Monday, September 30, 2013

Hiking NC's Mountains-to-Sea Trail, Pender Co

Entering Pender County from the east on NC 50, part of the proposed MST route
In early 2014 the powers-that-be at the Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are expected to announce a sweeping new re-route of their 1000+ mile long cross-state continuous trail.  The reroute extends hundreds of miles between the east side of Raleigh all the way to the Newport-Havelock area of Carteret County near the ocean.  Formerly it was hoped that the trail would be able to follow the Neuse River all this way, but a tangle of issues, including lots of private ownership of land along the waterway, have stymied those efforts.  The new route makes a sweeping curve along the ecologically diverse and geologically fascinating section of North Carolina called the Cape Fear Arch.

Because I live nearby, I volunteered to do some scouting of this new route, and this is a report of some of that scouting: the portion of the re-route that takes the trail east-west across the heart of coastal Pender County.

It's flat country, a mix of marsh, pocosin, and slow moving streams, pine forests owned by timber companies, private agricultural land, geologically curious elliptical lakes called bays, and a good string of publicly owned game lands, state forests and parks through which off-road trail can eventually be threaded.

Through Pender County, the highlights that the trail visits are several:  The huge Holly Shelter Game Land and adjacent Shaken Creek Preserve, Moore's Creek National Battlefield Historic Park - one of the smaller units of the National Park Service - and the Northeast Cape Fear River.

NE Cape Fear River as seen from the foot-traffic-only gated River Road within Holly Shelter property

On this blog I've already reported on my scouting of a slightly longer alternative routing for the MST through eastern Pender and western Onslow Counties that I think would add tremendous value to the hiker's experience at the expense of a few added miles -- for more about this alternative, look to previous posts with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail label

Example of the kind of sunrise the hiker might experience on the Pender County beach walk - the entirely unofficial alternate route that I'm lobbying for.  This was taken the same day I visited Moores Creek Battlefield.
1946 vintage rocket launch observation tower, part of the beach-walk scenery if the MST chooses my alternate route.

This entirely unofficial suggested route adds a soundside half-mile boardwalk, the historic Surf City Swing Bridge, one of the 1940's Operation Bumblebee rocket observation towers, the Surf City Fishing Pier and an 8 mile beach walk to the Pender County highlights.  I'd love to see this chosen as the ultimate route.

But enough lobbying.  Back to the subject at hand:

One of two badly rotted wooden bridges that take the hiker across Shaken Creek

With the exception of the Holly Shelter/Shaken Creek traverse on seasonally gated dirt roads (and a couple of bridges that I would not trust for anything bigger than an ATV - see above), the majority of the route through Pender County follows paved rural roads and a few more heavily used highways.  Even passing through Moore's Creek Battlefield, the hiker remains on NC 210 and would have to take a detour in order to enjoy the mile-long 'History Trail', which includes a boardwalk, and crosses the reconstructed old bridge itself.  But there is potential for a reroute that would swing the MST through the park, out the back and then return to NC 210 via Battleground Rd., giving the hiker a much more varied experience.

History Trail through Moores Creek National Battlefield
Boardwalk section of History Trail through Moores Crk Battlefield
Reconstructed historic Moores Creek Bridge

Similarly, there is a small loop off Shaw Highway along the gated River Road to the boat launch ramp that follows right beside the NE Cape Fear River for a mile of serene trail walking.  This is all public land and, though it adds a mile to the dreary eight miles of road walk along straight, flat Shaw Highway, it's well worth the detour.  For a full report and slide show specifically about that leg of my scouting see this blog post.

The entire length of the proposed MST route through Pender Co. NC is about 57 1/2 miles, which I covered in six hikes.  The detailed GPS data and photographic documentation - 80 photos for your viewing enjoyment - can be seen on EveryTrail by clicking the title/header above the map below:

Farewell to Pender County, passing west into Bladen Co. on a country road that changes name at the line.

MST thru Pender County, NC at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Wilmington, North Carolina

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