The Pine Cliff Recreation Area can certainly serve as a lovely picnic venue, a wide open area to take the pets out for a well-deserved walk, or simply a scenic locale to take a mile hike through sections of the Croatan National Forest.
For die-hard hiking enthusiasts, however, the Pine Cliff Recreation Area has a distinct reputation as one of the best long range hiking trails in North Carolina. An integral network of trails that winds through over 22 miles of dense patches of maritime forests, marshlands, and scenic Neuse Riverfront beaches, this network of rustic boardwalks, challenging but scenic trails, and small camping sites has drawn countless visitors who are tackling the famous "Mountain to Sea Trail," and who almost always return for another day-long or two-day adventure through one of coastal Carolina's most scenic nature trails.
The main entrance of the Pine Cliff Recreation Area, located off of the small Highway 306 on Pine Cliff Road, features a fantastic picnic area with multiple wooden tables perfectly placed under an expansive picnic shelter, with a large charcoal grill nearby. Additional unsheltered tables and grills are located throughout the site, in addition to rustic restroom facilities and a water spigot. This site is located on the northern end of the famed Neusiok Trail, which runs for miles into the undeveloped terrain. The Pine Cliff Recreation Area is also a quick walk away from a perfectly scenic Neuse River Beach, which is bordered by towering pine and cypress trees, and overlooks an endless expanse of water. The free Cherry Branch-Minnesott Beach ferry is also located nearby, as well as the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point.
The head of the Neusiok Trail, however, is where the real adventure begins for ambitious hikers, as from here, the trails loop and venture miles into the woods and along the riverfront coastline, allowing visitors to embark on a quick 1 mile hike, a 5-7 mile adventure, or a full 22 mile excursion encircling the area in its entirety. Small wooden boardwalks guide visitors over marshier or swampy areas, and rustic huts and campsites are located along the way for a quick rest or an overnight stay.
The reward to tackling thee trails is incredible and isolated views of dense maritime forest thickets, and incredible beaches along the riverfront where ancient tree roots eerily stick out of the sand in all directions, creating a maze of sand and wood. The area is wide open for horseback riders and pets as well, provided that dogs are on a leash at all times.
Many frequent hikers attest that the best time to tackle this trail is in the spring, fall and winter months, or when there is a steady, unchanging breeze, as the marshy terrain coupled with the lack of humans can generate a hearty and very hungry mosquito population. Bug spray is a must, as is sunscreen and plenty of fresh water and food, as once in the middle of the woods, supplies are completely limited. Certainly, the trail sounds rustic and challenging, but the series of boardwalks - an intricate undertaking that took Croatan National Forest staff 5 years to complete - helps hikers navigate from one undeveloped region to another.
Completely scenic and isolated, it's not unusual for hikers to feel like the only humans in the area, while admiring some fantastic wildlife to boot: deer, rabbits, raccoons, nutrias, and hundreds of both native and migrating birds call this region home, and quiet hikers will surely be able to enjoy a front row view of the natural scene. Summer visitors should also keep an eye out for snakes, including copperheads and water moccasins, which make skittish, albeit infrequent appearances in the more isolated areas.
Regardless of whether a visitor is embarking on a two-day exploration of the coastal terrain, or just enjoying an afternoon at the accommodating picnic shelter, however, most all travelers agree that the Pine Cliff Recreation Area is easily one of the most scenic regions of Havelock. A unique ecosystem that encompasses all varieties of life by the water, a trip to this area allows visitors to enjoy the very best of the Inner Banks and the Croatan National Forest's gorgeous natural landscapes.