North Carolina’s Research Triangle Offers Delightful Exploration
Prestigious university campuses add to the state’s beauty and culture
I’ve always loved college towns and walking their beautifully landscaped campuses, botanical gardens and arboreta, as well as sampling their cultural offerings and diverse cuisine. Called the “Research Triangle,” North Carolina’s triumvirate of academic cities — Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham, home to the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University, respectively — offer an array of sights and tastes to explore.
I fuel my first morning in Chapel Hill at the Carolina Coffee Shop on East Franklin Street, the UNC student-focused artery that fronts McCorkle Place. After breakfast, I walk around the corner to The Ackland, UNC’s art museum that is both a teaching facility and public gallery. There, I take in “Aligned by the Sun (Through the Revolution),” a compelling video installation of overlapping sunsets recorded by artists in more than 200 countries. The museum also features a permanent collection of more than 20,000 pieces, plus traveling exhibitions in a wide range of mediums, so there’s plenty to see and explore before heading back outdoors toward the university’s Coker Arboretum.
On the way, I pass the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, a public education and school research facility with installations such as the new Breakthrough Hub, a series of interactive exhibits that detail the work of UNC researchers, and the GSK Fulldome Theater, host to an array of visual programs focused on the earth and beyond.
Coker Arboretum is managed by the North Carolina Botanical Garden, an extension of UNC. Exhaustively exploring the arboretum's 5 acres of varied green spaces could take days, but I’m content to meander within three distinct reserves: the campus arboretum, Battle Park and the North Carolina Botanical Garden itself.
Unlike the symmetrical brick byways found on McCorkle Place, the Coker’s nature trails prescribe gentle arcs seemingly leading nowhere in particular, until, like the best secret gardens, I happen upon the Central Lawn, Stone Gathering Circle and, my favorite, Abundance of Springs. This central channel is what remains of the historic bog that Dr. William Coker, UNC’s first professor of botany, used as his canvas to compose this verdant landscape and study site. After pausing to admire the overcup oak — a record-sized, swampland specimen that predates the arboretum — I continue a couple of blocks east to Battle Park where I continue my late morning walk.
Battle Park is named for Kemp Plummer Battle, who served as UNC’s president from 1876 to 1891. Battle worked to establish a wild space that encouraged students and faculty to take time in nature. The 93-acre park is a perfect example of a southeastern mixed hardwood forest, oaks, hickories and other broadleaf trees teeming with bird song and the din of annual cicadas. I walk the 1.5-mile gently undulating Battle Branch Trail, stopping to locate a calling pileated woodpecker when four white-tailed deer appear on a slope 20 feet above me, their antlers shrouded in late summer velvet.
After admiring the deer, bathed in the morning sun, I retrace my steps to the corner of East Franklin and Columbia for an order of wild mushroom grit cakes at Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, a local institution accented in baby blue and Tar Heel sports memorabilia. After lunch, I'm off to flex my legs with one more flora foray.
Located just a few miles outside of town, the North Carolina Botanical Garden is a must-visit for anyone interested in the state’s diverse ecosystems. Founded in 1927, the garden planners’ goal was to include every North Carolina native plant species in one location. I spend a good 20 minutes in optical pursuit of a swallowtail butterfly feeding on Joe Pye weed within the coastal plain habitat, then commit twice as much time trying to capture close-ups of bulbous bumble bees pollinating a stand of tiger lilies in the courtyard gardens.
Come evening, I opt for a bowl of delicious mussels at Market and Moss, located 3 miles from the NC Botanical Garden in Southern Village.
College towns are always full of surprises — cosmopolitan refuges that entice talented people to innovate well beyond the laboratory. They also tend to possess great brunch spots, and Durham’s Guglhupf Bakery, Café & Biergarten is an example of this alchemy. The vision of Durham transplant Claudia Kemmet-Cooper, Guglhupf is the kind of establishment where I could loiter for hours, perhaps moving with book and journal from the leafy terrace to the indoor mezzanine as the day progresses. However, there’s a Duke University visit and bike ride on my calendar today, so I drive to the nearby university and park at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens.
