangle (as the megalopolis of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina is known). Falls Lake has also become a huge outdoor destination for residents of the Triangle, as is evidenced by the Falls Lake Dam Recreation Area, where the Neuse River is dammed. Here, adventurers can fish the tailrace of Falls Lake Dam, paddle the Neuse River, motorboat, fish and ski on Falls Lake, bicycle the Neuse River Trail greenway, and hike.

I still remember being stunned when pulling up to the Falls Lake tailrace fishing area to hike a short loop near Falls Lake Dam. I expected to perhaps see a few anglers milling around the parking area and a stray hiker or two but I did not expect to see dozens of bicyclers and cars with bicycle racks. It was confusing!

Then I recalled the Neuse River Trail, a popular bicycling greenway and part of the greater capital area greenways network started here and heading almost 28 miles along the Neuse River, making connections to other greenways along the way. I even saw someone unloading a kayak, fixing to embark on a paddling trip down the Neuse from the canoe/kayak launch here.

Despite being a fishing, paddling and bicycling trailhead it is also an important hiker trailhead. This is the eastern terminus of the 60-mile Falls Lake Trail which stretches along the south shore of Falls Lake all the way to Pennys Bend Nature Preserve.

Just so you know, the Falls Lake Trail and the Mountains to Sea Trail run conjunctively, so you may see signage and references to the Falls Lake Trail also being the Mountains to Sea Trail. The Mountains to Sea Trail is a long path, still being built, that begins at Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park then works its way easterly through North Carolina’s mountains across the Piedmont, including right here along Falls Lake and easterly all the way to the Outer Banks, ending at Nags Head and the Atlantic Ocean.

While here, make sure and stop at the Falls Lake Dam Visitor Center. They have interpretive displays, maps and other worthwhile information to help you better appreciate and enjoy the area, which includes not only the tailrace, but also all the activities on the lake itself, such as motor boating, sailing, swimming, fishing and skiing.

Consider hiking a section of the Falls Lake Trail/Mountains to Sea Trail from here, you can make a short 1.7 mile loop. You can actually start near the dam tailrace and walk to the visitor center. After nearing the visitor center, come along a rocky slope overlooking Falls Lake. Rewarding water panoramas can be had here. After your lake views you can head back toward the tailrace area via the Blue Dot Trail. With a hiking time of plus or minus an hour, you will have opportunity to engage in other outdoor pursuits from the recreation hub that is Falls Lake Dam.

Starting at this very same trailhead is the Triangle’s premier greenway, the aforementioned Neuse River Trail. Leaving from the tailrace below Falls Lake Dam, this almost 28-mile greenway is the pride of the Raleigh trail system. The paved path crosses wetlands on boardwalk bridges, passes historical sights and goes along agricultural fields, as well as along the river, forested floodplains and over tributaries. The greenway also crosses the Neuse River twice on pedestrian bridges.

Finished in 2014, the Neuse River Trail was over 40 years in the making (Let us keep that in mind when expanding the trail systems and greenways of the Tri-Cities). The capital area greenways system was adopted as an idea by the Raleigh City Council in 1976. It was another 20 years before they finished a master plan for what they called the Neuse River Corridor, a sort of linear regional park. Their goal was to preserve the full width of the floodplain along the Neuse River while putting in an asphalt trail extending the entire length of the Neuse River from Falls Lake Dam to the Johnson County line. And along this linear regional park, the City Council wanted to have larger, more traditional parks at a spacing of every 2 to 3 miles. This would not only deliver additional activities for visitors to the Neuse River corridor but also provide access points for users of the greenway.

The plan was adopted and the city of Raleigh purchased over 2,000 acres of land along the Neuse River floodplain. Other greenways connect to the Neuse River Trail, including the Abbotts Creek Trail, the Crabtree Creek Trail the Walnut Creek Trail and others. Adjacent Johnson County has gotten in on the act and extended the trail 5 miles from the Wake County line to the town of Clayton.

For those coming to enjoy the Falls Lake Trail near Falls Lake Dam, a bicycle trip on the Neuse River Trail is a welcome addition to activities from this trailhead. Savvy paddlers embark from this very same location, floating down the Neuse River in canoes or kayaks, then use the greenway to walk or pedal back to the tailrace area.

Come to think of it, outdoor adventurers could come here and engage in a triathlon of sorts -- hiking the Falls Lake Trail, paddling the Neuse River and bicycling the Neuse River Trail greenway – all from the same location!

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