Discover surprising facts about the coastal habitat on Soundside Trail Loop and Willow Pond Loop located at the tip of Harkers Island, North Carolina.
I enter a portal to Harkers Island’s past as my head dips under the low-slung branch of a tree. The light ping of raindrops dances on the floor of leaves. A gnarled old man wearing a moss green jacket, tattered at the elbow patch, bends over to observe a bird. No, forgive me it is a tree resembling a man.
Welcome to a maritime forest hidden from view on a barrier island on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina.
Table of Contents
Original Owner of Hawkers Island
I wonder if Old Man Forest is the topiary ghost of Ebenezer Harker who the island is named after. Certainly, I feel his presence as my dog and I slowed walk down the dirt path.
“Gnarly, grey-trundled live oak trees twist toward the sky above a sandy forest floor—just like they did when Ebenezer Hawkers bought the entire island in 1730.”National Park Service
I feel like I am disappearing back to North Carolina’s colonial maritime days as I wander deep into this forest. Even in the dog days of August, the woods feel chilly, nature’s answer to air-conditioned until the thick canopy of trees.
Where To Walk Your Dog
On Harkers Island, there is no public access to walk the shoreline around the sound. The only alternative is to walk on the grass and gravel on Island Road.
The whoosh of the pickup trucks pulling boats is hardly relaxing. I decided to research if there are any parks to hike with my dog.
It turns out there are two connecting trails (loops) to walk at the Harkers Island Visitors Center where you catch the ferry to Cape Lookout National Seashore. It is the perfect diversion if you end up with 45 minutes to wait until your allotted time to board the ferry.
I enjoyed the trails so much that I returned on the next morning at 8 am to walk them again with my golden retriever.
Soundside Trail Loop
The Soundside Trail is a three-quarter mile walk along Harkers Island’s shoreline. Your walk starts at the pier as the ferry boats. Look to your left to see the distinctive black and white diamond-shaped Cape Lookout Lighthouse far in the distance. The National Seashore looks like a necklace flung on the surface of the ocean.
Walk briskly past the water and rocks. Sniff the bracing sea air. Enter the Soundside Trail to Willow Pond.
NPS Educational Signs
Although there is no National Park Service guided tour here, you can learn a lot about the ecosystem of the island if you read the signs.
For instance, as my walk begins, I am looking across Core Sound. This is a habitat rich in life so you can learn about local coastal habitat. It is a place where animals and plants must adapt to changes in climate. I will even see a dune graveyard of ghost trees later on my walk.
According to the National Park Service, only the hardiest species can survive on a barrier island. Why? Because life changes dramatically during the seasons. The Atlantic Ocean’s wind and salt play havoc. But the situation is better as the plants and animals move further away from the sound on Harkers Island.
Willow Pond Trail Loop
Nearing the end of the Soundside Trail, I reach the connector to the Willow Pond Trail. This loop is named after Willow Pond, which is now algae-covered.
The change in habitat is stark. Instead of the open space, we enter a coastal forest. Trees’ canopies provide a green roof over my head.
HINT: The quieter you are, the better your chances for a memorable birding experience. Did you know that you might hear a pine warbler or a red-winged blackbird sing?
The pond is also home to wading birds, such as the long-legged white egrets and herons, who feed in the shallows. The “shore birds” hunt along the mudflats.
Spring and summer are the breeding season for wood ducks and prothonotary warblers.
My walk is light so as not to disturb the woodland creatures. They hide from me in this jungle of pine twigs, moldy leaves, and ferns.
My dog senses this is one of nature’s cathedrals. He does not bark or yip. I only hear the sound of his breathing as he ponders why we have halted.
I reach a tree totem pole that towers at least 60 feet in the air. A pair of trees stand close by.
Then I linger to observe a tree—part skeleton and part lush. Its brown decaying leaves still cling to brittle patches even though it is summer. By fall, a brisk wind will whisk them to the ground.
Bright green patches of moss carpet the forest floor. They are neon green – as unrealistic in this setting as if someone spilled paint from a can.
Listen to the light singing of the forest birds. It is muted, not a symphony. They are talking to each other. The trees bow their heads to their neighbors, happy to live in harmony. A lavender wildflower waves its butter-yellow face to the sun. Trumpet creeper vine winds up a trunk.
I would recommend scheduling this hike if you catching the Harkers Island ferry or staying on the island. While it is great to sun on the beach and see the Cape Lookout Lighthouse, you will have a greater appreciation of the island habitat if you walk the two loops.
For example, I didn’t realize how rare it was to encounter this type of forest habitat.
“Once, maritime forests cloaked most of North Carolina’s barrier islands. Now, just a few thousand acres remain.”National Park Service
As I am on the return end of the Soundside Loop, I encounter a grove of ghost trees. They stand vacantly next to each other, their trunks looking like the stark white skeleton of a sailor.
A ghost tree is a name given to a tree that loses all its foliage as a result of excessive salinity in the ground. The bald cypress cannot survive as the salinity in the ground is poisonous. Tropical storms, droughts and sea level changes can cause this.
“You may notice ‘ghost forests,’ where a freshwater wetland becaomes a salt marsh dotted with dead trees.”National Park Service
Back in the bright sunlight, my eyes struggle to adjust. The darkened maritime forest is behind me. Light sparkles on the sound. My loop back in time is over.