Taking regular walks is one of the simplest ways to improve overall health. Numerous medical platforms list the virtues of a good stroll — from increased heart, muscle and bone strength to improved sleep and enhanced mood.
Walkers have a variety of options in the Cape Fear region to start or continue a regular habit. The downtown Wilmington Riverwalk and beaches offer full sun routes, while community parks offer shade for those who can’t take the heat or need to limit their exposure to the sun.
Ocean & River Views
Starting close to home is a good first step. Wrightsville Beach residents are likely already acquainted with the John Nesbitt Loop, a 2.5-mile route that starts at the town complex, goes down Causeway Drive, turns at North Lumina Avenue, back up West Salisbury Street, and back down Causeway to the starting point. Parking is free for the first two hours at Wrightsville Beach Park, but walkers can join the Loop at any point.
The Loop is popular with walkers, runners, dog owners, residents and visitors. Along the way, the route passes marshlands, crosses Banks Channel, and goes past many of the town’s churches, restaurants and watering holes. Other points of interest include Johnnie Mercers Pier and the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History. About a dozen beach access points are just a slight detour away for anyone who wants to feel the sand between their toes and take in ocean views.
There are reasonably wide sidewalks along the entire Loop, making it easy to navigate around fellow pedestrians along most of the route, but it does get narrow at the bridges over Banks Channel.
“The best thing our dog, Floyd, loves about walking the Loop are the treats from Wrightsville Beach Art Company,” says Niccole Rosin, a Channel Walk resident from Raleigh. “That’s how we met the owner, Jazz Undy. He has dog treats and our dog literally sniffed him out and pulled us over to his store. It’s the only way Floyd will walk the Loop.”
Lone walkers, groups of friends, kids and even Elvis have been seen walking the Loop.
“I live on the side of the Loop that has those gorgeous oak trees that create almost a tunnel effect. I find that magical,” says Deborah West, who walks the Loop daily with her dog, Elvis, when at Wrightsville Beach. “I love that you typically see so much fitness activity going on with people running or jogging the Loop, it’s inspirational. Wrightsville Beach inspires you to stay fit.”
The beautiful Wilmington Riverwalk boasts relaxing views of the Cape Fear, dining, shops, and ample benches for tourist watching. The boardwalk is 1.75 miles from the Isabel Holmes bridge to Nun Street, so an out-and-back offers walkers a 3.5-mile journey.
Add a few side detours to spice up the route, such as a diversion to the Wilmington Walk of Fame, located in the center of the Cotton Exchange parking lot, across from The German Café. The Walk honors local war heroes and celebrities who have called Wilmington home, including Charlie Daniels, Althea Gibson, David Brinkley, Roman Gabriel and Trot Nixon. More can be learned about the honorees inside the Cotton Exchange near Port City Pottery and Fine Crafts.
A Walk in the Woods
The Wilmington Parks and Recreation webpage lists 41 city parks. A few of the trails and parks give a feeling of being in the deep woods. Aside from the calming sights and sounds of nature, all that shade can also drop the temperature about 6-10 degrees.
Halyburton Park, off 17th Street, offers a fully paved perimeter loop as well as natural trails to walk in the middle. Signage says the sandy trails used to be dirt bike paths, a practice stopped to preserve the natural vegetation. The paved loop is an easy 1.3-mile walk that is almost fully shaded.
History enthusiasts will enjoy seeing the remnants of small battle mounds used during the Civil War Battle of Forks Road, fought Feb. 20-21, 1865.
A true forest walk can be explored in the 10-acre Herbert Bluethenthal Memorial Wildflower Preserve near the center of the University of North Carolina Wilmington campus. The packed dirt paths wind through natural forest and a wetland pond.
Walkers describe it as easy and peaceful and almost like being in another world. Mosquitoes can be a problem, but it’s worth it to see native wildflowers and vegetation in bloom.
“Walking in Bluethenthal Wildflower Trail saved our family’s sanity several times during the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says UNCW English professor Jennifer Lozano. “It’s a fantastic green space to safely enjoy nature without having to travel to a remote location. It’s also perfect for families with little kids who can’t handle much walking (like my own).”
The park is located at 4855 Price Drive. Free visitor parking is available nearby at Lot M off Riegel Road, in the vicinity of Brooks Field, where Seahawks have played baseball since 1962.
Long Leaf Park (formerly Hugh MacRae Park) offers a 1.5-mile outer loop and a shorter inner loop, on sidewalks shaded by magnificent pines. Other walkers are typically in view, but rarely is it crowded, thanks in part to the various side circuits on the walk that go past an all-abilities playground, splash pad, baseball fields, basketball courts, covered picnic shelters and tennis courts.
