Nestled in the widest part of Hatteras Island, adjacent to the lighthouse, is 1,007 acres of protected maritime forest known as Buxton Woods. Within the forest are hikeable trails, a world away from the bustle of Highway 12 and the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Turning down one of the trails that meander through Buxton Woods, visitors are instantly transported to the Hatteras that existed for hundreds of years.
Maritime forests are shoreline estuaries unique to barrier islands. Comprised of a series of high sand dunes with evergreen forests, swamps, and low interdune ponds, maritime forests create a varied and complex ecosystem. Within in the woods are salt-tolerant plants, submerged aquatic vegetation, and tall, sturdy hardwood trees as you move deeper and deeper within the forest.
Buxton Woods’ forested dunes are dominated by live oak, laurel oak, and loblolly pine. The trees provide a protective canopy for smaller plants and the diverse offering of animals that reside in maritime forests. The root network provides important stabilization that barrier islands otherwise lack. Root networks also provide water purification. The forest subcanopy feature flowering dogwood and yaupon holly, the only naturally occurring caffeine-containing plant in the United States. Vines, loop their way through branches and skim the ground and dwarf palmetto burst forth from the sand. The dunes on which these trees grow, stand undeveloped and relatively untouched as they would have on Hatteras several hundred years ago.
Between the tall dunes are interdune ponds and wetlands that are known locally as sedges. Full of plants like saw grass, wild rice, and cattails, these low lying areas fill with rainwater and provide havens of freshwater. Some stay filled with water permanently while others only fill seasonally. Along the permanently filled sedges are areas of shrub swamp and, along with it, plants like willow.
According to NC Coastal Reserve, more than 360 birds have been recorded in Buxton Woods, including peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Dozens of species of mammals also call these woods home. While visitors may be familiar with the forest’s whitetail deer and gray squirrels, they may also be surprised to see evidence of grey fox, river otters, mink, and different species of rabbit. Scores of turtles, frogs, and salamanders bask in the protected haven of Buxton Woods. Visitors should be on the lookout for snakes, while most are harmless, cottonmouths relish the environment. For the luckiest of visitor, several rare species of moth and butterfly have been spotted in Buxton Woods including the giant swallowtail butterfly. Archaeological excavations revealed evidence of 1,000 years of human history.
Though Buxton Woods feels like a step back in time, the forest itself is relatively new. Like Nags Head Woods and the other protected maritime forests along the northern Outer Banks, logging took its toll. Live oak were a popular tree for shipbuilding while pine is still a popular material for homes and furnishings. With the thinning of the protective canopy, salt air could find its way to the plants normally protected by the evergreen forest. As the root network disappeared, the sand dunes became vulnerable to the effects of wind and rain. Not all was lost, however, and with the introduction of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, efforts began to rebuild the dunes and ecosystem of Hatteras Island.
In the mid-1980s, a golf course was proposed for the forest which spawned local support for protecting the woods. As a result, Dare County created a Special Environmental District for Buxton. In 1988, North Carolina purchased 152-acres to create the Buxton Woods Coastal Reserve. More land was purchased in subsequent years in part through funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Buxton Woods is now one of ten sites that comprise the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve.
The reserve is open to hiking all year and the Piney Ridge Trail is open to horseback riding. Trails are appropriate for most levels of hiker. The network of hiking trails can be accessed at several locations:
- Across from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a .75 mile long trail.
- The trail originating at the British Cemetery extends to the village of Frisco.
- Flowers Ridge Road and Water Association Road house several trailheads.
- Old Doctor’s Road in Buxton is home to trailheads that can only be accessed on foot or by 4x4.