A Look At Maritime Forests, Barrier Islands and Some Amazing Coastal Woodlands
When many think of outdoor recreation and R&R along the U.S. East Coast, broad sandy beaches backed by grassy dunes likely come foremost to mind. And hey, no question: a day wiled away with sand between your toes and the sea breeze in your hair is a good day indeed. But there are other wild manifestations of the Eastern Seaboard that, while often overlooked (and downright avoided by beach bums and sunbathers), hold tremendous ecological significance—and plenty of raw beauty.
Among these underloved natural communities is the maritime forest, which appears in one form or another scattered all the way from Maine to Florida. The species composition and local extent of maritime forests vary tremendously across this huge coastal belt, but the basic, defining ecological dynamics are similar: these are woodlands and (in many cases) glorified thickets that develop in settings at least partly protected from salt spray, harsh sea winds, and saltwater intrusion, but still under the influence to one degree or another of the oceanic climate.
Maritime forests may develop behind tall dunes that shield them from salt-laced winds—though said winds commonly crop the canopy where it protrudes above the dune crest—or on the back sides of barrier islands, edging calmer bays, sounds, and lagoons.
The most sea-beaten maritime forests are often low-standing, twisted, and jungly, looped with vines (including healthy populations of poison-ivy); more inland or fully sheltered stands may grow quite tall and stately, visually very similar to mainland stands of the same dominant species.
Particularly in the case of maritime forests on barrier islands—which are geologically ephemeral features to begin with—these communities are, considered on broader scales of time, fairly fleeting features.
Even when they aren’t being swallowed up by advancing dunes or drowned by infiltrating saltwater, they may be blasted down by hurricanes. Certainly, maritime forests have suffered mightily in the face of heavy coastal development, but increasingly, locals and tourists alike are appreciating both their ecological value as dune-stabilizers and rich wildlife habitat and their experiential pleasures.
On a hot day soaking up the sun and sand of the seashore, the dark, quiet recesses of a maritime forest deliver welcome shade and cool—that is, if you can penetrate their fringing scrub and viney understory. What follows are several fine examples of different varieties of maritime forests that are well set up for exploration and firsthand appreciation.
What Is A Maritime Forest?
A Note on Terminology
Before we dive in, it’s worth parsing out a few definitions of what a maritime forest is. Given, at its broadest meaning, “maritime forest” refers to any forest community directly influenced by (and in close proximity to) the ocean, these ecosystems are by no means restricted to the Atlantic Seaboard.
This region is, however, the primary one where the term is used, at least in the U.S. In the southern tier of the East Coast, and especially in Florida, maritime forests are often referred to as “maritime hammocks,” hammocks being an American Indian-derived term widely applied in the Southeast to isolated clumps of dense forest or shrub-thicket.
Speaking of Coastal Towns, check out our guide of Top Coastal Towns To Visit in South Carolina Here
A Quick Video Explanation Of A Maritime Forest From The National Ocean Service YouTube Channel
When we started to put this list of Maritime Forest you had to visit, we thought we would stay just in South Carolina, but as we researched all the different Maritime Forest along the Eastern Sea Board, we fell in love with several other both near and far from the Lowcountry. So, this really became our top list of favorites. Hopefully we can come back and expand it later.
Now, let’s look at our choices for the Top Maritime Forests You Can Visit!
The Sunken Forest (Fire Island National Seashore, N.Y.)
So-named because it crouches under the protection of a secondary dune on Fire Island—a barrier island off Long Island’s southern coastline—the Sunken Forest is aesthetically evocative and ecologically significant in equal measure. This is one of a mere handful of examples of a maritime forest dominated by American holly, an evergreen broadleaf that commonly grows in other East Coast maritime forests but doesn’t usually prevail as the top dog of the canopy. Here, though, hollies reckoned as old as three centuries form a hedged, liana-snarled Mid-Atlantic jungle that also includes sassafras, juneberry, blackgum, juniper, and pitch pine.
A boardwalk leads through the innards of the Sunken Forest, which you can explore on your own or in the company of a ranger-led group. Fire Island National Seashore, meanwhile, includes one of only two federally designated wildernesses in New York (not counting such significant state-designated wildlands as the Adirondacks) and offers the unique thrill of being able to backpack within a few dozen miles of the Big Apple’s skyscrapers.
Fire Island, NY 11770
Buxton Woods (Cape Hatteras National Seashore, N.C.)
Cape Hatteras lies within the great Outer Banks of the North Carolina coast, one of the great belts of barrier islands on the entire East Coast. The cape is a hugely significant ecoregional boundary: the Gulf Stream pulls away from the Southeast coast at Cape Hatteras, which means ecosystems southward are more subtropical in flavor, while those northward are more clearly temperate. Buxton Woods Reserve, which adjoins Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Hatteras Island near the cape itself, protects a fine example of maritime evergreen forest embodying the ecological transition between these climatic/biogeographic realms.
The maritime forest at Buxton Woods occupies old, stabilized sand dunes that form ridges between marshy swales. Maritime scrub of juniper and live oak on the seaward fringe of these communities rise to evergreen forest of live and laurel oak, loblolly pine, flowering dogwood, American holly, yaupon holly, bayberry, and more.
While the sculpting of salt spray and wind have pruned the scrub thickets and the margins of these maritime forests, deeper in, the trees—particularly the pines—are taller-statured. Buxton Woods lies within one of the broadest girths of barrier islands on the East Coast, so the forest interior is quite insulated from the direct ocean elements.
Notably, dwarf palmetto grows in Buxton Woods in one of the northernmost major occurrences of palms In the eastern U.S. (Monkey Island in Currituck Sound, farther north yet, also supports dwarf palmettos). The reserve also includes rare examples of maritime shrub swamp defined by swamp dogwood.