The most refreshing spot is near the duck pond and gazebo that has a wooden bridge. Ample parking is scattered throughout the park, located directly off South College Road and Pine Grove Drive.
Located east of the Aldi on South College Road, the James E.L. Wade Park is a tiny gem worth a visit for a quick walk. It is the meeting point of several south Wilmington neighborhoods and has few parking spaces. At 16.5 acres, it is about a third the size of Halyburton. It is ideal for walkers who need wide, flat surfaces. The .6-mile oblong loop is in full sun, with benches available in the shade. The park features a wide bridge over a wetland pond filled with turtles.
Anyone looking for motivation to get the kids out for a walk might consider the small but “deadly” Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden at Piney Ridge Nature Preserve. The 10-car gravel lot is located directly behind Alderman Elementary, on Canterbury off Independence Boulevard. Finding the lot is the first adventure. The second is learning just how small and delicate the insect-eating Venus flytrap is.
A paved walking path leads through the edge of the woods for a short walk past many insectivores, including the flytrap, pitcher plants and sundews. Informative, fun-fact signage adds interest in the preservation work of Wilmingtonian Stanley Rehder. A wooden viewing platform gives a restful spot to observe the plants and bog. Paving stones allow a closer look at the pocosin, but be warned, the wetland can be immersed in mud.
Nearby Brunswick County Parks
If you enjoy walking over water as part of your routine, an interesting 1-mile walk at the Brunswick Riverwalk Park at Belville might be worth a try. Starting at 580 River Road SE, across from Belville Elementary school, the wooded path to the left of the entrance, near a farmers market, leads to a hard-packed dirt walk through the trees, coming out on a long stretch of marshy boardwalk with big views of the Brunswick River.
A few historical signs show photos and details of hundreds of World War II surplus vessels once stored on the Brunswick River. It is an easy walk and one that people of all fitness levels can enjoy.
A short drive north from there is the Leland Founder’s Park, across from the Town Hall building at 113 Town Hall Drive. The eight-acre park is the site of outdoor concerts and movie nights and is encircled by a 0.6-mile paved multi-use path that is partially shaded. There are a few tree root bumps in the asphalt path that are easily avoided. Founder’s Park also offers one of the few disc golf courses in the area.
Walk on the Wild Side In Pender County
On U.S. 17 North, just outside the Wilmington city limits, is a gift given by a nature-loving woman named Abbey. You won’t find any concrete there, only dirt paths covered in pine needles, untamed woods, and a large pond filled with turtles.
Use of the Abbey Foy-Moore Nature Preserve was gifted to the public through the Carolina Land Trust, which holds 62 acres of the former Foy land for education and preservation purposes. A separate entity now from the popular Poplar Grove Plantation, it all once belonged to the farming Foy family.
The trail begins on the north side of the Poplar Grove manor house parking lot at 10200 U.S. 17. The circuit is slightly more than 2 miles long, going in and out of the forest. A wooden bridge crosses a small dam. Runners, families and walkers love the feel of being in the unspoiled deep woods on what was once termed the “old farm road,” which led to the Intracoastal Waterway.
It is by no means a city park. Think more a hike through the woods, which could contain snakes, mosquitoes and tree roots. The old-growth forest contains longleaf pines, dogwoods, sweet gum, oaks, red maple, tupelo, hollies and more. Regular walkers say it can be crowded on the weekends and people tend to let their dogs off leash, in contravention of the rules.
Another walk worth experiencing is the Osgood Canal Greenway and Urban Trail, a 2.2-mile loop through Burgaw, the county seat of Pender County and the usual site of the Blueberry Festival (planned for June 18-19 but canceled again this year).
The walk meanders through most of the town’s parks, along a narrow canal, and throughout the main streets of Burgaw. Hankins Park at 210 N. Walker Street is a good place to park, as is the Rotary Park near Cape Fear Community College at 100 Industrial Drive.
The walk passes historical markers and the refurbished Burgaw Train Depot, said to be the oldest standing depot in North Carolina, circa 1850. Once the site of Civil War prisoner exchanges, today it is a museum and a meeting or party venue.
“The faster, farther and more frequently you walk, the greater the benefits. … Start slowly, end slowly, and stretch.” — advice from a mayo clinic article.
Visit the online Mayo Clinic to take a look at the benefits of walking and the proper stance for peak performance. The site includes diagrams on posture, stretching, and other hints for walking excellence.