Some of the best memories of my life were made outside on a trail. By trail, I mean unpaved, meandering, gravely, dusty, sometimes root-twisted, frequently tree-covered, rock-strewn path. In early May in the year of COVID-19, North Carolina reopened their state park trails. It was glorious. My boyfriend Roy and I headed out early on the Elliott Coues Nature Trail at Fort Macon State Park on May 9th. This trail is like coming home for Roy in particular. He has hiked this trail since it opened and hiked it countless times with a 40-pound backpack to train for his Appalachian Trail Thru hike in 2019. It was the first trail we hiked, when we first started dating some two years ago. It was exciting to be able to get back on our “home” trail.
Some of my observations about getting back on the trail:
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon is located at Bogue Banks near Atlantic Beach along the North Carolina coast. It is the second most visited state park in North Carolina (after Jockey’s Ridge in the Outer Banks). It has a fort that was built in 1826 and it was the site of the Civil War battle, Siege of Fort Macon, from March 23 to April 26, 1862. Besides the restored fort and visitor’s center, there are both surf side and sound side fishing, nature trails, ranger guided tours, swim areas and bathhouse. It is both a historic site and unique because it has both the intercoastal waterway on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other. The Elliott Coues Nature Trail encompasses marshes, maritime forests, and sand dunes and covers 3.2 miles. It’s a lovely moderately challenging trail with overlooks along its diverse ecosystem.
This is the word that Roy used to describe the many folks we met on the trail on the first day we were permitted access to what he refers to as the “Jewel” of Carteret County. We were both struck by everyone’s mood as we passed what seemed like 20 or so different parties along the trail. There was palpable excitement to be out in nature and free of our computer screens, four walls and monotony of quarantine. Outside of one group of teenagers, everyone smiled and greeted us with what could be described as joy. It was infectious. As one group passed by with eye contact, broad smiles and “good morning”, there came the next. It was almost like a feeding frenzy of excitement and discovery.
It was amazing how many families were out on the trail. I would guess that probably 80% of the groups we passed were families. This is quite unusual on this trail. Most of the hikers we used to pass were either joggers, mountain bikers or pairs hiking together. There were kids in strollers, backpacks and toddlers trying to navigate up a sand dune. There were families of 7 or more with dogs in tow strolling by. Maybe this was because the visitor center and fort were closed, or maybe they were all suffering from the same cabin fever we’ve all had, but it was still terrific to see so many people taking in the nature trail together.
Fort Macon boasts over 300 types of birds. Having the marsh and estuary on one side and the ocean on the other creates a large diversity of birds. Just on this one morning we saw egrets, ibis, seagulls, pelicans, sand pipers and hawks. I have been trying to improve my photography skills and one particular set of birds was flying overhead close to the end of our hike. When I looked it up later, it was the elusive night hawk. It was amazing to watch these stunning birds swoop and dive high in the air. There is a designated bird nesting area that is closed to the public right along the beach to encourage the migration and nesting of birds from April until September.
The trail itself is a loop. We typically start on the marsh, sound side of the trail which covers about 1.5 miles through dense thickets of wax myrtle, eastern redcedar, yaupon and live oak. There are boardwalks over the mud and marsh where miles of estuary and smooth cordgrass blankets as far as the eye can see. This is in stark contrast to the last mile and a half of the loop which is parallel to the Atlantic Ocean and is tucked into sand dunes and thickets of cedars. The highest parts of the trail have scenic overlooks of the entire coast down to the eastern tip of Bogue Banks. There are miles of sand dunes and sea oats and shoreline.
I’ve always had wanderlust and, perhaps, what I have missed most during this pandemic, besides seeing my family, is getting out and experiencing the wonder and joy of the unexpected on the trail. It’s never the same experience and I know I will never take it for granted again. What do you love about getting out on a trail?