North Carolina is known for its natural beauty and resources from the shores of the Outer Banks to the peaks of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The North Carolina State Parks system began in 1916 with the preservation of the summit of Mount Mitchell. It was the first State Park in the Southeast and among the first in the nation. There are now 41 North Carolina State Parks throughout three different regions — coastal, Piedmont (plains), and mountain.
The parks are diverse in nature but each one is naturally wonderful and scenic. Across the state, you’ll find beaches, lakes, swamps, sand dunes, rock formations, rivers, streams, and waterfalls.
North Carolina’s parks offer opportunities for a host of activities for the outdoor enthusiast including hiking, camping, picnicking, nature study, and environmental education. Each park offers free interpretive programs by rangers on a regular basis.
It doesn’t matter if you hike, walk, bike, swim, or ride. There’s something out there for you to enjoy and experience. Here are my picks for some of the most fabulous state parks in the North Carolina coastal region.
1. Dismal Swamp, South Mills
In an area rich in history, the northernmost coastal state park, Dismal Swamp is the largest remaining swamp in the eastern United States.
Here visitors will find a unique wilderness experience. The abundance of wildlife at Dismal Swamp is probably the largest of the coastal parks. Visitors may see anything from wild turkey, raccoon, and deer to bobcat, gray fox, and even black bear.
The park features 20 miles of trails for hiking and biking. The Swamp Boardwalk is a wonderful half-mile wooden loop trail, perfect for kids and mature visitors. Canoeing and kayaking, as well as fishing, are favorite activities on the park’s 22-mile canal. A launch ramp is conveniently located near the parking lot. Visitors may bring their own equipment or rent at the park.
Accessible parking and restrooms are available. The Swamp Boardwalk, visitor center, auditorium, and exhibits are all accessible.
2. Jockey’s Ridge, Nag’s Head
Located near the infamous Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks, Jockey’s Ridge is home to the tallest sand dune on the Atlantic coast. It is a prime location for kite-flying and watching sunsets. The scenic views range from the Atlantic Ocean to the Roanoke Sound.
Hang gliders can sail the same skies as Wilbur and Orville Wright did long ago. The high sand dunes and year-round winds are ideal for this sport. Hang gliding lessons are available through a vendor in the park. Experienced hang gliders must have a current USHPA membership and get a flying permit at the visitor center.
The sound side of the park is a different experience offering sunbathing, wading, paddling, and a 1-mile nature trail that opens onto wetlands, grassy dunes, and maritime thickets.
Visitors with mobility restrictions can ride in an ATV with park staff to the top of the dunes or out to the beach. Reservations are required. Shoes are highly recommended in the sand.
3. Pettigrew, Creswell
Pettigrew State Park is perhaps one of North Carolina’s most interesting parks due to it being mostly a lake — 16,000-acre Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in the state. The lake is fed mainly by rainfall (not streams), making it one of the clearest and cleanest lakes in the state.
Located on a peninsula between the Albemarle Sound and the Scuppernong River, Pettigrew is a fisherman’s dream. The shallow waters are home to bass, yellow perch, pickerel, catfish, and pumpkinseed. Anglers can fish from boats or from the shoreline, fishing pier, and boardwalk.
There are two hiking and biking trails in the park, both rated easy. Canoe trails on Lake Phelps and the Scuppernong River allow paddlers to get up close to the local environment.
Picnicking and swimming are also favorite activities for summer visitors. Picnic tables and grills are situated under the cool shade of the cypress trees. Water and restrooms are nearby. Designated swim areas are near both picnic areas.
The Boardwalk Trail and the fishing pier are both wheelchair accessible. Accessible parking and restrooms are provided.
History buffs will find much to explore in the area on land and in the water. Many Native American artifacts have been found including 30 dugout canoes sunken in the lake, one of which is over 4,00 years old.
4. Goose Creek, Washington
Just a short drive from the historic towns of Bath and Washington, Goose Creek State Park is a haven for birds and bird watching. The visitor center has a bird-watching observation station to facilitate the viewing of hundreds of bird varieties. In addition to a variety of birds, the park has a vibrant butterfly garden full of native plants.
