Saturday, November 29, 2014

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Cape Lookout National Seashore is an undeveloped barrier island in North Carolina that is a must visit for any outdoor enthusiast. Ashley and I visited Cape Lookout National Seashore on our most recent visit to North Carolina this past summer. Cape Lookout National Seashore is a low, narrow barrier island that runs for 56 miles from Ocracoke Inlet on the northeast, to Beafuort Inlet to the southwest. There is plenty for the whole family to do when visiting Cape Lookout National Sea Shore, from hiking, swimming, exploring the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, seeing wild horses, and so much more.

Directions to Trailhead: Ashley and I got to Cape Lookout National Seashore by using the Harkers Island Visitor Center, which is located on the eastern end of Harkers Island, approximately 20 miles (30 km) east of Beaufort, NC and 30 miles (50 km) south of the Cedar Island terminus of the North Carolina State Ferry route from Ocracoke Island to Cedar Island. This visitor center is one of two Ferry Gateways to the Cape Lookout Light Station and Shackleford Banks. There are several other Ferry options to get to the Island, but this is the shortest Ferry ride to get to Cape Lookout Lighthouse. There is no fee for parking at the visitor center, but there is a cost to ride the Ferry to visit the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Cost range from $15-$20 per person to ride the Ferry and the ferry ride is approximately 15 minutes. For more information on taking a Ferry to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, click Here.

The Cape Lookout Lighthouse is only open is open for climbing from the second week in May to the third weekend in September. Self-guided tours of up to 10 people will begin every 15 minutes during the hours of operation. The current costs for admission when we went was $8 per person, there are discounted prices for children and seniors. The lighthouse may close at any time if conditions (i.e.: temperature/humidity, lightning, or high winds) are determined to be unsafe. The climb to the top is strenuous. It may be hot, humid, noisy and dim inside the lighthouse. Climbing the 207 steps to the gallery is roughly equal to climbing a 12-story building. The stairs are narrow and groups going up will share the stairs with groups returning to the bottom. Make sure to get your tickets to climb the lighthouse early because on busy days the number of tickets can sell out. There is a set number of people able to climb the lighthouse each day and the quota exists because the lighthouse is a very old structure and can only safely accommodate so many people safely. For more information about seasonal hours of operation, click Here.

Description of Trail: This is a little different of a write-up than our normal posts as there is not set trail to explore, per se. When you begin your ferry ride from Harkers Island to Cape Lookout National Seashore, you will travel along side Shackleford Banks, which is another uninhabited barrier island. If you are lucky, you will be able to catch a glimpse of the wild horses that inhabit this island. Ashley and I saw several horses while on the ferry ride to Cape Lookout. Our ferry driver was nice enough to come to a full stop to allow visitors the opportunity to take pictures. These horses are descendants of Spanish horses that washed ashore after shipwrecks approximately 400 years ago. There are an estimated 110 wild horses living on Shackleford Banks.

During the ferry ride over, you will have Cape Lookout Lighthouse firmly in view. The ferry docks right near Cape Lookout Lighthouse and you exit the ferry right by Cape Lookout Lighthouse. You then hike along a wooden boardwalk to the visitor center, which has a small gift shop, restrooms, and is the gateway to Cape Lookout Lighthouse and Cape Lookout National Seashore. You buy your tickets to climb the lighthouse at this visitor center. At this point you are a short walk to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse and less than a 0.4 mile hike to the Atlantic Coast. There are wooden boardwalks around the visitor center and the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, but outside of that you are walking on flat sandy trails.

Further Thoughts: A variety of activities awaits you at Cape Lookout National Seashore. From birding, to camping, to fishing, to learning about the rich history of Cape Lookout Light Station, there is something here for everyone. The main thing is you will need to pack everything you need for your visit to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, because this is an undeveloped barrier island. Ashley and I brought a full day pack with everything from lunch, sunscreen, water, and appropriate clothes. When we first got to the Cape Lookout National Seashore, we immediately purchased our tickets to climb the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Our scheduled time was not for several hours, so we hiked over to the beach and explored the area.

We did a little shelling and then went swimming in the warm Atlantic waters, which during the summer time get over 80 degrees. One of the neat things about being at Cape Lookout National Seashore is there is no development on the island. It is a completely different experience being on an island that has no housing right along the ocean. You look down as far as the eye can see along the coast and there is not a single home on the coastline. It is truly a magnificent sight to see!

After enjoying the surf and the sand, Ashley and I headed back over to do our tour of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The current Cape Lookout Lighthouse was completed and lit on November 1, 1859 and replaced a shorter lighthouse built in 1812. The double wall structure--the first of its kind in North Carolina--allowed the tower to be much taller than previous designs. The 1859 lighthouse was 163 feet tall and its light reached approximately 15 miles out to sea. Shortly after the improved tower was activated, however, war broke out between the states. The light was extinguished to prevent Union ships from using it to navigate the treacherous North Carolina coast. The light was reestablished with a third order Fresnel lens in 1863 and shone for most of the remainder of the war. For more, on the history of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, click Here.

If you have more than one day to spend at the Cape Lookout National Sea Shore, there is primitive camping available on the island. Campers should prepare carefully for the natural conditions to be found at the park. We saw two groups of people that were going to be camping right on the beach.

The waters surrounding the park are feeding grounds for marine mammals and sea turtles. Four sea turtle species - Loggerhead, Green, Kemp's Ridley, and Leatherback - are sometimes seen feeding in area waters. Only the Loggerhead sea turtle regularly nests on the park's beaches during the summer months. The others are found only as juveniles or are just passing through.

