While wandering through the Patsy Pond nature trails, you are immersed in ecology lessons. The longleaf pines tower 100 feet above you, stalwart survivors of forest fires through the ages. You observe some trees ringed with a white band, indicating nesting sites for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Small ponds fed by groundwater are visible from the trail, appearing dark brown because of decaying plants and pine needles built up on the forest floor.
Bordered by highway and suburbs, the Patsy Pond nature trails provide a sheltered and quiet spot to walk and run. They also provide a though-provoking landscape that reminds us of the urgency of conservation.
The Patsy Pond trails are located off Highway 24 in Newport, a 30-minute drive from the Duke Marine Lab (ideal for a weekend trip). A small dirt parking lot and trail sign mark the trailhead. This park is on the edge of the Croatan National Forest, a nearly 160,000-acre protected forest created in 1936. The North Carolina Coastal Federation maintains the Patsy Pond trails, and their headquarters is across the road.
The trails are ideal for walking and running, and they’re used by many dog-walkers as well. There are three marked trails – Yellow, Green and Blue. Since they’re not relatively long, I’d recommend them for runs ranging from 1 to 6 miles. However, the short trail distances never stopped runners from repeating dozens of laps in the Croatan 24 Ultramarathon. In 2014, first place went to famous Brazilian ultrarunner Valmir Nunes, who ran over 127 miles of the Patsy Pond trails over the course of 24 hours.
The trail surfaces are either sandy (difficult for running) or pine-needle covered (ideal for running). The trails can be hard to follow at intersections, since there are also unmarked access roads and paths cutting through the forest. I still drift off the main path at times, so I recommend bringing the map or saving one on a smartphone (you can get the trail brochure here). This trail brochure also advises you to wear orange (or bright colors) during hunting season which runs from October through February, and April through May.
The longleaf pine forests have been in decline due to “fire suppression and development,” according to the Nature Conservancy. Although wildfires are devastating natural disasters when combined with dry and windy conditions such as in Southern California, fire is required to maintain certain forest ecosystems.
Without fire, faster-growing trees and plants outcompete the fire-resistant longleaf pines, thus changing the landscape to the detriment of many species. Because human development has changed the potential consequences of forest fires, the U.S. Forest Service conducts prescribed burning. These prescribed fires provide ecosystem benefits while also ensuring safety of nearby people. The Croatan Forest, including Patsy Pond, benefits from prescribed burns.
Check out the Patsy Pond trail to be engulfed in tall pine trees and to be awed by natural history as you count your miles. For more information on local trails, see my posts on Fort Macon, the Neusiok trail and Emerald Isle Woods Park. On my next trail adventure, perhaps I’ll make it to the Weetock trail, also in the Croatan Forest.