The gentle, flat-rolling terrain of Jacksonville is filled with rich North Carolinian, American, and military history. Originally known as Wantland’s Ferry, the small settlement was incorporated in 1842 and re-named after President Andrew Jackson.
The scenic 40-mile long New River, which runs through the city, was once the major transportation route of naval stores, timber, and other agricultural products to come out of central North Carolina. It is the only large river in the continental United States with the mouth and headwaters in the same county.
Jacksonville also has a very rich military heritage. Approximately 156,000 (mostly undeveloped) acres comprise Camp Lejeune, the U.S. Marine Corps Base, the world’s most complete amphibious base and home to more than 43,000 marines and sailors.
Jacksonville is located in the southeastern coastal plain of North Carolina, approximately 120 miles east of Raleigh, and 50 miles north of Wilmington. It is 20 miles to the backwater of Emerald Island and the clear blue waters of the Crystal Coast beaches.
Visit Jacksonville NC provided hosted experiences during our visit. The opinions are all my own.
Things To Do In Jacksonville
A visit to Jacksonville offers a glimpse of history, patriotism, some outdoor adventure, and other recreational activities, and is a foodie’s paradise. Visitors are guaranteed a memorable trip, which should include the African American Heritage Trail, Lejeune Memorial Gardens, the beautiful waterways of the New River, and dozens of ethnic-inspired eateries.
Grab A Rod And Reel
The river is teeming with wildlife — alligators, otters, dolphins, and a plethora of fish. A bird-watchers paradise — osprey, eagles, and pelicans, just to name a few. Visitors can also experience the river from land or boat.
There are many places along the New River to fish from the shoreline, docks, or piers (see parks). There are also parks and facilities — Jacksonville Landing, Northeast Creek Park, and Riverwalk Marina — with public boat ramps plus canoe and kayak launching.
Charter A Fishing Boat
If you are itching to get out on the water to fish, Just Got Reel Inshore Charters is for you. No one knows more about the New River than captain David Fountain (and his two daughters, Katy and Krissi). Having grown up on New River, fishing these waters is in their blood. There will be plenty of fish stories to go along with the fish caught.
Pro Tip: Not into fishing? Scenic tours (including large groups) are also available. Have limited mobility? No problem. Give David a call and he will take care of all your needs.
Cruise The River In Style
Take a fabulous river cruise aboard the private yacht, Bayonet. Have dinner or drinks, watch a magnificent sunset, or just relax and enjoy the views. Bayonet Enterprises offers a variety of “hosted” cruises on the New River, including a sunset dinner cruise, family picnics, even overnight getaways.
Captain Lance Ledoux and his wife, Marilyn, believe the New River is “the gem of Onslow County.” They are the quintessential hosts and are experienced, knowledgeable, and friendly.
Relax Or Play At City Parks
Enjoy the many green spaces and city parks Jacksonville has to offer. There are over a dozen parks including the Lejeune Memorial Gardens (see below). Walk, ride a bike, picnic, and enjoy festivals, dedications, and events. Shore fishing is available at JP Willingham Park, Wilson Bay Park, and Phillips Park.
Visit The Freedom Fountain
Dedicated in 2012, the Freedom Fountain honors all individuals who served and are serving the United States of America. It also marks the entrance to what is known as Freedom Way which extends from downtown Jacksonville to the port at Morehead City.
The design of the Freedom Fountain is a visual, meaningful symbol reflecting who the community is and how we are all connected. The wall and its hanging medallions are dedicated to five branches of the Armed Forces, as is the adjacent flag garden.
Honor The Fallen
Jacksonville is “Home to Heroes,” literally and figuratively. The Lejeune Memorial Gardens is on a scale akin to the memorials in Washington D.C. Memorials include the Montford Point Marine Memorial (the third Marine Corps “boot camp” in the U.S.), the Beirut Memorial (they came in peace), the 9/11 Memorial (arrived on a New York City fire truck to the U.S. Marines), the beautiful Vietnam Memorial with names etched in glass, and so much more. Many observances and tributes are held throughout the year at the various monuments.
This writer (and U.S. Air Force veteran) does not have the words to express the feelings she felt the day she toured these gardens. There is so much history represented in these 27 acres. It is an emotional and moving site — bronze sculptures, memorials, fountains, and bridges all connected through time and the human spirit. It is a special place that one will forever remember.
Walk, Hike, Or Bike
There are more than 19 miles of trails and greenways (map) within the city limits. These paths are open to pedestrians and bicyclists who can visit parks, memorials, the waterfront, and other places of interest.
