For outdoor lovers, Bladen County is blessed with an impressive array of state-owned lands that are open to the public. Bladen Lakes State Forest offers more than 32,000 acres on the north side of the Cape Fear River. Within this enclave, visitors with permits can roam a network of dirt roads through stands of longleaf pines. During hunting season, licensed sportsmen can pursue everything from rabbits to black bears, because the land is managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as a public game land. However, hunters can only use the forest on Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and legal holidays during the appropriate seasons. Hunters must avoid safety zones around two state parks and an educational area within the forest. Enforcement officers from the wildlife commission try to keep everyone honest.
Hunting season for rabbits and quail stops at the end of the month. On April 7, the spring turkey season opens with a special day for youth hunters, and the adult season begins on April 14. However, there is still plenty to do in this state-owned forest for now, even for people who do not hunt or fish.
Assistant Superintendent Chris Williams of the N.C. Forest Service said visitors should first stop by the office during business hours on Monday through Friday to pick up free permits with maps.
“You can ride the trails with any vehicle that is legal for highway use,” he said. “We probably have 150 miles of dirt roads here. About 2,000 people visit each year and we encourage more visitors.”
Ride the dirt roads with trucks, jeeps, horses and bicycles, but the sandy trails are off-limits to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), commonly called four-wheelers and off-road motorcycles.
Williams said the forest is self-supporting from the sales of timber and pine straw.
Hike and learn at Turnbull Creek
A good place to begin an exploration of the forest is on the 890-acre Turnbull Creek Educational State Forest, which opens to the public March 14 and closes Nov. 16. A great place for families with children to get a fun nature lesson is on an easy 1/4-mile trail that features “talking tree” exhibits. At points along the trail visitors can push a button on a fence post to hear a recorded message about the part of the forest they are walking through. It is a fun and easy way to learn about the natural environment.
Ranger Jeremy Strickland said hiking the easy loop trail gives visitors a good feel for different parts of the forest.
“You can learn about all of the different ecosystems here,” said. “The trail goes through a longleaf sand ridge, past a hardwood swamp and then runs beside Turnbull Creek for a ways.”
Strickland said he enjoys the history exhibits at the preserve. Learn how early settlers made tar and turpentine in the old days, when North Carolina really was the “Tar Heel” state. At one area, the rangers built a turpentine still and tar kilns with signs explaining how they worked.
While traveling through the forest, visitors can see the blackened ground caused by controlled burns carried out to reduce the risk of forest fires, and open up the forest floor so that longleaf pine seedlings can grow. Part of the mission of the forest service is fire suppression. An outdoor exhibit displays aircraft and equipment once used to fight woods fires.
As the weather warms, mosquitoes and other biting insects become more active. Hikers can keep them at bay with repellents and protective clothing. Stay on the trail to avoid snakes and watch for signs of wildlife. Stealthy hikers catch glimpses of deer, squirrels or rabbits, or even bears. Look for animal tracks on the sandy forest floor.
“I have been here five years and seen one bear,” Strickland said.
Play naturally in the parks
Just a short drive away near the intersection of Sweet Home Church Road and N.C. 242, visit two of the Carolina Bays and learn why people call this area Bladen Lakes.
At Jones Lake State Park you can explore two of these natural lakes of unknown origin. Scientists cannot agree what caused the lakes, but popular theories include meteor impacts or tidal action from an ancient sea. Bay trees that grow on the shore lend their names to these enigmatic bodies of water.
It is no mystery that families can enjoy 212 acres of shallow water on Jones Lake or the 314-acre Salters Lake within the boundaries of the 2,208-acre park.
Ranger Jeff Corbett began working here almost 20 years ago. In 2005, the park facilities underwent a major renovation with a new auditorium, museum, classroom and snack bar. People can visit during the day or camp for the night.
Take a leisurely hike on a four-mile trail that circles Jones Lake, or paddle the lake itself in a canoe. Rangers provide a fishing pier, but the acidic water offers a different angling experience for people with state fishing licenses. Instead of largemouth bass, crappie and bluegills that swim in most freshwater lakes, Jones Lake anglers target different species.
“You can catch chain pickerel,” he said. “Some people call them freshwater barracudas because they have all those teeth.”
Yellow perch are safer to handle and provide tasty table fare. Corbett said anglers can catch both species during warm days in the winter, but the fish go deep and catch lockjaw during scorching days of late summer.
Anglers can use natural bait or switch to artificial lures for more sport. On a good day a fisherman can land yellow perch that top two pounds. Even slow fishing days have a special charm at Jones Lake, as anglers can relax on a pier or drift past cypress trees in small boats. Canoes and jon boats work best here. Outboards are limited to 10-horsepower.
Not that many anglers or boaters use this lake, so the solitude is a welcome benefit. For even more isolation, visit Salters Lake, the other Carolina Bay in the park.
“Just go out and enjoy the day on the lake,” he said. “A tug on the line is a bonus.”
Another bonus here is a good way for the family to learn more about the natural world. Rangers offer programs on weekends to teach people about animals and plants that live here. Call ahead for an appointment and rangers will show off bug eating plants such as the Venus Flytraps and pitcher plants. These plants are rare and prized by poachers who are willing to break the law, so the rangers are protective of these natural treasures. More common are wildflowers such as dwarf azaleas and wild blueberries that add color. Rangers offer programs during spring for bird watchers and flower lovers.
All kinds of wildlife lives in the park or passes through, everything from field mice to black bears. Hikers are most likely to encounter flocks of songbirds on the trail or around the campground.
Of course, when the weather turns hot park, visitors can cool off in the lake from a sandy beach or the newly renovated pier.
There is another park within the larger state forest. Singletary Lake State Park offers 649 wild acres around a 572-acre lake. For the most part, this park is set up for groups with reservations.
According to Stevie Tatum, who handles maintenance at the park, day visitors can use the park at certain times.
“People can come out when groups are not using the park,” he said.
He said most groups reserve the park on weekends, except during June, July and August when the park may be busy all week. Call or check by the office first.
Tatum and the other park workers also take care of the Bay Tree Lake Natural Area, located beside N.C. 41 about midway between White Lake and the county line.
Explorers will find about 600 acres in this undeveloped natural area. No camping here, but fishermen can walk or drive four-wheeled drive vehicles to the lake and launch small boats.
From easy hikes to swamp adventures, people who love the outdoors can find plenty of fun on public land in Bladen County.