Thursday, November 20, 2008

Carolina Beach State Park (New Hanover County, North Carolina)

Overview: On November 9, 2008, my husband and I made a delightful stop at Carolina Beach State Park, a 761-acre park located in Carolina Beach on Pleasure Island in New Hanover County, North Carolina. The park offers a number of recreational opportunities, including boating, fishing, camping and hiking. If you are looking to learn more about coastal ecology stop by the visitor center and then hike along one of the 6 hiking trails available, ranging from 0.25 to 3 miles in length. Here, I describe our hike along the 3-mile Sugarloaf Trail that begins at the marina parking lot.

Directions: To arrive at Carolina Beach State Park from the Triangle, take I-40 east nearly 140 miles until merging with US-117. Continue on US-117 S for approximately 9 miles until bearing left onto NC-132. Continue on Carolina Beach Road (US-421) for 6 miles until making a slight right at N. Dow Road. Then make a right into the park, on Carolina Beach State Park Road. Voila.

History, Ecology and Personal Observations: Carolina Beach State Park was first established in 1969 to preserve its unique carnivorous plant communities and historic Sugarloaf Dune. This area was originally home to the Cape Fear Indians, who left in 1725 as European settlers gained a stronger foothold in the region. By the mid-1700s, the Cape Fear River became a major economic stronghold for the new English colony, providing a shipping route for agricultural products and naval stores. Walking through the quiet park, it was difficult to imagine that this area has been continually abuzz with people and shipping traffic for the past 300+ years.

As we started our hike on the Sugarloaf Trail, proceeding counter-clockwise, we were first impressed by the colorful contrast of verdant longleaf pines against a cloudless cerulean sky. Looking lower into the understory, bright red turkey oak leaves shocked our senses further. The natural beauty of live oaks dangling with dark chestnut-hued acorns and strung with silvery Spanish moss continued to overwhelm our senses.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Young longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Live oak (Quercus virginiana) at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

Turkey oak (Quercus laevis) at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)
Walking further, we arrived at the aptly named Grassy Pond. Grassy Pond is ephemeral and filled with sedges (Carex spp.); towards the pond's edge, observant hikers can often find carnivorous plants, including Venus flytraps, pitcher plants, sundews, bladdeworts and butterworts. In November, especially after another spell of dry weather, these fascinating members of the plant family were impossible for us to find.
Grassy Pond at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)
We were able to uncover some fascinating signs of local wildlife. White tailed deer and raccoon prints stamped the white sand. A long black racer (Coluber constrictor) sunned itself on the trail before sliding away into the open woods. Yet, the typically seen skinks and crabs were not to be found, as summer's warmth had faded and even the birds seemed eerily quiet.

White tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)
Towards the end of our journey on the Sugarloaf Trail, we arrived at the historic Sugarloaf Dune. Now fenced and barricaded to prevent further erosion, Sugarloaf Dune had been an important marker for ship navigators since the late 1600s and a camp for nearly 5,000 Confederate soldiers during the 1865 Union siege of Fort Fisher.
Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) near Sugarloaf Dune at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)
Our journey at Carolina Beach State Park ended with a shoreline stroll past spongy lichens and short, twisted oaks. We took a moment to stop and watch the passing boats on the historic Cape Fear River, imaging a different era in North Carolina's long history.
Powder puff lichen (Cladonia evansii) near Sugarloaf Dune at Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

View of the Cape Fear River from Carolina Beach State Park (© Nicolette L. Cagle)

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