Take A Walk In The ‘Local’ Woods: Duke Forest, Trees, Mushrooms, & Rhododendrons

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

Most university towns are known for offering many affordable amenities and a better quality of life to their residents and Durham must be at the top of this list because in addition to the traditional offerings of sports, continuing education classes, good hospitals, speakers and concerts, Durham has many unique outdoor recreational opportunities not found at other great college towns. The Duke Lemur Center, Duke Gardens and, of course, the Duke Forest are unique attractions to Durham.

(Photographs were taken by Wendy Diaz on October 4, 2016 along the Laurel Hill Fire/Foot Trail in the Korstian Division of Duke Forest during a guided tour by former Duke Forest Director Mr. Judd Edeburn.)


Entrance sign near Gate 26 (public access point) to Korstian Division of Duke Forest



Brief History

Duke Forest consists of six divisions and is owned and operated by Duke University and covers 7,052 acres of forested land and open fields in Durham, Orange and Alamance Counties with a full-time staff of 5 and many volunteers. The largest portion of land is in Orange County. Its mission, since 1931, is to facilitate research concerning forest and aquatic ecosystems and to teach and educate students about stewardship of our natural resources. And thankfully, Duke Forest serves as an outdoor recreational area for the local community.


Abandoned depleted farmland and scattered forest land was purchased in the 1920’s through a land agent acting on behalf of Duke to support the expansion of Trinity College into Duke University. Gullies and furrows still can be seen along the forest floor from this past cultivation. Lands that were surplus to the Campus expansion were put under the management of Duke Forest’s first director Dr. Clarence Korstian. Dr. Korstian was the founding Dean of the School of Forestry at Duke and expanded the forest greatly under his direction and used funds derived from timber harvesting to increase its size.

During the depression, unmarried men, employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC; part of The New Deal), designed and built many of the roads and culverts in the forest. In 1925, James B. Duke and Duke’s first president, Mr. William Preston Few, discovered an abandoned quarry in Hillsborough and Mr. Duke purchased the quarry situated in a 5 acre section of the Hillsboro Division of Duke Forest to provide both aesthetic and economical source of stone for Duke’s West Campus buildings. The 400 million year old metamorphic volcanic rock (phyllite of the Carolina Slate Belt) in this quarry is streaked with multiple colors, which gives and enhances the Duke West Campus buildings distinctive gothic look.

On September 6, 1996, Hurricane Fran caused extensive damage from torrential rainfall and 80 mile per hour wind gusts to Duke Forest and over 80% of the canopy along the Shepherd Nature Trail in the Durham Division were blown down.

Large hardwood tree blown down by Hurricane Fran.

The largest and most highly funded research project to take place in Duke Forest was the Forest-Atmosphere Carbon Transfer and Storage (FACE) project and facility located in the Blackwood Division of the forest and in operation since June 1994 and decommissioned in 2010. Core funding came from The Department of Energy. The major findings published after seven years of the experiment were that when the loblolly pine trees were exposed to elevated levels of carbon dioxide they grew faster than trees situated in control plots but the accelerated growth was limited by the nutrients available in the forest soil. Researchers also determined that poison ivy grew 149 percent faster and contained more urushiol in the enriched plots than in the control plots of the forest.

Forest Management

Duke Forest is guided by a comprehensive plan and the management is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which follows the Forest Stewardship Council strict standards. Timber production and harvesting occurs while insuring forest health, water quality and wildlife habitat. Rare species, unique ecosystems, historical sites (old gold prospect) and archaeological resources (three historic water-powered mill sites dating from early European settlement) are protected (Patterson Mill, Robson Mill and Hartford Mill) as well as the Alexander Hogan Plantation site. The Hogan Plantation site of 1,938 acres was originally settled by John Hogan who was the former Colonel of the Minute Men of Orange County in 1790. One parcel of this plantation, the Alexander Hogan Site is situated within the Duke Forest and was inhabited from 1838 until 1890 and listed as on The National Register of Historical Places.

The timber management program generates a large portion of the funds necessary to operate and sustain the Duke Forest for the natural ecosystems, Duke’s academic research and teaching as well for public enjoyment. The managed forestry practices such as natural regeneration, prescribed burning, thinning and harvesting are all practiced here. The cycle can take decades depending on the tree species. The NC Natural Heritage Program (http://www.ncnhp.org) authorized by the NC Nature Preserves Act and the state government identified twelve Significant Natural Heritage Areas (SNHA) in Duke Forest. Every three years, Duke Forest staff monitor these 12 sites registered in the North Carolina Registry of Natural Heritage Areas. These areas provide an example of what the Piedmont looked like before European settlement activities disturbed the natural landscape. These areas are excluded from timber harvesting.

Signage detailing forestry practices for this section of pine along the trail.

Duke Forest also monitors, treats and tracks the spread of invasive plant species to limit their disruption on the ecology of the native forest. The worst species in Duke Forest are: Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense), Chinese Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) and Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).

Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) and other weed

For the 9th year in a row, Duke Forest is currently conducting a deer reduction program from September 26 to December 16, 2016. During this time, three divisions (Durham, Korstian and Blackwood Divisions) are closed to public access during the workweek from Monday through Friday. Duke Forest allows highly regulated bow hunting of deer on these portions of the forest to prevent overgrazing of the understory plants and young trees.

Recreational Opportunities

Hiking, biking, horseback riding, fishing, and picnics are permitted in Duke Forest.  Duke Forest recently upgraded their trail system in Korstian Division by constructing a spur so that the rare (for this area) native rhododendron (SNHA) situated along the north facing slope of New Hope Creek could be protected and at the same time allow limited public access to Rhododendron Bluff overlooking New Hope Creek along the Laurel Hill Foot Trail.






Rehabilitation of old Laurel Hill fire trail and sign direction to newly upgraded Laurel Hill foot trail to New Hope Creek Rhodendron Bluff

This is one of the most popular trails in Duke Forest with many of Duke Forest’s SNHAs located in the Korstian Division. Timber harvesting does not occur in these areas and they are regularly monitored to protect them. The Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber) and the Catawba rhododendron (Rododendron catawbiense) are noteworthy species found in the Rhododendron Bluff area.



Small plot of native rhododendrons near bluff area
Looking down to New Hope Creek from Rhododendron Bluff


New boardwalk leads to Rhododendron Bluff
Hiking on Laurel Hill Foot Trail, Korstian Division


New Hope Creek
Large beech tree, Korstian Division


This time of year you may also see many different species of mushrooms along this trail and get a good view along New Hope Creek. If you would like more information about the projects and outreach activities the Duke Forest Office publishes, several times a year, a bulletin (Duke Forest Log) that you can subscribe to at http://dukeforest.duke.edu/bulletin-the-duke-forest-log/. I would encourage you to try some of the local foot trails for a short hike and enjoy our local nature courtesy of Duke University right next door to our urban landscape! Remember, Duke Forest in Durham and Korstian Divisions are only open to the public on weekends for walking from September 26 to December 16, 2016 due to deer hunting. You can purchase your own trail map from the office of the Duke Forest or http://dukeforest.duke.edu/location-maps/maps/






Korstian Rehabilitation Project:https://dukeforestproject.wordpress.com/korstian-trails-project/


Click to access Shepherd-Trail.pdf

FACE project:https://www.bnl.gov/face/DukeForest-FACE.asp



Duke quarry:https://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/uarchives/history/articles/duke-stone

Invasive Plants: http://dukeforest.duke.edu/files/2014/01/DF_LOG_Fall2015_FINAL_2Nov15.pdf

Maps: https://dukeforestproject.wordpress.com/trail-rehabilitation-map/