Pro Tip: There are also 5.2 miles of Rails-to-Trails through Jacksonville.
Take In The Arts
Jacksonville — Onslow Council For The Arts is a haven for local artists of every genre. The “gallery” holds rotating bimonthly shows by local artists including Jacksonville resident, Karen Crenshaw, Onslow County native, Berie Rosage, Jr., and renowned human rights artist Steve Cavallo.
Check out the Council for the Arts bulldogs (the official mascot of the city of Jacksonville), and look for them around town. The public art initiative not only benefits local artists and funds the Cultural Arts Scholarship Program, but it also brings the community together. And who doesn’t love bulldogs?
Visit A Country Farm
Nestled in the rolling hills and tall pines, about 20 minutes away from downtown Jacksonville, is Mike’s Farm. Stroll around the lush, green grounds and just breathe. Meet the farm animals and farm equipment (my husband made a beeline to look at the tractors).
Seasonal events include berry picking, hayrides, pumpkin harvesting, and Christmas tree sales. Step inside the products barn, gift shop, and bakery and be prepared to shop. Exclusive items from almost every North Carolina county can be found — pottery, coffee, wine, and collectibles are just a few.
Taste Real (And Legal) Moonshine
With moonshine being synonymous with North Carolina, it makes sense that Jacksonville native and attorney, Donald G. Walton, Jr., opened Walton’s Distillery (on the site of numerous illegal stills). As a history buff and spirits fan, moonshine is in his family’s blood.
Take a tour with knowledgeable and entertaining distillers, learn how moonshine, bourbon, and corn whiskey are made, saddle up to the tasting bar (they’ll treat you right), and do a little shopping in the distillery store.
Learn About Sturgeon City
Sturgeon City is something Jacksonville can be very proud of. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, it was just the opposite. Through the hard work and dedication of city management and the community, Sturgeon City has become a 27-acre Environmental Education Center for the public and private sectors to use and enjoy.
Take a self-guided walking tour with educational signage. The boardwalk also leads to a river observation deck, kayak launch, fishing pier, and a city park. The events center hosts scheduled environmental events and planetarium shows throughout the year.
Pro Tip: Sturgeon City is fully accessible and pet-friendly.
Visit Hammocks Beach State Park
A 20-minute drive from Jacksonville, Hammocks Beach State Park is home to Bear Island, a remote island with four miles of unspoiled, white-sand beaches. Bear Island is only accessible by the park’s ferry, private boat, or by paddling (rentals available).
The mainland park offers hiking trails and green space. The visitor center has interpretive programs and park ecology and wildlife exhibits including endangered sea turtles and nesting shorebirds.
Pro Tip: The ferry to Bear Island is seasonal and weather dependent. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes. It’s a 10-minute walk on a sandy trail to the beach. Pets cannot ride the ferry.
Experience A Thrilling Marsh Cruise
Get off the beaten path and discover one of the best boating experiences on the coast. Setting “sail” in Swansboro (20 miles from Jacksonville), captain Darryl Marsh owner of Marsh Cruises takes visitors on a cruise through the shallow, winding backwaters of Swansboro, Emerald Isle, and Hammocks Beach State Park. Sunset, ecological, shelling, and photography cruises allow passengers to get up close and personal to the scenic waterways, islands, and beaches.
Restaurants in Jacksonville
Many folks with diverse ethnic backgrounds have settled in Jacksonville providing an eclectic mix of delicious cuisine — everything from Filipino, Mediterranean, Mexican, Irish, Colombian, Thai — too many to list. Here are just a few of the places where we enjoyed a meal.
At Jeff’s Burgers Dogs and Shakes you won’t find any fancy bells and whistles, just a focus on quality food and exceptional customer service. The food is made-to-order, with fresh, quality ingredients. Try the Carolina burger (served with chili and coleslaw) or 100 percent beef hot dogs with a serving of hand-cut fries.
A family-owned restaurant set in a beautifully themed interior, Marrakesh Mediterranean serves authentic dishes — lamb chops, falafel, pilaf, kabobs, shawarma, and the best stuffed grape leaves and hummus I’ve ever tasted!
We thought we were going into Liliana’s Restaurant and Bakery for coffee and a pastry. Then we met Gustavo. The family is passionate about their flavor-filled Colombian food. So many scrumptious surprises — bandeja paisa (Colombian country-style platter), sancocho (soup), and tres leche cake.
The Angry Ginger Irish Pub is a laid-back, relaxed restaurant for locals and visitors alike. You can’t beat its traditional Irish fare such as bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, cottage pie, and Guinness stew.