Top Nature Parks in the Raleigh-Durham Area

The nature parks in Raleigh are not only places to sit and be in harmony with Mother Earth, but also some are places of high creativity and inspiration. If you’ve never come to Raleigh before, just peek out your airplane window on your way to landing at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport and you will see nothing but green. This will clue you into the fact that Raleigh’s greatest asset is its natural resources. Lakes, parks, and greenways abound in this state. Here are some top picks for nature parks that one should visit while in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens

This park is part of the Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, Raleigh’s sister city. It is not an easy find, even for locals. It is off the Durham Freeway (Hwy. 147) but from there directions should be obtained by going to their website at It is located on 55-acres of highly stylized garden themes from a rose garden near the entrance, to an Asian-inspired arboretum. There is a terraced garden that culminates in a water-lily pond garden.

The entrance has a very small gift shop next to the Doris Duke Center. In front is a serene waterfall fountain that spans the length of the front side of the center. Within the center are special events rooms, some larger than others, where anyone can schedule weddings or classroom instructions. Admittance to the gardens is free but parking next to the Doris Duke Center is paid, unless you scheduled an event at the center and are entitled to parking passes for your group. One can also pay to schedule trolley tours for a group, if one is not inclined to walk within the grounds.

The breadth of plantings is mind-boggling in this garden. One can see cactus along-side butterfly bushes. The roses come in a myriad of cultivars. The paths and naturalistic architecture is inspiring. If one is lucky enough to go when the wisteria is blooming, you can see the wisteria-covered pergola in its full glory at the top of the terraced gardens.

Jordan Lake State Park

For sports enthusiasts and avid hikers, Jordan Lake State Park is the place to go. This 14,000-acred, man-made lake is used for the area’s water needs and for recreational purposes. There are places to explore this vast State Park from inlets on the south side of Raleigh near Apex all the way to the north side of Raleigh on Creedmore Road. There are eight recreational points on the lake as explained on the Jordan Lake State Park official website at

One can go camping, boating, hiking, swimming, picnicking, fishing and bird watching on this lake, depending on what facility or recreational point one is at. Entrance to the park is minimal at $5 per car from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but many of these recreational areas stop charging in the winter and leaves their gates open. Locals to the Raleigh area take advantage at those times to continue visiting the parks, as the sun glistening on the waters is beautiful year-round.

Shelley Lake Park

Shelley Lake is 53-acres of water located at 1400 West Millbrook road in North Raleigh. One quick way to find it is to get off at the Crabtree Valley Mall exit from I-440 and take Lead Mine Road to Millbrook road. Take a right and it is near the corner of Lead Mine and Millbrook. Admission and parking are free. This park is not as vast as Jordan Lake or the Duke Gardens but its appeal lies in having a little bit of everything. For the sports enthusiasts, one can go hiking or biking on the paved walkway that borders the edge of the lake. There is a boathouse where you can rent paddleboats, motorboats, and canoes and spend the day on the water. One is allowed to fish on Shelley Lake and bait can be bought at the boathouse.

Sea gulls love this place and there is a bridge spanning the entrance where they congregate waiting to be fed by the locals. Children love Shelley lake not just for bird-feeding and watching, but because it has a playground at the entrance of the park that caters to children as old as ten, with swings and a massive playhouse of walls and bridges in the center.

There are a lot of beautiful views on Shelley Lake, but the open areas near the end of the circular path are perfect for picnicking, roller-blading, ball games, and kite-flying. If you get bored with that, head over to the Sertoma Arts Center on your way out. This center hosts showings of artists involved in classes at the art center, which can range from pottery and photography to oil painting.

J.C. Raulston Arboretum

One can’t mention parks without mentioning the J.C. Raulston Arboretum, owned and operated by North Carolina State University. Within its eight acres is a diverse collection of plants suited to our southeastern climate. Gardens range in theme from a Japanese garden to small-scaled model gardens for the home. Driving directions can be found at their website located at Admission and parking are free. The arboretum is open year-round but finding an open entrance may take a little local know-how in the wintertime.

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