Rent a Swath of Duke Forest

Reserve a picnic shelter in Duke Forest for $30 or $35 per day

Faculty, staff and graduate students from the Department of Physics gather for their annual picnic at a picnic area in Duke Forest. Photo by Marsha A. Green.
Faculty, staff and graduate students from the Department of Physics gather for their annual picnic at a picnic area in Duke Forest. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, faculty, staff and graduate students from the Physics Department meandered down a narrow, tree-lined lane to a picnic shelter nestled in Duke Forest.

As they gathered around picnic tables laden with nachos and snacks, the chatter of introductions rose and fell, punctuated occasionally by the bark of a dog or "heads up" as an errant Frisbee sailed through the air.

"Meeting in the forest is a long-standing tradition," said Donna Ruger, administrative assistant for the department. "I've been reserving the shelter for the new student welcome party since I first started working here, and that was 22 years ago."

Two picnic shelters in Duke Forest off of Highway 751 are available to Duke community members and the public to rent year round for $30 or $35, depending on the shelter. The sites can be reserved for business or personal use and are available from dawn to 11 p.m. with a reservation.

Each year, 75 to 85 groups from Duke or the surrounding community use the R. L. Rigsbee and Bobby Ross, Jr. shelters for parties, picnics, receptions and other events.

According to Judson Edeburn, manager of Duke Forest, there have been picnic areas in the forest since it opened in 1931, but the shelters now provide gathering spots that can be used even in inclement weather or after dark.

"People enjoy having structured spaces like this to use in a sylvan, relaxing forest," Edeburn said. "They are in use almost every weekend in spring and fall when the weather is at its best."  

Although Duke Forest is a living research laboratory for Duke University and other universities and local schools, Duke also supports  recreational use of the forest. The forest offers 30 miles of gravel roads for biking, running and horseback riding and 7 miles of foot trails for hiking.

The university added picnic shelters in the 1980s and 1990s at the request of people who used the forest frequently.

Students built the shelter at Gate F in 1981 in honor of a Durham logger, R. L. Rigsbee.  The shelter was built with wood that Rigsbee cut and milled from the forest before his death that year. The Rigsbee shelter, where the Physics Department gathered for its welcome party, has a capacity for 50 people and an outhouse, electricity, fire ring, grill, open area for games and sand volleyball court.

The shelter at Gate C was built in 1995 with money donated by Duke employee Susan Ross in memory of her husband, Bobby Ross, Jr. The couple often picnicked in that area of the forest. The shelter costs $30 per day and accommodates up to 75 people. It has a large fireplace, picnic tables and grill but no electricity or bathroom facilities.

Ruger, the administrative assistant who reserves the site for the Physics Department, said the forest is a draw for graduate students. She said they consistently ask her to reserve the Rigsbee shelter for the welcome party because they enjoy the forest setting and volleyball court. "We usually end up with a multi-generation volleyball game at some point in the evening," she said. "I've even taken my grandchildren to the party and they've joined in the game."

The Duke Forest will be closed Monday through Friday from Sept. 24 through Dec. 14 for deer hunting. However, picnic shelters can still be reserved on weekends during this time.