Nature enthusiasts can start the new year off on the right foot at one of the dozens of ranger-led hikes taking place at North Carolina’s state parks.
“After a few years of smaller First Day Hikes programming, we are excited to offer a wide variety of guided hikes and events at most of our state parks for 2024,” State Parks Director Brian Strong said in a release. “We hope our visitors take the opportunity, as we wrap up the holiday season, to bring family and friends and begin a new year of outdoor adventures together.”
North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation officials said there are more than 50 staff-led First Day Hikes scheduled for Monday, Jan. 1, ranging in length and difficulty. Hikers are encouraged to share photos and videos on social media using the hashtags #ncstateparks and #FirstDayHikes.
Public Information Officer Kris Anne Bonifacio highlighted the state’s coastal parks, which she said have planned a variety of First Day Hike options, most of which are relatively flat and easy.
“Visitors can enjoy the unique environments of the tall sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge or the barrier Bear Island at Hammocks Beach. They can explore the salt marsh at Fort Macon or experience the various ecosystems at Carolina Beach on a hike along Sugarloaf Trail,” Bonifacio said. “They can learn about flora and fauna of Dismal Swamp or Merchants Millpond or help clean up the beach at Fort Fisher. They can spend the whole day at Goose Creek’s 50th anniversary celebration.”
She added that there’s also the option for hikers to choose their own adventure and take a self-guided scavenger hunt at Pettigrew State Park in Washington and Tyrrell counties.
“They are also welcome to visit any of our parks and hike on their own during regular park hours if they would prefer to avoid big crowds. Just bring plenty of water, wear proper hiking shoes and if bringing a pet, make sure they are leashed,” she said.
Organized by the National Association of State Park Directors, the annual First Day Hikes program launched in 1992 in Massachusetts, and as of 2012, all 50 states have participated.
“I am thrilled to see the continued growth and success of the First Day Hikes program,” Lewis Ledford, executive director of the association, said in a statement. “This initiative has become a cherished tradition, providing individuals and families with the opportunity to embrace the outdoors, and kick off the year with a commitment to health and well-being.”
Not only is Goose Creek State Park in Beaufort County celebrating the new year, 2024 marks 50 years since the park was first established.
Goose Creek State Park Superintendent Matt Windsor said that they planned the park’s 50th anniversary event to coincide with First Day Hikes as a way to celebrate the unique park, “where you have to get off the beaten path to enjoy some of the most accessible wetlands in eastern NC in the best hiking weather of the year.”
Scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, the celebration will begin with an opening ceremony and black powder musket demonstration at Flicker Field, where the Historic Bath State Historic Site and Beaufort County Traditional Music Association also will be set up. Throughout the day, there will be tar kiln demonstrations, cooking demonstrations, musket demonstrations, and live music and food.
The North Carolina Estuarium, an environmental center based in Washington, will lead a hike on the Palmetto Boardwalk Trail at 10:30 a.m. and at 1 p.m. that day, Sound Rivers will lead a hike on the Live Oak Trail. Sound Rivers is a nonprofit that works to protect the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico River watersheds.
Windsor said that in October 1974, the state made the first purchase from wood product manufacturer Weyerhauser of what would eventually become the 1,700-acre Goose Creek State Park. Goose Creek, which hosted 146,000 visitors last year, “is a jewel of Beaufort County” and was designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service.
In addition to containing the longest segment of publicly owned, undeveloped, low-salinity estuarine shoreline in the state in the national natural landmark area, the park also offers tent, trailer and cabin camping, around 10 miles of trails, paddle and power boat access, a swim beach along the Pamlico River, and an environmental education center, he said.
As Bonifacio mentioned, Pettigrew State Park in Creswell is having an activity participants can complete at their leisure.
Superintendent Jim Trostle said the First Day Hike is a self-guided scavenger hunt along Bee Tree Trail. Around 2.5 miles round trip, this is a flat, easy walk that encompasses Somerset Place, a state historic site, and some of the oldest trees still standing in the park.
Hikers can pick up the scavenger hunt list at the park office after 10 a.m. Visitors can bring back the completed list and pick a prize from our prize box, Trostle said.
The First Day Hike at Dismal Swamp State Park in Camden County with Ranger Alan Brown is set for 10 a.m. next to the Dismal Swamp State Park bridge. He will lead hikers on a 2-mile loop to look for various wildlife.
Merchants Millpond State Park in Gates County will begin its First Day Hike at 11 a.m., leaving from the boat ramp parking area.
Park Ranger David Schafer said the hike is an easy 2-mile stroll on the Coleman Trail.
“We will learn about the history of the park and some of the flora and fauna that live within it,” he said, adding hikers should bring water, wear sturdy shoes and dress for the weather.
