Carolina Beach State Park
by Sue Cag
Carolina Beach State Park is where you can see it all: forests, swamp, savannah, pocosin, beach, butterflies, birds, snakes, and deer. You can easily walk from a boardwalk above a swamp, through a savannah, and into venus flytrap habitat. Or you can saunter through a live oak grove and find yourself in a sandy longleaf pine forest. You can watch a pileated woodpecker lay waste to a fallen log or admire the graceful way a deer moves through wet lowlands. You can crouch down to find puffy oak toe lichen or look up to see pelicans swooping and splashing in the water. You can bring your binoculars and bird watch for hours. Whatever your nature fix, you’ll find it here.
First, the forests.
There are two remarkable swamp forests here, both accessible by short boardwalks. At the end of the Flytrap Trail you’ll find a modest stretch of tupelo (black gum) growing out of the water. Their bases are flared out and covered with moss. Nearby on the Sugarloaf Trail, you’ll find mature maple trees growing up from the same soggy ground. The latter is one of my favorite places in the park. I always return to linger there, feeling the gentle breeze and listening to the creaking branches of the canopy. The tree roots fascinate me as they stretch out like fingers over the wet earth, trying to take hold in every direction.
I’ve seen mature live oak individuals along the road and in various parts of the park, often with spanish moss draping from their branches. I’ve enjoyed short walks along the Track and Snow’s Cut trails which lead through a pleasant forest. Along the way I’ve stopped to appreciate a large laurel oak with branches reaching above the other trees. Below those trails are wooded campsites. In my experience, campgrounds are often cleared and open (on purpose or by campers), but here I’ve come across sites featuring live oaks as well as one site with a wonderful stocky cedar with many low branches growing out wildly.
The west side of the popular Flytrap Trail winds across pine savannah. You can continue walking through pine forest by weaving through trails heading south and west. At the bottom tip of the park, the paths turn to bright white sand barely peppered with pine needles, and turkey oaks easily dominate the understory. This entire expanse is longleaf pine forest. I found mature trees, young trees, and grassy upstarts along the way. I haven’t come across any particularly large longleaf pines, but it’s a very big deal to be able to walk through this strip of precious native forest.
Turning left at the Sugarloaf trailhead behind the marina leads through a beautiful mixed pine and hardwood forest. I quickly spot loblolly pine, magnolia, ironwood, black cherry, and sweet gum. This is also the area where I was first mesmerized by the “skeleton trees.” You can hardly see them anymore, but they were big dead trees out in the marsh that I’ve watched crumble away over the years. Heading right at the Sugarloaf trailhead moves through oaks and pines before quickly coming to the beach where you’ll find a giant driftwood log. If you look up along the way, you’ll spot cross vine growing on the pine trees.
Finally, I must note the cypress trees growing in the aptly named Cypress Pond. These are young trees, but it’s nice to see cypress rounding out the variety of native trees represented in the park.
Next, the wildlife.
Every time I visit Carolina Beach State Park I encounter wildlife. The first time there was a swarm of blackbirds. The next time, I watched a loon crouched down in the beach grasses earlier in the day and then I was treated to two great horned owls right above my head at sunset. Subsequently, I’ve watched deer somehow not get stuck in the muck while passing through the swamp. How their slim legs and feet don’t sink seems impossible, yet there they are gracefully walking along. I’ve witnessed a snake swimming around in the water just below the flytrap viewing platform, right after a group of people left (would they have been afraid?). I’ve also seen a black racer whip across the trail into the woods. Nuthatches walk down tree trunks and peck at the bark. Egrets float by overhead. A red-headed woodpecker flies over to another treetop. Swallowtail butterflies zoom past. Dragonflies zigzag through the air. Tiny skinks disappear under leaves.
Lastly, native plants.
Everyone comes to Carolina Beach State Park to see the venus flytraps. I’m constantly surprised by how many people have never seen one before. They don’t know where to look or what they’re looking for. They are not expecting the plants to be so small. This is so universal that I can’t help feeling sadness at how poorly educated we are about life in our world. People are thinking about media – they are thinking Little Shop of Horrors. They can’t imagine something carnivorous being so small (yet the biggest threat to humans is microscopic bacteria). I could probably stand on the viewing platform all day pointing out the little flytraps to visitors. They are hard to see, often hiding among grasses and other plants. You have to crouch down and look closely. A few times I didn’t see them and assumed they had been poached. I would guess that park staff might plant flytraps near the platform (they should) and that there are many more camouflaged nearby. I would never go walking through the sensitive pocosin looking for more and hopefully no one else will either. If you really want a closer look, head up to the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden in Wilmington. Also, while you’re on the platform, do not miss the tiny sundews. They are little red plants with glistening dew drops that sparkle in the sun. And the obvious yellow pitcher plants of course.
Other important plants include the prolific doghobble and staggerbush that cover a lot of ground near the tunnel of short live oaks along the Swamp Trail. If you look closely among the longleaf pines, you might spot the small white flowers of tread softly or partridge berry. There are many more native plants to see if you keep a slow pace and keen eye. Whatever it is you’re looking for, you’ll find it here.
All photos by Sue Cag and Kim Dicso. All Rights Reserved. Photos may not be used without permission.
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