Travel Destinations USA

Driving to Croatan National Forest for One Photo

Driving to Croatan National Forest North Carolina by Duke Stewart
Written by Duke Stewart

Driving to Croatan National Forest for One Photo

All the good ideas seem daunting at first. ― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

I proudly live in Durham and try my best to explore my surroundings, breaking out of the Research Triangle bubble. But when a trip involves that chaotic corridor known as I-40 running through Raleigh, my nerves lose their swagger and the tension increases exponentially. Lump in a holiday weekend like Memorial Day when everyone’s out, I’m scared to even look at the car and think that I’ll be right there with them all. If I didn’t have a deadline looming and bad weather on the horizon, my weekend would be spent in comfy old Durham or at a nearby state park. I have no choice today and must drive hundreds of miles to and from Croatan National Forest for one photo.

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliffs Coastline

Not this photo:)

I really should tone down the drama because I’ve had months to complete this assignment. Their name isn’t important but let’s just say it’s a wonderful company that’s sent me gear to photograph against North Carolina’s picturesque landscapes along the Mountain to Sea Trail. I also shouldn’t complain because it’s a Friday morning and I’ve had time to search for an auto shop that’ll fix our brakes at the last minute. The original plan is to chill around Durham before heading out to the coast on Sunday, far behind the bulk of Memorial Day traffic. That is, of course, until I keep watching weather updates of a tropical storm headed our way.

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliffs Shore

After a couple of hours waiting and debating in my head, I decide to go for it today. My biggest worry isn’t making it in time but in navigating the I-40, as it requires crossing into the abyss that is Raleigh traffic. I know from experience that it’s not the worst in the world but crowds of cars scare me, especially when I’m going through it alone. I pay for the car repairs and get in the car, rushing home to pack a quick bag and the camera. The fact that I’ll be taking the pictures puts some added pressure on, as Christina is the pro here. I know she’ll disagree but seriously, my wife’s got game in the photo department!

Croatan National Forest Fishers Landing

Anyway, I hurriedly run in and out of the apartment after packing and apologizing profusely to the cat for leaving him yet again. He’d only have gotten bored with me after a minute, is my justification for ditching the little guy. With bags packed and only paper maps in lieu of GPS and cell phone, I’m off! The gold Camry punches its way onto the interstate and I brace for impact with the wall that is every single driver in North Carolina. My nerves shoot up to the sky as cars come from every direction North Carolina drivers sometimes make the riskiest decisions and I-40 – as well as I-440 – is a perfect test case for any eager observers.

New Bern Bridge

My thoughts move to Durham and quiet places like Sarah P. Duke Gardens that would’ve been a more relaxing choice compared to this. Things get back to the good side and the stressful part of the trip quickly subsides, as traffic thins and drops to a point where I can breathe and chill out. The busy freeway transforms into a tree-lined stretch of Highway 70 and the occasional small town or junction. Aside from these interruptions, I’m alone with my thoughts and looking forward to the end of this trip. Not because I’m annoyed with driving but for the gold that lies at the end of this rainbow.

Crystal Coast Sign

By the time I reach a stoplight in Havelocke, the map tells me to turn around to reach Croatan’s Flanners Beach. It’s not too crowded and has some nice spots to cool off on the increasingly hot day. Children and families are hanging out in the shade and some are walking around the shallow Neuse River. I’m not too happy with the pictures because of the lack of high ground and head back to the car. This would be a nice spot for a picnic but I keep thinking about the ideal spot for a product photo.

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliffs Entrance Sign

There’s a map at the entrance to Flanners and Pine Cliff immediately jumps out at me, as this was my originally intended destination. I’d read an interesting blog or two about Pine Cliff and rush to the car to find it. A short drive later and there I am, wondering if this was the right decision. No other cars are parked here and the scene makes me wonder if this place isn’t as cool as Flanners Beach. I walk towards the map at Pine Cliff and even try a pose or two with the bag I’ve brought for photos. They’ll never be as good as Christina could do, but I go for it anyway. There’s a beach down below and an area with picnic tables and grills stand over it, giving off a truly deserted vibe.

