Travel

Southeast Excursions: Enjoy unspoiled nature off NC coast

Even during peak summer season, the beach on Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park, is generally uncrowded.
Even during peak summer season, the beach on Bear Island, part of Hammocks Beach State Park, is generally uncrowded.

Visitors to Hammocks Beach State Park, about 10 miles east of Jacksonville, will discover one of the most unspoiled beaches on the Atlantic coast. In addition to swimming, sunbathing, and strolling along the 31/2-mile beach, you can learn about the importance of barrier islands to the environment, discover something about sea turtles, and maybe brush up on a bit of Civil War history.

Distance

Hammocks Beach State Park is 255 miles from Charlotte. Anticipate a five-hour drive.

To see and do

The modern and spacious visitor center includes an interpretive exhibit hall featuring displays on the importance of barrier islands – and their accompanying salt marshes – to the environment. Marshy estuaries, where fresh and salt water meet, provide the habitat for two-thirds of our nation’s commercial fish and shellfish, and are home to more species of birds than any other habitat on Earth. The visitor center also provides information about sea turtles – including loggerheads, the most common variety of turtles seen along the N.C. coast.

The focal point of the park is Bear Island, an 892-acre barrier island accessible only by passenger ferry or private boat. The ferry ride covers 21/2 miles and takes about 25 minutes, one way. On the island, enjoy a day in the sun along a usually uncrowded beach, or a tranquil night under the stars. Amenities include restrooms, a bathhouse (with showers for campers) and a concession stand open daily through Labor Day. Ten campsites are available for overnight stays. On a clear night, away from city lights, campers can see countless stars.

Herons, egrets, laughing gulls and other shorebirds abound; bottle-nose dolphins can sometimes be spotted offshore. Mid-May through late August, female loggerhead turtles come ashore at night to lay their eggs in nests dug 10- to 20-inches deep, just above the high-tide line. Four-legged foragers include deer, raccoons and foxes.

You can also learn about Confederate efforts to defend the coastline during the early months of the Civil War. In 1861, earth fortifications were dug at the southwestern tip of Huggins Island, acquired by the park in 1999. Armed with six 32-pound cannons from nearby Fort Macon, this battery was intended to protect the main channel between Bogue Inlet and the White Oak River. The position was abandoned without a fight, however, soon after federal forces captured Roanoke Island in 1862. These fortifications are the only unspoiled Confederate earthworks still surviving on the N.C. coast. You can follow the kayak and canoe trail around the island.

If you’re going

Hammocks Beach State Park opens at 8 a.m. year-round; closing time varies by season. The ferry to Bear Island runs daily Memorial Day through Labor Day; it operates Wednesday-Sunday in May and September, and Friday-Sunday in April and October. Park admission is free; fees charged for the ferry and for camping. Details: www.ncparks.gov (Open the “Find a park” window; scroll down to Hammocks Beach State Park).

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