A Walk in the Woods

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A path through pine trees.

Into the Woods

Riddle me this: What is at the beach, but not the beach? Like the mountains, but not the mountains? And closer than you think? Give up? Nags Head Woods Preserve. On the off chance that you tire of the relentless beauty of white sandy beaches and the glistening aquamarine ocean and desire a change of scenery, in mere minutes you can transport yourself to a woodland trail, pine straw underfoot, breathing in the earthy, green aroma of a maritime forest, right here on the Outer Banks.

Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, Nags Head Woods Preserve protects one of the largest remaining maritime forests on the East Coast. Encompassing over 1,400 acres of woods, marsh, ponds, and wetlands, the site hosts a diversity of plant and animal life. There are over 8 miles of walking trails through a surprising mix of terrain and geographic features, with varying degrees of difficulty.
Little-known historical fact: Nags Head Woods was once a thriving village community of about 40 families, with homesites, churches, a school, a gristmill, and a shingle factory through the 1930s. Audio recordings along the trails (accessible by cell phone) relate fascinating tales from members of that community, such as Evelyn Gray who saved money she earned from crabbing to purchase an organ which she somehow learned to play in between caring for her younger brothers and sisters, washing clothes by hand with boiling water and lye soap, attending school, crabbing, and a myriad of other responsibilities.
A view of a pond in the woods.

Pond covered in duckweed

We headed out on the Roanoke Trail, a 1.5-mile round-trip hike, categorized as a “moderate” level of difficulty. We passed ponds covered in glowing green duck weed (a favorite snack for ducks, other birds, fish, and turtles) and were surrounded by statuesque pines, magnolias, wax myrtles, and hollies. We were cheered by the sight of sunny yellow Carolina Jessamine vining its way around a fallen tree. And we were taken aback by what we initially thought was an alligator but upon closer inspection proved to be a particularly intricate jumble of roots.

Exposed roots.

An alligator? No, just roots.

From tall pines to tiny orchids, over 550 species of plants have been documented at Nags Head Woods. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets, Black-Throated Blue Warblers, Marbled Salamanders, and Ground Skink lizards make up the more than 150 species of birds and over 50 species of amphibians and reptiles found there. Informative placards are placed along the trail and yes, we did see one alerting us to the existence of water moccasins and rattlesnakes. On that day, however, the reptiles were evidently engaged in more exciting reptilian pursuits, which thankfully kept them out of sight. What we did encounter, though, was a sense of pure peacefulness. Each quiet step released a feeling of having been removed from the world, albeit temporarily. Woodland bliss.

A walkway in a marsh.

An easy walkway through the marsh

Like any trail worthy of hiking, this one ended with a reward for our effort – the sandy shore and gently lapping waters of the Roanoke Sound spread out before us like a vaunted painting in a gallery, punctuated by the haunting beauty of trees that had succumbed to storms and salt water. A thoughtfully placed bench, surrounded by gently swaying sun-bleached reeds and cordgrass, beckons one to sit a spell, admire the painterly vista, and just be.
A beach and a view of the Roanoke Sound.

The end of the trail and the beauty of the Roanoke Sound

And perhaps if you listen closely, you may hear soothing strains of organ music from days gone by.

Nags Head Woods Preserve: 701 Ocean Acres Drive, Kill Devil Hills, 252-441-2525