Outer Banks Autumn Foliage

Autumn foliage reflected on a pond in Nags Head Woods.
Autumn foliage reflected on a pond in Nags Head Woods.

Autumn has come to the Outer Banks and even though the climate is not as extreme as the mountains, the fall foliage is still beautiful. Step away from the beach and there is a whole world of color waiting to be explored in the maritime forests of the Outer Banks.

Here are three easy paths to explore. Two are in Kitty Hawk, the other just a little south on the Kill Devil Hills/Nags Head town line.

Kitty Hawk Woods
Along a hiking trail in Kitty Hawk Woods.
Along a hiking trail in Kitty Hawk Woods.

Kitty Hawk Woods is almost 2000 acres of dense forest that is part of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine System. Lying in the heart of Kitty Hawk, relict sand dunes create rolling hills that descend to verdant marsh and swamp. The Woods Road, aptly named since it bisects the maritime forest, has a marvelous multi-use path that parallels the road beginning at US158.

The paved path is a great introduction to the beauty of the reserve, but there are also some wonderful hiking paths along the sound. Stop by the office at 4352 The Woods Road, Kitty Hawk, or check out the trail map online.

Sandy Run Park
Seen along the path at Sandy Run Park.
Seen along the path at Sandy Run Park.

A perfect place in Kitty Hawk to take the whole family, Sandy Run Park is an absolute gem of a little park. A half-mile boardwalk and very well marked dirt path loop around a small pond and wetlands.

Part of the Town of Kitty Hawk’s Park and Rec, the park includes catch and release fishing sites and a kayak put in. On a mild autumn day, there may not be a better place on the Outer Banks to introduce kids to the beauty of the natural world.

Nags Head Woods
Nags Head Woods in the fall.
Nags Head Woods in the fall.

Steep hills descend into deep ravines that end in marsh and swamp are the dominant features of Nags Head Woods. As the hills, which are actually sand dunes that have become covered in a more dense soil, rise above the wetlands, a dense hardwood forest has formed and the some of the most spectacular autumn colors on the Outer Banks can be found here.

The easiest way to get to Nags Head Woods is to turn at the light Pigman’s Barbecue in Kill Devil Hills—that’s the intersection of the Bypass (US 158) and Ocean Acres. Follow the road until it becomes a dirt road. The visitor’s center will be on the left at the bottom of the hill.

Part of the Nature Conservancy, there is excellent trail information available and usually someone on hand to answer questions.

A Different Side to the Outer Banks

Trail in Kitty Hawk Woods.
Trail in Kitty Hawk Woods.

Back in 1584, Arthur Barlowe, who was part explorer and part public relations agent for Sir Walter Raleigh looked out over the Outer Banks and wrote when he returned to England, “Under the banke or hill whereon we stoode, we behelde the vallyes replenished with goodly Cedar trees . . .”

It’s a little difficult to know exactly where he was standing but it’s just about a sure bet that the “banke or hill” he stood upon was a large sand dune and he was looking west at a maritime forest.

Maritime forest occur on the leeward side of sand dunes. Protected from the most damaging of the ocean’s winds, remarkable diverse forest take root. Along the swamps and marsh at the lowest levels, cedar trees do grow. But there are also hardwood trees  growing on the ridges. The ridges are actually relict sand dunes that have accumulated soil over the past 6000-7000 years.

At one time, a continuous maritime forest stretched from Southern Shores to Jockey’s Ridge, but development and the shifting environment that is a normal part of the evolution of a barrier island has reduced what was once a massive woodlands.

There are a number of protected maritime forests on the Outer Banks. One of the most accessible and the largest is Kitty Hawk Woods.

The Woods Road in Kitty Hawk, which is where the Outer Banks Marathon begins, goes through the heart of the reserve. There is also a multi-use path that parallels the road.

For the more adventurous, there are hiking or walking paths in the park. Suitable for almost anyone six years of age and up, they are a great way to learn about a side of the Outer Banks that is often overlooked.

In the summer, insect repellant is a necessity for walking the trails.

Click here for a trail map.

#joelamb,jr.  #kittyhawkwoods