The beach, that wonderful merging of ocean and sand that seems so perfect will always be the draw bringing visitors to the Outer Banks. But there is another side to this strip of sand, another world of beauty and wonder waiting for the slightly adventurous.
The soundside of the Outer Banks seems to be a world apart from the seashore. Heavily forested but with easy trails, it calls out to be explored.
There are four protected maritime forests on the Outer Banks. Three of them are part of the N.C. Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve— Currituck Estuarine Lands, Kitty Hawk Woods and Buxton Woods. Nags Head Woods in Kill Devil Hills is administered by the Nature Conservancy.
The National Estuarine Research Reserve lands do have some ongoing research and they are protected lands, but all of them are open to the public and all offer some great opportunities to get to experience a the maritime forests of the Outer Banks.
Currituck Estuarine Lands
About three quarters of a mile past the village of Corolla heading north, NC12 takes a 90 degree bend to the right. At that bend there is a small parking lot that that is the trailhead to explore the Currituck Estuarine trails.
There is a gate that leads to a boardwalk. The gate must remain closed at all times. The Corolla Wild Horse herd does come into the reserve from time to time and the horses must be kept away from the heavily traveled areas of Corolla.
The boardwalk is a very easy half mile stroll to Currituck Sound. The boardwalk crosses wetlands and swamp, bordered by towering pine trees. The view at the end is wonderful, looking across to Monkey Island, an island that was once home to one of the most storied hunt clubs of the Outer Banks.
A little more adventurous, but still a very easy walk through the woods, is the three quarter mile Maritime Forest Trail. Look for some steps with a sign marking the trail on the right side of the boardwalk about 200 yards from the gate.
A good pair of sandals—not flip-flops—or walking shoes is fine for this trek. Eight years of age and up, should be fine be able to navigate the path.
The trail, marked by blue-topped posts, winds through the forest, passing through one of the most spectacular groves of live oak on the Outer Banks. Squirrels are abundant and there are lots of birds around.
A seasonal note: horses do come into this area during winter storms to get out of the worst of the wind.
Kitty Hawk Woods
A little more challenging than the Currituck trails, the paths in Kitty Hawk Woods should be fine for anyone in reasonably good shape ten years of age and up. The terrain does have some hills in it—although those hills, which are very heavily wooded are actually relict sand dunes.
Best trailhead is probably at the end of Ridge Road in Kitty Hawk. The trail will be right in front of you.
There are a couple of intersecting paths along the way. For anyone who has never hiked through Kitty Hawk Woods before, it’s probably best to stay on the main path—the trails can bet a little bit confusing at times.
This trail is remarkably different from the Currituck trail. There is enough elevation gain in the relict sand dunes and sufficient soil has accumulated to create a hardwood forest.
On both sides of the trail there is are extensive wetland swamps, and the trees and vegetation in the those areas are noticeably different than the trees and vegetation along the trail. The trail is about three quarters of a mile long so out and back would be 1.5 miles.
Bikes are allowed in Kitty Hawk Woods and any bike rider with reasonable skills on a mountain bike will have a great time in the reserve.
Unlike the other Outer Banks maritime forests, Buxton Woods, located on just south of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, does not border a sound—Pamlico Sound in this case. Rather, the forested area is protected by a line of dunes that keep the worst of the Atlantic Ocean winds away. It is located at the elbow of Cape Hatteras.
There are a number of ways to explore the reserve with entrances on the south end of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and off NC12.
It does take a while to drive there from the northern Outer Banks—45 minutes to more than an hour—but there are some very interesting characteristics to Buxton Woods.
All of the Outer Banks maritime forests are at a transitional point between subtropical and temperate zones. At Buxton woods it is at its most apparent. Towering pines, typical of temperate forests make up the canopy, but at their base, saw palmetto palm trees thrive.
The roads into the reserve are very sandy and recommended for 4WD only.
Nags Head Woods—The Nature Conservancy
Nags Head Woods has something for everyone. There is an ADA trail, simple loop trails suitable for younger children and a surprisingly rugged trail that follows the ridge line of what was once sand dunes.
For the adventurous, the Blueberry Ridge Trail is the way to go. The elevation gains are as steep as anything seen in mountain hiking, although not nearly as extended. Surrounded by hardwood trees, hiking up an incline of 25-30%, there are areas in Nags Head Woods that are unlike any other trail on the Outer Banks. Listen carefully, though, and the distant sound of the surf breaking on the shoreline create a sensory treat unique to a maritime forest.
Bikes are not permitted on the trails in the park. However, there are some dirt roads running through the preserve that make for a great ride.
During the summer especially, the Estuarine Preserve and Nags Head Woods have a number of programs geared toward kids.
The Estuarine Preserve offices are in Kitty Hawk at 4352 The Woods Road. Nags Head Woods offices are on the grounds at 701 West Ocean Acres Drive, Kill Devil Hills. The Estuarine office is very short staffed and someone is there only sporadically. Someone is always manning the Nags Head Woods office.