Croatan National Forest
Croatan National Forest is the only coastal forest in Eastern North Carolina. Covering about 160,000 acres, Croatan National Forest is almost completely surrounded by bodies of water, including three tidal rivers. Trent River (red) and Neuse River (green) form the northern boundary, Clubfoot Creek (orange) forms the eastern edge, Newport River (blue) and Rogue Sound (pink) are the southern limits, and White Oak River (purple) is the western border. A rare break in the watery perimeter is the 7.5-mile stretch between Maysville (M) and Pollocksville (P).
The city of New Bern lies just north of the forest, Swansboro is at its southwest corner, and Morehead City is located at the southeast corner. The city of Havelock and the adjacent Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station lie completely within the forest, whereas the Piney Island Bombing Range (PIBR) is about 22 miles to the east.
At about the center of the forest lies a collection of five lakes. Catfish Lake (C) is the most northerly, and Long Lake (Lo), Little Lake (Li), Ellis Simon Lake (ES), and Great Lake (G) form a tight grouping about 7 miles to the southeast.
Four officially designated wilderness areas (black triangles on the map) are located within Croatan National Forest. Catfish Lake South Wilderness (CLS), Sheep Ridge Wilderness (SR), Pond Pine Wilderness (PP), and Pocosin Wilderness (Po) are wetlands without trails or campgrounds, and travel through these areas is said to be “difficult.,” – a description that I’m guessing is an understatement.
Neusiok Trail is one of the last stretches of North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea trail system. It runs more than 21 miles through the eastern-most portion of the Croatan National Forest. Starting at Pine Cliff at the northern end, the trail parallels the shores of the Neuse River, Hancock Creek, and Cahooque Creek, and then turns south until it ends at Oyster Point campground on the shore of Newport River. The out-and-back Neusiok Trail is especially popular with backpackers, and features three small shelters distributed along its length. On the map above, I’ve used a dotted line to approximate the path of the trail.
Anyone interested in hiking Neusiok Trail should be sure to check out the very informative website created by Greg Wheat: http://neusioktrail.org
I found the description of the trail to be highly accurate, and below I only offer a small number of additional details about the potion that I hiked.
My original Intention was to travel the northern half of Neusiok Trail over the course of two days, but ultimately, I needed three visits to Croatan Forest before I accomplished my goal. The walks I took are highlighted on the map presented below, with Day 1 in yellow, Day 2 in blue, and Day 3 in pink. On the first day, I hiked from Pine Cliff (yellow dot) to the Copperhead Landing shelter (orange dot), on the second from NC-306 (green dot) to the Copperhead Landing shelter, and on the third from NC-306 to the Dogwood Camp shelter (brown dot).
Flowing for about 275 miles, Neuse River is the longest river entirely within North Carolina. Named by the Neusiok Indians, the river begins in the piedmont between Durham and Wake Forest, and ends where it empties into Pamlico Sound at the bombing range. The northern trailhead of the Neusiok Trail is on the southern shore of Neuse River, at Pine Cliff.
After getting a late start, I pulled into the parking area beside the Neuse at around 9:00 a.m. on a Friday. The lot is adjacent to a picnic area with several tables and a small building that houses pit toilets. A map of the portion of the trail west of NC-306 is posted on the information board.
The map was much more detailed than any I had seen before, and depicted a much richer network of trails than I expected to find. It had been enlarged so much that it was impossible to read the legend, and no small copies were available for hikers. Nevertheless, the map was useful in as much as it served as a warning that I was going to encounter several previously unanticipated decision points along the trail.
Located near the trailhead was a station where hikers could sign-in. Later in the day I encountered the guys who had logged in most recently.
Only a few yards down the trail I saw a mile-marker. I had read that the distribution of the numbered posts along the trail had been an Eagle Scout project. Apparently, the scouts considered Pine Cliff the end of the trail rather than the beginning.
The first portion of the trail involved a westward walk that wove back and forth between the woods and the shore of the Neuse River. Waterfowl and woodpeckers were easy to spot when I stopped, but when moving I needed to keep my eyes on the trail to avoid tripping on the numerous tree roots that crossed the path. Much of the trail through the woods was nearly as sandy as the shore and ensured that my movement was leisurely.
