Just west of the town of Emerald Isle, and across a maze of marshy terrain off the coast of mainland Swansboro, lies Hammocks Beach State Park, an incredible refuge for beach lovers who want to forego the crowds, and enjoy a parcel of barrier island all to themselves.
While the Hammocks Beach State Park covers 1,145 acres of terrain, which extends from the mainland to the Atlantic Ocean, the park is best known as the home to "Bear Island," a 4 mile long barrier island that is adjacent to the more developed Crystal Coast beaches, but remains un-commercialized, unspoiled, and wide open for curious and adventurous vacationers. Bear Island takes up the majority of the park, encompassing an impressive 980 acres, but 30 acres of mainland terrain in addition to the smaller but nonetheless equally scenic 211 acre Huggins Island are also contained within the park's borders, making this destination a wildly diverse retreat into Swansboro and the Bogue Banks' most scenic regions.
Bear Island has gained notoriety recently as one of the most remote and scenic sections of North Carolina's barrier islands, and was even featured in a "North Carolina Weekend" television episode on UNC-TV, the statewide public access channel. This growing interest is due to a number of factors, not the least of which are the gorgeous beaches and the virtually innumerable things to do.
Accessible only by a private boat or a park-run ferry that launches from the Hammocks Beach State Park's headquarters on the mainland, visitors will discover that even in the height of summer, this beach destination remains remarkably and refreshingly uncrowded. Ferry operations to this portion of the park began in the 1960s, and even with infrequent interruptions due to local shoaling, have been going strong for the last 50 years. Despite the regular ferry runs, however, the beach population has remained minimal at best, and it's not unusual for beach fans to find huge stretches of sand all to themselves.
This makes Bear Island a fruitful destination for shell lovers, as the south-facing beaches are loaded with undiscovered treasures, including Florida conchs, whelks, sand dollars, pen shells, Scotch Bonnets, and even periwinkles and fossilized shells along the soundside mud flats. Shell hunters in the soundside region are advised to check their finds for inhabitants - more often than not, many of this muddy region's prized shells are already occupied by hermit crabs and other local amphibious residents.
In addition to shelling, park visitors will find ample kayaking and boating trails, meandering through the soundside, in addition to a kayak launch on the eastern portion of Bear Island. This easy-to-navigate trail through the soundside is an exceptional eco-tour, as kayakers and boaters will encounter countless migrating and permanent soundside or marsh species during a long afternoon paddle.
The beaches are renowned swimming and body boarding destinations, and are lifeguarded during the summer months, and are also popular with local and visiting anglers. Due to the small population of visitors, surf fishermen will have little competition casting out into the ocean waves, and as a result, can expect to land a number of saltwater catches including sea mullets, flounder, croaker, spot, and even passing drum in the spring and fall.
Nature lovers and bird lovers will also be awed by the area, especially by the naturally forming tidal pools that line the ocean and soundsides, as well as the mudflats throughout the park and the saltwater marshes. Visitors of all interests will definitely want to bring a camera along, as the incredible views coupled with the thriving local wildlife combine to create some pretty remarkable shots throughout all regions of Hammocks Beach State Park.
On the main Bear Island, visitors will find toilets, drinking water, picnic tables, and seasonal concessions, however, due to the rustic nature of the destination, all day-trippers and long term visitors are advised to bring along their own supplies. Sunscreen, bug spray, and a picnic lunch / snacks are all musts, and ferry passenger are welcome to bring along a big travel bag or backpack to make sure all their essential beach gear is handy.
The ferry to Hammocks Island can hold 50 passengers, and runs daily Memorial Day through Labor Day from 9:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. In May and September, the ferry runs Wednesday through Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., and in April and October, the ferry runs Friday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. There is no ferry transportation in the winter months, although the park is open year-round to visitors from 8:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m., and 8:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day.
Bear Island also has a bath house, (which includes restrooms and hot showers), and a state-run campground, both of which are seasonally open to visitors. With just 11 sites located along the oceanfront, and three camp sites on the soundside adjacent to a canoe route, park patrons will find that camping in Hammocks Beach State Park is a secluded and natural outing that is perfectly quiet and scenic. Campers will need to walk between a quarter mile to half mile to access the individual tent camp sites, and all bath house facilities are winterized during the off-season months. Because of the limited number of campsites available, reservations often fill up quickly, so potential overnight guests are advised to visit the Hammocks Beach State Park's official website at http://northcarolinastateparks.reserveamerica.com/camping/Hammocks_Beach_State_Park/r/campgroundDetails.do?contractCode=NC&parkId=552811&topTabIndex=CampingSpot to secure their spot. All campsites are primitive, but are also pet friendly and can accommodate up to six people per site.
Secluded Hammocks Beach State Park is quietly but quickly gaining a reputation among die-hard beach lovers as one of southern North Carolina's best undiscovered treasures. A little tricky to get to, but well worth the scenic venture, this state park is locally known by Swansboro fans as one of the most naturally beautiful, and downright fun beachside playgrounds on the North Carolina coastline.
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