A CarolinasAdventures Learning Experience
East coast members of the CarolinasAdventures hiking group banded together for their first official group hike last weekend. Our destination: Howell Woods Learning Center in Johnston County, NC. An apt name for this obscure treasure, and I couldn't have chosen a more knowledgeable (and amiable) group of people to experience it with.
According to their website and various brochures, Howell Woods is part of Johnston County Community College, which uses the 2,800 plus acres as an outdoor classroom. Fortunately, the college graciously allows the public to use the land for hiking, camping, horseback riding (byoh), bird watching, and hunting. There is a fee for hunting, horseback riding, and camping, but hiking is free.
We rendezvoused at the Learning Center's parking lot shortly after 9:00 A.M. After signing in at the Center as required, we took a few photos of HW's permanent residents--a turkey vulture, an owl, and two red-tailed hawks that can no longer survive in the wild--and then began the hike.
Though a bit drab this time of year, sometimes desolate, and what I called "crunchy", Howell Woods is nonetheless fascinating. They have incredibly diverse habitats ranging from arid to soggy (longleaf pine savannah, bottomland hardwood, mixed pine, a variety of wetlands, and more.) We literally walked from a savannah to a cypress swamp, passing a grass and shrub area as we went. Even more incredible, their brochure not only lists the trails, the trail length, and the surface type, it also lists the dominant habitat in that area. Unfortunately, the brochure wasn't the best resource to use to navigate those trails. When we thought we were heading for one area, we ended up in another. One road should have been on one side of the woods, but somehow it intersected with a road in another quadrant. Consequently, we ended up meandering a lot. According to the brochure, there are over twenty-five miles of hiking trails and paved roads in Howell Woods, so we meandered quite a bit.
But we stopped often to explore as we went. We saw birds, large and small, flitting through the tall grasses of the savannah and through trees. Three turkey buzzards circling overhead caught our attention several times. As we hiked, our resident botanist, KT, pointed out various non-flowering plants and trees and encouraged us to identify them. He asked us questions about the habitat we were walking through and how we knew the type (i.e. a savannah or a mixed pine) without sneaking peeks at the brochure to find the answer. We stopped to take pictures of the first spotted wildflower of the season—a violet that should have been named Brittany for all the photos we snapped of it. We also took time to investigate a swamp with clear water, one with stagnant water, and a pond so still we wondered if the shocking shade of putrid green of what turned out to be duckweed hid ground or water.
The trail system at Howell Woods consists of gravel roads intertwining with boardwalk, sand, and mowed paths. The street signs at the corner of several trails reminded me of those at Dupont Forest in Brevard, where individuals and organizations wrenched back that land as it was being developed into an upscale neighborhood. While the signs do detract from the outdoor experience, they are helpful, especially when used in conjunction with the hybrid satellite photo/trail maps signs, which are posted at several intersections.
As mentioned earlier, we began the hike at the Leopold Loop. From there, we connected to Bartram Trail, Diversity Dr, Longleaf Ln, Wild Turkey Ln, and Hannah Creek Trail, which took us to the far edge of Howell Woods. Somewhere along the line, we stopped at a picnic area. From there, we hiked up Cornell to the BW Wells trail, and then attempted to turn up Thoreau, where a trail full of water hampered our progress.
Note: attempts to circumvent the watery path of Thoreau will result in bushwacking through what KT referred to as wicked prickles, the sting of which feels like thorns until one encounter the thorns. After several minutes of attempting to play the tough hiker, only to find more water and more prickles, we backtracked to BW Wells, and then took Plantation and Howell Dr to the Learning Center (which was, to our surprise, only three quarters of a mile away.)
If you plan to hike through Howell Woods, wear comfortable hiking shoes and pants to protect your legs from bugs and brambles. During bug season, wear a long sleeve shirt or take plenty of bug spray. On second thought, take plenty of bug spray period. Also, watch out for snakes. We encountered a long, grouchy black snake on one of the trails.
Howell Woods is an experience. And because of the sharing of knowledge by the participants on this hike, we not only received lessons in a variety of subjects such as plant life and habitats (pop quizzes and all), but the multiple observations too numerous to mention made by everyone throughout the four-hour hike enhanced this outing experience ten-fold. Don't know individuals familiar with birds, plants, or North Carolina's natural communities? No worries. Howell Woods offers several programs including Plant and Tree ID, Bird Banding, No-Trace Camping, and a course on habitats. For more information, check out their website at http://www.johnstoncc.edu/howellwoods/programs.htm
Howell Woods is located at 6601 Devil's Racetrack Rd in Four Oaks. From I-95, take Exit 90 and go south on 701. Turn left on Stricklands Crossroad, and then left on Devils Racetrack. For more information on Howell Woods, go to