Treasure hunters of all varieties will find that New Bern serves as a fine launching point for a shelling adventure or two. From the ancient relics that are buried just outside the Aurora Fossil Museum to the isolated finds along the Cape Lookout National Seashore, New Bern visitors will find that some of the best shelling in the coastal Carolina region is just a short road trip away.
Where to go Shelling around New Bern, NC
Because of New Bern’s central locale along the Inner Banks, the town is nicely close to a number of famed and lesser-known shelling destinations that are scattered along the North Carolina coastline, and which are even located miles away from the Atlantic Ocean waters.
Check out these destinations that are roughly an hour’s drive away at most to start plotting your upcoming shelling adventure.
Aurora Fossil Museum
The Aurora Fossil Museum will inspire any beachcomber, thanks to its treasure trove of exhibits which include fossils that were recovered from the nearby phosphate mines in the Inner Banks region. These “finds” include relics that are up to 18—22 million years old, and can include ancient sharks’ teeth, whale bones, and even stingray fossils. Shell seekers will be most fascinated by the invertebrate collection, which features corals and ancient shells or sand dollars, but the true lure for beachcombers are the fossil pits just outside the museum which are affectionately dubbed the "Pits of the Pungo." These pits, which feature fossiliferous material donated by the neighboring PotashCorp-Aurora plant, are wide open for visitors to dig for their own Miocene age fossils, which can include ancient sharks, whales, bony fish, shells, and coral, just to name a few. Visitors will want to come armed with a garden trowel, a sifter (similar to a gem mining sifter), and plenty of plastic bags to save their finds, and can ask the friendly staff on hand for information about the treasures they recover.
Shackleford Banks - Cape Lookout National Seashore
The 56-mile long Cape Lookout National Seashore is renowned as one of the best shelling destinations along the Carolina coastline, and New Bern visitors will have the easiest time reaching this undeveloped stretch of shoreline by planning a trip to the Shackleford Banks. Only accessibly by a privately owned vessel, tour boat, or water taxi, New Bern visitors will want to take an hour’s drive to Beaufort NC, where a myriad of options are waiting, and where it’s easy to acquire a ride to this isolated shelling destination. Water taxis depart from Front Street in Beaufort every 20-45 minutes or so in the warm weather months, and the ensuing ride is a quick trip across the Back Sound with miles of views along the way. Once on shore, visitors will find both the sound and ocean-facing beaches are prime shelling destinations, and with miles of room to roam, it’s easy to find a more-isolated stretch of shoreline to patrol, even in the height of summer when the local beach crowds can be thick.
South Core Banks - Cape Lookout National Seashore
Though reaching the South Core Banks takes a little extra effort, planning a trip to this largest portion of the Cape Lookout National Seashore is typically a rewarding adventure. Completely undeveloped and unpopulated, this shoreline features miles of beaches to go around, which creates some of the most isolated shelling conditions along the North Carolina coast. (This means that beachcombers who make the trek will encounter little competition, regardless of the season.) To get there, New Bern visitors will want to head south to Beaufort, or southeast to Harkers Island, (both about an hour’s drive away), and hop onboard a passenger ferry and an ensuing 20-45 minute cruise to the edge of the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. Once on the island, take a stroll along the sound or ocean-facing beaches, or grab a ride on the on-site 4WD “beach taxi” to reach The Point, where arguably the best shells can be found.
For an easier beach day trip without any cruise or water taxi involved, shell hunters can head to Atlantic Beach This busy town in the heart of the Crystal Coast is less than an hour’s drive away, and has several central and public parking areas that make reaching the ocean-facing shoreline a breeze. Park at The Circle for convenience, as this beach in the heart of town features seasonal lifeguards, restrooms, and an on-site playground, or up your chances of finding a great shell or two by heading east towards the Fort Macon State Park. Located on the eastern outskirts of Atlantic Beach, this state park features miles of shoreline that borders the Atlantic Ocean and the Beaufort Inlet, and as such, it is a prime destination for Atlantic Beach treasure seekers. Multiple parking areas are available en route to the inlet, which includes a large 200+ parking spot area just east of Atlantic Beach, and the outskirts of the historic Fort Macon itself.
Rachel Carson Reserve
Visitors who want to admire the local invertebrates and crustaceans – and not necessarily take them home – can plan a trip to the scenic and inherently wild Rachel Carson Reserve. This collection of barely offshore islands which border both Taylor’s Creek and the Back Sound is found just off the Beaufort Waterfront, and is easy to reach with a cruise, water taxi ride, or even just a paddle across the fairly narrow creek. Once on the islands, visitors can utilize the walking trail to reach sunny soundside beaches where crabs, oysters, clams, and hermit crabs can all be found in abundance. It’s certainly possible to find a few “unoccupied” shells here as well, so beachcombers on the hunt for a souvenir or two will want to keep their eyes open.
