Recommended hikes: May 2012
It’s the transition season for hiking in North Carolina, as hot, buggy weather moves in at the coast, driving hikers to higher ground. And, save for the start of the afternoon thunderstorm season, that higher ground is looking increasingly attractive.
Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, 3.75 miles (Trip No. 1, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). Weather is starting to become a key factor in most coastal hikes, especially those that involve, sweaty, swampy, buggy, lethal-reptile encounters. A few years back, at Nags Head Woods on the Outer Banks, I saw the biggest cottonmouths (yes, plural) I’d ever seen. Fortunately, it was a coolish spring day and the critters were sluggish (not that I got close enough to see how well their blood was flowing). Still, it drove home the point that there are certain places it’s best to steer clear of in summer’s heat. Nags Head Woods, an 1,100-acre maritime forest the buddies up to Jockey’s Ridge is one such place. In this, one of the best remaining examples of a maritime forest along the East coast, you’ll walk under 11 species of oak (the oldest of which are estimated to be more than 500 years old), five species of salamander, 14 species of toads and frogs, eight species of turtles, five species of lizards and 20 species of snakes, not to mention the more than 50 species of birds that nest here. A surprisingly lush and little-known oasis on this well-known spit of sand.
Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center, Johnston County, 20+ miles of trail (Hike No. 45, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). Howell Woods, a 2,800-acre outdoor education campus for Johnston Community College is one of those places that makes you slap your forehead whenever you hear or read about it — slap your forehead because you can’t believe you’ve forgotten about it. You’re to be forgiven, though; sitting east of I-95 in Johnston County, it’s easy to forget it’s out there. But then you remember the extensive network (15) of short (no longer than three-quarters of a mile) trails and the 15 additional miles of bike & bridle trail and — thwap! — there you are wondering how you’ve overlooked it. It’s especially intriguing, to me, because the trail goes into a swampy area known as the Let’lones, where the Neuse River seems to forget where it’s going and meanders about for a bit before remembering its appointment with the Atlantic. It’s a little Piedmont (loblollies), a little coastal swamp (bald cypress and duckweed on the pond). Good for long training hikes, too.
Crowders and Rocktop Trails: Crowders Mountain State Park, Gastonia, 5 miles (Hike No. 27, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). I love just looking at a topo map of Crowders Mountain: lots of well-spaced lines in a gentle scallop, then, toward the center the lines suddenly converge until near the top they look like one big dark squiggle. To me, that usually means good outcrops and at Crowders Mountain that’s certainly the case. From the Visitors Center, the Crowders Trail clings to the base of the mountain before a steep, sudden climb to the top, a rocky outpost that doesn’t disappoint. Then, on the return, the Rocktop Trail follows the mountain’s rocky spine before a gradual descent. Understandably, being so close to Charlotte, it gets a little crowded on weekends. Thus, a hike best done if you can sneak away mid-week. A good warm weather hike because there’s often a nice breeze up top.
Graybeard Mountain, Montreat Conference Center/Black Mounain, 8 miles (Trip No. 13 “Backpacking North Carolina,” Hike No. 88 “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina). Headed for the mountains but feel you just can’t wait until Asheville to stretch your legs? Get off the interstate at Black Mountain and within minutes you’re at the trailhead for Graybeard Trail, which takes you up a lush, rocky draw to a ridgeline and the climb up to 5,408-foot Graybeard. There are a couple good aeries on the climb up affording good views to the south, Graybeard Falls, and then, if you stand on the outcrop atop Graybeard you can get a nice view of the Craggy Mountains to the north and west. The return on West Ridge Trail includes some good scampering down a rocky ridge. A nice 8-mile day in this 2,500-acre refuge.
Gorges State Park, Cashiers, 6.4 miles (Hike No. 95, “100 Classic Hikes in North Carolina”). You head to the mountains, you expect flora more along the lines of what you’d find to the north, in the case of spruce-pine forests, as far north as Canada. At Gorges State Park it’s just the opposite. Here, the microclimate is influenced by warm, wet air that comes up from the Gulf of Mexico and gets trapped against the Blue Ridge Escarpment to create a warm, wet landscape more reflective of a tropical rainforest. In fact, that recognition of the unusual climate is the main reason this park, established in the late 1990s, exists. This 6.4-mile hike capitalizes on one of the benefits of a steep, wet landscape: abundant waterfalls. Capping this trip, an encounter with Bearwallow Falls, which drops 300 feet over a series of slab drops.