Southeast Excursions: Enjoy beacon, beaches at Bald Head

Pristine beaches are only a part of Bald Head Island’s natural appeal.
Pristine beaches are only a part of Bald Head Island’s natural appeal. GARY MCCULLOUGH

Bald Head – North Carolina’s southernmost barrier island – is 2 nautical miles from Southport and accessible only by boat. With the exception of service and emergency vehicles, no cars are permitted on the island. Transportation is limited to electric carts, bicycles and foot traffic.


Bald Head Island is 215 miles from Charlotte, a four-hour drive, plus 20 minutes on the ferry.

To see and do

Bald Head is home to about 200 year-round residents, and though the population naturally swells during summer, the island’s seclusion affords an opportunity to relax in relative peace and quiet. Amenities include a marina, full-service grocery store, convenience store, a handful of restaurants, specialty shops and gift stores and the quaint Village Chapel.

The island covers 12,000 acres, many of which have been made a protective habitat for sea turtles, alligators and other wildlife. Bald Head Woods is a 186-acre component of the N.C. Coastal Reserve; the state-managed tract protects a portion of the island’s maritime forest. Trails pass through upland and wetland habitats dominated by live oaks and loblolly pines. Bald Head is a key nesting ground for loggerhead turtles

The iconic Bald Head Island lighthouse, built in 1817, is the oldest beacon on the N.C. coast and one of about a dozen octagonal lighthouses constructed by the federal government on the East Coast. Made of brick coated with cement, it has a distinctive weathered, mottled-brown appearance and the lantern house at the top is noticeably off-center. At 100 feet, it is shorter than all the Outer Banks lights except Ocracoke, but those who climb the 108 steps to the top and squeeze through the small rectangular opening into the lantern room are rewarded with a panoramic view of the island. It is easy to spot the “new” Oak Island lighthouse in the distance.

Completion of the Oak Island beacon in 1958 resulted in the decommissioning and removal of the Bald Head’s other lighthouse, which stood on the southeastern tip of island. Erected in 1903, the iron-and-steel-skeleton Cape Fear lighthouse stood 150 feet high. Except for the concrete footings, nothing of the tower remains. Three structures that originally housed the lighthouse keeper and his family, however, have survived. They have been restored and are now available as cottage rentals.

Island visitors can also see the Confederate earthworks of Fort Holmes, a large stronghold of the Civil War. With other forts – Fisher, Caswell, Johnston, Anderson and Campbell – Fort Holmes helped guard the two ocean inlets to the Cape Fear. Called Smith Island in the late 1600s, Bald Head Island got its current name from the river pilots who used the “bald” headland on the island’s southwestern tip – an area devoid of vegetation and with a higher elevation – as a place to watch for incoming ships.


The Southport-Bald Head Island ferry leaves Southport every hour on the hour and departs from the island every hour on the half hour. The crossing takes 20 minutes. Operating hours vary seasonally. Cost per person: $15 round trip. Area info: