With fall around the corner, there are some great walking and hiking opportunities along the Crystal Coast to revisit or try for the first time.
Each week for the next two months, I’m going to break down the ins and outs of eight county hiking trails, each with their own distinct identities and hiker appeal. Those are: Patsy Pond Nature Trail in Newport, Cedar Point Tideland Trail, Cedar Island Wildlife Refuge, Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail in Atlantic Beach, Elliott Coues Nature Trail in Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle Woods Trail, N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Trails and the Neusiok Trail running from Newport to Harlowe.
I took a visit on Tuesday to Patsy Pond Nature Trail, a little pocket of the Croatan National Forest maintained by the N.C. Coastal Federation. The trailhead is across from the NCCF building along Highway 24 in Ocean, with limited parking. There are restrooms available at the NCCF building.
Highly visible orange vests are strongly encouraged during the two hunting seasons: Oct.-Feb. and April-May.
In a nutshell, the Patsy Pond Trail system is great for walking in good weather when sunshine is desired. There is little tree cover, but there is still plenty of wildlife and edible berry bushes to make the walk worth it. It’s a unique stretch of “Longleaf Pine Flat Woods,” of which the NCCF says only an estimated 3.3 million acres remain when once 90 million acres existed along the eastern and gulf coasts.
This is not a stroller-friendly walk, even with all-terrain wheels. There are no off-road vehicles or horses allowed on the trail, but dogs on leashes are welcome. It’s a foot traffic-only trail, too, so there is no danger of fast-moving bicycles whipping around corners either.
The sign at the trailhead directs hikers to three trails – the green loop, blue loop and yellow loop. Unlike some trailheads with different entry points, the green loop serves as the central point for the other two loops to section off.
The green loop, the smallest of the three, is listed at 0.75 miles, but my smartwatch clocked it at 0.83. The green loop is a great introduction to the trail system, featuring plenty of low-lying bushes such as sweetbay magnolia, wax myrtle and redbay.
The first sound you hear on the trail is the peck-peck-pecking of the red-cockaded woodpecker. The first thing many people notice is the evidence of control burns, a necessary step in this particular forest as longleaf pine seeds fall in the autumn and germinate after the fire season.
Now, unless you use the green loop as a daily, brief dog-walking loop, that .75 miles will never be the real distance of a walk at Patsy Pond. The best walks are along the yellow and blue loops, which can only be accessed via the green loop.
The yellow loop is a 1.9 border around the trail system, comprised mostly of wide, sandy trails. While it offers the least amount of edible berry sightings, the yellow loop gives hikers multiple access points to Patsy Pond, the largest of four groundwater ponds in the area. Along the edge of the ponds are carnivorous plants such as bladderwort, which can be found floating on the water’s surface, and sundew that can be found growing along the water’s edge.
Between the yellow loop and the green loop is the 1-mile blue loop, a winding, shaded section of trail that includes lots of roots and overgrown low-lying bushes. The map doesn’t denote a connection between the yellow and blue loops, but a few have been carved out of the brush nonetheless.
The blue loop connects the three largest ponds, including Lily Pond, and features the most edible berries along the trail. Personally, I enjoy going east (right) on the green loop, taking the exit for the yellow loop and then connecting with the blue loop at Patsy Pond and taking it south to the green loop again. In total, the walk is 2.2 miles, easy enough to walk in an hour or jog in 30 minutes.
(Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @zacknally)