Outdoor activities, in the same waters that Blackbeard was said to have traversed, include boating, sailing, paddling, fishing, and swimming. A boat ramp and separate paddling launch are located at the north end of the park across Goose Creek. Swimmers will enjoy a sandy swim beach on the south end of the park.
Landlubbers will be pleased with over eight miles of hiking trails and three separate picnic areas. Rated “easy,” the trails lead visitors through a variety of coastal experiences — live oaks draped in Spanish moss, wetlands, and a cypress swamp. There is an accessible boardwalk trail as well.
Camping is available at Goose Creek at two campgrounds, a 22-space area for RVs and trailers, and a smaller, more secluded tent-only site. Six camper cabins are also available. One cabin is accessible.
5. Hammocks Beach, Swansboro
A unique state park in the barrier islands 20 miles east of Jacksonville, Hammocks Beach State Park is a crown jewel on the North Carolina coast. A passenger ferry (or private boat) transports visitors from the mainland area to Bear Island, which provides oceanside camping, swimming, and picnicking. Visitors can also reach Bear Island by canoe or kayak, which are available for rent, or bring your own.
Kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to explore water trails leading to marshes, Bear Island, or Huggins Island, which is graced with unspoiled maritime forest. Hike the four mainland hiking trails or along the beach on Bear Island.
Fishing for drum, flounder, trout, and bluefish is a favorite pastime at Bear Island. There is no fishing on the mainland.
At the mainland visitor center, there are interpretive programs and exhibits that teach about park ecology and wildlife including endangered sea turtles and nesting shorebirds.
6. Fort Macon, Atlantic Beach
American history buffs will love Fort Macon State Park. The 424-acre park has multiple facets including a perfectly restored Civil War-era fort. Construction of the fort goes back to as early as 1826. The stone jetties were a project of Robert E. Lee in the 1840s.
Visitors can explore the five-sided brick and stone fort on their own or join a guided tour. When the weather is hot you’ll enjoy the extensive museum’s indoor exhibits and gift shop. Fun for the whole family are the cannon and musket demonstrations that are held daily.
At the tip of Bogue Banks, 20 miles east of Jacksonville, the park offers unlimited natural beauty and opportunities to explore salt marshes, estuaries, and sand dune fields. Other park activities include a coastal education center, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching. The peninsula’s 1.5-mile shoreline offers swimming, fishing, and beachcombing. You might even spot some dolphins playing offshore.
A bathhouse and wheelchair-accessible beachside areas are available. Visitors can spend the day or just a few hours.
7. Carolina Beach, Near Wilmington
Located just twelve miles from downtown Wilmington, Carolina Beach State Park is a popular coastal attraction on the Cape Fear River. There are nine “easy” hiking trails traversing through a variety of natural habitats. A half-mile boardwalk trail is host to a variety of carnivorous plants including the rare Venus flytrap, the only place in the country where they grow wild.
A nearby marina with two public boat ramps provides access to some of North Carolina’s best fishing spots. Visitors can also fish from the park’s shore or wooden fishing deck. In addition to hiking and fishing, the park offers kayaking and paddling, picnicking, and a secluded camping area beneath towering trees with 79 campsites and four cabins.
The park is wheelchair accessible throughout, including the fishing deck, Venus flytrap trail, and some picnic and camping spots.
No admission fees are charged at North Carolina State Parks. Fees for services such as camping, picnic shelter reservations, and equipment rentals are kept as reasonable as possible and may vary from park to park.
The North Carolina State Parks system offers an excellent, user-friendly website that lists all 41 state parks. All the information needed to plan your visit to any park is available on these pages, including fees, hours of operation, maps, fact sheets, amenities, accessibility and reservation information, and FAQs, plus up-to-the-minute information that might affect your visit.
Make sure to take a look at these fantastic North Carolina State Parks in the Piedmont Region as well as these great state parks in North Carolina’s mountains!
For more NC inspiration, consider: