Winter is a season disliked more in anticipation than in reality.
That dislike begins the first day of summer. Though we generally do spend the summer solstice reveling in the most daylight of the year — 14 hours, 35 minutes and 8 seconds — in the back of our minds we know that it’s all downhill from here. The day after the solstice we’ll be down to 14 hours, 35 minutes and 6 seconds, two seconds that we won’t actually notice, but two seconds that we’re shorted all the same. read more
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We like to ward off the beginning of the work-week blues with a thought about life on the outside.
Its skies are milky, indifferent. Its landscape monochromatic, a wash of grays and browns. Its weather harsh at times.And Lord knows the season is stingy with sunlight. The stuff of travel & tourism ad campaigns winter is not.
Perhaps that’s exactly why winter succeeds with so many of us, those who ignore her gruff exterior and go out and play with her anyway.
Take those prevailing milky skies, a blur of clouds without intention. I’m not going to rain on you, they say. I’m not going to shine on you, either. Rather, winter’s skies provide a soft focus that belies threat. Tolerant, if not welcoming, they are, in an unexpected way.
Those filtering skies highlight the bland terrain. Seemingly bland. Brown isn’t typically a color known for nuance. Yet the run-out of leaves surrendered to the forest floor yields a carpet ranging from Desert Storm beige, to Crayola brown, to a sort of Trumpian orange. Nondescript colors on their own, they mix to offer a certain pop.
There are lessons to be learned from the winter woods. The resilient beech leaf (we forgot to add coppery to the carpet pallet) that refuses to give up its post until its replacement arrives in spring. The cheerful holly and pines that retain their cheery green despite the cold. The occasional mis-placed mountain laurel that assures us it’s ok to live outside our comfort zone.
In the bare winter woods, you can see so much more, so much farther. There are few secrets here, few places to hide: what you see is what you get. It’s stark, honest. A place of reassurance.
And there’s the quiet. So quiet you can hear a squirrel scratch its head the next ridge over as it puzzles over where it stashed its acorns just two months earlier. So quiet you hear a breeze rustle the distant tree tops minutes before it brushes your cheek. So quiet you can hear yourself think.
When we dream of our dream hike, we picture a mountain meadow dotted with wildflowers backdropped against the bluest of skies. We picture ourself laying in the midst of this idyll, head propped on our daypack, capped pulled over our eyes, arms crossed over our chest in the international prone sign of contentment. It is, alas, a scene that rarely meets expectations.
Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. To help ease the transition, every Monday we feature a 90 Second Escape — essentially, a 90-second video or slide show of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s not under a fluorescent bulb.
Today’s 90-Second Escape: Winter Hike?
There was some pretty good thunder and lightening throughout the land last week. This being winter, we have to wonder whether the old wive’s tale will hold true and we’ll be walking in a winter wonderland sometime in the next few days. (The forecast, fyi, suggests this will not be the case. Still … .)
In case you’ve forgotten what a snow hike is like, we bring you 90 seconds of such from a couple years back.
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We know, you’re about to go crazy from being held hostage by the cold and ice. As of today, your main hope for reclaiming at least some of your sanity is Saturday, when temperatures are expected to warm into the 40s and 50s, and the prospects for precipitation are low (as opposed to Sunday, when it looks like we’ll either be drenched with rain or graced with more snow, depending upon your elevation).
With the current forecast in mind, here are some possibilities for Saturday (though be sure to call ahead and check websites before heading out, since some venues remained closed as of noon Thursday).
Here’s something suited to the current weather that isn’t likely to get canceled: the 11th Annual Polar Plunge at Kure Beach. There’s also a 5K, live music, silent auctions, food and more, all benefiting Special Olympics New Hanover County. Plus, the water will likely seem not nearly as cold as it is.
Logistics: Saturday, Feb. 21, 11 a.m., Kure Beach Pavilion, Kure Beach. $20-$40. More info here.
“February is for the Birds” really is the name of a program, not commentary on current meteorological events. It’s at Eno River State Park, at the Fews Ford Access, which reopened midweek, and is a great opportunity for a learning experience for your kids, who had precious few learning opportunities this week. Feed a bird, learn its name. Aw.
Logistics: Saturday, Feb. 21, 3:30 p.m., Piper Cox House, Fews Ford Access, Eno River State Park. Free, but call to register (space is limited) at 919.383.1686.
If this one isn’t canceled and you can get there, Saturday’s Winter Hike at Elk Knob State Park should be a memorable one. Currently, Elk Knob has about five inches of new snow on the ground, today’s high should hit 1, the overnight low, 8 below. Saturday, 1-3 inches of snow is expected. The road to the park is open, four-wheel drive is advised. So are “traction devices” for your feet.
The Summit Trail is largely protected by a tight northern hardwood forest, save for the exposed 5,502-foot Elk Knob summit. The trail is less than two miles long, so it’s not epic winter hiking, but a nice taste thereof.
Logistics: Saturday, Feb. 21, 1 p.m., Elk Knob State Park, Todd. More info: 828.297.7261
Saturday forecast: Temperature around 30 and snow, with accumulations up to 3 inches, at hike time.
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Those are our thoughts on the weekend. Find more options at the sources listed below.
Those are our thoughts on the weekend. Find more options at the sources listed below.
Comprehensive calendar for the Cape Fear/Wilmington/southern N.C. coast searchable by date and event name.
Comprehensive calendar including nature programs from a variety of costal conservation and research agencies that offer nature programs. Covers the entire coast.
Crystal Cost Tourism Authority
Comprehensive calendar focusing on the Crystal Coast. Good source for programs offered by N.C. Coastal Federation, Cape Lookout National Park, N.C. National Estuarine Research Reserve and other costal conservation and research agencies that offer nature programs.
Comprehensive calendar including programs for the Outer Banks and Crystal Coast.
North Carolina Coast Host
Comprehensive calendar for the entire coast that lets you search for events by day, by region, by county, by city or by event (based on key word).
This Week Magazine
Primary focus is the Crystal Coast (North Carolina’s coastal midsection).