You don’t expect an amazing white-sand beach to be empty at the height of the summer. But this is exactly what you find and what makes Hammocks Beach State Park’s Bear Island the best beach paddle in North Carolina. If you want to dip your toes in the Atlantic here, you need to paddle or hitch a ride on the park pontoon boat ferry.
This short 3 mile (one way) paddle gives you enough time to shell, swim the warm water, and watch for dolphins without worrying about the paddle back. The trail is also marked and and easy to follow. If you want to beach camp like Robinson Crusoe, there are 14 tent campsites, ranging from oceanside-among-the-dunes to camp-on-a-knoll-overlooking-the-sound. With several different launch points and direct access to two inlets, the expert paddler and new paddler have plenty to enjoy, much like Goldilocks.
When I first kayaked to Bear Island, it wasn’t during the prime months. A harsh but bright 50 degree day in February made for a great paddle. The tides, the wind, and weather made for an excellent chance to paddle solo all the way around the island, using Bogue and Bear Inlets to get to the Atlantic. In perfectly comfortable sunny weather and at 4 miles long, it should’ve taken a short couple of hours to paddle. What started as a calm, rolling ocean quickly became five foot breaking waves as I neared Bogue Inlet. Flipping and rolling in 40 degree rough water wasn’t appealing, forcing me to land on on Bear’s eastern flank. If I had a kite to enjoy the 13 mph crosswinds, I could’ve enjoyed my time more. An entire beach to myself makes Bear Island a destination in Carolina’s winter.
The Main Paddle Trail
~2.5 miles one way | 2.5 hours one way
Who Should Paddle This Trail
This trail is for you:
- you are a new paddler
- you want to spend more time on the beach than on the water
- you want a family outing
- a place to take your friends hoping they catch the paddle bug
- don’t care if you cover a lot of ground.
If you do want a longer paddle, check out the additional launch points and optional routes on the map.
The Trail Details
Most people launch at Hammocks Beach State Park Visitor’s Center, though other launch points exist. Live oak trees (unique tree with a very awkward name) line the curved road to the visitors center’s large parking lot and kayak launch. Get final details on conditions or check-in for beach camping inside. They also provide a free kayak cart to transport your boat down the 30 yard walkway. If you’re going for the day, you don’t need to check in.
Stand on the floating kayak dock, with your back to the visitor’s center. Your island destination is 3 miles directly in front of you. Set your sights on the large hill making up Bear Island’s east side. Directly to the left of this hill is Bogue Inlet and the end of land until Atlantic Beach.
The route is marked with faded ‘white and orange’ trail markers. While mostly easy to see, at low tide you may not see one or two around a bend. From the dock, head east (away from the passenger ferry dock) stay close to shore as this section of the trail is along the popular and busy Intercoastal Waterway. Keep an eye on the trail markers. Within 25 yards of your start you should see markers for Bear Island and Huggins Island (another loop option).
Once you reach the ferry storage yard (on your left, about a 3-5 minute paddle from the dock), look right (south). The trail markers have you crossing the Intercoastal Waterway. From here, follow the white and orange markers through the salt marsh. Once you reach the island, the markers lead you along the edge of the maritime forest heading east (towards Atlantic Beach, visible in the distance, across the inlet) and then curves in along a small cut. A narrow, 5-6 foot channel takes you back into Bear Island Lagoon and access to the campsites and the ocean.
Paddle to the far side of the lagoon, towards the marked beach access and boat landing point. There is plenty of room for multiple boats and about a 130 yard walk to the Atlantic.
At low tide, the trail is navigable but requires some minor pathfinding. Still follow the markers until you reach Bear Island. If you get off the trail, just head towards the knoll – all paths here lead towards Bear.
What You’ll See
It is easy to see a number of Ibis, Cormorants, Snowy and Great Egrets and Osprey on the hunt. Sandpipers, plovers and other common shore birds are numerous while Puppy drum, flounder, trout and blue fish offer prime fishing.
At low tide, I’ve found sand dollars a-plenty, crab, oysters, clams, and a fair number of dolphins patrolling the beach. The inside part of the island is fairly covered in cedars, pines, and sea oats while the beach is wide, open; perfect for a walk along its 4 mile length.
The Local Knowledge To Make it Great
With winds under 10mph, the paddle is pretty easy with or against the tide. If the winds start blowing above 15 mph (if you see flags blowing all the way out, the wind is at least 15 mph), go with the tide and be prepared for a workout, especially if you are new to paddling. Above 18 mph and the paddle is miserable. Because the trail goes through a salt marsh, there are plenty of options to take a break, but few locations to escape the wind.
Life is easier going with the tide, but at Bear Island it’s not hard to paddle against it. But the true secret is to arrive at the lagoon about 2.5-3 hours before or after low tide. Arrive inside of this five to 6 hour window and you’ll drag your boat for about 50 yards in 1” of water until you reach the deeper part of the lagoon. Visit SaltWaterTides.com, using the Bogue Inlet location to determine the best time to arrive at Bear Island. Your starting point at the visitor’s center is 45 minutes delayed from Bogue Inlet tide times.
Cell coverage is really good but the satellite imagery in your maps app is outdated. It looks like you are paddling through land because the salt marsh changes quicker than most satellite imagery is updated.
This paddle takes you to the far east side of Bear Island, well away from the NC Park ferry landing in the central part of the island (with restrooms, water, group camping and concessions, in-season). If you go during the summer months (Labor Day to Memorial), you’ll share the beach but this side is never crowded. When you go in the spring or fall, you most likely have the beach to yourself. During the “winter” months, you have the whole island to yourself.
Reserve your campsite early; the summer months almost always sell out. At night, only campers are on the island. Each site is fairly private, tucked between the dunes.
If you explore the inside portion of Bear, wear sturdy shoes. The cacti on the island puncture flip flops and other soft shoes.
Phone: (910) 326-4881
1572 Hammocks Beach Road, Swansboro, NC 28584
Visitor’s Center GPS: 34.6710, -77.1429
Free to visit and paddle. For camping and ferry costs, visit their website.
Camping is by the night with up to 6 people per site; 14 sites exist. 2 groups sites are in the center of the island, near concessions, drinking water, and showers. Individual sites 6 & 7 are the closest to where you land your boat. Sites 14, 13, and 12 are the easiest to reach, next to the water, offer shade but no direct access to concessions.
Where to Stay
There are numerous hotels, inns and B&Bs and campgrounds nearby, plus camping on Bear Island.
Two favorites if you don’t want to camp on Bear Island:
- The WaterWay Inn receives high marks from paddlers and online reviews, located in Swansboro.
- Cedar Point Campground, inside the Croatan National Forest, is nice for camping and RVing spot, with tall Loblolly pines shading most of the campground. You’ll find hot showers and access to a boat ramp 60 second drive away.
Where to Rent a Boat
If you need an extra boat, or don’t want to travel with one, Paddle NC Outfitters rents boats (kayaks, canoes and SUP) at the visitor’s center.