“Coleman Trail itself traverses through multiple ecological communities including pine, hardwood forest, and swamps. Visitors to the park in the winter can enjoy open vistas of the Millpond free of vegetation and the tree canopy,” he said. “Canoers that come during warmer, sunny days also have the chance to spot one of our resident alligators sunning on logs throughout the waters of the swamp. Come enjoy the solitude and tranquility that so many visitors have come to love about Merchants Millpond State Park.”
On the Outer Banks, explore the largest sand dune on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head. Meet at the visitor center back deck at 9 a.m. for the 1.5-mile hike that will include parts of the of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and finish at the top of the main dune. Because it can be extra windy and cold this time of the year, organizers recommend hikers wear appropriate shoes and clothing for the terrain and weather conditions.
Park Ranger Austin Paul said that there are 220,000 acres managed by the state parks system from the coast to the mountains, so there should be thousands of individuals, potentially, that will be hiking together on the first day of the year.
“Of course, this is a great start to the first of the year,” he continued, adding the First Day Hikes allow the state parks the opportunity to provide recreational and educational experiences for visitors. “We want to be able to provide a safe and healthy environment for our visitors to come and enjoy and celebrate the New Year by getting out and exploring.”
He said the hike at Jockey’s Ridge should be easy to lightly strenuous from the visitor center out to the big ridge “and along the way, we’ll cover everything from park ecology to dune formation.”
Fort Macon State Park rangers have planned four hikes to bring in 2024. The first two are from 9-10:30 a.m. and the second two begin at 3 p.m.
The shorter hikes at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. will offer a nature and bird hike on the Yarrow’s Loop Trail and the inlet beach, covering less than a mile. The longer hikes at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. will be a nature and bird hike, as well, but on the 3.2-mile Elliot Coues Trail. Wear sturdy shoes and bring a water bottle and bug spray.
Fort Macon State Park Superintendent Randy Newman told Coastal Review that the First Day Hikes often get visitors who are thinking about walking or hiking for the new year out of the house and on the trail.
“The reason the staff at Fort Macon State Park built the trails was to get visitors out into the park so they could experience the diversity of nature that the park has to offer. It is also important for children to get them on the trails for their physical and mental health,” he added.
Also on Jan. 1, Fort Macon will have small arms demonstrations at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
Hammocks Beach State Park rangers are offering two First Day Hikes. The first is set for 10 a.m. to noon and the second 1-3 p.m. Join Park Ranger Renee Evans on a ferry ride to Bear Island and hear about some of the habitats and wildlife that can be found there. Visitors will have a chance to explore the beach. Space is limited, so registration is required for either hike. Call 910-326-4881 to sign up.
Evans reminded those interested in attending that the ferry rides are free but require a registration. “It’s a very popular program we put on at the park in January. We get a lot of requests for it. You should see the standby list.”
With each group, she said she plans to talk the flora and fauna that can be found on Bear Island as well as any history associated with the island while walking along the path toward the beach. After the talk, participants will have a chance to walk and explore the beach on their own before heading back to the Visitor Center.
Evans said that every year the First Day Hikes either take place at Bear Island or the hiking trails adjacent to the Visitor Center on the mainland in Swansboro.
“It’s all dependent on operational conditions at the park. We haven’t been able to lead one of the Bear Island trips since January 2018. We’re very excited,” she said.
At Carolina Beach State Park, the 2-mile walk to Sugarloaf Dune is scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon. Meet at the Sugarloaf Trailhead near the marina, and bring water and hiking shoes.
“We will discuss some history of the park and our plants and animals that make us unique,” Park Superintendent Crystal Lloyd said, adding this is her first program since joining Carolina Beach, “I’m really excited to see what the turnout will be like.”
The First Day “Trash and Treasure” Beach Walk at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Meet by the lifeguard stand at the end of the boardwalk for the mile-long hike to see what was left on the beach the night before. Park staff recommend bringing water, a container for any beach finds and a small trash bag for the cleanup. Pets are welcome but must be on a leash no longer than 6 feet at all times.
“Participants will learn about the common shells found on the beach and some quick tips to spot sharks teeth, while also helping to clean up our beautiful park by picking up trash,” Ranger Emily Abernethy said. The walk is a mile, but participants are welcome to walk as far as they’d like.
She added that there will be couple of guide books available for use to help identify beach finds.
“This will be a great way to start out the New Year by spending time on our beautiful beach while also doing some community service,” Abernethy said.
In addition to the First Day Hikes, most of North Carolina’s state parks have programming throughout the year. To check the schedule of events at a park near you, visit ncparks.gov.
Coastal Review will not publish Monday-Wednesday next week.