Located between New Bern and Emerald Isle,Croatan National Forest is made up of 161,000 acres and features coastal and inland swamp habitats. The Croatan Forest is home to the largest collection of carnivorous plants in any National Forest and it is near the northern range limit of the American alligator. It also has an amazing collection of bugs. Much of the forest is characterized as swampy with thick underbrush. It is perhaps not a forest suited for everyone, but it is very attractive to area fishermen and hunters and is popular for its hiking trails, boat launches, campgrounds and day-use areas.
The forest spreads in a triangle between Morehead City, Cape Carteret and New Bern. Forest headquarters are on Fisher Avenue, approximately 9 miles east of New Bern off U.S. Highway 70. Well-placed road signs make the office easy to find. Because the Croatan is so expansive and undeveloped, it is best to pick up a forest map from the headquarters if you plan to explore extensively. For short day trips or hiking excursions, site brochures are sufficient.
The name Croatan comes from the Algonquian Indians' name for "Council Town," which was once located in the area. Because of the forest's coastal location, you'll find many unusual features here. Some of the components of the ecosystem are pocosin, longleaf and loblolly pine, bottomland and upland hardwoods.
Sprinkled throughout the Croatan are 40 miles of streams and 4,300 acres of wild lakes, some fairly large, such as Great Lake, Catfish Lake and Long Lake. Miles of unpaved roads lace through the woodland, providing easy, if at times roundabout, access to its wilderness.
The forest offers excellent hiking, swimming, boating, camping, picnicking, hunting and freshwater and saltwater fishing. Boat access is provided at several locations. Rangers advise that lake fishing is generally poor because of the acidity of the water. All fishing, hunting and trapping activities are regulated by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. A kids' fishing day is generally held in July and specific information is available by calling the Ranger Station. The forest has several camping sites (see our Camping chapter) that are open throughout the year. Primitive camping is permitted all year, and sites are plentiful. Some areas of the forest close seasonally, and fees can vary, so call headquarters for current rates and availability.
As with all national forests, the Croatan's natural resources are actively managed to provide goods and services for the public. Pine timber is harvested and replanted each year, and wildlife habitat for a wide range of animals is maintained on thousands of acres. Endangered and sensitive animal and plant species are protected. The red-cockaded woodpecker is among the endangered animals that find safety here. More common animals are the southern bald eagle, alligators, squirrels, otters, white-tailed deer, black bears, snakes and wild turkeys.
The area is known for its beautiful wildflowers, including five types of insectivorous plants, a combination rarely seen elsewhere. Among the insectivorous plants are pitcher plants, round-leaved sundew, butterworts, Venus flytraps and bladderworts, all of which die if removed from their natural habitat; it is against the law to disturb them. Pamphlets about the wildflowers and insect-eating plants are available at the forest headquarters.
Summer fires, whether spontaneous in nature or controlled for forest nurturing, are common and as a result, few public education programs are offered during the typical tourist season. The insect-eating plants that proliferate in pocosin habitats are actually fire dependent, another reason not to try to take them home. After a good burning, they're well-nurtured and hungry for bugs.
The forest features several trails ranging in length from 1.4 miles to 20 miles. It also offers a 110-mile Saltwater Adventure Trail that offers paddlers a seven-day trip to visit every point of interest or just a one-day trip to visit only a few. Visit the USDA National Forest Service website for recreation overviews, maps and trail information or call the Ranger's Office for further details.
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