Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Little-Known Fact: The notorious Blackbeard was among the many pirates who frequented the Bear Island area.
When you stand on the edge of Bear Island and stare out into the Atlantic Ocean, contemplating this world of water, sand, sky, and little else, it’s hard to imagine that a mere 20 miles to the north sits Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, famed for tacky tourism, fast food, plastic, and neon.
Here at Hammocks Beach State Park, a 25-minute ferry ride from Swansboro, your world is a pristine barrier island free from crowds and condos. Here, you can truly enjoy some quiet time at the beach, and all the simple pleasures that come with an uninhabited shoreline: surf-casting, kite-flying, swimming, tracking ghost crabs, or just digging your toes in the sand and scanning the waves for dolphins.
A North Carolina State Park since 1961, Bear Island is bordered on the southeast by the Atlantic and on the northwest by a vast salt marsh, tidal estuarine creeks, and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
Along with a rich wildlife and plantlife, the island also has a rich history. In the 1700s, it served as a hideout for the Neuse and Coree Indians during the Tuscaroan Wars. Later, the island was a haven for pirates, and then for Spanish privateers. It was a military station during the Civil War and World War II. Dr. William Sharpe, a New York neurosurgeon, bought the island in the early 1900s. The land ultimately was given to the state of North Carolina as a park, opened to the public in 1964. Bear Island may be a bit too much trouble to get to for some beachgoers, and the strict camping regulations can make park officials seem like reluctant hosts. But those who crave an unspoiled beach won’t mind the inconveniences.
Despite the restrictions, Bear Island is difficult to leave behind. Even as you’re trudging through the sand back to the ferry landing after a sun-drenched weekend, chances are you’ll be plotting a return trip to the clearest coast in North Carolina.
Hammocks Beach State Park
1572 Hammocks Rd.
Swansboro, NC 28584
North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation
Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources
Raleigh, NC 27611
Contact park office for information.
From the east side of Swansboro, turn south from State Hwy. 24 onto State Road 1511. Travel two miles to the parking lot and ferry landing. Purchase tickets (nominal fee) at the park office near the ferry landing. The passenger ferry takes you directly to the island and drops you off a half mile from the beach.
The island can be reached year-round by private boat (or kayak or canoe) or seasonal park passenger ferries. But be warned: Camping is restricted during the full moon phases of June, July, and August, loghead sea turtle egg-laying periods.
In summer (May through September), daytime temperatures typically range from 90 to 100 degrees F and nighttime temperatures are in the 70s. In the winter months of January and February, temperatures are generally in the mid-50s, with nighttime air dipping down into the 30s and often bringing frost. Spring and fall temperatures are a pleasant 65 to 75 degrees, reaching into the 50s at night. Fishing is particularly good in the fall.
Sit quietly and you may see gray fox and whitetail deer. Offshore, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins break the surface, and at times, so does the occasional whale. Keep your hat on because the skies are filled with laughing gulls as well as brown pelicans and several species of terns. In the tidal creeks, herons and egrets stand motionless, waiting for a passing fish.
But the most celebrated animals on the island are loggerhead sea turtles, a federally threatened species since 1981. The female turtles come ashore in summer to nest. The park then curtails nighttime beach activities and restricts camping during peak egg-laying periods. The park staff conducts night hikes during the summer for those who want to witness the nesting process.
Bobcats, raccoons, marsh rabbits can also be seen. Puppy drum, flounder, trout, and blue fish are good catches.
Bring along insect repellent for protection against mosquitoes and other insects.
The island is rich with distinctive vegetation. Sea oats, American beachgrass, and seaside goldenrod cover the dunes, while loblolly pine, red cedar, red maple, red bay and various oaks grow at the northeast end of the island in a maritime forest. The northwest is primarily marsh, dominated by cordgrass and needlerush.
There are 14 family campsites, offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The fee is $5 per night with a maximum of six people per site. The fee for the three group campsites, which can be reserved in advance, is $1 a head, with a $5 minimum and a maximum of 12 people per site.
Water is available at the bathhouse mid-March through early December. An emergency phone is also located there.
Park ferries bring visitors on a 20-minute ride from Swansboro to the island. The ferries run on an hourly schedule (9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.) seven days a week in the season from Memorial Day to Labor Day. In April and October, the ferries run hourly on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In May and September, the ferries pick up hourly service to include Wednesday and Thursday rides. Round-trip cost is $2 adults, $1 children. Arrive early in the day to avoid long delays.
When the ferry service is not in operation, Waterway Marina and Store, Inc. (919/393-8008) offers a shuttle service. Canoeists and kayakers have the option of following the ferry route or the marked canoe trail.
Contact park office for information.
Obtain camping permits at the park office on the mainland.
- Camping is allowed only in designated sites.
- To minimize disturbance of nesting sea turtles and later, their hatchlings, camping isn’t allowed during the full-moon phases in June, July, and August, and flashlights are discouraged.
- Campfires are prohibited; use camp stoves or park grills located in the picnic areas.
- No motor vehicles are allowed, which is an easy rule to comply with since there’s no way to get them to the island.
- Pets are not allowed on the ferry. On the island, they must be kept on a leash no longer than six feet.
- The park is a wildlife preserve; hunting and trapping are prohibited.
- In summer, there is an almost daily 20 percent chance of thunderstorms due to the humidity.
- Heed rip tides, strong currents, and the Portuguese Man O’ War, which may create hazardous swimming conditions. Consult park staff for safety advice.
- Bring along sun protection, drink plenty of fluids, and dress properly — hot weather makes hat and shoes a must.
Leave No Trace:
- There are strict camping regulations, including no motor vehicles, no campfires, no charcoal grills, and no alcohol.
- No hunting or trapping permitted.
- Visitors must use the beach access trails rather than trek through the fragile dune fields.
- Trash bags may be requested at the park office. Use recycling containers.
- All LNT guidelines apply.
Maps are available at the park office on the mainland. Maps include the “Canoe/Kayak Access Guide to Bear Island.”
Other Trip Options:
- Nearby Swansboro (919/347-3141), the “Friendly City by the Sea,” offers quaint shops and many seafood restaurants. Park officials recommend Gourmet Cafe and The Crab House for meals and Waterway Inn or any bed and breakfast for lodging.
- Croatan National Forest (919/638-5628) trails run as close as 4 miles northeast of Swansboro, and the beaches of Emerald Isle are only minutes away from Swansboro.
- Annual festivals in Swansboro include a Memorial Day weekend fishing tournament drawing anglers up and down the East Coast; Arts by the Sea in June; a small-town Fourth of July; the Swansboro Mullet Festival in October; and a Christmas flotilla on the weekend after Thanksgiving, where lighted reindeer ride along the Intracoastal Waterway aboard local sailing crafts bringing Santa to Swansboro.
- There are also a number of nearby aquariums and maritime museums.