Saturday, October 1, 2016

Carolina Beach State Park: Sugarloaf, Oak Toe, and Flytrap Trails (Blog Hike #607)

Trails: Sugarloaf, Oak Toe, and Flytrap Trails
Hike Location: Carolina Beach State Park
Geographic Location: south of Wilmington, NC
Length: 4.1 miles
Difficulty: 3/10 (Easy/Moderate)
Last Hiked: September 2016
Overview: A semiloop along the Cape Fear River, over a large sand dune, and past several small ponds.

Directions to the trailhead: From Wilmington, drive south on US 421 for 13.6 miles to Dow Road, which is reached at a traffic light just after crossing the Snows Cut waterway.  Turn right on Dow Rd. and drive 0.3 miles to the state park entrance on the right.  Turn right to enter the park, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up a trail map, and then drive the main park road to its end at the marina.  After passing the marina’s boat ramp, the truck/boat trailer parking is on the right, and the trailhead parking is on the left.  Park in the small paved lot for the trailhead.

The hike: Although Sugarloaf Dune, the major landform in Carolina Beach State Park, stands in a very natural setting today, such has not always been the case.  The dune received its name in 1663 because its white sand looked like crystallized sugar.  The dune has been a major landmark on boating navigation charts ever since.
During the Civil War, Confederate troops built a series of earthworks from here down the Cape Fear River to the Atlantic Ocean, some of which can still be seen today.  In the late 1800’s, a pier was built at the base of the dune, and a steamer called The Wilmington would stop here and unload passengers heading for nearby beaches.  At the onset of the automotive age, the area became a major destination for off-road vehicle and dune buggy enthusiasts, which it remained until the state park was established in 1969.
Today 761 acre Carolina Beach State Park is most famous for its marina and boat ramps, which are located on the busy intracoastal waterway, an inland passage for Atlantic Ocean boat traffic.  From this marina, the intracoastal goes south down the Cape Fear River and north through the Snows Cut you drove over on your way in.  The park’s 83-site campground sits on the south bank of Snows Cut, which as the “cut” in its name implies is a man-made waterway built in 1930. Contrary to the park’s name, the park offers neither a natural nor a manmade swimming beach.
            While boating takes center stage here, the park is also home to 13 different plant communities including some rare and unusual plants.  To experience most of these plant communities, you will need to get out of the park’s marina and onto the park’s hiking trails.  The park’s main hiking trail is the 3-mile Sugarloaf Trail, a loop that features the trail’s namesake sand dune.  Combining the Sugarloaf Trail with two side excursions of roughly 0.5 miles each forms the 4.1 mile hike described here.
Marina trailhead
            Start at the information board near the rear of the trailhead parking lot.  Almost immediately the trail forks with options going left and straight.  This fork forms the loop that is the Sugarloaf Trail.  I chose to continue straight and use the left trail as my return route, thus hiking the loop counterclockwise.  The Sugarloaf Trail is marked with orange aluminum circles that seem bright enough to glow in the dark, but I did not stay after sunset to test that hypothesis.
            The trail heads south and soon enters hot, sunny, soft sand.  More than half of this hike is exposed to the sun, so make sure you dress accordingly and carry enough water, especially in warm weather.  At 0.2 miles, you reach a narrow grassy and sandy beach along the Cape Fear River.  Broad views extend up and down the wide waterway, but swimming is not allowed anywhere in the park because the river bottom drops off quickly.
Narrow grassy beach
            Past the beach, the trail curves sharply left to head directly away from the river on what appears to be an old sand/dirt road.  The Sugarloaf Trail is joined here by the Swamp Trail, which is marked with red circles.  Some wetlands appear on either side of the trail, but wooden bridges keep your feet dry for the most part.
Hiking on an old road
             At 0.4 miles, the Sugarloaf and Swamp Trails part ways.  Turn right to leave the old road and stay on the Sugarloaf Trail as it heads into forest dominated by turkey and live oaks.  0.75 miles into the hike, you reach another intersection where the Sugarloaf Trail goes left and the Oak Toe Trail goes right.  We will eventually continue the Sugarloaf Trail, but for possibly the park’s best Cape Fear River view, turn right to begin the Oak Toe Trail.
