Finding Beauty in the Woods

Nags Head Woods

Drifting fog consumes the late afternoon sun that pierces the forest canopy, sending a chill through the air. An unusually warm day for a winter run in Nags Head Woods, it’s a welcome respite made even more pleasant by the complete absence of biting bugs that can, at times, plague these woods. 

Sue Colao

On this February day, scents of salt and pine lighten the aroma of wet earth carried in the wafting fog. Rainwater from the morning moistens the trails and glistens on leaves, but puddles are few. As the setting sun breaks through the haze, a pond just off the trail instantly erupts with the sounds of a remarkably loud animal. Insect? Amphibian? Regardless, these noises are unusual for this time of year.

Mostly, the forest is quiet, interrupted only by an occasional bird call. Nobody else is around. A detour off the dirt road onto the Discovery Trail leads to a place of even more splendor. Not the pretty garden path kind; this is unadorned nature: felled tree limbs visibly consumed by the forest floor, lichen blooming in a seemingly random fashion from dead and live trees alike. Little wooden bridges lead over numerous ponds, some coated green by duckweed, some just still dark pools. Weather beaten placards materialize out of the wilderness to inform the curious hiker about the strange-looking bark or rare flower in front of them.    

No matter the time of year, from daybreak to last light, a visit to Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is a reminder of how a natural healthy environment looks, smells and feels. 

Exploring the Woods

Not far west of the bustling and busy U.S. 158 bypass, this fragile ecosystem of sand dunes, ponds, hardwood forest and wetlands is considered a North Carolina treasure. Nature trails with names like Sweetgum Swamp and Blueberry Ridge meander through the 1,200-acre preserve, now owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy. These range from short and easy to more challenging, but the five miles of trails offer the mythical ‘walk in the woods’ soul renewal that comes from being immersed in nature. 

Last summer, National Geographic named the preserve’s 1.5-mile Roanoke Trail as one of the nation’s 10 best “easy hikes.” The rare Southern Twayblade wildflower can be found along this trail in early summer. And the latest addition to the self-guided trails is an ADA trail to make the woods accessible to everyone. Located a short distance from the parking lot, the .5-mile trail of concrete paths and wooden boardwalk passes by a freshwater pond, an overlook with vistas of the marshland and swamp forest. At the trailhead, a garden attracts the numerous butterfly species in the woods. 

Sue Colao

Dogs on leashes are welcome on the ADA trail, as well as the Roanoke, Discovery and Town trails. 

Runners, bicyclists and occasional horseback riders enjoy the unpaved Old Nags Head Wood Road, a wider and less obstructed option that stretches about three miles between The Nature Conservancy borders in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Motorized vehicles, limited to 15 mph, can also use the road but they’re few and far between. 

Local Outer Bankers see “the woods” as our treasured refuge from the hub-bub of the beach and the constant demands of everyday life. It’s the place we go when we want shelter from the sun, wind and even a light drizzle. It’s the place we go to re-group, to de-stress, to think, to meditate. It’s where we go to be alone, and where we go to share the joy of being outside with our families. 

Not to be overlooked is the delight in showing off Nags Head Woods to out-of-town guests who may have no idea that such a natural treasure exists just a short drive from the beach. 

“Fantastic and what a surprise,” notes a visitor who left a comment in the Preserve’s logbook. “Beautiful even in the rain,” writes another. Counting those that registered, 8,788 people visited these woods in 2016, but it is estimated that many more visited but did not sign the logbook. 

As much as quiet winter days have the virtues of serenity and solitude, busy summer days in the woods can offer engaging programs with interpreters, guided hikes with naturalists, and field trips for school classes and university student groups. Examples of programs on the Preserve include night hikes, full moon hikes, and birding by ear. 

Nags Head Woods is open from dawn to dusk for self-guided adventure, but don’t make the mistake of lagging beyond nightfall. There are few darker or spookier places on the Outer Banks to be after sunset. Ask any local child to tell you  about the legendary Goatman, who is said to live in an abandoned hunting cabin in the woods, where he supposedly roams at night.

