A trip to the North Carolina coast isn’t just about swimming and sunbathing. You can also experience rare ecosystems by heading down one of several hiking trails.
1 Kent Mitchell Nature Trail
1 Kent Mitchell Nature TrailBald Head IslandSee on map
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.
2 Currituck Banks National Estuarine Reserve
2 Currituck Banks National Estuarine ReserveCorollaSee on map
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 beach side of the reserve, you’ll have a chance at seeing a wild horse.
3 Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
3 Pea Island National Wildlife RefugeRodantheSee on map
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.
4 Croatan National Forest
4 Croatan National ForestHavelockSee on map
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.
5 Nags Head Ecological Preserve
5 Nags Head Ecological PreserveKill Devil HillsSee on map
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.
6 Lake Waccamaw State Park
6 Lake Waccamaw State ParkLake WaccamawSee on map
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.
7 Cliffs of the Neuse State Park
7 Cliffs of the Neuse State ParkSeven SpringsSee on map
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.