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Wintertime hiking in ENC

People who believe hiking is an activity done only in the mountains may be surprised to learn that eastern North Carolina boasts miles of scenic hiking trails.  From salt marshes and cypress swamps to longleaf pine forests and pocosins, hiking trails at the coast feature diverse ecosystems and allow hikers an up-close and uncrowded adventure. 

One of the most well-known trails in the eastern part of the state is the Neusiok.  The 21 mile path winds through Craven and Carteret counties from the sandy banks of the Neuse River to a salt marsh on the Newport River.  Although some people hike all 21 miles at once, most conquer the trail in sections.  On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I caught up with a group of a fourteen, part of a church group, preparing for a six mile trek near the Cherry Branch ferry.  Clint Jones is the hike leader and the assistant pastor at Victory Chapel in Havelock.

“It was a day off, and we just wanted to get some time out in the woods and just enjoy ourselves.  We have a lunch packed so we’re going to get out here to the site.  Good stuff like that.”

The group is hiking to Copperhead Landing, one of three open-faced wooden shelters along the trail.  Jones has done this section of the Neusiok before, but it was nighttime, 28 degrees, and it was snowing and sleeting.  Today, the sun is out and it’s 34 degrees.  The group is wearing thick coats, gloves and warm toboggans.  Ninth grader Ashley Miller is huddled up with a friend trying to stay warm.

“I’ve never been hiking before, I only did it because I didn’t have anything to do today.  My toes are numb.”

The Neusiok trail is challenging in duration for experienced backpackers, yet easy enough from the newbie to tackle piece by piece.  It’s hard to get lost because the path is blazed with small white metal dots nailed on trees every 50 yards or so.  The trail, named after a Native American village on the Neuse River, has been around for more than 40 years.  It was the brain child of Gene Huntsman, president of the Carteret County Wildlife Club.  Though he wouldn’t describe himself as a backpacker, he’s always had a love for the outdoors.

“I’ve never been a cross-country put your house on your back hiker.  But how long have I been walking in the woods?  I don't know...since I was eight.”

Huntsman is bundled up for the cold, wearing boots, a green fedora and a hunter green down jacket.  He’s very knowledgeable about the fruits of the forest.

“There’s a short leaf pine, which is a more abundant pine over much of the inland south.  Most of our pines are loblolly and long leaf.”

Something catches his eye and he scurries off down the trail.  A cloud of condensation billows from his mouth as he calls me over to a large cluster of white fungus growing on an oak tree.

“These are oyster mushrooms... they’re all past prime but… What do they taste like?  A little bit more intense than say grocery store mushrooms, quite flavorful.  Can you eat them raw?  Yeah, you can eat them raw, take a bite now. It’s going to be icy I expect.  Uh huh, a little icy, but it’s really good. Oh, they’re very good!”

It should be added that you should never eat out of the forest unless you are certain a mushroom is non poisonous.  In addition to collecting wild edibles, Huntsman enjoys hunting and fishing and just being outdoors.  It’s this passion that inspired him to create the Neusiok Trail.  He was approached by a friend, who was a high school student at the time, asking about the best place in eastern North Carolina to go hiking. 

“And I said, the national forest has lots of nice places to hike. There’s lots of logging roads and he said I don’t want to hike a road, I want to hike a trail.  And it occurred to me when he said that I didn’t think I’d ever been around a national forest that didn’t have a trail.”

The trail was started in 1971.  It took about five years for volunteers with the Carteret County Wildlife Club to carve a path through the Croatan National Forest.  

Some areas were easier to clear than others.  Huntsman remembers an especially difficult section between Highway 306 and Mill Creek Road.

“It was just feet at a time.  Working with a party of three and one would take a flag on a tall stick.  And walk ahead until we couldn’t see her anymore and we could see the flag. We’d give her a compass bearing and we’d chop to the flag and she would go ahead and we would chop to the flag and finally we got some of that trail open.” 

The Neusiok is never really finished, because there’s always work to be done to maintain the path.  This Sunday, volunteers with the wildlife club will be celebrating the 43rd anniversary of the Neusiok by working on a new section of trail near Deep Creek Road.  The path will eventually reroute hikers off a two mile section of gravel road, which is the current route, to a new trail through the woods. 

Emerging from the forest, we head to the parking area on highway 301.  Huntsman says he’s accomplished his goal of creating a space for people to appreciate the beauty and diversity of the Croatan Forest.

“There are a number of short walks, there are enough roads running through the Neusiok that you can take a nice little hour or three hour walk without investing in gobs of camping gear and carrying half a household on your back.  Just look at the Neusiok as a place to spend a nice afternoon in the woods.”

In addition to day trippers, you may come across thru hikers on the Neusiok backpacking their way across North Carolina on the 1,000 mile Mountains to Sea Trail, which stretches across the state from Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains to Jockey’s Ridge in Nags Head. 

Credit Goose Creek State Park
Palmetto Boardwalk at Goose Creek State Park

There are many hiking destinations in eastern North Carolina that offer breathtaking views and wildlife viewing opportunities.  Goose Creek State Park is near the top of the list.  Located in Beaufort County, the park has eight miles of trails that run through a long leaf pine savannah, cypress swamp and live oaks draped in Spanish moss.  Superintendent for Goose Creek State Park Doug Lequire.

“You’re going to see a lot of woodpeckers and some of the other birds that are around.  Chances are you’re going to see some deer of course, you can see anything from bobcats to foxes.  Sometimes, you’re going to want to stop and listen to the various birds and various sounds.”

During the cold season, Goose Creek serves as wintering grounds for tundra swans and Canada geese.  Lequire says the best chance to encounter birds is on trails that run along the creek, and another that follows the banks of the Pamlico River.

Credit Goose Creek State Park
Trail running along the Pamlico River

“It’s kind of neat because they’re on a sandhill so there’s a little bit of typography down there which is kind of a rarity in eastern North Carolina.”

The park also features a half mile of wheelchair accessible wooden boardwalk trail through a cypress swamp, with a good view of snakes, fish and turtles.   There’s a total of eight different trails to choose from.  Lequire suggests picking up a map before you set out.

“You’re always welcome to stop by the visitor’s center and tell us exactly what you’re looking for as far as mileage and we can give you a good overview of the park and give you a good route.”

Even though winter brings cold to contend with, Lequire believes it’s a great time to get outdoors. 

“This time of year, you don’t really have to worry about bugs like ticks and mosquitos and different things like that.”

Another place to get out in nature is at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park near Goldsboro.  The park features six miles of hiking trails in riverside habitats and mature longleaf pine forests.  Superintendent Ed Wilkerson says the most popular path, the 350 Yard Trail takes visitors to the surprisingly high cliffs that overlook the Neuse River.

Credit Friends of Cliffs of the Neuse
Hikers at Cliffs of the Neuse State Park

“Being 90 feet on a bluff, up above the Neuse River right there in the bend, it’s pretty neat because you can look down from up above.  Finding vistas, so to speak, in this area of the state is hard to come by.”

After taking in the view, hikers can chose from a variety of short, easy trails.  Some of the paths lead to creeks that were once used to make moonshine and cornmeal, of which you can learn more in the visitor’s center.

There are more great hiking trails in eastern North Carolina, including the Weetok trailon Highway 58 near Maysville, Cedar Point Tideland Trail in Carteret County, and Island Creek Trail near Pollocksville.  

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.