Just as a retailer’s thoughts turn to Christmas once Halloween has passed, our thoughts turn to the coast once the fall color starts to fade here in the Piedmont. While I love a summer’s day at the beach, the coast — and coastal plain — are at their most alluring in late fall and winter. A week at a vacation beach house is swell over the summer, but a week at the coast in winter leaves memories that aren’t soon forgotten.
Pack a camera, a notebook, a handful of nature guidebooks. Camp, stay in cheap motels. Cook dinner over a camp stove, linger over breakfast, eat lunch on the go. And listen.
November especially is the time to listen to the outdoors. The seemingly constant breeze lets the trees, the grass, the plants tell their stories. Stories that began with a colorful birth in March, that celebrated the lazy days of summer, that grew melancholy come early fall and that ended, much like they began, in an explosion of color. The circle of life lived in just eight months. But what a story to be told at season’s end.
It’s a story told in one of three ways.
If you’ve got the time, two coastal trails would love you stay a spell and listen.
Neusiok Trail, 22 miles, Croatan National Forest, Havelock. The Neusiok runs from the Pine Cliffs Recreation Area southeast to Oyster Point Landing. No need to rush: there are three shelters/camping areas along the way where you can camp and take the time necessary to experience the pine savannah, the bay woods, the bluff overlooking the mile-wide Neuse River, the boggy areas traveled (mostly) by boardwalk. It can also be hiked in sections, the most diverse of which is the northernmost 6.8 miles, from Pine Cliffs south and east to NC 306. Read more here.
- Weetock Trail, 11 miles, Croatan National Forest, Maysville. Such a tease, the Weetock. From its northern trailhead of N.C. 58 south of Maysville, it’s an open book for the first 6 miles. Maybe there’s a time or two where it plays coy and becomes discrete. But for the most part, no secrets. Then, right when you think you’ve got it understood, it crosses the gravel Jones Landing Road and spends the rest of its way trying to ditch you. This part of the Croatan has been ravaged by numerous hurricanes, the downfall covering large swaths of trail. Seemingly important swaths, because the only clues the trail shares from here on out are the unique metal-strip blazes (old newspaper printing plates) that catch the sun here and there. A challenge, but hey, who doesn’t love a good mystery? Read more here.
Easy beach hikes
Just as we love a good novel to read at the beach, so, too, do we love an easy winter hike — easy in the sense that it’s simple to follow but has a compelling plot. Some of our favorites:
Carolina Beach State Park, 9 trails, 9 miles, Carolina Beach. Carolina Beach is the Reader’s Digest condensed version of exploring the coast: in just 761 acres nestled between the Cape Fear River and Atlantic Ocean you’ll hike over forested dunes, through forests of turkey oak and live oak, around pocosins, past cypress swamps and through a carpet of carnivorous plants. The ecological sampling here is not to be matched. Learn more here.
- Fort Fisher Hermit Trail (a k a Basin Trail), 2 miles, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, Kure Beach. Just down the road from Carolina Beach is a trail that exposes you to one of the more unique views in the state: water in nearly every direction. At the midpoint, the trail passes a World War II bunker, a sturdy concrete structure that, after housing ordnance in WW II, housed Robert E. Harrill, the Fort Fisher hermit who fled here in 1956 and stayed until his unexplained death in 1972. More info here.
Cedar Point Tideland Trail, Croatan National Forest, Cedar Point, 1.3 miles. No need to get your shoes mucky—an elevated boardwalk traverses much of the 1.3-mile Cedar Point Tideland Trail, in the wetlands where Dibbling and Boathouse creeks dissolve into the White Oak River (then, shortly, into Bogue Sound). In addition to keeping you dry, the boardwalk gives you get a bird’s-eye view of the fiddler crabs and other marsh life below. It is also an especially good spot for birding. More info here.
- Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, 4 miles, Kill Devil Hills. At 1,100 acres, Nags Head Woods wrote the book on maritime forests. It’s one of the best examples of such along the East Coast, hence the reason The Nature Conservancy elected to save it beginning in the 1970s. Nearly four miles of trail take you through densely vegetated terrain that includes 11 separate species of oak alone. Also calling the preserve home are 5 species of salamander, 14 species of frogs and toads, at least 50 nesting birds, assorted turtles, lizards and snakes. More info here.
- Patsy Pond Nature Trail, 4.5 miles, Newport. Before the European invasion, about 90 million acres of the Southeast were covered with longleaf pines. Today, that number is closer to 3.3 million. Which makes walking the Patsy Pond Nature Trail like diving into a good history book. A good history in that the forest isn’t just about the longleaf, but also about its supporting characters, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, Carolina gopher frog, bladderwort, sundew and a cast, literally, of thousands. Learn more here.
There’s nothing plain about these hikes, other than their coastal plain setting.
Jones Lake State Park, 4 miles, Elizabethtown. Every time I’ve hiked here it’s been: 1) in winter, 2) 40 degrees, 3) under cloudless skies. In short, perfect. Such a great experience has hiking the 4-mile Bay Trail been that I go back every couple of years to experience the open pine forest on the west side of Jones Lake, the dense bay forest on the east side. A Jekyll and Hyde hike with a total elevation gain of 3 feet. And if I’m hungry for more I can hop across the road (N.C. 242) and continue hiking at Turnbull State Educational Forest. Learn more here.
Merchants Millpond State Park, 9 miles, Gatesville. Every time I visit I think of the 1950s schlock sci-fi flick, “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Although there might be alligators here, there have been no confirmed Gill-Man sightings at Merchants Millpond, despite the eerie similarity in swampy surroundings. The park may be known for canoeing on its 760-acre millpond, but the hiking here exposes you to some of the same treats, including bay woods and cypress and tupelo gum swamps. A great day trip. Learn more here.
- Pettrigrew State Park, 4.2 miles. Creswell,. When it comes to hiking you can go for distance or you can go to be awed. At Pettigrew State Park on the shores of Lake Phelps, the Morotoc Trail will certainly awe you with a collection of some of the oldest and largest trees of their kind in the state. Among the ancient oddities are various bay trees, sweet gums, persimmons, and pawpaws; the trunks of some bald cypress trees measure up to 10 feet in diameter; and, poplar trunks exceed six feet. “Vines as wide as human thighs wind their ways up trees as tall as 130 feet.” You’ll also see Atlantic white cedars that reach heights of 100 feet. Prepare for the slowest 2.8 miles of hiking in your life. Learn more here.
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Explore with us!
We’re starting 2022 off with three January adventures at the coast:
- GetHiking! New Year’s on the Weetock Trail, Sunday, Jan. 2, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.. Technically, it’s the day after New Year’s Day, but a true first-of-the-year adventure all the same. Read the trail description above, then go here to learn more and to sign up.
- GetBackpacking! Winter Series: Neusiok Trail, Friday, January 14 to Sunday, January 16. This 2-night, 22-mile trip is the ideal way to start fulfilling your 2022 backpacking goals. The flat course make these early season miles doable. Learn more and sign up here.
- GetHiking! Winter Weekend Escape to Jones Lake, Friday, Jan. 28 to Sunday, Jan. 30. Jones Lake State Park, Elizabethtown. Two days of hiking and two nights of stargazing in minimally light-polluted skies of the coastal plain. Learn more and sign up here.