More About Austin: Originally from JoCo, Austin moved away for a few years and earned his Parks, Recreation, & Tourism Management degree at North Carolina State University before moving back to Johnston County to work for the county’s Parks and Open Spaces Department. He also serves on the board of the Friends of Johnston County Parks. He enjoys hiking, cooking different food dishes, learning new skills at work and home, and spending time with his family anywhere.

Q: Most overlooked area to recreate?
A: Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center

Q: What’s your favorite season to recreate in NC and why?
A: The Fall is the best time to recreate in NC. You have cooler weather, fewer bugs, scenic views of falling leaves, clearer lines of sight in the woods, and more activity.

Q: What level of experience is needed to recreate at Howell Woods?
A: I would say novice to intermediate, depending on your level of accessibility and tolerance of the landscape. Most trails are hard-packed rock dust or dirt and are marked in bright colors to attract your attention.

Q: How long should you plan on visiting Howell Woods?
A: I would plan to visit for at least 2 hours if you want to see the learning center and make it out and back along one of the main trails. Most trails are only a mile or so unless you want to drive into the backcountry area.

Q: What sets Howell Woods apart from other recreation destinations?
A: The area is located in the 2nd largest floodplain in the state so there is a huge abundance of wildlife including waterfowl, songbirds, egrets, hogs, and other game animals on a 3,000-acre site. The preserve also features a man-made lake area and natural ponds with fishing opportunities, primitive cabins, modern cabins (including a fully accessible cabin), tent camping for individuals and groups, and miles of accessible trails. These combined features make Howell Woods the only recreation site of its kind in Johnston County.

Warbler bird watching at Howell Woods Environmental Learning Center near Four Oaks, NC.

Q: What is unique about the facilities and infrastructure?
A: The backcountry of this site is a magical area that taps into the county’s heritage and is one of the last unadulterated areas in the coastal plains of NC. This is the only public hunting ground in Johnston County and one of the only places to hunt for hogs. At the learning center, you can view raptors, amphibians, and reptiles that are unique to the floodplain area and are usually out of site for most visitors to an outdoor setting.

Q: How do you plan ahead and prepare for your recreational activity at Howell Woods and elsewhere in JoCo?
A: I always make sure to bring bug spray, plenty of water, and snacks. Expect to not have cell service in some areas, so let someone know where you are. Optionally, I like to bring a hiking pole/stick for navigating the terrain.

Q: What piece of outdoor equipment is your must-have? 
A: Though it gets hot, I always wear long hiking pants due to wildlife, thorns, and poison ivy.

Q: How do you put one Outdoor NC Leave No Trace principle in action before/during/or after your activity?
A: At Howell Woods specifically, I would say that “Plan Ahead and Prepare” is the most important due to the size and ruralness of the area and the many variables that can go wrong if not prepared.

Q: Favorite place for to visit before or after an outdoor adventure for a meal/coffee/or another beverage in JoCo?
A: I usually like to bring a sandwich along when I hike so I would say check out Gotham’s Deli in Downtown Smithfield for authentic New York style subs. There is a coffee shop right next door that also has good food called The Gilded Pear, so both those options would be a good before or after stop during your visit.

Exterior of a The Gilded Pear Brew House coffee shop in Smithfield, NC.

Q: Share a unique place to stay in the area. Why would you recommend these accommodations?
A: As I mentioned, Howell Woods has lots of accommodation types for the more adventurous. There are also multiple campgrounds in the Johnston County area and a few cool unique sort of AirBnB options. For those who love adventure but enjoy more traditional overnight options, there are multiple hotel options in JoCo.

Q: Other overlooked and under-visited locations in the area to see while in town?
A: In the Town of Four Oaks, just a few miles from Howell Woods, there is a walking trail that is located street-side. The town has added plenty of signage and this is a great spot to bring your kids or pets for a low-traffic, small-town recreation experience. Bentonville Battlefield State Historic Site is also just a few miles from Howell Woods and has over 6 miles of hiking trails which are a part of the state’s Mountains to Sea Trail. The nearby towns of Smithfield and Clayton also have paved greenway trails.

Q: What is your ‘can’t miss experience’ in the area?
A: If you come in the Spring, go visit Flower Hill Nature Preserve in the northern part of the county. It is the only place in the state east of the mountains that has Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel growing in the wild. It’s a short hike, but you can make it last a couple of hours, and then head over to one of our local family-owned farms (Fuster Cluck Farm or Sonlight Farms are both close by) for fresh produce and a true rural experience.

Insider Tip: Howell Woods sometimes offers cool evening events for visitors who can stay longer or even wish to stay overnight. Attend the evening Owl Safaris or Meteor Shower events throughout the year, check their Facebook and website for dates and details.

Two cabins visitors can stay in at Howell Woods in Four Oaks, NC.