As winter plugs along, hike the coast

In October, we suggested that winter was a good time for taking long hikes at the coast. Fewer biting things flitting through the air, fewer slithering things making their way across the ground. Today, as we’re in the throes of a sustained cold weather hiking season, we return to the coast with suggestions for shorter walks.

North Carolina

1. Jones Lake State Park

Jones Lake

Bay Trail, 4 miles



Hiking clockwise from the Visitor Center: On a particularly cold but sunny day you’ll love the first part of this loop around the lake as it passes through an exposed pine savannah, where lots of warming sunlight bounces off the forest’s sandy floor. By the time the trail reaches the midpoint and loops back, you’ll be warm enough not to mind that the sun has been blocked by a dense sea of bay trees and pond cypress.

More info here.

Nags Head Woods

2. Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

Blueberry Ridge Trail, 3.75 miles


Nags Head

This 420-acre preserve was spared in 1992 by The Nature Conservancy and the Town of Nags Head, thus saving one of the largest remaining maritime forests along the East Coast. A favorite way to explore the preserve and get a sense of its more than 550 plant species (including oaks more than 500 years old) and 50 known species of butterflies, is on the 3.75-mile Blueberry Ridge Trail.

More info here.

3. Carolina Beach State Park

Carolina Beach State Park

Sugarloaf Trail, 3 miles


Carolina Beach

How much eco-diversity can a person take on one 3-mile hike? Carolina Beach puts that question to the test, starting you off from the marina trailhead with a hike along the tidal marsh banks of the Cape Fear River, then through a coastal evergreen forest, a coastal fringe sandhills forest, a longleaf pine savannah and to the top of 60-foot-high Sugarloaf Dune, which is forested now but once proved an excellent spy tower for spotting Union ships sneaking into Wilmington.

More info here.

4. Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

The Hermit’s Bunker (photo courtesy N.C. State Parks)

Basin Trail (a k a Hermit Trail), 2.2 miles


Kure Beach

It’s 2.2 miles roundtrip and it features an abandoned WW II bunker. Of course it’s abandoned, you say — the war ended more than 70 years ago. In fact, it’s only been abandoned since the early 1970s; before that, it was occupied for several years by the Fort Fisher Hermit, a recluse who took up residence in the bunker for more than a decade. And that’s just one reason to hike this trail. The other is at trail’s end: a sweeping view of where the Cape Fear River blends into the Atlantic Ocean amid the Zeke’s Island reserve.

More info here.

5. Merchants Millpond State Park

Merchants Millpond

Lassiter Trail, 6 miles



Six miles, you fret, that might be a little long. Or it might not, for two reasons. One, this meandering trail navigates a swamp (the wetter sections are elevated by boardwalk), and nothing makes a hike zip by like the prospect of running into the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Truly, there’s something enchanting and weird about hiking along ponds carpeted in duckweed and harboring bald cypress and tupelo gum dripping with Spanish moss, and through a bevy of other aquatic plants Seussian in nature. So much to see, even in winter.

More info here.


  1. First Landing State Park
First Landing State Park, Virginia Beach

Cape Henry Trail, 6.1 miles


Virginia Beach

Hard to believe a popular trail in a popular state park can offer seclusion, but this one does, as it encompasses stretches of dense forest, marsh and swamp. And, because the trail is wide and generally smooth, you can pay attention to these great features along the way rather than having to watch where you step. Good for either a peppy aerobic jaunt or an easy saunter to take in nature.

More info here.

2. York River State Park

Taskinas Trail, 2 miles



You might think that an estuary where salt and fresh water combine to create a habitat rich in marine and plant life would be a paddler’s paradise, and it is. But with 30 miles of trail, it’s also a great place to explore on foot, to learn about the rich natural and cultural history (the park houses fossil beds and Colonial and Native American artifacts) and to experience the quiet of a coastal winter. The Taskinas Trail offers a good introduction.

More info here.

3. Great Dismal Swamp

Hiking the Great Dismal

Various canal trails



The fan of short hikes will like this trail for the same reason the long hiker likes it: how far you go is up to you. Hike 30 minutes out from the refuge office, or from Jericho Lane, or Big Entry Ditch, then turn and hike back. This is hiking for the mind: long passages of quiet, flat trail with minimal distraction.

More info here.

Check out our GetHiking! and GetExploring! hikes at the coast:

  • GetHiking! Virginia Beach: Northwest River Park, 5.5 miles on the Indian Creek Trail, Otter Point Trail and the Molly Mitchell Trail., Southeastern Chesapeake. Sunday, Feb. 4, 10 a.m. More info and sign up here.
  • GetExploring Greenville: Trailblaze Challenge Training Hike at A Time for Science, 6 miles, Grifton. Saturday, Feb. 10, 10 a.m. Open to all hikers. More info and sign up here.
  • For more coastal hikes in North Carolina, consult “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina” (2007, Mountaineers), here.

Happy trails,


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