Lace up your boots and leash up your pooch New Year’s Day for First Day Hikes

View from Jockey's Ridge State Park overlooking the Roanoke Sound. [file photo]

There will be more than 400 First Day Hikes on Jan. 1 in all 50 states as part of the America’s State Parks initiative to get people outdoors, according to the park system. All North Carolina state parks, including those on the coast, are hosting hikes.

“First Day Hikes at North Carolina’s coastal state parks are a great start to the year, where year-round residents and visitors from out of state come together to celebrate the holidays in our beautiful coastal counties,” said Katie Hall, public information officer for the state Division of Parks and Recreation.

“Plus, New Years Day is often a great time to experience our coastal parks in particular, with cooler temps and lower humidity that allows for safer, longer hikes at these sunny parks,” she said. “This family tradition sets the stage for the year ahead to include fresh air, physical activity, learning and fun in the outdoors — things that we hear more and more are critical for our overall well-being.”

The tradition to hike on New Year’s Day began more than 40 years ago at Eno River State Park and attracts more than 800 visitors to that park alone, according to the state park system. All state parks have offered First Day Hikes since 2012. Last year’s First Day Hikes at North Carolina’s 41 state parks saw 3,859 people join 57 guided hikes.

“For decades, First Day Hikes have served our citizens and out-of-state guests with a great start to the year,” said state parks director Dwayne Patterson in a statement. “After some lazy days with our families, our parks offer a chance to put our electronics down, get moving, get some fresh air, and set good intentions for the year — all while in the most beautiful places in our state.”

All hikers should wear appropriate clothing for the weather, good sturdy shoes and bring a water bottle. Check with the park to see if pets are allowed.

Jockey’s Ridge
The First Day Hike at Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head starts at 10 a.m. Wednesday and will be led by park ranger Austin Paul.

Paul told Coastal Review Online that The hike is a great way to start the New Year and neighbors, visitors and new friends are encouraged to join in and share the experience.

Paul said that hikers should meet at the back deck of the park’s visitor center for the hike that will last about 45 minutes. During the moderate hike, he will talk about the ecology, formation of the dune system, the history of the park, how the park was established and answer questions from the hikers.

He explained that the park system’s mission has three main components: to conserve unique lands of cultural and natural resource significance, provide educational opportunities and provide recreational opportunities.

“So this hike will help achieve the three main parts of our mission,” he said, “We want to promote healthy living and general well-being of our Outer Banks neighbors and visitors.”

The 426-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park is an extremely unique park on the ecological level and has the largest dune system on the east coast, Paul said. The dune is a living dune, which means it moves due to the impact of the two prevailing winds throughout the year: a northeast wind in the winter and a southeast wind in the summer.

Jockey’s Ridge is also the most visited in North Carolina, with a projected 1.7 million visitors for 2019 by the end of this month, he said.

Paul added that for those unable to attend the hike Jan. 1, they can join him at 2 p.m. Dec. 31 for a similar hike of Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Meet at the Visitor Center back deck for the 3/4-mile hike.

Other parks
Hikers in Camden County can hike through the swamp at Dismal Swamp State Park. Folks should meet at 11 a.m. at the visitor center to hike through the swamp followed by snacks and hot chocolate. Kids, stroller and leashed pets are welcome to join the hike.

See the southern swamp, bald cypress trees, beech groves, Spanish moss and exotic wildlife at Merchants Millpond State Park during the First Day Hike from 10-11 a.m. Wednesday. Hikers are to meet at the boat ramp. Pets are welcome and must be kept on leash.

See Pettigrew State Park’s Lake Phelps and Scuppernong River plus the wintering waterfowls and cypress trees with cavernous archways during the First Day Hike starting at 1 p.m. Wednesday at the park office. The park is located in Creswell and is found in both in Washington and Tyrrell counties.

Goose Creek State Park in Washington will begin the New Year looking for wildlife on a hike starting at 10 a.m. Wednesday along the Pamlico River. Meet at the last parking lot. The park features wetlands along the Pamlico Sound, views of a cypress and remnants of the lumber industry.

In Atlantic Beach at Fort Macon State Park, there will be two ranger-led hikes, one over 3 miles and the other just shy of a mile, both starting at 9 a.m. Wednesday from the visitor center.

Ranger Benjamin Fleming told Coastal Review Online in an email interview that the annual First Day Hikes are one of his favorite programs the park does every year.

Most years, 50 to 100 hikers join the rangers for both hikes.

“It seems to get a lot of new visitors out to the park. Every year I meet people that say the hike is their first time visiting the park but they will be returning for sure,” he said. “And a lot of those first-time visitors are locals from Carteret County. They can’t believe they never took the time to visit before the First Day Hike program.”

Fleming added that he also enjoys the hike “because you never know what the weather will be. I have lead hikes on days that everyone was wearing T-shirts, and I think two years ago the temperature was in the 20s. Brrrrrrrr. But I still had a good turnout even in the cold.”

The 3/4-mile hike is an easy loop around part of the nature trail and then out onto the beach before returning to the parking lot,” Fleming said. “It is pretty leisurely pace, and the Ranger points out some cool wildlife that we come across.”

The more strenuous and longer hike is along the Elliott Coues Nature Trail, a 3.2-mile loop around the park.

“It includes a lot of elevation change and maybe some spots of soft sand. Every year I have hikers comment that they read that the hike was strenuous but was still surprised at how much of a workout it was,” he said. “Most locals are used to walking around on flat ground here at the coast, and the elevation changes walking though the dunes is a surprise. We do take a few short breaks to catch our breath and a short bathroom break at the halfway point.”

Fleming said those wanting to hike should meet at the visitor center parking lot around 8:45 a.m. and will start the hike at 9 a.m. “We always encourage hikers to show up early so we can start the hike on time.”

Hammocks Beach State Park in Swansboro from 10 a.m. to noon will explore the new mainland property with a ranger. In this 2-mile guided hike, rangers will talk about the plants and animals that call the forest home. Meet at the visitor center.

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area at Kure Beach is starting its 1-mile hike at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the exhibit room. Those under 16 years must be accompanied by an adult for the hike at the park that offers beach and trails through salt marsh brimming. Friendly dogs are welcome but they must be leashed at all times. Call 910-458-5798 to register for the hike.

Carolina Beach State Park is welcoming the New Year with a 2-mile hike at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Meet at the Sugarloaf Trailhead at the Marina head parking lot for the hike to Sugarloaf Dune. Reservations are required.

A complete list of First Day Hikes across the state can be found on the State Parks website.

North Carolina State Parks sees more than 18 million visitors at its 237,000 acres of state parks, state recreation areas and state natural areas. North Carolina State Parks administers the North Carolina Parks and Recreation Trust Fund, including its grants program, state trails program, North Carolina Natural and Scenic Rivers and more, all with a mission dedicated to conservation, recreation and education, according to the park system.