Edible mushrooms are abundant in the North Carolina Piedmont, and it’s about time to get out in the woods in earnest in celebration of the oncoming season! The chanterelles have arrived (albeit in small numbers and most of my patches are still silent) and chicken of the woods has been out in force in and around the North Carolina Piedmont. That means that the good times are officially about to roll. Of course, some thunderstorms would be most welcome (hint hint rain gods), but the influx of hot weather has given our fungal friends the go-ahead to start fruiting, which is terrific! Edible mushrooms of all sorts grow throughout the summer and fall in North Carolina, and even though I am not too keen on the hot weather, I can always find the motivation to spare a few buckets of sweat in order to fill my basket!
Hunting for edible mushrooms is a great pastime, but it’s an often-misunderstood hobby, so I usually keep my activities relatively on the down-low and make sure that I visit locations where mushrooming is allowed. If you’re like me and dislike getting funny looks from passersby who think that hunting for edible mushrooms is tantamount to poaching wildlife, you may want to consider taking a look at this silly post from several months ago that outlines a few ways to evade detection while you’re out in the woods questing after edible mushrooms. However, your best bet is to find places in and around the North Carolina Piedmont where hunting for edible mushrooms is allowed (or at the very least, is not strictly prohibited…more on this in a minute).
I will note, however, that I am not saying that these places will ALWAYS be fair game for hunting edible mushrooms, and you should certainly check the regulations for the various mushroom hunting spots you plan to visit. Better safe than sorry and all that! I am simply writing from the perspective of an avid amateur who likes to collect small quantities of edible mushrooms for my own dinner table (again, more on this in a minute). When in doubt, check the regulations out!
If you want to get a sense of the different edible mushrooms that grow in and around Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and surrounding North Carolina communities, I encourage you to look into the archives of this blog; I have written both birds-eye view and in-depth articles about our NC fungal friends, including a top-10 most wanted list of North Carolina edible mushrooms. If you’re just starting out, I suggest getting to know a few species really well, rather than trying to learn every last possibly edible mushroom in our forests, because to be honest, that would take a looooong time (we’ve got over 200 species of edible mushrooms in this state alone, and several thousand distinct mushroom species overall).
Yours In Fungal Fancy,
Hunting for Edible Mushrooms in NC – the Basics
I will just go ahead and say it right off the bat: North Carolina does not very clear or straightforward foraging rules. In my old homes in California, Oregon, and Washington, edible mushrooms are an important part of the economy and cultural scene, and so most land use and management agencies have clear and particular rules that apply to the gathering of edible mushrooms. North Carolina, however, does not have the same degree of specificity when it comes to mushroom hunting, so in most cases you’re going to find that the rules do not explicitly mention mushroom foraging at all. Instead, edible mushrooms are usually under the same umbrella as trees and plants when it comes to foraging prohibitions around the NC Triangle. This is patently absurd from my point of view, but until us mycophiles launch a successful letter-writing campaign to the state park service, it’s unlikely to change.
One thing I will say that applies to every place I have ever gone hunting for edible mushrooms: if you are gathering small quantities for personal use, you’re much less likely to get into trouble than if you’ve decided to launch a foraging business and are Hoovering up every gourmet mushroom in sight. On the west coast, there are many national forests that tolerate and allow mushroom hunting (a lot of times you have to get a free permit), but the Forest Service has established strict limits on how many edible mushrooms you are allowed to gather without paying for a commercial foraging license.
In North Carolina I have yet to see one of these strict “two gallon limit” rules, but one way or the other, it’s important to remember that edible mushrooms are often seen as desirable, expensive, and fancy, and unless you are hunting commercially, it’s probably a good idea to only take what you plan to use or share with friends. This is in no way meant to denigrate commercial mushroom foraging; I think it’s a great way for people to supplement/make a living, but sadly I’ve seen a lot of prejudice against people who gather what authorities think of as “too many” edible mushrooms. Unless you’re going to make a run at commercially selling wild mushrooms, I suggest just avoiding the whole problem by gathering small quantities of edible mushrooms when you’re out in the woods.
