Foot-long pine needles lay on the fine, white sand, forming copper mats that nearly covered the ground. Overhead, the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) were no more than twenty feet tall and maybe a few decades old. All around us, turkey oaks (Quercus laevis) formed a scraggly thicket in the understory. The morning was cloudy with a warm, moist breeze.
Elizabeth and I had been walking through the pine savanna for over a mile. We were in Carolina Beach State Park, a patch of remnant forest on Pleasure Island, off the coast of southeastern North Carolina. Bounded by water on two sides and roads and houses on the other two, the forest wasn’t very large, and we were able to hike nearly all of its trails.
We climbed Sugarloaf Dune, a sandhill whose summit elevation — fifty feet — was the highest point in the park. The sandhill supported a beautiful grove of sand live oaks (Quercus geminata), short trees whose furrowed bark and twisting branches were adorned with Spanish moss. The clouds began to break and gave us a fine view west toward the mainland.
We descended from the rarefied heights of Sugarloaf Dune and returned to the longleaf pine savanna. As if someone had flipped a switch, the clouds suddenly dissipated, revealing a pale blue sky and a sun that turned the savanna instantly hot. The white sand became too bright to look at.
We skirted a pocosin, a shallow bog of pond pines (Pinus serotina), red maples (Acer rubrum), and shrubs. The low levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in the pocosin’s soil have made it a home for plants that get nutrients from other sources, namely insects and spiders: the pocosin is one of the few places on earth where you can find wild Venus fly traps (Dionaea muscipula).
After the pocosin, we took the Swamp Trail through a tall, dense coastal-fringe forest. Dark magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), leafy sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua), and stout loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) closed in on the trail, and poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), wild grape (Vitis sp.), and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) wrapped tree trunks and hung from branches.
We took the Snow’s Cut Trail back to camp, completing our hike in three hours.