The Nature Conservancy’s goal is to protect land and water, preserving natural habitats upon which plants and animals depend. Since 1977, the organization has worked in partnership with the towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills to protect a 1,400-acre maritime forest bordering Roanoke Sound.
Nags Head is approximately 335 miles from Charlotte, about a 6-hour drive.
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The terrain at Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is somewhat surprising. Anyone familiar with the Outer Banks knows that most of the land is only a few feet above sea level. Well-known – and well-visited – exceptions are the sand dunes at Jockeys Ridge State Park and the hill upon which the monument stands at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. The preserve encompasses similar dunes, but covered over with vegetation. These wooded hills give visitors a sense of hiking along some pleasant trail in the foothills, rather than being only a mile or so from the Atlantic surf.
The change in elevation within the preserve leads to some noticeably different natural communities. Nags Head Woods contains a swamp forest with such trees as sweet gum, red bay and black willow; a shrub forest dominated by wild grasses and bushes; and a deciduous forest thick with oak, beech, hickory and loblolly pine trees.
There’s an abundance of animal life as well – 50 species of birds; a variety of reptiles, amphibians and fish; and many small mammals. White-tailed deer are about the largest animals one is likely to see. Most of the smaller animals are harder to spot, tending to do their roaming at night.
No less than seven nature trails await. Center Trail, an easy quarter-mile loop with two wooden bridges, is a nice introduction to the preserve. Sweetgum Swamp Trail is the preserve’s most heavily trafficked and is a moderate, 2 1/4-mile trek over several steep sand dunes. Blueberry Ridge Trail branches off from Sweetgum, adds another 1 1/2 miles, and elevates the walk to strenuous; this walk loops around a pond and offers scenic views. Roanoke Trail leads through a salt marsh and dense forest to end at a small beach on the Roanoke Sound; it’s a moderate, 1 1/2 mile round trip. The ADA Trail, designed for those with disabilities, is a half-mile paved loop that opens the Nags Head Woods experience to everyone.