North Carolina boasts over 40 state parks throughout three different regions. The parks’ natural wonders and beauty are as diverse as the state itself. You’ll find parks that include mountains, lakes, swamps, sand dunes, rock formations, rivers, streams, and waterfalls.
Hammocks Beach State Park in the coastal region is a very unique state park. Of its 1,500-acres, only 33 are on the mainland. The rest of the park includes the 892-acre Bear Island and three smaller barrier islands — Dudley, Huggins, and Jones. Four miles long and surrounded by water, Bear Island is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, salt marshes, estuarine creeks, and the Intracoastal Waterway. It is a crown jewel of the North Carolina coast and Swansboro’s hidden gem.
The wilderness environment of Hammocks is unique and as diverse as the activities offered. Between the mainland and four separate and distinct islands, visitors can enjoy long stretches of white sand beaches, dunes, marshes, waterways, shrub thickets, and maritime forests. Activities are endless — from picnicking and hiking to swimming, boating, and more.
Located in Swansboro, at the southern end of the Outer Banks and part of the Crystal Coast, Hammocks Beach State Park is 20 miles east of Jacksonville. It is approximately 70 miles north of Wilmington and 140 miles east of the state capital of Raleigh.
Note: Thank you to Visit Jacksonville NC for hosting our visit. All opinions are my own.
Begin At The Visitor Center
Visitors to Hammocks Beach State Park will want to start their adventure at the full-service Visitor Center where you can learn about the park’s ecology and history, gather information and maps, and shop for souvenirs or forgotten items like sunscreen, hats, and snacks.
Inside the spacious building, there are extensive exhibits that tell of the park’s ecology and wildlife including endangered sea turtles and nesting shorebirds. The park offers free interpretive programs and events on a regular basis. Led by knowledgeable rangers, the programs explore the marvels of the park and expand opportunities for education (registration usually required).
Pro Tip: With all there is to see, plan to spend up to a full hour in the Visitor Center alone. It is fully accessible.
Immerse Yourself In History
Spend some time learning about history while at the center. Hammocks Beach State Park is rich in cultural history. Early Native Americans used this area for fishing and hunting. Pirates and privateers then occupied the area, including the infamous Blackbeard. The shallow backwaters and inlets made it easy for pirates to hide their ships and attack unsuspecting merchant vessels.
The islands played strategic military roles and were used for protection of the mainland. In 1861 a Confederate earthen fortification and six-gun battery was built on Huggins Island to defend against Union forces. And in WWII the U.S. Coast Guard monitored German U-boat activity from Bear Island.
Bear Island has been privately owned throughout the years. As early as 1750, Bear Island was part of the Starkey family’s plantation. The island was known as Heady’s Beach when it was owned by the Heady family for four generations in the 1800s.
Dr. William Sharpe bought the Hammocks in 1917. Upon his death in 1950, he intended to leave it to his hunting guide, property manager, and friend, John Hurst. Hurst persuaded Dr. Sharpe to donate the property to the all-black North Carolina Teachers Association instead, to be used for educational purposes. In 1961 the property was donated to North Carolina for a state park.
Take A Ride On A Ferry
A park-run passenger ferry transports visitors from the mainland area to Bear Island (small fee required). Whether you plan to spend time on Bear Island or just want to take a scenic cruise through the Outer Banks backwaters, the 15-minute ride (one-way) through the marshland waterways is worth it. Bring your binoculars and camera. You will see a variety of plants and birds, and possibly dolphins and turtles.
The ferry operates April through October (weather dependent). It leaves the Visitor Center on the hour, every hour (half-hour on weekends), so you could easily take a ride over and back within an hour’s time. The Park ferry seats 35 and is first-come, first-served, so be sure to arrive early during peak season. Be sure to check Bear Island’s current information page prior to visiting. The ferry is wheelchair accessible. Pets are not allowed.
Pro Tip: During the off-season, visitors can get to Bear Island by private boat, paddling, or charter a scenic cruise with Marsh Cruises. Customize your cruise through the marshes and backwaters to see all Hammocks’ islands or head to Bear Island for a few hours or the day.
Explore The Islands
The Hammock Beach State Park’s four islands are secluded, accessible only by boat, and are, for the most part, undisturbed.
