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Paddling in Eastern North Carolina, Part 2: Bear Island

This is the second of six guides to paddling Eastern North Carolina. The series runs through the summer. The first, on Greenville’s Tar River, is here.

Text and photos by Brad Beggs, Guardian columnist

Bear Island lagoon (far left, in background) and the Atlantic Ocean.

Bear Island lagoon (far left, in background) and the Atlantic Ocean.

No one expects amazing white sand beaches to be empty at the height of the summer. This is what makes secluded Bear Island, reachable only by private boat or riding the park system’s passenger ferry, the best beach paddle in the North Carolina.

This paddle is short, giving ample time to shell, swim in 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 camp on the beach, 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, there is plenty for the expert paddler and new paddler alike to enjoy: an island perfect for Goldilocks.

Stories of Bear Island

When I first paddled to Bear Island, it wasn’t during the prime months. A bright 50-degree day in February should have made for a great paddle. The tides, wind and weather provided an excellent opportunity for a solo trip 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 have taken just a couple of hours to paddle. As I neared Bogue Inlet, the calm, rolling ocean quickly turned into five foot breakers. My choices were flipping and rolling in cold, rough water or landing on Bear’s eastern flank: I chose the island. A kite could have helped me enjoy the 13 mph crosswinds more. An entire beach to oneself makes Bear Island a prime destination in Carolina’s winter.

The Main Paddle Trail Details | 2.5 miles one way

Who Should Paddle This Trail

This trail is for you if:

Hammock's Beach State Park visitor's center. The sidewalk heads towards the canoe/kayak launch. Brad Beggs.

Hammock’s Beach State Park visitor’s center. The sidewalk heads towards the canoe/kayak launch.

✢  you are a new paddler,
✢  you want to spend more time on the beach than on the water,
✢  you want a family outing,
✢  you want a place to take your friends, hoping they catch the paddle bug,
✢  you don’t care if you cover a lot of ground.

If you want a longer paddle, check out the additional launch points and optional routes on the map below.

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 an awkward name) line the curved road to the visitors center’s large parking lot and kayak launch. At the center, you can get final details on conditions and check in (if you’re camping on the island). They have carts, free of charge, to transport kayaks down the 30-yard walkway.

✢  Standing on the floating kayak dock, with your back to the visitor’s center, Bear Island is 3 miles directly in front of you. Notice the large hill making up the 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 of the markers 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 busy Intercoastal Waterway and keep an eye on the trail markers. Within 25 yards, 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). Follow the trail markers across the Intercoastal Waterway. From here, the white and orange markers will lead you through the salt marsh. Once you reach the island, the markers take you along the edge of the maritime forest heading east (towards Atlantic Beach, visible in the distance, across the inlet), and then the path curves in along a small cut. A narrow 5-6 foot channel takes you into Bear Island Lagoon where you can access campsites and the ocean. Marked beach access and boat landing are at the far side of the lagoon. There is plenty of room for multiple boats and it’s about a 130-yard walk to the Atlantic.

✢  At low tide, the trail is navigable but requires some minor pathfinding. If you get off the trail, just head towards the knoll—all paths here lead towards Bear.

What You’ll See

Egrets search for food.

Egrets search for food.

Ibis, cormorants, snowy and great egrets and osprey are frequently on the hunt here; sandpipers, plovers and other common shore birds are numerous. Puppy drum, flounder, trout and bluefish offer prime fishing. At low tide, there are sand dollars aplenty, crabs, oysters and clams on the beach, with a fair number of dolphins patrolling. The interior of the island is fairly covered in cedars, pines and sea oats, while the beach is wide open—perfect for the 4-mile walk along its length.

The Local Knowledge To Make it Great

✢  When winds are under 10 mph, paddling with or against the tide is pretty easy. 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. Winds above 18 mph make for a miserable paddle: the trail goes through a salt marsh, so there are plenty of opportunities to take a break, but few places to escape the wind.

✢  Arrive at the lagoon about 2.5-3 hours before or after low tide. If you arrive inside of this five to six hour window, you’ll have to drag your boat for about 50 yards in an inch of water until you reach the deeper part of the lagoon. Visit SaltWaterTides.com, and use the Bogue Inlet location to determine the best time to arrive at Bear Island. The starting point at Hammock’s Beach visitor’s center is 45 minutes behind Bogue Inlet tide times.

✢  Cell coverage is really good on the island, but the satellite imagery in map apps is outdated. It will look like you are paddling through land because the salt marsh changes more quickly than most satellite imagery is updated.

The western point of Bear Island. At low tide, you will need to drag your boat about 50 yards in about 1-2" of water before reaching deeper water. Brad Beggs.

The western point of Bear Island. At low tide, you’ll need to drag your boat about 50 yards in an inch or two of water before it’s deep enough to paddle.

✢  This route 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, between Labor Day and Memorial Day, you’ll share the beach, but the east side is never crowded. When you go in the spring or fall, you will most likely have the beach to yourself. During the winter months, you will 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, tucked between the dunes, offers privacy.

✢  If you explore the interior of Bear, wear sturdy shoes. The cactuses on the island puncture flip flops and other soft shoes.

Park Info

✢  Phone: (910) 326-4881
✢  email hammocks.beach@ncparks.gov
✢  1572 Hammocks Beach Road, Swansboro, NC 28584
✢  Visitor’s Center GPS: 34.6710, -77.1429
✢  Hammock’s Beach State Park

Cost

✢  Free to visit and paddle.

✢  For camping costs, visit Hammock’s Beach State Park website. Camping is by the night with up to six people per site; there are 14 sites. There are two group sites in the center of the island, near concessions. Individual sites 6 & 7 are the closest to where you land your boat. Site 14 is the easiest to reach.

Where to Stay

There are hotels, inns, B&Bs and campgrounds nearby, plus camping on Bear Island. If you don’t want to camp on Bear Island:

✢  the WaterWay Inn receives high marks from paddlers and online reviews;

✢  Cedar Point Campground, inside the Croatan National Forest, is a nice camping and RVing spot. It has tall Loblolly pines shading most of the campground, hot showers and access to a boat ramp.

Detailed Google Map

Use this map to see the exact route to paddle, find Bear Island campsites, concessions and other optional paddles.

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Brad Beggs is developing a web-based guidebook to the beautiful paddles of ENC while directing ECU’s Adventure Program full-time.

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Responses (2)

  1. John Drake says:

    Great coverage. One question: How long does it take to paddle from the main land to Bear Island, assuming a moderate pace?

    • Brad Beggs says:

      Hi John,
      Generally most people can easily paddle about 3mph for a couple of hours. I usually give myself and friend about an hour to hour and 15 minutes to reach the beach if we are straight paddling. If we relax and site see a little, about hour thirty. With a group or new paddlers, I usually give myself about 2 hours to reach Bear Island.

      If you have other questions, please let me know.
      Brad

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