I’ve visited exceptional university botanical gardens all over North America, but I’m still unprepared for these breathtaking gardens, part of the esteemed university’s campus. Landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman redesigned these sumptuous plantings in the 1930s, which consist of 55 acres that include reflecting pools, historic and native sections as well as the Asiatic Arboretum. Taken altogether, the Duke Gardens provide an ideal layout for meandering with no one save your musings for company.
I depart the gardens via the Memorial Gate that opens directly onto campus toward the Duke University Chapel. Rising above the sylvan campus, the 90-year-old gothic chapel was chiefly designed by Julian Abele, an African-American architect from Philadelphia.
The 8,600+ acre Duke campus is beautiful, and I find it hard to leave. I do save time to visit the Nasher Museum of Art, where I admire the colorful abstractions in “Roy Lichtenstein: History in the Making, 1948–1960,” a visual chronicle of the pop artist’s formative years.
I then rent a bike from Durham’s Bullseye Bicycle, and bisect an expanding downtown core on my way to the American Tobacco Trail.
This 22.2-mile ATT, a rails-to-trails project that begins at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, is part of the East Coast Greenway, the 3,000-mile trail system that stretches from Maine to Florida. I pedal for 10 miles or so along a paved, tree-lined, mostly flat section that cuts through the surrounding neighborhoods before turning back toward downtown Durham. That evening, I check out Dram & Draught, which offers hand-crafted cocktails, wine, regional beers and more than 300 varieties of whiskey.
I wake the next morning excited to travel to the NC State campus to play golf at the Lonnie Poole Golf Course, the only collegiate track in America designed by gold legend Arnold Palmer. As much as I love Palmer’s designs, I’m more intrigued by Lonnie Poole’s status as an Audubon International Signature Golf Sanctuary. In addition to bluebird boxes and managed wetlands along the course, volunteers have planted more than 1,000 milkweed specimens to establish a critical monarch butterfly habitat.
My next stop is the outdoor North Carolina Museum of Art. I expect a pleasant set of courtyard sculptures, but what I discover astounds me: 164 acres of meadow, pond and woodland transected by 4.7 miles of mostly paved trails. I learn that the area is connected to the Capital Area Greenway, Raleigh’s impressive nonmotorized artery with more than 100 miles of paved and gravel trails. A quick survey of the greenway map illustrates the entire city is transected by these trails.
One of my favorite elements of walking through a sculpture park is the blend of art and utilitarian design. For example, the sculpture “Benches and Bicycle Racks” by Alvin Frega clearly serves two purposes. There’s also an unidentified red platform that hovers above a ravine in the wooded section that may or may not be a work of art, though it certainly is as beautiful as it is functional.
Chris Drury’s “Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky” looks like a simple small stone hut, until I read the description and learn the environmental artist has constructed a living camera obscura, a pinhole aperture that casts the sky and clouds on the interior floor. This peaceful visual effect, in tandem with the silence within the stone enclosure, makes it challenging to exit the chamber and return to the outer world. That is until I remember my dinner finale: North Carolina barbecue.
I love barbecue and even though the caloric intake can be difficult to justify, I’m in North Carolina, so I’m not leaving without some. I head to Sam Jones BBQ and order a Jones Family Original BBQ Tray, which means heaps of pulled pork, potato salad, baked beans and cornbread. After sampling this combination of flavors, and taking in the rich cultural and horticultural offerings of the Tar Heel State, I depart from my Southern sojourn more than satisfied.
Aging Playfully Series
Check out these columns, and stay tuned for more coming soon:
- Series Introduction: The ‘Just Do It’ Lifestyle
- E-Biking Through the Finger Lakes
- Walking in England and Ireland
- Paddle Your Way Across Canada
- North American Gardens You Should Visit
- Four Days on the Central California Coast
Crai S. Bower is a Seattle-based freelancer whose work has appeared in AARP The Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, enRoute, AAA Journey and more. He is a recipient of a 2022 Lowell Thomas Award for Excellence in Travel Journalism for the essay “Love After Divorce: Sharing a Mutual Passion for the Slopes,” which appeared on AARP Members Only Access. Follow his adventures on Instagram @travelcrais.
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