At one time almost the entire western shore of the Outer Banks was heavily forested. Protected by a series of massive sand dunes from the effects of the salt winds of the ocean, a number of species of pine trees and live oak, hickory and other hardwood trees thrived. There are two amazing examples of the forested shores of the Outer Banks left: Nags Head Woods and Kitty Hawk Woods.
Nags Head Woods, which seems to be equally in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head, is 1100 acres of steep hills, wetlands and dense forest. The hills are actually sand dunes that have become covered in a more dense soil–a soil that is fertile enough to allow hardwood trees to grow. A hike along the trails has a distinctly upland or mountain-feel to it. The elevation gain is abrupt, the trails run along ridges that drop into deep ravines, and hardwood trees are the dominant forestation along the ridge lines.
Nags Head Woods is administered by the Nature Conservancy and there is a parking lot with a small visitor’s center. To get to the visitor’s center, turn west from mile post 9.5 from Croatan Highway on to Ocean Acres Drive. This stop light will have Pigman’s Barbecue to the west and MacDonald’s to the east. Follow the road up the hill, around the bend to the right where it will become a dirt road. The visitor’s center is on the left at the bottom of the hill. There is a handicapped accessible trail that is worth a visit. Continue past the Visitor’s Center to the “T” in the road–about 150 yards. The trail and a butterfly garden will be directly in front of you.
Kitty Hawk Woods, which is part of the NC Coastal Reserve, is similar yet different from Nags Head Woods. Larger–almost 2000 acres–it is bisected by the Woods Road, a paved road with a multi-use trail running its entire length. Driving south, The Woods Road is located at the second light after crossing the Wright Memorial Bridge. Make a right hand turn to get on the road after exiting the bridge.
The multi-use path is a great introduction to the beauty of a maritime forest and the path is perfect for a family bike ride or a morning stroll. However, there are some hiking trails that are worth the effort to find. A personal favorite is the trail that begins at the end of Ridge Road. To get there, take the Woods Road and bear right at Twiford. If you come to a stop sign, you went too far, but don’t worry–just turn right onto Kitty Hawk Road and the result will be the same. Twiford will end at Kitty Hawk Road–there will be a bridge directly in front of you. Go over the bridge and keep going until Austin Cemetery. Turn right and then right again onto Ridge Road. The trailhead is at the end of Ridge.
An amazing trail system takes hikers through upland forests into swampy wetlands. Bikes are allowed on the Kitty Hawk Woods trails (they are not allowed on the NH Woods Trails). Suitable for any moderately experienced mountain biker, it’s a unique experience on the Outer Banks.
It’s magic to be standing on a ridge among a grove of hickory trees and hear the Atlantic Ocean in the background. A wonderful and different way to experience the Outer Banks, the maritime forests are worth a visit.