You can access Buxton Woods Reserve via Old Doctor’s and Water Association roads from the north or via Lighthouse Road in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Multiple footpaths thread through the maritime forest here, including the National Seashore’s 3/4-mile Buxton Woods Trail.
Buxton, NC 27920
Shackleford Banks (Cape Lookout National Seashore, N.C.)
South of Cape Hatteras National Shore on the other side of Ocracoke Inlet, Cape Lookout National Seashore makes a fantastic destination for outdoor adventurers, given its undeveloped beaches, dunes, and—yes—outposts of maritime forest. For the sheer extent of wild barrier island habitat, the place is unparalleled.
The most extensive maritime forest here lies on Shackleford Banks, where dunes protect a salt-carved tangle of live oaks, juniper, loblolly pine, and shrubs. Heavily laden with vines such as greenbrier, rattan, muscadine grape, and poison-ivy as well as Spanish-moss and lichen, the depths of the Shackleford Banks forest are a mysterious place—and an occasional refuge for the island’s famous, feral “Banker horses,” which shelter here during hurricanes and other bad storms.
In addition to exploring the shrouded maritime forest of Shackleford Banks, the island (and the National Seashore in general) is a great place for beach camping, backpacking, and kayaking on the calm waters of Back Sound (and Core Sound to the northeast).
Harkers Island, NC
Sea Pines Forest Reserve (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)
More than 600 acres in area, the Forest Preserve represents the biggest patch of natural land on Hilton Head Island, providing critical habitat for a wealth of wildlife (including the island’s unique subspecies of white-tailed deer, the Hilton Head whitetail).
Its pines, live oaks, and other canopy trees yield to wetlands such as Boggy Gut, Night Heron Swamp, and Vanishing Swamp as well as open lakes. Among the special treasures within this sylvan swath are the biggest of Hilton Head Island’s “Legacy Oaks”—a massive live oak called the Fish Island Trail Oak—and a nationally outstanding archaeological site: the Sea Pines Shell Ring, a circular heap of shells reckoned at nearly 4,000 years old that ranks among the more well-preserved of this type of American Indian construction, widespread along the Southeastern coast.
Sea Pines Forest Reserve,
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928
Cumberland Island (Georgia)
The biggest and the southernmost of Georgia’s great Sea Islands, Cumberland Island is another awesome destination for anybody keen for a look at the outer Southeastern coast’s wilder side. Designated as a National Seashore in 1972 and only accessible by boat, the island includes the nearly 10,000-acre Cumberland Island Wilderness in its northern sector.
Once heavily cultivated under cotton plantations, Cumberland Island now exhibits a wide range of native barrier-island plant communities, including extensive maritime hammocks dominated by thick, gnarled, wide-spreading live oaks hung with Spanish moss and resurrection fern. Loblolly pines, sabal palmetto, redbay, and other trees fill out the overstory. The Nightingale Trail is one of the standout hiking routes through the island’s impressive oak maritime forest.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park (Florida)
The Florida peninsula hosts the southernmost maritime forests on the East Coast, and roughly around Cape Canaveral its barrier islands, keys, and mainland shores host increasingly tropically inflected hammocks. One of the best places to soak up these “jungliest” versions of the Atlantic Seaboard’s maritime forests is John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, which preserves a rare pocket of undeveloped strand in heavily developed (and glitzed-up) Palm Beach County.
Here along the Lake Worth Cove and Lagoon, nestled between the beachfront’s sea-grape thickets and lagoon-side mangroves, you can wander a Caribbean-flavored tropical maritime hammock: shaded by sabal palmettos, gumbo limbo with its peeling bark, burly strangler figs with their tentacle-like embraces, false mastic, pigeon plum, Spanish stopper, and more. This and other maritime hammocks of South Florida feel mighty exotic compared to maritime forests northward, but they share with them some general vibes: the shady tangle and still air so close to the sea breeze and blazing sunshine of the open beach just a stone’s throw away.
John D. MacArthur Beach State Park,
10900 Jack Nicklaus Dr, North Palm Beach, FL 33408
Bonus: Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
I know we already mentioned Sea Pines, but if we’re talking about the Lowcountry and maritime Forests, then no list could be complete without mentioning Pinckney Island! Stretching for several miles along the Inter-Coastal, Pinckney Island has to be one of the most beautiful place in South Carolina.
It also holds a special place for me since I have logged countless miles along its trail network both on a bike and running. Living less than 3 miles away from the Wildlife refuge, I have seen the landscape evolve and change over the years. I’ve also seen the alligator population explode to the point it makes me nervous the traverse the backside of the Island.
Like so much here in the Lowcountry, Pinckney island is steeped in both history and lure. Donated to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in 1975, the Island became an official National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in December of that year. Prior to that, you can trace it’s history back to some of the most important people in the history of South Carolina, notably Charles Cotesworth Pinckney who inherited the land from his father. Charles C. Pinckney was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Commander during the Revolutionary war and also a presidential candidate.
I always call is “Pinckney Island”, but really the Refuge is made up of several island and hammocks equaling over 4,000 acres. If you ever want to know why so many refer to the salt marsh as magical, one only has to spend a few minutes at sunset gazing out from the shores of Pinckney Island. The view is truly mesmerizing.
1 Pinckney Wildlife Refuge Rd,
Hilton Head, SC 29926
I have explored so many amazing forests and wilderness areas along the east coast and every time I am out in the field, I think, “this spot is my favorite!”, only to be out done on my next adventure. If you have the chance to visit any one of the spots mentioned on the list, it will be an absolute treat. Make sure to take a picture and send one my way!