Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, south of Wilmington at the southern tip of Pleasure Island, offers 6 miles of pristine, undeveloped shore line. To its north, Carolina Beach and Kure Beach siphon off a lot of the summer traffic, so the sands at Fort Fisher are comparatively quiet.
What’s the draw?
Fort Fisher is the perfect spot for beachcombing, sunbathing or swimming. Plan to spend some pleasant hours in the company of fewer people and more sandpipers, seagulls and other shorebirds.
An elevated boardwalk leads from the parking lot over the sand dunes to the beach. A bathhouse facilitates the quick change from street clothes to beachwear. Memorial Day through Labor Day, a lifeguard is on duty at the designated swimming area, and a concession stand is open during the summer season as well. A ranger station/visitor center with a small nature exhibit and additional restrooms is located near the parking area; beach wheel chairs for public use are available at the station.
In addition to the obvious pleasure of walking along the beach, hikers will enjoy strolling along the Basin Trail. The walk is 2.2 miles round-trip and passes through a salt marsh and maritime forest. (Hikers should take note of the World War II bunker they will pass along the way. Robert Harrill, better known locally as “The Fort Fisher Hermit,” used this bunker as his shelter for nearly two decades.) The trail ends at an observation deck overlooking the Cape Fear River on the park’s western side. The entire trail affords excellent opportunities for bird watching. Summer is the best time to spot terns, plovers and oyster catchers. Peregrine falcons, hawks and warblers are seen during the fall; a variety of ducks arrive at the marshes in winter.
Anglers can test their skills at surf fishing. Fort Fisher is a choice spot to hook a colorful assortment of fish, including red drum, black drum, bluefish and speckled trout, as well as spot, flounder and Virginia mullet. Fishing is at its best during the spring and fall seasons (coastal fishing regulations and licenses apply). Picnickers have their choice of 23 tables, each with its own grill. Some are handicap-accessible.
Those interested in off-roading adventure will enjoy spending time at Fort Fisher. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are permitted to operate within a specified 4-mile corridor along the beach; times are limited and permits are required. Beach vehicle access permits are sold at the park’s visitor center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. A word of warning: Soft sand and steep drops offs occasionally lead to vehicles being beached – literally – and the park staff is not equipped to recover stranded vehicles.
Fort Fisher Recreation Area encompasses important nesting areas for no fewer than 16 threatened or endangered species. One is the piping plover, a small bird that resembles a sandpiper. Another is the loggerhead sea turtle. The sandy beach at Fort Fisher offers good nesting habitat for loggerheads, and their nests are carefully marked off to prevent their being accidentally disturbed. Visitors are cautioned to leave such nests untouched: The hatchlings already face a life-or-death race to the sea without the added danger of having their nests disturbed.
The remains of the Confederate stronghold that gives the recreation area its name are preserved at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site (www.nchistoricsites.org). Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Free admission.
Also nearby is the Fort Fisher branch of the N. C. Aquarium (www.ncaquariums.com). Its theme is “Waters of the Cape Fear.” Hours are 9 a.m.-5 daily; admission is charged.
Nearby Carolina Beach (www.carolinabeachtoday.com) boasts a bustling boardwalk and seaside amusement park.
Admission to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area: free. June through August, the recreation area is open daily 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; April, May, September and October, it closes at 9 p.m. Info: 910-458-5789; www.ncparks.gov.
The Battleship North Carolina Memorial (www.battleshipnc.com) honors World War II servicemen and women. Hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Memorial Day weekend-Labor Day. Admission charged; tours are self-guided.
Airlie Gardens (www.airliegardens.org) showcases azaleas and centuries-old live oaks draped with Spanish moss within its 67-acre setting. Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday. Admission charged.
Shag ‘til your shoes wear out at the Carolina Beach Music Festival – actually held on the beach – on June 4. The Fort Fisher Recreation Area Fall Festival is scheduled for Oct. 22.
Area info: www.wilmingtonandbeaches.com.