My Catawba County

Trail Runner's Heaven

Trail Runner's Heaven

As we continue to explore the Year of the Trail in Catawba County, we’re taking you along on a run at Riverbend Park - a 680-acre scenic gem located along the banks of the Catawba River. Check out this trip report to inspire your own visit to the Catawba County park affectionately known as “trail runner’s heaven.”

Watch a video of this trail run here!

Run Statistics:
Distance: 4.5 miles
Estimated Time: 45 minutes - 1 hour
Elevation Gain: 570 feet
Difficulty: Intermediate

Run Overview:
Riverbend Park, named after its idyllic location along 1.25 miles of Catawba River shoreline, has been called a "trail runner’s heaven." This 4.3-mile route follows the blue trail on a mixed singletrack and doubletrack course for a flowy and mildly technical trail run. The scenic, varying habitat through a pine and hardwood forest keeps the run interesting while the mix of rolling hills and flat terrain makes for a heart-pumping interval workout. Note: This route is also popular with mountain bikers so caution should be exercised if running with headphones.

Directions to Trailhead:
From I-40, take exit 132 and travel North on NC Hwy 16, turning right onto 1st Avenue North to stay on Hwy 16. The entrance to the park is on the right in 7.6 miles, just before the bridge over the Catawba River at Oxford Dam. Once in the park, follow signs for the overflow parking area. The hike begins at the trailhead for the Blue & Green trails at the far left corner of the lot. If the overflow parking area is closed, park in the main lot, walk up the stairs to the park office and take the gravel path up to the overflow lot, cutting on a diagonal to the trailhead at the far left corner.

Run Description & Details:
Begin on the combined Blue/Green trail, a mixed surface service road comprised of a crushed gravel base topped with dirt and pine needles. As the route travels into the heart of the park through a Virginia pine forest, the grade remains flat, allowing you to ease into your run and tune into the natural surroundings.

At 0.2 miles at map stand 19, take a left to stay on the Blue trail as it splits off from Green. The path narrows slightly to doubletrack, its smooth-surface cushioned with pine needles from the loblolly pines that grow here in the neat, evenly-spaced rows of a former plantation originally intended to produce power poles for Duke Energy. The closed canopy of towering pines through this monoculture, coniferous forest provides shade year-round; pinecones litter the ground, the only hazards through this straight, slightly downhill section where you can start to pick up speed. As the gently rolling trail curves to the left, then to the right at 0.39 miles, it begins a more noticeable descent via two switchbacks that you can bomb down to a crossing over a stream on a wooden platform. The path is a little uneven at 0.56 miles with roots that protrude from the sloped surface, but it’s wide enough to detour around them.

On the other side of the crossing, the trail inclines steeply for 100 feet before veering to the left, then levels off and meanders on rolling terrain, the banks decorated with lush evergreen fronds of the Christmas fern. Just past the curve to the left at 0.74 miles, bear straight at a split, avoiding the left turn so not to miss an interesting sight in this section of the plantation that had been clear cut some 15 years ago. As the rooty trail narrows slightly and winds gently on a gradual descent, look for a distinct pair of curved pine trees, affectionately known as the “Twisted Sisters,” on the right at 0.88 miles. These weren’t formed naturally; on the contrary, they were caused by the incomplete cutting of seedlings that came up after the mature trees were harvested. Not cut all the way through and left lying to the side, the seedlings continued to grow curved before straightening up vertically toward the sunlight. They are a curious sight that’s hard to miss even as you gain speed on the decline that gets more noticeable after the trail that had split off earlier rejoins from the left at 0.92 miles, widening the path on the approach to map stand 3 at 0.98 miles.

Turn right to stay on the Blue trail as it joins with Red and travels through a riparian habitat along the Catawba River forested by sycamores, river birches and poplars, the diversity and vibrancy of habitat striking in comparison to the homogeneous scenery thus far. This is one of the few areas along the route that may be muddy after significant rain, with some slick spots on the hard-packed clay surface but, as one runner described it, it’s “doable mud” with no significant areas of standing water to slosh through. The wide route is flowy as the trail curves to the right and rolls ever so gently downhill, paralleling the park’s main creek that splits the property in two.

At the intersection with the Green trail at map stand 4 at 1.23 miles, turn left to cross the creek over a culvert; the trail immediately curves sharply to the left past a sign for a waterfall picnic area on the right. In 250 feet, the Blue trail splits off to the right and ascends into an upland forest dominated by oaks, hickories and short leaf pines. This is where the hard work begins as the uneven surface turns to singletrack and climbs steeply for 200 feet before leveling off and meandering on a rolling terrain on a gradual but consistent incline. The roots on the path become more noticeable as the route remains technical between 1.52-1.79 miles and gets especially rooty at 1.7 miles, so watch your footing as you pick your way through here; use the roots to push you off or avoid them altogether as best you can.

Another noticeable change in terrain awaits at 1.79 miles as the trail surface returns to soft, cushy pine needles; the windy, mostly smooth singletrack path through the tall pine trees makes for a fun, flowy section where you can once again pick up speed over the next 0.2 miles. The route curves around and drops down to a creek crossing at 2.1 miles, traveling on an uneven rock on the approach to the stream. On the other side of the crossing awaits a short punchy climb: steep, rooty and rocky for 250 feet before a gradual descent to a crossing with the Red trail at map stand 14 at 2.24 miles. (That last half mile makes for great interval training!)