Avery Lennard

Forest, Fauna and Frogs 

Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, Nags Head Woods has many unique attributes that make it what conservationists call an ancient maritime forest. Interns travel from all over the country to the Preserve every year to learn as they work in the forest, and academics have often studied the rare barrier island ecosystem. 

The ecological preserve is buffered from ocean winds by dune ridges Run Hill and Jockey’s Ridge – on the northern and southern borders – allowing an unusually diverse range of animal and plant life to thrive in the sheltered environment. 

More than 100 species of birds, from waterfowl to songbirds, have been observed in the woods, and at least 50 bird species nest among its dunes, marshes, ponds and wetlands. It’s also home to 550 species of plants, 15 species of amphibians, 28 species of reptiles, seven species of fish, not to mention river otter, fox, deer and numerous other mammals. 

But it is the trees, of course, that make the woods what they are. These are not the bent, wind-blown trees that are typical of the Outer Banks. These are tall and mighty hickory, loblolly and longleaf pine, maple, sweet gum, red bay, beech, red cedar and oak trees, some centuries-old. One huge live oak, standing high on a ridge overlooking the Roanoke Sound was recently featured in Our State Magazine. Collectively, the trees create the canopy that shelter people from the elements while providing the vibrancy that orchestrates wind into music. 

Lora Eddy

The Conservancy has started a fundraising campaign for rehabilitation of the ‘80s-era visitors’ center. The deck and walkway are scheduled to be replaced this spring. Over the years, managers at Nags Head Woods have maintained an easy-going and cooperative relationship with the nearby community, which in turn has a welcoming attitude toward visitors. Vandalism and crime, when they occur, are minor and infrequent, says Aaron McCall, The Nature Conservancy’s Northeast Regional Steward. “It’s a very small amount,” he said. “Generally, the people who come here are very respectful.” 

Private homes and pieces of property are tucked discreetly within and around the Preserve. But humans have long lived in the woods, which boasts dune ridges as high as 60 feet. From the 1700s through the mid-20th century, a thriving community resided in the woods. The village included a dozen or so homesteads, churches, a school, store, farms and several businesses. Today, all that remains of the village are a few artifacts, a home’s foundation and cemeteries scattered in the woods. There are at least five old graveyards inside the Preserve, and visitors often enjoy reading the grave stones to learn more about one of the first post-colonial communities on the Outer Banks. 

It doesn’t really matter what brings you to Nags Head Woods. Whether here to run, hike, explore, or just appreciate its solitude and beauty, the time spent in these woods is bound the renew the spirit as you disappear into this hidden treasure called Nags Head Woods. 

A Race Like No Other: The Time-Honored Nags Head Woods 5K

For more than three decades, hundreds of runners ascend on Nags Head Woods each spring for one of the area’s most revered running races. The Nags Head Woods 5K, hosted by the North Banks Rotary Club, is arguably one of the most time-honored and popular races on the Outer Banks. 

Ascension Photography

And it’s all for a good cause. Net proceeds from the race go back into the community and have supported charitable causes such as Interfaith Community Outreach, the Beach Food Pantry, Mane and Taill, The Nature Conservancy and Hatteras Meals on Wheels to name a few.

Held on Mother’s Day weekend, the race features a one-mile fun run, a 5K and an all-new double 5K. Its popular Fastest Mom on the Beach award draws many families cheering for the moms in their lives.

Race Director Tyler Booth says that there’s a maximum of 500 runners permitted to enter, but typically the event draws between 350 and 400. 

In addition to a T-shirt, every race finisher receives an event medal, but runners who participate seem to run more for the communal joy of running in the woods than to prove their athletic prowess. A popular after-race party, co-sponsored by Yuengling Brewery and Coastal Beverage Company, is always a hit among runners as well.

“To be able to run through that ecological preserve is unique,” Booth says. “It’s a very different environment that attracts people who want to do it. It’s shady, it’s comfortable and it’s beautiful.” 

And for many, it’s become a tradition. Not only have some run in the race every year for decades, they’re now running with their extended families as well. 

“There are tons of participants who come from very far north,” Booth says. “I guess it’s almost a staple, they’ve been coming for so long. And then they tell their friends. We have people who are just itching to register as soon as we open up registration.” ♦


Catherine Kozak

Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.

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