If someone would have asked if I’d ever thought I’d enjoy hiking I would have said emphatically Heck No! However, once I learned that hiking can just be a leisurely walk through a forest or a nature preserve I became a little more enthusiastic. In this time of social distancing hiking trails have been a blessing—a way to get outside, explore nature, get some exercise, and give an occasional hello wave to a fellow hiker.
So here’s a list of some of the best hiking trails along the North Carolina Coast, perfect for experienced hikers or those of us who just want to take a leisurely walk through the woods.
Carolina Beach State Park
Nearly 9 miles of trails wind through a variety of distinct habitats at Carolina Beach State Park. Relatively flat and easy to walk, the trails offer an opportunity to observe the diversity of plant and animal life in the park. To avoid becoming lost, stop by the visitor center or marina for a trail map. This trail begins and ends at the visitor center and briefly joins the Sugarloaf Trail. Much of this trail winds through a coastal fringe sandhill forest, dominated by longleaf pines and live oaks. Carolina Beach State Park Campground Trail is a 3.6-mile loop trail located near Carolina Beach, North Carolina, and is good for all skill levels. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail.
Kent Mitchell Nature Trail
Bald Head Island
According to conservationists, Bald Head Island’s 800 acres of mature maritime forest are the finest remaining example of this threatened coastal ecosystem in the state. Some of the massive trees here took root 300 years ago. The half-mile Kent Mitchell Nature Trail provides a glimpse of local wildlife including woodpeckers, otters, and alligators. Bald Head is nationally recognized for the relatively high amount of active nesting by endangered loggerhead turtles. You can only get to the island by ferry, which leaves from Southport. Once on Bald Head, the only modes of transportation are golf carts, bicycles and your own two feet.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Many consider the half-mile, handicap-accessible North Pond Trail to be the best for viewing wildlife in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. State wildlife agencies plant large areas here with food for migrating and native waterfowl, and more than 365 species of birds have been identified at the refuge. The trail ends at a 2-story observation tower. Climb it and you can look out over ocean beach, sand dunes, ponds and salt flats and marshes. The northernmost 13 miles of Hatteras Island make up the refuge.
Croatan National Forest
Located south of New Bern, Croatan National Forest looks more like it should be in the mountains rather than the coast. Oaks, hickories and beech trees line the half-mile Island Creek Trail. Farther down the trail you’ll see tupelos and cypress trees, complete with Spanish moss, in an area that was once heavily logged. Follow the signs and associated interpretive information to unlock the significance of this area.
Brunswick Nature Preserve
Brunswick Nature Preserve is a 5.5 mile moderately trafficked loop trail located near Winnabow, North Carolina that features a river and is good for all skill levels. 911 acres of wonderful undeveloped wilderness provide a dynamic mix of vegetation, wildlife, ecosystems, vistas, wetlands, and waterways. It is truly an environmental oasis worthy of exploration. Enjoy a kayak/canoe launch site and a 40 by 40 picnic pavilion perfect for a family gathering, walking trails, biking trails, and horse trails. The trail offers a number of activity options and is accessible year-round. Dogs are also able to use this trail but must be kept on leash.
Currituck Banks National Estuarine Reserve
The first third of a mile of your hike at Currituck Banks National Estuarine Reserve begins on a boardwalk but finishes on 1.5 miles of primitive trails that wind through a maritime forest of loblolly pine, longleaf pine, American beech and live oak, and ends at Currituck Sound. If you head to the beachside of the reserve, you’ll have a chance at seeing a wild horse.
Lake Waccamaw State Park
Set off on the Lake Trail at Lake Waccamaw State Park, which begins at the visitor center and follows the lakeshore to the Waccamaw River, and you’ll experience something scientists can’t explain. The lake is known as a Carolina bay, small elliptical lakes that receive water only from runoff, and no one is sure how it formed. The trail passes through a variety of ecosystems during its 5-mile course. Marked by blue blazes, Lake Trail cuts through a pine forest, past one of the oldest stands of cypress trees in the state, under towering hickory trees and alongside aquatic grass beds that are home to fish. The Sand Ridge Nature Trail is a 0.75-mile loop that begins and ends near the picnic area. Or try the Pine Woods Trail: It winds from the picnic area to the visitor center, giving you a view of the park’s unique plants including Venus flytraps.
Nags Head Ecological Preserve
Kill Devil Hills
According to The Nature Conservancy, the combination of maritime swamp and maritime deciduous forests that you’ll find at Nags Head Ecological Preserve exists in just a few places in the world. The Sweet Gum Swamp Trail will take you across a number of sand ridges. You’ll hike through a mixed forest of beeches, hickories, hollies, southern red oaks and loblolly pines – some of which are more than 300 years old. Deer, otters and egrets are often encountered along the trail.
Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
You’ll get some great views and a few history lessons when you set off on the trails at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park. Each of the four trails is less than a mile long, allowing you to walk them all in one visit. One trail will take you to creeks that were used in the production of moonshine and power mills that ground cornmeal. You’ll have perfect views of the Neuse River on the trails that wind through oaks, dogwoods and other trees dripping with Spanish moss.
Information gathered from VisitNC.com and AllTrails.com