Camping Adventures on the Crystal Coast
*UPDATED AUGUST 2020
When the seasons start to change and the weather gets cooler, new adventures are just waiting to happen! With the beautiful fall colors just reaching the height of their glory, and the fall weather taking the edge off the humidity, autumn is the perfect time to get into nature. Adventures for the whole family await in the great outdoors, where it's easy to keep a safe social distance while getting some fresh air and exercise—and the perfect way to enjoy the beauty of the Crystal Coast, North Carolina—all at the same time.
We have highlighted a few of our favorite camping spots which will help you to take full advantage of this wonderful time of year on the Southern Outer Banks. Even if you don't camp, these three locations make for great day trips from your vacation rental in Emerald Isle, NC if you just want to go exploring, walk the trails, and immerse yourself in nature.
**Please note that while all these camping facilities are open at the writing of this post, not all of the park/campground facilities and services may be fully open at this time. Please check the current status on each attraction's website for the latest updates and information.
HAMMOCKS BEACH STATE PARK & BEAR ISLAND
The History of Hammocks Beach & Bear Island
This area is comprised of a few islands, the main attraction being Bear Island. Bear Island has a rich history that involves Native American wars, pirate hideouts, Civil War battles, a neurosurgeon from New York, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Early Native Americans used Bear Island to journey between the various small islands along the coast, and then later as a hideout during the Tuscarora War against colonists in 1711 and 1713. Later, pirates (including the notorious Blackbeard) were known to use these islands as a safe spot to repair their ships while also keeping an eye out for merchant vessels to attack. Bear Island continued to be ideal as a strategic position in both the Civil War and World War II. During the Civil War, Bear Island kept troops that helped to defend against Union soldiers in Bogue Banks. In World War II, Bear Island was a key area to lookout for German U-boats.
In the early 1900s, neurosurgeon Dr. William Sharpe from New York visited Bear Island for a hunting trip and fell in love with its pristine beaches and glorious views. He purchased it for his retirement and in his will left it for an organized group of African American teachers called the North Carolina Teacher’s Association. After it came under their stewardship, they in turn donated the land to the state of North Carolina to be used initially as a park specifically for minorities, but it was eventually opened to everyone after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, this beautiful area is maintained by North Carolina State Parks. It is home to many kinds of wildlife including loggerhead turtles, deer, gulls, and a few mischievous raccoon.
Primitive Camping on Bear Island
Bear Island in Hammocks Beach State Park is open year round for camping. It is considered to be "primitive camping,” so make sure you bring all of your own equipment and gear. It is recommended that you pack lightly however, because there is a short hike to the campgrounds. Certain facilities are available during certain times of the year. Fees are minimal and more information about reservations and rules of the campground can be found on their official website.
Once there, campers are treated to unspoiled pristine beaches highlighted by the warm sun glistening off the water. Activities such as kayaking, swimming, shelling, picnicking, and fishing simply cannot be missed. Bird and animal watching are easy to do in this natural environment free from crowding and pollution. Then after a fun, adventured-filled day all that is left to do is relax on the beach as the beautiful sunset tips under the water. Looking at the stars as you settle in for the night provides the perfect opportunity for storytelling and some of the most relaxing zzzs you’ll ever get. Camping at Bear Island is the perfect way to spend these cool autumn days.
Read more about Hammocks Beach State Park and Bear Island here.
CAPE LOOKOUT NATIONAL SEASHORE & SHACKLEFORD BANKS
The History of Cape Lookout National Lighthouse & Shackleford Banks
Preserving a 56-mile long stretch of coast from Ocracoke to Beaufort, Cape Lookout National Seashore is home to three beautiful barrier islands: North Core Banks, South Core Banks, and Shackleford Banks. It is also home to the fully functional Cape Lookout Lighthouse.