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliffs Entrance

To the left of the picnic area is the 21-mile Neusiok Trail that I’d read about, wishing for more time and water to explore. After walking around the tables and looking out at the sea, it’s time to descend towards the sand and check this place out. This empty outpost transforms into one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited during the walk down. The Neuse River’s waves gently slide into the sand and tells the story about why Croatan National Forest is called “Land of Wonder.”

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliffs Beach

I sit on a rock pile and breathe in the cool air, letting the breeze run underneath the bill of my cap. Instead of walking along the slippery rocks and water, I head back up to the picnic tables and find a path that will keep me dry. It’s obvious that the beautiful beach continues around the corner and as I walk, a nice couple greets me and tells me about the area. They live across the river in a little town called Oriental and urge me to catch the next ferry that will soon leave from Cherry Point. I’ll try my best, I explain, and walk along the sand until my water bottle completely dries up.

Croatan National Forest Pine Cliff Beach

The incoming storm has long since left my train of thought, thanks to the heat and beautiful shores here at Pine Cliff. I worry that leaving this spot will mean that the day has peaked, because of this beach and the isolation it presents. I say bye to the kind couple – who are debating on when, if ever, they’ll leave – and find the car ready and waiting for the next leg of the journey. The road takes me to the ferry at Cherry Point and I park there, anticipating the incoming boat that will take me to a series of islands. Big decisions loom ahead as I wait patiently for the boat.

Croatan National Forest Fishers Landing-2

Am I really going to do this? Should I be doing this? At the last minute, I call an audible and decide to head back inland and really can’t explain why. I could’ve kept driving along the Crystal Coast and would’ve someday ended up at Kill Devil Hills and the northern Outer Banks. My wife wouldn’t be too happy to know that I am considering this but she’d have received a phone call as soon as I’d bought our new home. At worst, she’d have been responsible for telling our cat that we’re moving. After daydreaming for a few minutes and imagining a life on the Carolina coast, the car takes me to Fishers Landing before exiting Croatan.

Croatan National Forest Fishers Landing Sign

I don’t bother walking down to the water but do take a few photos of it and the overlook, where an information kiosk stands and explains the spot’s place in Civil War history. Union gunships fired upon Confederate Troops who were defending New Bern and the latter quickly retreated. People are camping nearby and I can smell charcoal burning in the preparation of a mighty tasty meal. My hunger hasn’t yet reached the level of wanting food but it reminds me that I’ll need to figure that out at some point. In the meantime, the car fires up again and I’m headed back home with only one stop in mind.

New Bern Bridges

When heading towards Croatan, I’d passed New Bern and thought that time might allow me a minute or two on the way back home. The car pulls off Highway-70 and over one of New Bern’s numerous bridges. There are many things to see in this cozy little town, which was the first capital of North Carolina. Neglecting its quaint streets and historic buildings, I stroll along the Riverwalk where the Neuse and Trent meet. Tons of families are hanging around and I’m the only tourist walking around with a camera.

New Bern Peer and Bridges

With the sun in that perfectly golden location, I try to capitalize and shoot as much of the water as possible. Seagulls fly in the air and too fast for me to catch them. The water and bridges come together in a perfect symphony of colors, presenting themselves to me as if on a platter. The sun is still high enough to give me a minute or two more in New Bern, and I drive around town for that spare bit of time. I’ve reached my limits by now and know that Christina could do much better since we have the rest of our lives to come back and explore this nice little coastal community.

New Bern Water

My car pulls back onto the highway and eventually passes back through the Raleigh metro that scared me earlier this afternoon. The Durham City Limits sign shines into my eyes like the sun does every beautiful morning. I think about how this day started and how I drove all that way for one photo, yet came away with much more. The journey to Croatan National Forest might’ve first seemed daunting and mandatory but after walking around its beaches and nearby New Bern, I’ve come away with so much more than one photo.

P.S. I didn’t share the photo that I’ll use but will in due time.

Read more North Carolina travel stories

Looking back on the crossroads I faced when approaching the ferry, I wonder. What would you have done? Would you have continued or turned back without knowing whether or not New Bern would turn out the way it did? 

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Driving to Croatan National Forest North Carolina

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About the author

Duke Stewart

I'm a writer and recovering American expat who shares my family's travels through life. Follow our adventures here and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.