Bordered by Raleigh-Durham International Airport to its west and Interstate 40 to its south, this 5,439-acre state park is one of North Carolina’s most expansive landscapes resulting from the New Deal. In 1934 state and federal agencies purchased a 5,000-acre tract of submarginal farmland between the cities of Durham and Raleigh. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) systematically dismantled the farms and revegetated the landscape, which had been densely forested prior to human settlement.
The park opened to the public in 1937 as Crabtree Creek Recreational Demonstration Area, a Whites-only facility with several campgrounds, twenty miles of hiking trails, and three manmade lakes. Heavily wooded areas typical of the eastern Piedmont region were retained on the hilly landscape, with sections of pure pine stands and mixed pines and hardwoods, such as dogwoods and tulip poplars. Many multi-use trails and bridle paths follow the routes of the roads that predate the park, and there are traces of extant industrial structures, including several water-powered mills and a series of stone dams.
In 1950 the southernmost 1,234 acres of the landscape were demarcated as “separate but equal” Reedy Creek State Park, so named for the creek that runs from the southwest edge of the park grounds to the manmade Reedy Creek Lake. In 1955 Crabtree Creek Recreational Area was renamed William B. Umstead State Park after a former conservation-minded governor, and in 1966 the entire property was reintegrated as one park open to both White and African American communities. Two separate park entrances remain as a reminder of its fifteen years as a segregated landscape. A 61-acre National Natural Landmark, the Piedmont Beech Natural Area, is situated within the park. This environmentally sensitive landscape is accessible by permit only and is one of the best-preserved existing examples of a mixed-mesophytic forest in the region.