Saturday, March 26, 2016

Nags Head Woods Preserve: Center, Sweetgum Swamp, and Blueberry Ridge Trails (Blog Hike #567)

Trails: Center, Sweetgum Swamp, and Blueberry Ridge Trails
Hike Location: Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve
Geographic Location: north side of Nags Head, NC
Length: 3.5 miles
Difficulty: 4/10 (Moderate)
Last Hiked: March 2016
Overview: A triple lollipop loop over and between forested sand dunes.

Directions to the trailhead: Between Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills, take US 158 to Ocean Acres Drive.  This intersection is located near mile marker 9.5 on US 158, and there is a traffic light at this intersection.  Go west on Ocean Acres Dr.  Drive through a residential neighborhood for 0.8 miles, at which point the road turns to gravel.  Park in the signed preserve parking area on the left 1 mile from US 158.

The hike: Located on the boundary between the towns of Kill Devil Hills to the north and Nags Head to the south, Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve protects over 1100 acres of forested sand dunes on North Carolina’s outer banks.  The area was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, and shortly thereafter the Nature Conservancy began purchasing land to establish the preserve.  Some of the original 420 acres were also donated by John and Rhoda Calfee and Diane St. Clair.  Partnerships with the adjacent towns bring the land total to the present acreage.
            The Nature Conservancy maintains 6 trails at the preserve totaling more than 6.5 miles.  Most of the trails require a short road walk to reach their trailheads, but the network of three trails described here enjoys the privilege of being accessible directly from the Visitor Center parking area.  The preserve’s trail map lists this semi-loop as 3.75 miles long, but that number is a little high based on my estimates.  Regardless of the exact distance, combining this hike over forested sand dunes with one over the bare sand dunes of nearby Jockey’s Ridge State Park makes a nice full day of hiking that explores all of the outer banks’ major ecosystems.
Start of Center Trail behind Visitor Center
            This part of the trail system consists of three consecutive lollipop loops: the Center Trail, the Sweetgum Swamp Trail, and the Blueberry Ridge Trail in that order.  Thus, our hike starts on the Center Trail, which is reached by walking across the wooden deck outside the Visitor Center.  The Center Trail starts by crossing a wooden arch bridge over a small pond.  Several small ponds sit near the Visitor Center, and all of them were covered with green algae on my visit.
            Almost immediately the Center Trail forks to form its loop.  For no real reason, I chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trails at Nags Head Woods Preserve are unmarked except at intersections, but they are well-maintained and easy to follow.  The trail soon crosses another wooden arch bridge over another algae-covered pond.  Large amounts of American holly live in the forest here.
            At 0.25 miles, the Sweetgum Swamp Trail exits right.  This intersection is marked with a tan plastic post, and in agreement with the trail map the Center and Sweetgum Swamp Trails are numbered #1 and #2 on the post, respectively.  Turn right to begin the “stick” of the lollipop loop that is the Sweetgum Swamp trail.
Dune-top hiking
            Soon you climb the first forested sand dune.  Although these sand dunes are only about 20 feet high, they are quite steep, and they provide the only real difficulty of this hike.  The trail then curves left to head northeast along the top of the dune.  The dense holly forest prohibits any real views.
            0.4 miles into the hike, you pass through a stile to enter a power line easement.  After curving right to begin following the power line, you descend the south side of the dune over some of the softest sand and steepest trail on this hike.  While going down the dune is easy, climbing back up the soft sand will be a brief but arduous task you will be undertaking in an hour or so.
            The trail curves left and passes through another stile to exit the power line easement.  At 0.7 miles, you reach the intersection that forms the loop portion of the Sweetgum Swamp Trail.  As with the first loop, I chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.
Wooden steps over sand dune
            The south arm of the Sweetgum Swamp Trail drops off the dune to pass through a marshy area only to go up and over the next dune.  Some wooden steps built into the sandy soil help you scale the steep dune.  After descending and ascending one more time, you reach the start of the last lollipop loop, the Blueberry Ridge Trail, at 1.1 miles.  Turn right at the signed intersection to begin the Blueberry Ridge Trail.
            Marked on the map as trail #3, the Blueberry Ridge Trail descends to enter a low area with numerous ponds.  These dark-water ponds line both sides of the trail, and they were teeming with life on my visit.  At every pond my approach sent numerous turtles and frogs plopping into the relative safety of the water.
Pond on Blueberry Ridge Trail
            1.4 miles into the hike, the Blueberry Ridge Trail splits to form its loop.  Given the counterclockwise mood I was in on this day, I again chose to turn right and hike the loop counterclockwise.  The trail passes beside more ponds and uses a short boardwalk to get over the wettest area.
            At the far end of the farthest loop, the trail fakes you out by climbing part-way up a dune only to curve left and return to pond level.  More pondside hiking precedes a climb to more dune-top hiking before the Blueberry Ridge Trail’s loop is closed.  Continue straight to retrace your steps to the Sweetgum Swamp Trail, then turn right to continue the Sweetgum Swamp Trail’s loop.
Sunny area atop sand dune
            The trail finishes climbing a dune before curving left to descend slightly.  At 2.4 miles, you reach the sunniest part of the hike as you top a dune that is just starting to be colonized by young pine trees.  You may hear some gunshots in this area from a police firing range that sits just beyond the preserve’s eastern boundary, but all was quiet on my visit.
            After reentering the forest, the trail descends the dune using a wooden staircase before crossing another wooden arch bridge at 2.6 miles.  At 2.8 miles, you close the Sweetgum Swamp Trail’s loop.  Continue straight to retrace your steps back through the power line easement to the Center Trail, then take a soft right to continue the Center Trail.  The Center Trail very quickly returns you to the Visitor Center to complete the hike.

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