Shackleford Banks, most famously known for the Shackleford ponies, is only a nine-mile long stretch of beach accessible by ferry. Named for their small stature, these ponies are believed to be the descendants of horses brought there by Sir Walter Raleigh and possibly from Christopher Columbus’s early trading ambitions in the "Indies.” Protected by the Shackleford Banks Wild Horse Protection Act (put into effect in 1998) and the National Park Service, the Shackleford Ponies roam freely and visitors can view these wonderful, wild creatures throughout the island.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse is also a must-see, must-visit location on the Cape Lookout National Seashore. Actually the second lighthouse to inhabit the area, its black and white diamonds stand as a beacon for everyone in the area and a warning for sailors approaching the shoals. Typically open for climbing May through September, the lighthouse’s history dates back to 1859. Costing a hefty price of the time at $45,000, Cape Lookout Lighthouse sported a new lens called Fresnel lens which was clearer and brighter than others of the same time period. It was later removed during the Civil War leaving Union soldiers incapable for a time to navigate the area, until they captured and replaced the lens in 1864.
History continues to tell of a Confederate who blew up part of the lighthouse in an attempt to sabotage the Union forces, and the light was put out again. It was finally put back into working order and the temporary wooden stairs after the explosion were replaced with iron in 1867. Since that time, the lighthouse has been restored and opened up seasonally to visitors. Maintained by the National Park Service, visitors are welcome to climb the 207 steps to the breathtaking view above. Much more history surrounds this area including the extinct Diamond and Portsmouth Cities, museums, and visitor’s centers.
(Please note that the lighthouse, visitor center, and other services are not currently open, but call or visit the National Park Service website for the most current updates and information.)
Primitive Camping on Cape Lookout National Seashore
This camping adventure is sure to be a memorable one! There are no designated campgrounds, but more information about where to camp can be found on NPS website. This is also considered primitive camping, so be ready for adventuring, and light packing! Certain facilities are opened seasonally.
Campers can expect to have plenty of family fun and memories that they will keep forever. Swimming, shelling, bird watching, fishing, kayaking and canoeing, and even hunting (in specified areas) are just a few of the amazing activities one can do on the National Seashore. Guides are available for those searching for the Shackleford ponies, and tours are available for Lighthouse visits seasonally.
Campers are sure to have plenty of things to do during the day and a peaceful area to spend the night. Like with any primitive camping, families are sure to find a bond with nature they didn't know they had and enjoy all the beauty of these pristine beaches during our gorgeous fall weather.
You can read more about Cape Lookout National Seashore and Lighthouse on the National Park Service website.
CEDAR POINT RECREATION AREA & CAMPGROUND
About Cedar Point Recreational Area
Cedar Point Campground and Recreation Area is located in eastern North Carolina at the junction of the White Oak River and the Bogue Sound, immediately adjacent to the Swansboro Inlet. It is within 1 mile of full service shopping, and within 2 miles of the Crystal Coast of North Carolina and the barrier island beach community of Bogue Banks—and not far from your vacation rental in Emerald Isle. It is a great place to take a day trip, or just to spend your morning or afternoon exploring.
Cedar Point, at the mouth of the White Oak River, is bordered by a salt marsh and a coastal forest. The salt marsh, where fresh water meets salt water, stretches out like a sea of grass. This nutrient-rich wetland is a valuable habitat for commercial seafood, including fish, shrimp, crabs and oysters. The recreation area is part of the Croatan National Forest, a 160,000-acre tract on North Carolina's coast, bordered on three sides by tidal rivers and Bogue Sound. Canoeing and fishing are popular options. Power boating is allowed on the White Oak River. Visitors can hike the Tidelands National Trail, a 1.9-mile path divided in two loops that lend themselves to wildlife viewing. Ospreys and the occasional dolphin can be viewed along the loops. The recreation area is also home to a picnic area and shallow draft boat launch.
Cedar Point Campground
The campground has 40 sites with full electrical service. A modern, state-of-the-art bath house is available, with private, hot showers. Accessible flush toilets, drinking water and a dump station are also provided. Five sites are available as first come, first served. You will have to book three days in advance of your stay. What that means is, if a site is vacant and not reserved when you show up, you may stay in it for three days, but if it gets booked after that you will have to move, unless its one of the first, come first served sites.
These are just a few of the many, many camping adventures that families can enjoy during their time on the Crystal Coast. And to finish off your wonderful vacation, be sure to return to the equally beautiful Emerald Isle for some Sun-Surf sun and fun on the beautiful beach!