If you've only passed through North Carolina while driving north or south on I-95, you might think it a relatively small state.  For those of us who live on the coast and hunger for the mountains, the state is a much larger place.  This fact presents a particular problem if, like me, you like to camp and hike.  Beach camping is okay but can be hot and sweaty and is guaranteed to get sand into places you never dreamed it would get.  Coastal hiking is flat, relatively boring and you are likely to get chased away by bugs. 

So,  if you have the time, definitely make the seven hour trip from the coast to the Appalachians as it's definitely worth the trip.  However, if you only have one day off or are a weekend warrior, the mountains might be too far.  Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting Cliff of the Neuse State Park in Seven Springs, NC.  The park is located about 20 miles west of the town of Kinston which is about two hours from the coast and an hour from Raleigh. 



river at the bottom of cliffs
Down at the base of the Cliffs on the Neuse River
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The Neuse river
The trails are relatively short and are of easy to moderate ability levels.  It definitely isn't the mountains but there is elevation and some beautiful scenery.  In the summer, there is a lake available those wanting to swim or canoe.
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Hiking trail from the top of the cliff to the river at the bottom
There aren't many campsites (about 35) which is both a positive and a negative thing.  You can make reservations for a site and during the summer I would definitely suggest one.  The sites are well maintained and there are clean facilities including showers and toilets.
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flat ground covered in pine needles is great for camping
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Most sites have brand new fire pits. The park has firewood for sale as well.
Overall, the park is a really nice alternative if you want some terrain but don't have the time to drive to the mountains.

For more information, visit the Cliffs of the Neuse website.

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A view of the Neuse River from the top of the cliffs.
 
Down East, North Carolina is actually a group of communities to the East of the town of Beaufort in Carteret County.  Most often, the communities included in Down East are: Bettie, Otway, Straits, Harker's Island, Gloucester, Marshallberg, Tusk, Smyrna, Williston, Davis, Stacy, Masontown, Sea Level, Atlantic, and Cedar Island.  Harker's Island is arguably the most popular with tourists as it has ferry services available to the lighthouse on Cape Lookout National Seashore, Shackleford Banks and the Core Sound Museum

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Harker's Island is a great place to have a picnic

Cape Lookout and Shackleford are both great places to enjoy the beach and go shelling and Shakleford is home to wild horses, descended from horses from old Spanish shipwrecks. The Core Sound Museum is dedicated to the of the peoples of Down East and the occupations of the area. 
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The lighthouse at Cape Lookout
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Wild horse on Shackleford Banks
The other popular community Down East is Cedar Island.  Cedar Island is, in large part, a wildlife refuge with hiking and boating access.  The main reason that this community sees so much traffic, however, is that Cedar Island serves as the southern gateway to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  Tourists and locals alike take the Cedar Island ferry to the town of Ocracoke and from there, on to the rest of the Outer Banks.

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Public boat ramp/dock on Cedar Island
There is plenty to do Down East, from shopping, to dining to just enjoying nature.  The locals are nice albeit sometimes difficult to understand because of their local dialect (High Tider), which is a remnant of Elizabethan English.  Whether you are looking to gain access to the Outer Banks or just want to go for a nice drive, Down East offers splendid views the entire way.
 
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The Highway 55 bridge into Oriental
_ Dew marks the time, the morning still fresh.  It's early for me-- not to be awake but to be on the road-- but today beckoned for a break from the ordinary and the town of Oriental is close enough for a day trip but feels so far away.  With the destination set, my soundtrack, Dustin O'Halloran seems to be assisting with the rising of the sun.  The notes carry lazily out of my open windows and into the forests surrounding these country roads.  Sunlight trickles down otherwise unseen structures as spiders dance their way from tree to grass.  A few cars and outraged seagulls find themselves stuck in a morning traffic jam as we are obliged to wait for a ferry to cross the Neuse River. 

 

A short time after being dropped off on dry land I cross the highway 55 bridge and catch my first glance of Oriental.  Not even a minute later, I am out of the car and up the stairs of one of my favorite coffee shops, The Bean.  Today, as always, the shop is teeming with locals all addressing one another by first name and yet they stop to welcome all newcomers.  After some witty banter with the staff, the locals continue on with their daily schedules leaving me relatively alone.  I take the opportunity to grab a table and spread out all of my reading materials.  This morning, the slow pace of the town coerces me away from my usual shot of caffeine and into a relaxing hot chocolate.

 

I drink my hot chocolate and savor a cinnamon and pecan muffin at a leisurely pace, watching the shrimp boats glide upon the glassy water of the small enclosed harbor.  My snack done, I set off to explore the town making sure that I walk around some of the neighborhoods.  Oriental seems the quintessential, small American town with perfect old homes, some even with the white picket fences. Time doesn't seem to matter here and as I stroll, the locals smiling and waving, I feel as if I could have grown up here--or maybe it's somewhere I will find myself in the future.

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Shrimp boats in the harbor
_ It seems that while time doesn’t matter here, it also doesn’t stop and after walking the neighborhoods and popping into the various shops and galleries, the day has reached the lunchtime hour.  I idly cross another road with no traffic and make my way to my favorite lunch spot, M&M’s Café.  I have one of their signature salads and add a piece of the local catch on top.  I always come to Oriental to get away from my daily routines and I can truly say that I always leave feeling relaxed and revitalized.  If you find yourself on the east coast of North Carolina, make sure you make your way over to the small town of Oriental, a place that takes you in as one of its own.

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Waterfront park in one of Oriental's neighborhoods

    Brian Sonberg

    _All material on this site is copyrighted.  © Brian Sonberg 2013.

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