Pines, Swamps and… White Sand Beaches?
Meet Croatan. As one of only four National Forests in North Carolina (the others are all in the western half of the state), and the only true coastal forest east of the Mississippi, she’s got a lot to prove. But Croatan knows how to impress: with white sand beaches, stands of towering pines, wildlife both rare and common, marshes, river-swimming opportunities and a twenty-one-mile trail that bisects the forest to give the hardcore day hiker or dedicated overnighter a sweet taste of all that is coastal North Carolina.
Because the Croatan is nearly flat and generally warm, you can get away with carrying the very minimum for an overnight trip.
MY GEAR LIST
- Camelback 100 ounce Reservoir
- Leki Ultralight Trekking Poles: both for ease of walking and for letting snakes know you’re coming down the trail
- Aqua Mira Water Purification
- Hennessey Hammock
- Rain Jacket
- Salomon XA Pro Shoes: chosen for their quick-dry capabilities and because they’re easy to take on and off to dump sand
I hiked the Neusiok Trail in early summer, and having done so, I recommend visiting the Croatan in spring, fall, or winter, when the temperatures are mild. In the summer, it’s a bit like hiking in a horsefly terrarium: unpleasant and best avoided, unless you don’t mind a good, cleansing sweat, in which case you’ll have the Trail nearly to yourself. Bonus: keep your eyes peeled for venus fly traps.
The bright blue sky and healthy breeze set the tone for a great day on the Trail, and I’m blissfully happy as I stroll along in my sil-nylon Patagonia pack along an unmarked path from the Pinecliff Recreational Center parking lot. This turned out to be a quick detour to the beach, which was an unexpected pleasure at the start of a hike. The wind whipping off the Neuse River cooled my hot-from-the-car skin. Now, if only my tiny daypack and I could find the Trail!
Footprints in the sand showcase the solitude of this area: the sand was undisturbed until I stepped into it. This beach walk along the bank of the Neuse – not technically part of the Neusiok Trail, but right next to the parking area and too tempting to avoid – is stunning, and I didn’t even mind taking off my shoes afterwards to pour out a half-cup of fine, white sand before entering the woods on the actual trail.
The most beautiful of the beaches along the Neusiok Trail might trick you into thinking you’re at Ipanema, but don’t be fooled: unlike the Brazilian paradise, in the Croatan you’ll have the beach practically to yourself. I took a refreshing pre-hike dip in the river, only to remember why I don’t usually go swimming on a long hike: wet feet in sandy shoes.
|A short search led me to the northern terminus of the Neusiok Trail. The first section of the Trail takes hikers into the lush pine forest, then winds its way along the Neuse River. There are sweeping views of the wide, brown, and windswept Neuse River. The most striking and lovely discovery I made at the outset is that white sand beaches and pine forest meet at the trailhead. The first mile is a hiker’s dream: flat, well-marked, and alternating between soft pine-needled forest walking and beach hiking. It is dotted with beach-side campsites and, unfortunately, more than a few beer cans from weekend revelers. Once the trail turns into the woods, it is trash-free and very pleasant, winding through the tall trees and crossing tannin-stained swamps on well-built footbridges.|
Watch your step: American alligators roam these parts, as do cottonmouth moccasins, canebrake rattlers, eastern diamondback rattlers, pygmy rattlers and copperheads. I was fortunate (or unfortunate, depending how you feel about snakes when hiking solo) to cross paths with only one slithering beast: a harmless black snake, sunning itself in the leaves. I cut a wide berth around, and it crankily retreated to the side of the Trail, obviously upset that I’d interrupted its sun time.
This is what makes the Neusiok Trail unique: it skirts the ground where land meets water. This distinct eastern North Carolina ecosystem supports an impressive roster of resident land species, including white-tailed deer, black bear, turkey, quail, mink and otter. In its estuaries swim dolphins, large-mouth bass, red-breast sunfish, yellow perch, and catfish. Scan the skies for egrets, woodpeckers, hawks, owls, osprey, bald eagles, and peregrine falcons.
Once the Trail leaves the riverbank and its white sand stretches, the landscape changes dramatically – from a beach edged by trees to a true forest. Towering stands of pine trees are a trademark, because hardwoods thrive in this pocosin (a wetland area with sandy, acidic peat soil). I stood, mouth agape, at these tall sky-tickling trees.
|Leave the oxygen tank (and warm-weather gear) at home. My altimeter watch recorded the highest and lowest points along the pleasantly flat Trail.|
Swamp thing: the Trail crosses many wet, swampy areas (sometimes on footbridge, other times via mud pit). Many of these shallow bodies of water are dark orange, dyed from tannins in the surrounding loblolly pine trees.
|The Neusiok Trail, unlike the Appalachian Trail or other national hiking trails, is somewhat crudely marked. Here are two examples of rustic blazes that point the way. Although the Trail is not uniformly marked, and unofficial side trails can be slightly confusing, the blazes and assorted markers are sufficient, and most of the smaller side trails peter out quickly. I never got more than three minutes’ lost.|
One of many well built, well maintained foot bridges along the Trail. The green MST sign indicates that the Neusiok coincides with another, much longer North Carolina scenic trail: the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which runs from the Great Smoky Mountains in the far western part of the state to the Outer Banks in the easternmost reaches. The Croatan is one of the final stretches for MST thru-hikers, who have descended from over 6,000 feet in the Smokies in their 900-mile journey east.
I stumbled (literally) across this veritable garden of cypress knees. I don’t recommend pitching a tent right here, but here’s the skinny on camping in the Croatan: there are no official campsites along the Neusiok Trail, and camping is permitted everywhere except where posted. In other words, bring your own tarp or hammock, and you can sleep where you please. The ground is very flat, so finding a campsite is no problem.
Bird overhead! The Croatan’s proximity to Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station means you’re guaranteed to hear woodpeckers and helicopters at the same time. The first low-flying helicopter took me by surprise, but after a few miles of hiking, my ears grew accustomed to the occasional drone of a fighter jet breaking apart the chirping forest. This feature of the Croatan sets it apart from more remote trails, and although it is a constant (and loud) reminder of civilization, the forest was so lush and the Trail so empty that the jets seemed out of place. I watched them the way the birds did: with a sense of removal. In that way they made me feel more entrenched in the habitat I was walking through.
The abundant ferns give the southern terminus a prehistoric vibe. I think I glimpsed a brachiosaur having lunch in one of the fern beds, but it was hard to see through all the black flies. I was glad to be wearing a light pack so I could outrun the worst of the insects.
|The trail winds through lush forest and, just when it gets too hot to stand, the trees open up and the haggard hiker emerges at the wide, calm Newport River. The water is a sight for over-heated eyes, but it’s not drinkable: just five miles away lies the ocean, and this river is quite salty. Still, I dipped my toes in and smiled, remembering how the wind whipped up the river and cooled my skin at the start of the Trail. I decided that, in my ideal world, all trails would start and finish at a majestic body of water. Sadly, this isn’t the case, so the Neusiok holds a special, sweaty place in my hiker’s heart for trails that challenge the hiker to put up with some seasonal annoyances as well as they showcase the local charms.|