What You’ll Find when Shelling along the North Carolina Coastline
While a day of digging at the Aurora Fossil Museum can produce a unique collection of corals and shells from millions of years ago, beachcombers who head to the Atlantic Ocean shorelines can look forward to a modern-day assortment of natural treasures as well.
Conchs – A variety of conchs – including Florida fighting conchs, helmet conchs, and tulip conchs – can sporadically wash up along the Cape Lookout National Seashore. These are generally considered prized finds due to their rarity in this “northern” region of the Eastern Seaboard.
Whelks – Often mistaken for conchs, three varieties of whelks – channel, lighting, and knobbed – can be more commonly found along the Cape Lookout and Crystal Coast beaches in a variety of colors and sizes (roughly 1”-16”)
Scotch Bonnets – Famed as the North Carolina State Shell, the spiraled and bauble-shaped Scotch Bonnet is actually a fairly rare find, and is distinctive for its squat and cylindrical shape, delicate frame, and wide lipped opening.
Augers, periwinkles, oyster drillers, and wentletraps – Digging through a pile of small shells will often result in finding these gems, which are intricate spiraled shells that measure 2” long at most
Olive Shells – This skinny spiral shell that measures 1-3” is a relatively common Cape Lookout find, and is famed for its slender shape, speckled exterior, and violet interior (when it’s “fresh.”)
Moon Snail – Larger and more clunky than other spiral oriented shells, a moon snail can be identified by its perfectly circular shape and center “shark’s eye.” Moon snails can also grow to be quite large, measuring from .5” to 4” or more.
Clams, oysters, quahogs, and other bivalves – Often the most common shells found along the beaches, a wide array of bivalve shells can be found along multiple NC shorelines. Look for tiny coquina clams, which are easily the most colorful variety, and which can sometimes be spotted digging by the hundreds in the warm ocean wash.
Sand dollars – Technically not a shell, sand dollars are nonetheless a prized find for beachcombers simply due to their delicate nature. Keep the white sand dollars, and leave the brown and / or spiky sand dollars be, as they are likely still alive.
Tips and Tricks for Shelling close to New Bern
- Embrace the off-season! The less-populated fall, winter, and spring months are when the beaches (and the Aurora Fossil Museum) are at their least populated, providing ample room to move. Just note that many privately run ferry services to the Cape Lookout National Seashore do not operate for several months at a time in the dead of winter.
- Get there early! The old adage “The early bird gets the warm” is precisely correct when it comes to shelling, as in the summer months, waves of beachcombers can be spotted on the more popular shorelines and shelling destinations 0 like Atlantic Beach and even the Shackleford Banks.
- Try to coincide a visit for after a storm! Summer and fall hurricanes often lead to piles of shells washing up ashore along the Crystal Coast and Cape Lookout National Seashore. If you can time a visit for a couple days after a hurricane or tropical storm has completely departed an area, your trip could result in some incredible finds.
- Reserve a ferry / taxi ride early! Many of the local ferries and water taxis can book up on popular summertime dates, and shell hunters who want to be ahead of the competition will want to reserve a ride as early as possible to enjoy “first dibbs” on the treasures that may have washed up overnight.
- Watch the tide tables! Beachcombers still debate whether shelling after a low tide or high tide is best, but if you can start your scouring just after a tide, you’ll have a better chance at finding freshly washed-up finds.
- Bring everything you need if you’re heading to Cape Lookout! Both the South Core Banks and the Shackleford Banks are extremely limited when it comes to visitors’ facilities, so explorers will want to bring along enough water, food, and trash bags to last them for the duration of their trip.
- Increase your shelling odds by tackling an even grander trip! Several ferry services from the Cedar Island mainland towns of Davis and Atlantic can accommodate 4WD vehicles and provide access to the South Core and North Core Banks regions of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. By bringing a 4WD vehicle along, a beachcomber can cover more ground and increase their chances of spotting an exceptional find.
New Bern is a fine launching point for a myriad of shelling adventures that can range from patrolling miles of isolated shelling, to digging into sandy pits that are stocked with ancient treasures. Whether your interest lies with an inland or off-the-beaten path shelling adventure, by using New Bern as a starting point, you’ll discover that there’s lots of shelling opportunities to go around in this coveted region of the Inner Banks.