J oe Miller does more than think on his feet: He’s written about hiking and camping for years.
Miller, 54, a former outdoor adventure columnist for The N&O who is now a Cary-based freelance writer, is author of the just-released “Backpacking North Carolina.” Its subtitle is “The Definitive Guide to 43 Can’t-Miss Trips from Mountains to Sea” – and it’s that “Sea” part that’s intriguing. Mountain hiking gets more attention and more participants, but hoofing over sandy soil has its own appeal: The seasonal inconveniences are different – think heat and bugs, not cold and snow – and shore wilderness has an altogether different natural beauty.
In an interview, Miller talked about:
Coastal similarities and differences: “Coastal terrain is obviously flatter, but there are some surprising similarities with hiking in the mountains. Consider the Neusiok Trail – which is 22 miles in the Croatan National Forest, near Havelock. There are a couple stretches that have galax and holly and a fair amount of terrain change. At times you’d almost think you were in the Appalachians.
“There’s good hiking, but you need to be intrepid. Coastal hiking has a limited window for hiking: midfall to midspring. That’s the hiking season. Between bugs and snakes, you probably don’t want to be there at other times.
“That said, there are shorter coastal hikes I like to do in summer. On a one-week beach vacation, hiking is a great diversion when you tire of being in the water.
“Cedar Point – in southwest Carteret County, near Bogue Inlet – has a wonderful trail that’s no longer than 1.5 miles, much of it on boardwalk, in a wetland just off the White Oak River. It’s a great little hike anyone can do. It’s handicapped accessible, very close to Swansboro, and is so close to the water that it picks up the coastal wind. And that keeps the bugs at bay.”
Unexpected ‘wow’ places: “Nags Head Wood Ecological Preserve is a little difficult to locate; it was not marked from the road when I was there two years ago. It’s a small area on the Outer Banks, but the woods themselves are good size – 1,100 acres – and the land butts up to Jockeys Ridge State Park. On one trail, you go over a hill and go from a dense forest to sandhills.
“In the Croatan National Forest, the Neusiok Trail has a seven-mile stretch along the Neuse River, which is about four miles wide at that point. There’s been a lot of human history on that section of the trail, and not far off of it I counted three rusted stills from the 1940s.
“The trail also has some Indian folklore. At one place you can see an oak and a pine with entangled trunks. The story is that the trees represent a man and a woman from different tribes that wanted to get married, were forbidden from doing that, and who died at that spot. The trees represent their eternal love.”
Most arduous coastal hike: “It could be the one I was just on – the Weetock Trail in Croatan National Forest. It’s in an area with so much natural growth, and the trail is maintained by a club. They get in as often as they can to restore and clean the trail, but that’s quite a task. So the trail tends to grow over, and you can’t easily find your way through. I hiked it for five hours and had to give up after nine miles because the trail disintegrated. It just disappeared.”
If you go inland a little: “Pettigrew State Park, off U.S. 64, is near Columbia and about 25 or 30 minutes from Manteo. The trail there is short, but the trees are amazing – some of the oldest in the nation. They’re massive, and the scene is largely unchanged since Columbus arrived here. This is because they circle the park’s Lake Phelps in a 50-yard swath. The lake is one of the ‘Carolina bay’ type, in an area so impenetrable it wasn’t found until much later.
“Goose Creek State Park, near Washington, probably has no more than three miles of trail, but the boardwalk goes over swamp areas. This means you can do it year-round. There’s a good interpretive center so you can learn more about what what’s on the trail.”
Best place for coastal camping: “Hammocks Beach State Park, on Bear Island. The great thing is how you get there – by state ferry from Swansboro. During the summer, the ferry runs every half hour. You’ll need to find out what days it operates.
“There are about 20 designated camping places there, and I’ve been there when I was the only person on the island – which was great. Almost all the camping sites are right off the beach, so you’re one of the first people in the United States to see the sunrise. And that’s spectacular.”