Birds are the most easily observed animals in the park. Spring and Fall migration brings a number of different species through the park. Stormy weather can drive a few pelagic birds in from the open ocean for a visit. In summer, a number of tern species, egrets, black skimmers, herons, piping plovers and other shorebirds nest within the park's boundaries.

Mammals are uncommon on the islands; rice rats, rabbits, river otters, and raccoons are some of the native species found here. On Shackleford Banks is a population of horses that has gone wild and adapted to their environment over the past few hundred years. Although salt and brackish water environments dominate the islands, a few fresh water habitats support tree frogs and Fowler's toads. While diamond-back terrapins prefer the salt marsh areas, the grasslands are the preferred habitat for five-lined racerunner lizards and black racer snakes. For more on the ecosystem of this area, click Here.

Ashley and I spent a little more than a half day on the island doing hikes along the beach, exploring the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, and swimming in the ocean. When you visit this area make sure to check the weather forecast before you go and be prepared for the anticipated weather conditions.

Rating: Little elevation gain throughout the whole Cape Lookout National Seashore. Can make your day as relaxing or as strenuous as you would like.

Time to Complete Hike: Ideally, Ashley and I would recommend spending at least a half a day exploring the area, if not a full day. We spent a half day and would have enjoyed having more time to spend on the island.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area

The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area is recognized as one of the most important natural areas inside the Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill Triangle. The Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area provides great hiking through various habitats that support species that area rare and significant to this region. This area provides fun hiking and outdoor recreation opportunities for the entire family. Ashley and I really enjoyed being able to hike at the Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area on our most recent visit to North Carolina.

Directions to Trailhead: To hike in the Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area, from I-85 take exit 164, turn north onto Churton Street, turn left at the stop sign onto Orange Grove Road, and turn right onto Virginia Gates Road and follow the signs all the way to the parking area. The address of the Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area is 625 Virginia Cates Road, Hillsborough, NC 27278.There is no cost for parking at the trailhead area. The park hours are as follows: November - February, 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.; March, April, September & October, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m.; and May - August, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m. the park is closed on Christmas Day.

Description of Hike: The Occoneeche Mountain State Natural Area contains 190 acres of land and more than three miles of hiking trails. The area is situated around Occoneeche Mountain Summit (867 feet) which rises 350 feet from the Eno River and is the highest point between Hillsborough, North Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. The hike Ashley and I completed was the Occoneeche Mountain Loop Trail which is 2.2 miles in length with an elevation gain of just over 300 feet. The Occoneeche Mountain Loop Trail is well marked and is easy to follow. The hike features hilly terrain through mature oak forests and goes along the Eno River. There are several side trails, one we did was the rock quarry view trail below the rock quarry. The Occoneechee Mountain Loop Trail is marked by red circles throughout the park. For a Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area park map, click Here.

Further Thoughts: Ashley and I really enjoyed our hike in the Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area. We saw several other park visitors while were hiking there and we also got a chance to talk with a very nice park ranger. The summer weather was great with a slight breeze and temperatures in the mid 80s. While on our hike we saw fish, turtles, toads, frogs, a hawk, and several lizards. We found the hiking trails in the Occoneechee Mountain State Recreation Area easy to navigate and follow. The only minor downsides to this hiking area is the power lines running through a portion of the park as well as the close proximity to roads at times.

There are two little fishing ponds that are near the trailhead area where you can go fishing, if that is your cup of tea. The Occoneechee ponds are great for catching bass and bream on worms, crickets, and lures. The Eno is a great place for fly-fishing, casting lures, or baiting with the ever reliable worms and crickets. Most of the river can be waded and there are many openings for bank fishing. Commonly caught game fish include largemouth bass, bluegill, redbreast sunfish, and the feisty Roanoke bass. Roanoke bass, locally know as "red-eye" are found in only four river drainages in northeastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia. Chubs and bullheads add to the fishing fun. All North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission fishing regulations are enforced.

The Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area showcases a diversity of natural communities, and such diversity is found nowhere else in the Triangle area. The relatively undisturbed forest of the ridge top includes one of the best chestnut oak stands in the region. And, the mountain area itself, adjacent to the upper Eno River, is important wildlife habitat. The acorns and berries produced by the chestnut oaks and other area plants support a population of animals, including deer, groundhog and wild turkey.

The top of Occoneechee Mountain's ridge and northern slopes provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species that are typically found in the mountains, and some plant species reach their easternmost limits here. These include Bradley's spleenwort and wild sarsaparilla. Catawba rhododendron is present on the steep rock outcrop adjacent to the ravine, and a mountain laurel-galax community grows on the ravine's slopes. Sweet pinesap, another rare plant, also grows here, along with large witch-alder. Yet another mountainous species that grows in the natural area is the purple fringeless orchid.

In addition, several rare animal species found nowhere else in the region are present in the park. These include the brown elfin butterfly. Separated by more than 100 miles from other brown elfin populations in the mountains, the brown elfin butterfly is believed to have survived at Occoneechee Mountain since the Ice Age. Although the brown elfin is found virtually nowhere else in the Piedmont, the population on Occoneechee Mountain is quite large.

Researchers believe that the area's habitat has remained relatively unchanged since the last Ice Age due to the presence of brown elfin, a rare butterfly, as well as several unique plant species. The brown elfin is typically found in mountainous and northern areas, and the nearest brown elfin population to Occoneechee Mountain is more than 100 miles west. When the Piedmont's habitat underwent enormous transformations after the Ice Age, the area became unable to support the brown elfin and other species more accustomed to cooler environments. Brown elfins, believed to have once populated the Piedmont, were restricted to the state's mountains. However, the brown elfin butterflies at Occoneechee Mountain remained.

Rating: Elevation Gain: 300 ft. (Easy), Distance: 2.2 Miles Roundtrip (Easy)

Time to Complete Hike: 1 - 2 hours.