Where NOT to Go Mushroom Hunting in the Triangle
The North Carolina state parks are lovely, to be sure, but they are not really interested in allowing recreational mushroom gathering to go on in the state parks. There are some exceptions on a case-by-case basis; a friend of mine has talked with a state park manager who agreed to allow a mushroom foray on state park property, under the condition that all specimens collected were for identification purposes, and in exchange, the manager wanted photographs, IDs, GPS coordinates, and some other data in order to track fungal habitat in the forest. Now, I think that’s great and all, but if you’re like me and wish to collect edible wild mushrooms for your pantry, the scientific-inquiry-only limitations on this arrangement simply wouldn’t do (at least not all the time).
Unfortunately, that rules out a lot of the public land in and around Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill: Eno River, Umstead State Park and Falls Lake State Park are all off-limits and I’ve had more than one experience with rangers enforcing the “no mushroom gathering whatsoever” rules. Mind you, you’re not likely to get a ticket for a first-time offense (as long as you’re charming and genuinely don’t know that it’s against the rules), but it’s really not a fun conversation to have. So there you have it: don’t gather edible mushrooms in the NC state parks.
This mushroom hunting prohibition is a shame in my opinion, but there’s no arguing with a cranky ranger who’s just trying to do his/her job. Coupled with the fact that the state parks prohibit beer (one of my favorite things, especially when camping) and are often overused and crowded, I generally avoid them. Basically, if I am not allowed to camp out for a couple days of mushroom hunting and have a nice stout when the day’s work is done, I will steer my ship elsewhere!
Wake County Parks and City Parks
Similar to the state parks, the Wake County Park system frowns on any sort of foraging and are thus not good places to go looking for edible mushrooms. Blue Jay Point in Raleigh, for example, is a very nice location that’s got wonderful trails along the banks of Falls Lake, but for the purposes of hunting mushrooms, this is simply a no-go. Similarly, city parks are generally no-fly zones for edible mushroom gathering. It’s important to note that most people are not going to go out of their way to give you a hard time, but in general I try to pick spots where there is no question whatsoever that I am allowed to do what I’m doing.
Best Places for Edible Mushroom Foraging in and around the North Carolina Triangle
Triangle Land Conservancy Properties
Some of the finest mushrooming I’ve done has been at the various Triangle Land Conservancy nature preserves and conservation lands in Chatham County. In particular, Horton Grove is a popular spot for Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill-based mushroom foragers, and the preserve has wonderful trails, a beautiful mixed hardwood habitat, and a lot of space to roam around. All told, the Triangle Land Conservancy has six nature preserves, all of which are lovely and conveniently located near the Triangle’s cities. Do note, however, that not all TLC nature preserves allow foraging; for instance, Swift Creek has signs posted that imply that foraging is not allowed. Again, when in doubt, go visit and look at any signage for park rules.
Wildlife Resources Commission Gamelands
I think that the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission gamelands around the Triangle are probably the best place for mushroom hunting day trips. The reason for this is twofold: first, the gamelands tend to have good trails and varied habitats that are terrific for mushrooms. Second, the gamelands are not as heavily used as nature preserves and parks, and so they’re a great place to get away from everything and everyone for a little while, all without the attendant drive that’s required for a trip to the national forests.
Check out wooded areas adjacent to the waterfowl impoundments in particular; these areas have ample moisture due to being near wetlands, and the abundant small creeks and stream beds are good places for our fungus friends to grow. For an awesome Triangle-area edible mushroom hunting adventure, visit Horton Grove and then take a look at the various trail heads near the Knapp of Reeds Waterfowl Impoundment, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and Ellerbee Creek on Red Mill Road, and other spots near Lakes Mitchie and Butner off Old Oxford Road. Although some of these places can be rather marshy and aren’t perfect for mushroom hunting, there’s so much territory to explore and so many little trails scattered through the woods, you’re bound to find something sooner or later.
Another advantage of the area around the town of Butner is the fact that you can do a shotgun approach to mushroom hunting; hop out of the car, take a short hike, and see if you fancy the habitat. If not, jump back in the car and hit another spot, then rinse and repeat until you find a place that suits your taste. For more information on habitats for North Carolina’s most treasured edible mushrooms, check out these posts on chanterelle and morel mushroom indicator species.
