Sugarloaf Trail and a Dune that Proves Nature Can Be Preserved for Thousands of Years

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All text and photographs by Maymie Higgins

Last year, I wrote about a hike on Flytrap Trail which is located in a park that exists on my favorite spot on Earth, Pleasure Island. As promised, this year I hiked another trail at Carolina Beach State Park, Sugarloaf Trail. The park came to be in 1969 when 761 acres were established as a North Carolina State Park in order to preserve the unique ecosystems along the Intracoastal Waterway. Sugarloaf Trail is a three-mile trail that passes through the marsh and enters a pine forest and follows the Cape Fear River edge to a mud flat that serves as habitat for fiddler crab.

The trailhead is adjacent to the marina parking lot and is well marked by orange circles that occur frequently and are easy to find. After just a minute or two of hiking, I came upon the Cape Fear River on my right, to the west. Here, the river is bordered by a narrow sandy beach where tall, dense patches of marsh grass occasionally spring up. I paused long enough to ascertain that a couple of young fellows with fishing rods were collecting mussels from the grass to be used as bait.

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From there, the trail is quickly surrounded by marsh swamp. The swamp is frequently bifurcated by downed cypress trees left to decay at their own pace in the rich, sandy muck while providing cover and housing for wildlife until their very last atom of carbon has been released to the ages. As I walked through this part of the trail, I saw no evidence of terrestrial wildlife. No matter, because the bird calls occurred almost more frequently than I could identify them to my husband. Two quick calls, followed by harsh and loud ringing squeaks pierced the silence. “That’s a Blue-Jay,” I said. As I was still speaking, a rapid fire of scratchy, nasal calls rang out in a pattern similar to the firing of a machine gun. “Tufted Titmouse,” I explained. “And none too happy with our presence.” I then spied a Brown-headed Nuthatch flitting between pine trees, foraging the bark for insects. Then occurred the tell tale warning call of a Carolina Chickadee, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” I was flattered that the string of “dee-dees” following “chick-a” was short. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of “dee-dees” and the severity of perceived threat by chickadees.

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About a mile in, I reached the trail’s namesake, Sugarloaf Dune. The dune rises 25 feet and was named in 1663 by William Hilton, a Barbados landowner, when he observed how sugary-white the sand is, on and around the dune. During the Civil War, about 5,000 Confederate soldiers camped on Sugarloaf Dune while watching over the river as part of the Fort Fisher encampment. Twenty-five years after the war ended, a pier was built at the dune base in order for a steamer from Wilmington to dock and unload up to 5,000 passengers onto railway cars that took them to the beach. The dune is protected by fencing to discourage hikers from climbing on it except in clearly designated areas. This is in an effort to minimize any further erosion of this ancient dune thought to have existed as long as 6,000 or more years ago.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune.  I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line.  They parted ways peacefully in the end.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune. I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line. They parted ways peacefully in the end.

Along the remaining mile of the trail, there was a Cypress Pond and a breathtakingly beautiful Lily Pond followed by a brief sandy path with animal tracks that made my heart go pitter pat. There were bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and deer tracks in the sand that had to be recently made because heavy rain just a few hours earlier would have flattened older tracks. Were they watching us?

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The last half mile of the trail winds through dense, moist forest with a thick canopy that creates a tranquil setting in which to pause and examine various specimens of lichens on multiple trees. Lichens are not plants. They are made up of two or three completely different kinds of organisms. Every lichen species is part fungus and usually part algae but sometimes cyanobacterium instead, and sometimes lichens include all three. The fungus benefits from the algae’s ability to photosynthesize its chlorophyll and provide them both with energy. The algae and/or cyanobacterium benefit because the fungus is more efficient at water and nutrient absorption. The fungus also provides the overall lichen shape, and the reproductive structures in the mutualistic relationship. Lichens are very sensitive to air pollution so their frequent presence along this part of the trail is a positive indicator of a healthy ecosystem in the park.

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The trail ends where it begins, at the marina parking lot. Before leaving, I looked out across the water and imagined myself in a kayak on my next visit to Carolina Beach State Park. Stay tuned.

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