Continuing straight through the junction, you’ll notice on the right a carpet of running cedar, a groundcover plant related to ferns also known as fan clubmoss for its branches arranged in fan-like sprays. As you come to an uneven area at 2.36 miles, roots practically form steps that can be danced on the way down past a “trail closed” sign. Keep left past the sign and travel through this mildly technical rolling section of benched-in singletrack. The Green trail joins in from the left at 2.48 miles as the path widens to doublewide, swings to the right, crosses over a culvert at 2.51 miles and ascends continuously for 0.15 miles on a packed pebble surface. At 2.65 miles, it levels off and comes to a T junction; take a right turn onto the Blue trail as it splits away from Green and turns to doubletrack cushioned with pine needles.

The trail is wide, smooth and flowy here for the next quarter mile, offering a chance to pick up some speed before it narrows at 2.91 miles, widens briefly at 2.99 miles and veers off to the right away from a service road. The path becomes singletrack again as it descends via a series of S curves and a horseshoe curve to parallel a high-banked creek. The scenery here is verdant with the evergreen groundcover of lesser periwinkle decorated with large lavender-blue flowers in early spring. Mayapples canopy the ground from March to June with their distinct umbrella-shaped leaves covering a single, fragrant white bloom hidden in the Y of the stem in April which turns into an apple-shaped fruit in May before the plant disappears completely in June. Pass a bench at 3.1 miles as the trail begins a slight climb above and away from the babbling brook through a rocky area before returning to the creek and crossing over it on a wooden platform at 3.17 miles.

The path parallels the creek and comes to another water crossing at 3.26 miles that you should be able to rockhop without getting your feet wet. On the other side of the crossing, the habitat changes noticeably and pine needles once again cushion the ground as the doublewide trail begins a gradual but noticeable climb through a long, flowy 0.2-mile section. At 3.43 miles, veer left and uphill to come to the intersection with the Red trail at map stand 16 at 3.52 miles. The broad path gets a little rooty in spots as it travels on a slight but noticeable incline to cross the Green trail at map stand 17 at 3.74 miles, then a gradual downhill that you can sprint to a crossing of a service road on a curve at 3.85 miles. The trail meanders, narrows and gets more technical on a hard-packed, rooty and rocky dirt surface through another lush area where creeping ground cover blankets both sides as you come to a junction with the Red trail at map stand 20 at 4.13 miles.

Keep straight to stay on the Blue trail as it begins a technical descent down to another scenic area along a creek on the home stretch back to the parking area. It’s flat for just a short distance next to the rocky stream, but prepare for a final push; it begins at a switchback at 4.29 miles as the trail veers up and away from the creek, so be sure to save some gas in the tank for this section. The punchy, technical climb levels off briefly at 4.33 miles then resumes for another 500 feet to where the Red trail joins in from the right at map stand 21 at 4.44 miles. A few steps ahead, the path, now doublewide, reaches the overflow parking lot to end your run at a total distance of 4.5 miles. If you parked at the main lot instead, take the left turn past the storage shed near the trailhead onto a gravel path leading to the office and down the stairs to the parking area.

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 – start of hike at Blue/Green trailhead in overflow parking lot
  • 0.20 – left turn onto Blue at map stand 19
  • 0.60 – wooden platform over stream
  • 0.77 – keep straight at split in trail
  • 0.88 – “Twisted Sisters” loblolly pines
  • 0.98 – right turn onto Blue/Red at map stand 3
  • 1.23 – left turn onto Green/Blue/Red at map stand 4
  • 1.29 – right split uphill onto Blue
  • 2.10 – stream crossing over rocks
  • 2.24 – cross Red at map stand 14
  • 2.48 – Green joins in from the left
  • 2.65 – right turn onto Blue
  • 3.00 – right split away from service road
  • 3.17 – wooden platform over creek
  • 3.26 – stream crossing over rocks
  • 3.43 – veer left away from service road
  • 3.52 – cross Red at map stand 16
  • 3.74 – cross Green at map stand 17
  • 3.85 – cross service road
  • 4.13 – cross Red at map stand 20
  • 4.19 – left detour down to creek
  • 4.44 – Red joins in from the right at map stand 21
  • 4.50 – end of hike at overflow parking lot

Visitor Reviews:
All the trails at Riverbend Park are sweet runs. Small rolling hills, several flats and easy grades on a mostly dirt, some gravel, surface. Several creek crossings, bridges with single track paths. Several sections with a pine needle floor. Every trail junction is marked with a map and number, so you can adjust your routes as you go without fear of getting turned around. Sparsely populated, so lots of alone time. My go-to place to run and I am there frequently. (Trail Run Project review)

The blue trail is fun to run with its flowing mix of single track and double track trail. The trails are well-maintained with no PUDs (pointless ups & downs). Blue weaves through different ecosystems often, so it’s never boring! The natural habitat feels like you’re in the mountains and I have seen deer, turkey, fox and squirrels on my frequent runs here. (In-Person Review on-site)

Every trail at Riverbend is a great trail to run, but blue trail is especially fun.  It has the right balance of smooth trails mixed with some technical sections to keep it interesting, yet still runnable.  The scenery is absolutely gorgeous any season. (In-Person Review on-site)

Riverbend is my favorite place when I'm not working. Blue is my favorite trail although it is tough. The terrain is tough, the rocks are slippery, the ups and downs are killer. On any given day, even if you're running and the rain is coming down sideways, it's a beautiful day at Riverbend. (YouTube review)

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