I never got very close to any of the birds I saw, so taking photos was not easy. I did manage to capture the silhouette and reflection of a great blue heron wading in the river and a rather dark picture of an immature red-headed woodpecker seeking breakfast at the top of a dead pine tree. I also snapped shots of several gulls, but I preferred the pictures of their tracks on the sandy riverside.
The main Neusiok Trail is blazed with strips of aluminum, which are sometimes shaped like arrows to indicate important turns. Other markings and tags identify side trails, and frequent signs remind the hiker that many portions of the trail are shared with equestrians. Of course, other mementos distributed along the trail also serve to keep this fact fresh in the pedestrian’s mind.
In general, I found that turning right (towards the river) at every decision point kept me on the main trail. At the spot where one might be most tempted to move straight ahead, a pair of signs made it explicit that doing so would be a mistake.
The walk along the first segment of the trail was the most peaceful of the day, even though the quiet was occasionally punctuated by the muffled sounds of explosions from Piney Island Bombing Range.
In his description of the trail, Greg Wheat mentions that after following the shore of the Neuse River for a while, the footpath takes a sudden turn to the south, and he suggests keeping a keen eye out for the bend in the path. He also mentions that if the turn is missed, one can continue to walk along the river’s edge and then take a set of stairs up the cliff to rejoin the trail at a point farther along.
The southward shift was indicated by a triple blaze, but even before I saw it I was alerted to the critical spot by the loud voices of hikers who had just begun making their way in that direction. Rather than be on the heels of my fellow travelers, I decided to continue walking beside the river so that they would have time to get farther ahead of me. I thought I might keep to this alternate route all the way to the cliff that Greg had mentioned, although ascending what I foolishly imagined might resemble the stairs of Cirith Ungol did not really appeal to me.
As it turned out, I walked about a quarter-mile down the shore, at which point trees from the forest blocked the way, and I would have had to wade into the river to continue. Instead of entering the Neuse, I turned around and headed back towards the main trail at an unhurried pace, having never noticed that I had passed the cliff stairs only a few yards from where the trail turns south.
In his posting, Greg Wheat described the portion of the Neusiok trail between Pine Cliff and NC-306 as the hilliest of the entire trail. Although this is undoubtedly true, none of the changes in elevation are particularly challenging. Instead, the greatest impediment to the hiker is the abundance of tree roots that easily cause one to trip if eyes are not fixed on the ground. I had to stop walking frequently to look around so that I didn’t miss all the beauty of the forest.
I continued to be curious about the cliff stairs, so I kept looking for the side-trail that would lead me there, but I was unable to spot it.
Eventually I caught up with the hikers I had seen earlier. They were carrying large backpacks and told me they were on an outing during which they were going to walk the entire length of the trail over a period of three days. They offered me the chance to get ahead of them on the trail, but I didn’t want to feel pressured to walk fast, so I hung back taking pictures. This was no hardship because there was a nice view of Hancock Creek right there.
Whenever the trail moved to low ground, things got wet and muddy, and boardwalks had been put in place at several locations.
After hiking about three-and-a-half miles, I arrived at the Copperhead Landing shelter. The two backpackers I had met earlier, Will and Brian, were having lunch there with a third man, Will’s father, Lyle. Having started at NC-306, 68-year-old Lyle had hiked to the shelter from the opposite direction to meet up with the younger men via a route that avoided some of the more strenuous terrain. There was a nice view of Cahooque Creek from Copperhead Landing.
The four of us chatted for a while, and Lyle offered me a baloney sandwich, which I gratefully declined. Before long I wished the three men good luck on their adventure, and headed out to begin the walk back to Pine Cliff.
It was midday when I started retracing my steps. About an hour earlier, occasional jets from the air station had begun passing overhead. During the return trip, however, it seemed that the peace of the woods was interrupted about every five minutes by the thundering sound of aircraft flying above the trees. This was very unpleasant, and I recommend that folks planning to hike through the area get any earlier start than I did so that they finish their walks before noon.
When I reached the vicinity of the river, I noticed the side-trail to the cliff stairs that had been invisible from the other direction. It was narrow and almost overgrown, but it didn’t take much pushing through the shrubs before I was standing at the top of the steps. It was only at this point that I realized that they were located very near the southward bend in the trail.
Moving back up the shoreline, I passed a woman walking a tiny, white, fluffy dog by the river, and caught a glimpse of the ferry returning from Minnesott Beach to Cherry Branch, just a short distance east of the parking lot.
