The poor North Carolina coast: after fall color has ignited in the mountains and blazed through the Piedmont, folks seem resigned to move on, unaware that this statewide show runs into early December at the coast. Why should coastal foliage be immune from flashing great color? Turkey oaks, for instance, are abundant, and their three-lobed leaves burn deep orange, red and brown before succumbing to winter. The poison sumac, best enjoyed from a distance, glows bright red and orange. Even the deciduous bald cypress takes on a coppery orange before dropping its needles.
So yes, the show goes on at the coast. And the best thing is, because it’s unappreciated here you can enjoy it pretty much anywhere without suffocating crowds. Here are five easily accessible spots where you can enjoy autumn hikes on the North Carolina coast, before the fall color curtain call.
1. Dismal Swamp State Park
Camden County, near South Mills
20 miles of trail
If you want to get immersed in coastal color, Dismal Swamp is the place. When it was originally stumbled upon by visiting Europeans, the roughly million-acre-swamp was seen as something of a black hole: people went in and often never came out. Development has since shrunk the swamp; still, roughly 22 square miles alone is part of Dismal Swamp State Park, where 20 miles of marked hiking and biking trail, and maps thereof, assure your return from what George Washington called a “gorgeous paradise.” Fortunately, that sense of escape felt by the Europeans remains and is highlighted come mid to late fall. According to a recent report from VisitNC.com’s Fall Foliage report, http://www.visitnc.com/fall-reports the park’s autumn display begins with ripening lime green walnuts, wild grapes that turn a deep red and purple berries. Yellows from a variety of hardwoods help to brighten the scene, followed by those turkey oaks and the bald cypress. Color tends to be especially good near water, which you will find in abundance in the Dismal.
2. Singletary Lake State Park
Bladen County, near Kelly
Like immediate gratification when seeking fall color? At Singletary Lake State Park you get a blast of color from trailhead get-go, with turkey oak and a host of colorful bay vegetation highlighted by by a green backdrop of loblolly pines and holly. The show continues on the mile-long CCC Carolina Bay Loop Trail, where you’ll find turkey oak and a host of bay vegetation. Follow that up with a walk out onto the pier and check out the color rimming this usually large Carolina Bay lake. Keep in mind that even at 572 acres, this lake is less than half its original size, as shoreline trees and shrubs continue to encroach on the shallow (it’s less than 12 feet at its deepest point) lake. The visit is worth it just to learn more about these peculiar, elliptical Carolina Bay lakes once estimated to number in the thousands along the east coast (about 500 remain today).
3. Cliffs of Neuse State Park
Wayne County, near Seven Springs
Though solidly in the coastal plain, this 892-acre park on a bluff overlooking the Neuse River south of Goldsboro is an island of eco diversity. Four short hiking trails each less than a mile long take you through a pine forest akin to the Sandhills region, past cypress and live oaks common to the coastal plain, through an oak/hickory forest characteristic of the Piedmont ,and, yes, even through an area that will remind you of the mountains with its galax and Virginia pines and such. Thus, you get a statewide sampling of color in one late fall visit. Add to that a vantage point atop a bluff 90 feet above the river and you’ve got colorful views of the countryside below. If you only have one opportunity to get out and sample color this fall, this should be it.
Dare County, west of Manteo
2.5 miles of hiking trail, additional access through gravel roads
Hardwood swamps prevalent throughout this 154,000-acre preserve harbor trees offering a range of color. It’s what else this remote and wild refuge harbors that make this destination especially compelling. For starters, the refuge didn’t get its name for nothing: this is about the northernmost extent of the American alligator. Alas, your odds of seeing one of these cold blooded critters once the temperature cools are extremely slim (they slip into a lethargic state, or “brumate”). Slim, too, are your chances of seeing a red wolf. Reintroduced here in 1987, the red wolf has been slowly recovering. But their numbers remain few (about 100 total in the region) and these are shy critters (your odds of getting one to howl back at you in the evening are much better). Black bears, on the other hand, thrive here; your odds of seeing one increase at dawn and dusk.
New Hanover County, Carolina Beach
Six miles of hiking trail
Turkey oaks are the most colorful trees in this park-on-the-coast come fall, and they are abundant on perhaps the most popular trail in the park: the 3-mile Sugarloaf Trail. From the marina parking lot, the trail follows the sandy east bank of the nearly mile-wide Cape Fear River, offering exposure to marsh and various shore birds. The trail then climbs 50-foot Sugarloaf Dune (a vital Confederacy post during the Civil War for spotting Union vessels coming into Wilmington), passes several ponds, and travels through a pine forest with a carpet of white sand. Shortly before returning to the marina trailhead, take a half-mile detour on the Flytrap Trail and check out the park’s featured attraction, the Venus flytrap. Located at sea level and less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, Carolina Beach State Park is likely your last chance to catch fall color in North Carolina.