Quick. Name the four national forests located in North Carolina.
Many Triad hiking enthusiasts are familiar with Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in the western mountains and many have hiked Uwaharrie in the state’s mid-region. But how many are familiar with Croatan National Forest near the Atlantic Coast?
During an early April trip to Cape Lookout, our group was searching for a hike to take in on the way home, and a friend suggested a hike in 160,000-acre Croatan. This led us to the Neusiok Trail, pronounced new-see-ock, a 21.7-mile path that stretches from the Newport River to the Neuse River near Havelock. The trail was built in the 1970s by the Carteret County Wildlife Club in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service to provide long-distance hiking opportunities in the coastal plain.
Named for the Native American tribe that inhabited the lower Neuse River, the Neusiok Trail is part of the 1175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail (MST) which connects Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountain National Park to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks and includes trails in Stone Mountain, Pilot Mountain and Hanging Rock state parks.
For our hike we chose to hike the 6.8-mile northernmost section. One group started at the parking area on N.C. 306 north of Havelock while the other traveled ahead to hike from the Pine Cliff Recreation Area on the banks of the Neuse River. Drivers swapped keys when the groups met up in the middle so each group could enjoy the entire section without doubling back. An MST day-hiking guide suggests hikers who don’t have two cars to shuttle or key swap can leave a car at one trailhead and bike to the other trailhead; returning after the hike to pick up the bikes.
After parking in the Pine Cliff Picnic Area, we noticed an osprey nest atop a bald cypress tree on the banks of the river. Birds flew in and out of the nest as we gathered our gear.
The trail starts near the middle of the picnic area and heads west paralleling the Neuse River for the first mile, ducking in and out of the forest and onto the sandy beaches. The Neuse is more than two miles wide here.
The trail is marked by rectangular aluminum tags, which a forest service brochure notes are not damaged by prescribed burns. Hikers will also note the white, circular blazes of the MST.
Our feet were cushioned with freshly fallen needles as we traversed through loblolly pine forest for most of the hike. Tulip poplars, tall and straight, share the canopy with the pine. Sweet gum, cedar and holly fill the understory. The dogwoods and azalea are in full bloom now.
Bridges and boardwalks carry hikers across creeks and wetlands filled with palmetto and bald cypress trees.
Our spring hike was nearly perfect with temperatures in the mid-60s, low humidity and no insects to speak of. We mistakenly left the sunscreen in our vehicles thinking the evergreen canopy would protect us from the sun but boy, were our faces (arms and necks) red. The U.S Forest Service recommends that October through May is the best time to hike here because brush is thinnest and insects are sparse.
An MST shelter, Copperhead Landing, is located roughly halfway between Pine Cliff picnic area and N.C. 306. The shelter offers a beautiful view of Cahoogue Creek and a well with a hand pump for refilling water bottles, although several of our group did complain of the slightly-iron taste of the water.
Upon completing the trail, a couple of our group noted that it is best to start at Pine Cliff and hike south, trudging across the loose, sandy beaches while legs are fresh.
Elevation change is minimal with a total elevation gain of about 165 feet over the 6.8 miles.