On the following Monday I returned to Croatan National Forest to hike the portion of the Neusiok Trail from NC-306 to Copperhead Landing. On my previous visit, I had hoped to make it all the way from Pine Cliff to 306 and back, but things didn’t work out that way. If I return in the future, I might consider hiking all the way to NC-306 and then walking along the highway until reaching the gravel Pine Cliff Road that leads back to the parking lot. Such a loop would be about 9.25 miles by comparison to the 13 miles required to do an out-and-back hike from Pine Cliff to NC-306.
The portion of the trail closest to NC-306 was flatter and less rugged than the more northerly part, but before long it was very similar to the walk I had taken the week before. I heard woodpeckers almost constantly, but found it difficult to get a good view of any. At one point, I managed to snap a shot of a red-bellied woodpecker just as it was flying off a nearby pine limb.
There were several low-lying areas that were muddy enough that boardwalk had been put in place by the Carteret Wildlife Club and the US Forest Service. These boardwalks are extremely helpful, but also extremely slippery when wet, so I always cross them very cautiously.
About halfway to Copperhead landing the trail made a 90-degree turn to the left, and a sign made it clear that one should not go straight unless interested in exploring one of the alternate trails through the woods.
At the bottom of a hill after the turn, there was a boardwalk through an especially messy area. There was so much mud in advance of the boardwalk that I needed to push my way through the surrounding brush for a distance longer than the boardwalk just to reach it. I did not attempt balancing on any of the many tree trunks or branches that others had distributed in the mud.
From NC-306, the walk to Copperhead Landing was only about 2.5 miles. When I arrived at the shelter, I found a couple of guys having breakfast after having camped there for the night. I said, “hello,” relaced my boots, and then headed back to my car.
On the following Friday morning, I made yet another drive to Croatan National Forest and, like on my previous trip, parked in the little lot beside NC-306. This time my plan was to walk south to the Dogwood Camp shelter just beyond NC-101. The enthusiasms of a couple of previous visitors were made clear in the margins of the hiker’s log at the trailhead.
The entire length of the trail south of NC-306 was reputed to be very wet, and the verity of this claim became clear not long after starting the hike. Although great portions of the trail were equipped with boardwalks, in a few spots the accommodations were less than adequate.
The boardwalks varied considerably in terms of construction, condition, and length. Some were wide and sturdy, and others were simply a series of planks that sagged so much in their middles that I feared that my bulk might cause them to break. A few spanned little more than small ditches, and other were extensive, the longest stretching for a quarter-mail. The boards were sometimes quite strong, and other times rather rotted.
About halfway to NC-101, a forest road crossed the trail. A supply of materials for maintaining the pathway and constructing and repairing boardwalks were deposited there.
Farther along, I encountered a tree that had fallen across the boardwalk, and resisted the temptation to interpret it as an ill omen.
Nearby I saw a mud mound beside the trail. Subsequent research led me to conclude it was made by a crawdad.
One of the longest boardwalks passed through an area called Cotton Mouth Spa. Portions of this stretch were so wet that I could not imagine anyone ever traveling through without the aid of the boardwalk.
Aside from some of the soggier areas without boardwalks, the most challenging part of the hike was crossing NC-101. I had a long wait for a break in the noisy stream of semi-trailers that were barreling along the highway.
Just as Greg Wheat’s posting had indicated, the Dogwood Camp shelter was not visible from the trail, but a sign indicating a spot three-quarters-of-a-mile south of NC-101 announced the side trail to the campsite.
No one was present at the site, but a recently doused campfire was still putting off the smell of smoke, so I knew folks had spent the night there.
The ¾-mile walk south of NC-101 passed through pine savannah, and was much more pleasing than the longer, swampy part to the north. There were almost no views between NC-306 and NC-101 because the trees and scrub were very dense and grew right up to the trail’s edge. In fact, while trying to skirt some of the mushier areas I often had to push through thick, black, evil-looking vines that sported large thorns.
As far as the northern half of Neusiok Trail is concerned, the 6.5 miles west of NC-306 are without a doubt the most picturesque. I’m sure that is why they are also the most popular with hikers. I highly recommend that part of the trail to anyone able to get started at sunrise and thereby avoid the noisy afternoon air traffic.