Last Updated on June 9, 2021
Last Updated on June 9, 2021
If you plan to visit Western NC, please check beforehand to see if the area is safe following the recent flooding. Officials have closed some sections of Pisgah National Forest (including Forest Heritage Scenic Byway and Blue Ridge Parkway stops) to keep visitors out of danger. Please respect signage and local guidance.
Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is a 140-acre park that’s managed by the Town of Cary in Wake County. It’s home to well-kept trails, the 3,700 square foot Stevens Nature Center, and 235 trees that do not belong in Central North Carolina.
Since many people come here to see the Eastern Hemlock in its not-so-natural habitat, this guide will dig into these interesting trees. We’ll also share more ways to enjoy this bucket list-worthy spot and why we keep coming back.
This post is part of our series on hikes near Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. The Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve trails were also included in our guides covering the best things to do in Cary and also, hiking in North Carolina.
Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve Quick Guide
Address: 2616 Kildaire Farm Rd, Cary, NC 27518
When to Visit Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve (Open Hours)
Today, you can visit Hemlock Bluffs any day of the year from 9:00 am to sunset. The Stevens Nature Center is open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sundays from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.
For the latter, those hours are good throughout the year, with the exception being any Town of Cary-recognized holidays. Then, the Stevens Nature Center and the on-site restroom facilities will be closed.
Things We Love About Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve
Eastern Hemlock Trees
The Eastern Hemlock tree is in the same family as the pines, which you’ll notice by the prevalence of needles and cones around the preserve. Another similarity is a flaky and ridged bark like a typical pine.
Major distinctions of the Eastern Hemlock include feathery, short needles and you’ll notice the treetop is typically bent to one side.
Why Abnormal in Central North Carolina Today?
The reason we view the Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve as “abnormal” is that these trees don’t belong in Central North Carolina. Typically, you’ll find these trees in the mountains of Western North Carolina. That’s because these hemlocks thrive in cooler, wetter climates that a higher altitude provides.
Of course, fossil evidence does indicate that about 10,000 years ago, many more Eastern Hemlocks could be found in this region of today’s North Carolina. Around that time was when this area averaged much cooler temperatures, due to this being the last glacial era.
So the 235 trees left today is essentially the remnants of a time when Eastern Hemlocks dominated the landscape of this area.
Bluffs (The Key Ingredient)
However, the climate is only part of why the Eastern Hemlock trees can survive at this spot in Cary. The reason these particular trees have survived is that they rest on north-facing bluffs.
The steep cliffs offer that much-needed moist and cool “microclimate” for the trees to survive. This is why bluffs are the key ingredient to the nature preserve.
Aside from the Eastern Hemlocks that you’ll see the center of the Stevens Nature courtyard, they naturally grow on the bluffs of Swift Creek.
Interesting History (Becoming a Nature Preserve)
The State of North Carolina made initial purchases of the land that became Hemlock Bluffs in 1976. A few years later, the preserve was officially recognized as a State Nature and Historic Preserve. An additional 50 acres of land was donated in the 1980s to make up the rest of the preserve that we know today. It’s now owned and managed by the Town of Cary.
Hemlock Bluffs Trails
A walk along the Hemlock Bluffs trails and a visit to the nature center for additional programs are the main things to do here.
To access the four recognized trails at Hemlock Bluffs, you’ll first pass through the Stevens Nature Center.
Turn right after passing the displayed hemlocks and you’ll find yourself on the Swift Creek Loop (.8 Mile). You’ll then head down about 100 stairs and then walk on mix of boardwalk and mulched paths. Views of the Hemlock trees, East Bluffs, and Swift Creek await on this path.
Turn left after the entrance and you can walk all the way around the Chestnut Oak Loop Trail (1.2 miles). You can also opt for either the West Hemlock Overlook (0.7 miles) or Beech Tree Cove Trail (0.9 miles). All of these trails are mulched and have some inclines along the way.
Only Beech Tree Cove Trail is “stroller-accessible,” as the other trails involve stairs or uneven terrain.
Stevens Nature Center
If you have any questions about the Eastern Hemlocks and how they work here and need further learnings, visit the Stevens Nature Center. Inside, a series of detailed exhibits will take you through the ecosystem and wildlife that awaits just outside.
That includes the bluffs, the Eastern Hemlocks, but the birds, reptiles, and mammals who inhabit the area, too. While the exhibits serve as great supplementary material for those who walk the trails, they also provide an experience to those who may not be able to access the sometimes uneven terrain.
Walk around the Stevens Nature Center and you’ll see a few designated gardens. The Wildflower Garden features area-native plants while the Children’s Garden includes projects completed by students of Hemlock Bluffs programs.
And next to the Hemlock trees in front of the trail entrance is the Recycled Art Garden (pictured above). This cool collection demonstrates the fact that a garden can be created from things we use every day.
Classrooms and Shelters
I’d personally be happy with just the trails and the Stevens Nature Center but the folks at Hemlock Bluffs really do offer more than a nature preserve. If you visit when a class is in session, you might pass some of the students during one of the science or art classes and camps offered.
Adults and seniors can also join the fun, with more info available here. These functions are typically conducted in either the classroom or outdoor education shelter.
Ready to Explore Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve?
From the moment you step outside your car and into this well-shaded park, you’ll quickly learn why we’re hooked on this place. The trails are the reason why we first came here but all the fun in and around the Stevens Nature Center are a big part of why we’ll keep coming back.
This is a place that would serve as a wonderful introduction to Cary. However, it’s also a tribute to the diverse nature that you’ll find in Central North Carolina. Because it might not be the mountains or the sea here, but all the fun in between that keeps us in love with this part of the state.