Restored Shepherd Trail Interprets Duke Forest’s Past and Present

Duke community is invited to a grand opening celebration April 15 for the newly restored trail

From left to right: Maggie Heraty, left, Shepherd Nature Trail project intern, Duke Forest Director Sara Childs, center, and Duke Forest Operations Manager Jenna Schreiber, right, in front of a new interpretive sign.
From left to right: Maggie Heraty, left, Shepherd Nature Trail project intern, Duke Forest Director Sara Childs, center, and Duke Forest Operations Manager Jenna Schreiber, right, in front of a new interpretive sign.

The Shepherd Nature Trail, a newly restored 0.8-mile loop winding through Duke Forest, meanders through nature and the land’s past and present as the Forest's only interpretive trail.

On Saturday, April 15, the Duke community and public are invited to the trail's grand opening celebration, which kicks off at 9:30 a.m. with refreshments, children's activities and guided hikes. The trail is accessed via Gate C off N.C. Highway 751. A Durham County matching grant helped Duke Forest overhaul signage, improve trail conditions and upgrade infrastructure on the trail.

"The trail keeps the Forest relevant as a resource where we are trying to understand ourselves and our relationship to nature," said Duke Forest Director Sara Childs. "The Forest is not just another park."

Ten new informational signs dot the trail, detailing the ecological and cultural history of the Forest, from a narrative of the Shepherd family, early settlers who inspired the trail’s name, to a timeline of the area's soil, as well as present day wildlife and forestry aspects.

"The overarching theme of our signs was about the Duke Forest changing over time," said Dr. Nicolette Cagle, a lecturer in environmental science and policy at the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Cagle, who was instrumental in developing the signs, envisions the signs inspiring visitors to contemplate human impact on the land.

“I want to see people get excited,” Cagle said. “If they develop that emotional connection, it might encourage them to learn more and take part in conservation.”

Childs also anticipates the trail's use as a resource for K-12 school groups, specifically local public schools, as well as visitors who want a good introduction to the Forest. Duke classes could use the trail for a multitude of reasons, she said.

"There's layers and layers of richness," said Childs, who grew up riding horses through the Massachusetts woods. “It’s really an exploration of how human and natural processes have shaped its past and present – that the forest is always changing.”

For her, Duke Forest presents a kaleidoscope of sensations each time she enters, with each season of the year creating a different feel. During spring, the Forest pops with green and bits of other colors as ephemeral flowers speckle the forest floor. Symphonies of migratory birds call out as they fly overhead the Forest’s white oaks and pines. And everywhere, there's the scent of new life.

Duke Gardens Director William LeFevre appreciates the sights and walks through them often, as a regular visitor to the Forest. The potential impact of Shepherd Trail and its interpretive signs excite him.

"I am all for anything to help the visiting public better understand the history, mission and the educational and conservation aspects of the Duke Forest," LeFevre said.

Register for the grand opening celebration here.

Did You Know?

Duke Forest consists of over 7,000 acres of forested land and open fields in Durham, Orange and Alamance counties.

The Forest contains 30-plus miles of forest road and 10-plus miles of dirt foot trails.

The Forest has at least 110,000 visitors a year.

The Forest has been managed by Duke University for teaching and research purposes since 1931.

Duke University began purchasing the small farms and forest land that became Duke Forest in the mid 1920s.

White oaks and loblolly pines are among the Forest's most common trees.

During spring, ephemeral (which means short-lived) flowers like bellwort and little heart leaf dot the forest floor.

Common birds heard in the Forest include the Tufted Titmouse and the Carolina Chickadee.

The Forest helped create the School of Forestry, which transitioned into the Nicholas School of the Environment as the academic uses of the Forest broadened.