            Marked with blue circles, the Oak Toe Trail is a 0.4 mile one-way out-and-back that follows the west bank of the Cape Fear River.  When I looked for tracks in the wet sandy soil, I could tell that coyotes and deer had been here recently.  I also noticed some small holes in the ground, and my approach caused some sand beetles to crawl back into the holes.
            Just past 1.1 miles, you reach the wooden observation deck at the end of the Oak Toe Trail.  Only some boats and a port facility downstream encroach on the natural environment visible from this overlook.  The Oak Toe Trail ends here, so you next have to retrace your steps to the Sugarloaf Trail and angle softly right to continue your counterclockwise journey on the Sugarloaf Trail.
View from Oak Toe overlook
            The trail continues southeast soon to cross another old sandy road and reach the base of Sugarloaf Dune.  After climbing gradually along the left (inland) side of the dune, you reach the spur trail to the Sugarloaf Overlook at 1.9 miles.  Turn right and climb a short distance on the short spur trail to reach the overlook.  Pine trees dot the sandy dune that falls away before you toward the Cape Fear River.  At 55 feet above sea level, this overlook is the highest point on this hike, so enjoy the high-level views of the surrounding water and terrain.
View from Sugarloaf Overlook
            Back on the main trail, the Sugarloaf Trail goes east to head away from the Cape Fear River for good.  You may notice an extensive network of old sandy roads in this area.  These roads are remnants of this land’s pre-park days as an off-road vehicle destination.  Some of these roads look like trails, so be sure to watch for the orange circles to stay on the official trail.
Hiking under longleaf pines
            The trail now assumes a meandering course through some nice longleaf pine forest.  Next you pass three very shallow ponds: Cypress Pond, Lily Pond, and Grass Pond in that order.  True to their names, Cypress Pond features some bald cypress trees, Lily Pond features a few water lilies, and Grass Pond features thick areas of grass growing in the water.
Lily Pond
            At 3.2 miles, you reach successive junctions with the Campground and Swamp Trails, where you need to turn left and right respectively.  The numerous orange circles keep you from making wrong turns.  3.3 miles into the hike, you cross a paved park road and reenter the woods on the other side.
            Almost immediately after crossing the park road, you reach another trail intersection where the Campground Trail exits right.  Turn left to stay on the Sugarloaf Trail.  The trail heads west as the paved parking lot for the Flytrap Trail appears through the trees on the left.  When you reach the spur trail to the parking lot, you could continue straight for the shortest route back to your car.  However, the Flytrap Trail is possibly the park’s most interesting trail, so I recommend turning left, walking through the parking lot, and picking up the Flytrap Trail, the start of which is marked by an orange diamond on the right side of the parking lot.  Note that this parking lot would also make an alternative starting point if the marina trailhead parking lot is full.
            The Flytrap Trail gets its name because it passes through wetland areas where unusual carnivorous plants such as the pitcher plant and the venus flytrap live.  The trail forms a short loop that might be handicapped accessible with some assistance.  Boardwalks carry you over the wetland, where you are likely to see the carnivorous plants.
Pitcher plant in wetland
            Where an unmarked side trail heads right toward the group camping area, angle left to stay on the Flytrap Trail.  After passing more carnivorous plants, you arrive back at the parking lot and at the end of the Flytrap Trail.  Retrace your steps to the Sugarloaf Trail to begin the final leg back to the marina area.
            The trail crosses a long wooden boardwalk over a final wetland before reaching drier ground.  Now passing through the center of the park, the woods features short live and turkey oak trees with a dense understory that includes some yaupon.  At 4.1 miles, you close the Sugarloaf Trail loop.  A right turn will quickly take you back to the marina parking area.  The marina store offers a snack bar that overlooks the river, a nice way to complete your visit to Carolina Beach State Park.

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