Two other areas I frequent for edible mushroom hunting are the gamelands that surround Falls Lake and the northern end of Jordan Lake. The tricky thing here is to make sure you don’t accidentally wander onto private property or into a state or county park. Especially around Falls Lake, there are numerous agencies that govern the woods that abut the reservoir so it’s pretty important to study the map and make sure that you remain on gamelands.
Although you have to be aware of the game hunters in these woods and should definitely wear orange during certain times of the year, the gamelands are probably my favorite places to visit for edible mushroom hunting because they are expansive, little-used, and quite pretty. Here’s a link to the maps of different Wildlife Resources Commission gamelands around the state.
Uwharrie, Croatan, and Pisgah National Forests
The queen-mother of public lands for edible mushroom hunting are our national forests, and our closest asset in this department is Uwharrie National Forest, which is about an hour and a half from Raleigh. There are numerous amazing places to hunt for mushrooms and camp throughout Uwharrie, and my favorites are the Badin Lake Recreational Area and the Birkhead Wilderness Area. With ample hardwood forestland, creeks, and tons of land with minimal human impact, Uwharrie is an excellent place for outdoors-lovers of all sorts, mushroom hunters included.
One quick note on the Birkhead Wilderness, however, don’t let Google tell you how to get there! I made this mistake last spring, and we ended up on a small farm road that was clearly someone’s driveway. In fact, that someone drove up to greet us in his huge farm truck and chatted with us for about 20 minutes about the rich history of the surrounding area, which apparently was a Quaker community that opposed slavery and racial oppression during the Civil War. We asked the gentleman how often he gets Google-navigated visitors on his property, and he cheerfully replied, “Oh, maybe about 7 times a week! I don’t mind though, but if you want to visit that gov’ment land, you gotta go around to the west side of the Wilderness. And you might want to avoid the Robbins Branch trail entry; the folks who own the land on your way in don’t really like visitors much.”
Despite the advice, we decided to try Robbins Branch anyway, and he was right; it seemed like every tree beside the rough gravel road into that part of the Wilderness was festooned with very stern “NO TRESSPASSING” signs. Nonetheless, we enjoyed Robbins Branch once we passed through hostile territory. Our next stop, and the one I would recommend, was the Thornburg trailhead. The Thornburg trail takes visitors through a wide array of gorgeous Piedmont habitats, and although we didn’t find any morels (DANGIT!) we had a really nice time and it’s one of my favorite parts of Uwharrie.
If you want to go further afield, Pisgah National Forest and Croatan National Forest are great mushroom hunting areas; the former gives visitors a chance to explore higher elevation forests, which is great because the Appalachians are home to some really great edible, beautiful, and weird mushroom species. Croatan, on the other hand, is more of a coastal habitat and is rich with Amanita mushrooms, lion’s mane, Lactarius indigo aplenty, and many other species. Each of these forests are great because they are representative of the mountain and coastal ecological zones in North Carolina.
Of course, mushroom hunting on private property is good fun and can be less unnerving than gathering fungi in the gamelands or national forests during one of the hunting seasons. I have found that most rural landowners don’t really consider that edible mushrooms grow on their property, and they’re often open to letting you forage, and sometimes they’ll even ask to come along, which is a great opportunity to turn other people onto the pleasures of mushroom fanaticism. For example, some of my favorite mushroom foraging experiences in North Carolina were the guided foray classes that I periodically teach at Pickards Mountain Eco Institute in Chapel Hill.
Concluding Thoughts on Edible Mushroom Foraging in the NC Piedmont
Honestly, there have been a few times that I have found mushrooms in a city or state park that I simply couldn’t resist. For example, I found a perfect specimen of the exquisitely weird insect-attacking mushroom Cordyceps militaris in Umstead State Park and I simply could not help but tuck it in my pack. I routinely pick mushrooms around state government buildings, although these collections are strictly for mushroom identification purposes because I do not know if there are nasty fertilizers (or worse) applied to the lawns and green spaces around downtown Raleigh. As with all things, I am always on the hunt for mushrooms to identify. However, when it comes time to fill my bag with edible mushrooms, I stick to public and private lands where foraging is allowed.