Huggins Island, at the mouth of Bogue Inlet, is a 225-acre island visible from downtown Swansboro. The island consists of a maritime swamp forest, which is listed as a Globally Rare and Significant Area, surrounded by lowland marsh. Huggins Island has a rich history and strategic value. As mentioned, it was early Native American’s fishing and hunting grounds. The earthen remnants of an 1861-62 Confederate six-cannon battery can still be seen.
Jones Island is a 23-acre coastal island located at the mouth of the White Oak River and is considered a nature preserve. This unique small island is made up of an evergreen forest and a small wetland area. It is home to a variety of birds, such as the stunning painted bunting, and an abundance of wildflowers that attract butterflies such as the American lady and swallowtails. Mammals on the island include river otter, raccoon, and white-tailed deer.
Low, flat, and sandy — situated between Bear and Huggins islands is Dudley Island, a perfect place to spot nesting birds.
Spend The Day At The Beach
The fourth and largest Hammock island, Bear Island, is a beachgoers paradise. Originally named Bare Island for its lack of vegetation, it is home to one of the best beaches to be found anywhere in the world. It was named one of the Top Ten North Carolina Beaches by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Get away from it all on this secluded, unspoiled four-mile stretch of white sand beach. (The day my husband and I were there, we were the only people in sight.) Swim in crystal-clear blue waters. Hunt for seashells and sand dollars. Bring a blanket, chairs, and umbrella and enjoy a picnic on the warm sand. Spend the day surf fishing.
Island facilities include restrooms, showers, and covered picnic/shelter areas, swim-beach lifeguards, and cash-only concession stand (facilities are seasonal).
Pro Tip: If arriving by ferry, wear good shoes or sandals as it is a half-mile walk from the ferry dock across the island to the beach. Bring only what you’ll need (you’ll have to carry it too) and be sure to carry out all your belongings and trash.
Canoe, Kayak, and Paddle Board
One of the best ways to explore the natural wonders of the park is up close on the water. Paddle through marshes, oyster beds, along unspoiled maritime forests — all can be explored via kayak, canoe, or paddleboard. Follow the park’s marked water “trails” (map) out to Bear Island, the beach, and campsites or around Huggins Island.
There is a fantastic kayak launch on the mainland side of the park near the Visitor Center. Go out to explore on your own or enjoy a half or full-day adventure with an experienced guide. Bring your own equipment or rent from the park’s onsite outfitter, Paddle NC. Also, be sure to check the park’s event calendar for special tours.
Pro Tip: While paddling the backwaters, be on the lookout for dolphins, beautiful shorebirds, and the occasional loggerhead sea turtle.
Take A Hike
On the mainland, there are several hiking trails through wooded areas. Trail difficulty ranges from easy to moderate and all are less than a mile in distance. Park at the Visitor Center and hike (or bike) through beautiful, shaded live oak groves, hickory trees, pines, and along Queen’s Creek.
You will love the hike/walk along the secluded beach on Bear Island (four miles one-way). While Bear Island does not have designated walking trails, the beach is always available for hikes.
Drop A Line
Being surrounded by water it is no wonder that fishing is a favorite pastime in and around the Hammocks’ islands. Fish for drum, flounder, trout, and bluefish. Spend the day on Bear Island surf fishing. Fish from your kayak or canoe, rent a boat or hire a charter. Note: There is no fishing on the mainland side of the state park.
Pro Tip: A Coastal Recreational Fishing License is required to fish in North Carolina, except on charters.
Camp Under The Stars On Bear Island
Camping on Bear Island is unique. No buildings. No traffic. Only the beach, the dunes, and the stars. If you like the idea of getting “back to nature” or ever dreamed of being on a deserted island, then camping on Bear Island is for you. Remember, the only way to get there is by boat.
Fall asleep listening to the sound of the ocean waves while gazing up at the expansive sky full of twinkling stars. For those that enjoy primitive camping, it doesn’t get any better than on Bear Island. There are 14 primitive campsites on the island. Most are near the swim beach, restrooms, and bathhouse. Some are even more primitive on the end of the island in the scrub brush. For more information about camping and to make reservations, visit the park’s website.
Note: Hammocks Beach State Park has current plans to construct campgrounds on the mainland. They will be adding dozens of mixed-use campsites and cabins, overlooking Queen’s Creek, in the near future.
All-in-all, if you have to only pick one North Carolina beach to visit, hands down, Hammocks Beach and Bear Island should be at the top of that list.
North Carolina beaches are many and varied — pick the one that’s right for you: