Nags Head Woods
Words like gem, treasure, and paradise, are often used to describe Nags Head Woods - and they are appropriate. Located less than 1.5 miles off Croatan Highway at Mile Post 8, this 1400+ acre preserve is a nature lover’s oasis from the hustle and bustle of the congested beach towns of the Outer Banks.
The property is made up of several parcels that have been contributed or leased by the towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills or purchased by the Nature Conservancy, which manages the refuge. It is a wonder that the property was saved, given the rapid development of the area. In fact, while walking on some trails you may come across fire hydrants which were installed for an ill fated residential development.
Actually the property has not always been undeveloped. The community of Nags Head Woods once had more than a dozen family homes and farms as late as the 1930’s. Evidence of that community can be found in the form of pieces of home foundations and family graveyards.
Largely due to sand dunes on three sides of the property, including Jockey’s Ridge, this maritime forest is so unique that Congress designated it as a national natural landmark in 1974. The diversity and types of plants found here is unique to the OBX. There are four distinct ecosystems:
Maritime Deciduous Forest —found on the higher and generally drier dune slopes and ridges.
Maritime Swamp Forest —found in lower and wetter valleys between the dunes.
Maritime Shrub Forest —also found in low, wet swales.
Interdunal Ponds —found in especially low swales. The water is so deep that plants cannot survive.
More than 300 plant species have been identified at the preserve. The diverse ecosystems makes this wide selection possible. Of particular interest are the rare wooly beach heather, water violet, the tiny orchid called the southern tway-blade, and the mosquito fern.
Nags Head Woods, like many preserves on the Outer Banks, is a permanent home for a large number of birds and a temporary home for many more migrating birds. The preserve’s bird list indicates that more than 150 species have visited with over 50 species that live and nest in there. This includes a number of colorful varieties such as the yellow prothonotary warbler, blue and red parula warblers, and wading birds in the heron and egret families. You will find birds here throughout the year, however as you would expect, fall and spring migration brings in more of the warblers and other song birds.
The refuge is also home to a wide variety of other animals. Snakes, lizards, turtles, salamanders, frogs and toads are frequently seen by careful observation. Two venomous snakes can be found at Nags Head Woods and other wooded and marsh areas on the Outer Banks. However the cottonmouth (water moccasin) and timber rattle snakes prefer to avoid people and save their venom for their prey.
Larger animals include white tail deer, raccoons, opossums, moles and bats are the most common mammals.
There are five well marked trails that total about five miles. It is recommend that you first stop at the Visitor’s Center and sign in (not required, but appreciated) and pick up a trail map. The staff is very helpful and can often tell you about recent sightings of birds and other wildlife.
The Visitor’s Center is adjacent to two ponds that are separated by the start of the Sweet Gum Swamp Trail. Go down the steps from the Center’s deck and look carefully to the opposite shoreline of the pond on the left. For the past few years I have found a green heron hunting along the bank. (Photo of the GH with frog was at this location.) It is also worth while to walk around the larger pond on the right, as it frequently has a heron or egret. The duckweed filled water makes and ideal environment for a variety of creatures.
From there, take your pick. If you want a little more strenuous hike, take the Sweet Gum Swamp trail and continue on to the Blueberry Ridge Trail. The Roanoke Trail leads through salt marsh and dense forest and ends at a quiet beach on Roanoke Sound. This trail and the wonderful ADA Trail frequently have wildlife present. The ADA Trail was designed with paved walkways and boardwalk for the entire trail. The trail circles a large interdunal pond that’s located adjacent to a maritime swamp.
As a nice bonus, there is a small, but active butterfly garden at to the beginning/end of the trail next to the handicap parking lot.
After spending a morning or afternoon at Nags Head Woods, you will agree that this is a nature lover’s gem.
Getting There: US 158 to the Town of Kill Devil Hills. Turn west near Mile Post 9.5 on Ocean Acres Drive: There is a stoplight with a McDonald’s and Pigman’s BBQ. Drive through a residential neighborhood for one mile; the road becomes gravel and narrows. The road will curve sharply to the right and you will see the white Nags Head Woods Preserve sign and parking area on the left. Walk up the boardwalk where trail maps and preserve guides are available at the outdoor information counter.
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