Blue Clay Bike Park
by Sue Cag
The first time I saw a huge longleaf pine cone was at Blue Clay. At the time I was just used to the smaller, more common loblolly cones and unaware that pine cones could get that big. Of course that was years ago, and I’ve since appreciated the even larger ghost pine and sugar pine cones out west. I continue to return to Blue Clay, not only to enjoy the amazing oversized cones, but to spend some time wandering among our treasured (and threatened) native longleaf pine trees.
Blue Clay Bike Park is well-known and wildly popular among local bicyclists. You won’t find many wandering on foot here, though I recommend walking it – and you’ll find most bikers quite courteous.
I usually start by turning right and heading down the “beginner” bike trail. The path is open and flat. It takes you immediately into a wonderful longleaf pine forest. The duff is thick under the trees and remains so, despite heavy use. I notice switch cane and various thin young hardwoods, but I don’t see any wiregrass or other plants that normally accompany longleaf pines. This area has been disturbed quite a bit and I notice remnants of old wire fencing.
Loblolly pines and water oaks appear in the forest as the trail continues past the sound of loud machinery on the right (I can also always hear the highway). There are some nice trees on this stretch, and then the trail skirts piles of old tires and metal junk on adjacent property. I notice a black racer snake basking in the sun partially camouflaged by the debris.
The trail continues across a short bridge over a narrow murky drainage ditch. The opposite side is guarded by a large leaning sweet gum tree. I follow the beginner trail to the right and end up in a strange forest of only longleaf pine and switch cane. Something feels off about this section and I walk through it uncharacteristically fast.
Next a trail “bypass” leads back to the center area – a huge cleared area of electricity poles and open grasses. I turn right and pause to identify sweetleaf flowers. I kneel down and find hundreds of teeny-tiny sundews. They are barely discernible in the moss and grasses. I continue to spot them across the open section. I also spot younger longleaf pines (which I’m always looking for because they indicate forest authenticity and longevity).
I re-enter the forest on the other side and continue through longleaf and loblolly pines. I notice a wild iris patch and I look for more wildflowers, but it’s a little too early in the season. The trail skirts past the edge of a cut forest and then continues along a waterway beside a seemingly wilder longleaf section – an area with a lot more understory. I start to see songbirds, especially yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees. The trail is peaceful here and no more bicyclists pass by for some time.
I eventually come upon a man-made pond with dead trees poking out of the surface. On this side of the bank I find wonderful black cherry trees as well as mossy maples, one with a tiny patch of resurrection fern. The path continues across the street, winding up a gentle hill of soft dappled light and into a forest of small pine and magnolia trees. Dogwoods are in bloom and I stop to admire their abundant cream color flowers.
Eventually I turn back and cut down a wide passage to the parking area. I feel like I got a solid walk in. I know I could have walked more since the trails wind around for seven miles, but I think the length of my casual wandering was just right. I glance back over to the longleaf pine forest where I began my little hike and I am filled with gratitude for having the privilege of walking among the old trees here. I feel extraordinary appreciation that this forest is protected as a lovely park for all to enjoy.
Blue Clay Bike Park is located at 3840 Juvenile Center Rd (just off Blue Clay Rd). Owned by New Hanover County, it became an official park after years of work by local bicyclists and members of Cape Fear Cyclists. The trails on the parking lot side are located in somewhat soggy lowlands/wetlands and trails are sometimes closed after rains. The “hilly” side across the street opposite the parking area was once a landfill. Trails are crowded on weekends. For more information and a trail map visit http://capefearsorba.org/about-3/local-trails/blue-clay-bike-park/ and http://sirbikesalot.com/entry.php?fid=56.
All photos by Sue Cag and Kim Dicso. All Rights Reserved. Photos may not be used without permission.