The warm sunshine on your face and the quiet that comes from being unplugged on a barrier island are two big reasons for visiting Hammocks Beach State Park. Your journey begins in the Visitor Center where exhibits tell the story of the park’s 1,500-acres, which includes three smaller islands — Dudley, Huggins, and Jones – positioned near the mouth of the White Oak River. The park’s crown jewel, Bear Island, is one of Travel + Leisure’s Top Ten NC Beaches, and just a passenger ferry ride or private boat ride away. Other than taking a few selfies to share, you’ll relish the “back to nature” vibe of this island that is free of cars and houses.
HOW TO GET TO BEAR ISLAND: Due to the current social distancing guidelines that are in place to protect our visitors, the Hammocks Beach State Park ferry service that runs every year from April through October is temporarily suspended. However, you can get over to Bear Island from Historic Downtown Swansboro via our specialty cruise operators, Lady Swan Boat Tours, and Marsh Cruises, as well as via a shuttle run by Pogie’s Fishing Center.
For complete details and up-to-date information about visiting Hammocks Beach State Park and Bear Island, visit the North Carolina State Parks website.
Native Americans once roamed here, traveling the waterways in dugout canoes before pirates entered the picture and sailed their boats along the Southern Outer Banks. Once you’re standing on Bear Island, you can’t help but wonder if much has changed since the pirates and early explorers landed there.
Located off NC24 about two miles southeast of Swansboro, Hammocks Beach State Park runs two 49-passenger ferries to Bear Island from April through October. Bear Island is accessible only by ferry or private boat, so be sure to check the daily schedule before planning your trip. At just over three miles long and less than a mile wide, the island has an interesting ecological mix: shrub thickets and maritime forests on one side of the island and large dunes and sand ridges on the ocean side.
Once you leave the parking lot behind and step onto the passenger ferry at the Hammocks Beach State Park dock, the salty air is already slowing you down and introducing you to beach life. During the ferry ride, you’ll see the salt marshes and estuarine creeks that are part of the park’s habitat, and perhaps you’ll see an occasional dolphin or fish break the surface of the water. After landing at the dock on Bear Island, you’re free to sunbathe or explore. A short, sandy trail leads to the beachside of the barrier island, where more than three miles of oceanfront remain untouched and uninhabited. The sound of waves ebbing and flowing and crashing on the beach is as soothing as a yoga class, and you have the feeling of what it must be like to go off the grid – for a few hours, anyway. Once you’ve sunbathed and watched the birds dip in the sky, you can return to the dock, ready to be scooped up by the ferry for a return to the park’s visitor center.
If you’re interested in staying longer, primitive campsites are open year-round and there are opportunities for backpack and group camping. Stop by the Ranger’s office to make reservations and to obtain permits. You can also sign up for ranger-led talks and programs with titles like “Sea Turtles” and “Kids Kayaking Camp Orientation.”
For a closer exploration of Hammocks Beach State Park, use the visitor center’s launch site to put in canoes and kayaks before checking out the park’s three well-marked paddle trails ranging from short to more than six miles. The Bear Island Trail is a one-way trek that begins at the kayak launch and ends at the Bear Island campsites.
The Huggins Island Trail begins and ends at the kayak launch and circles Huggins Island, a smaller island visible from downtown Swansboro. Huggins was used by Native Americans as fishing and hunting grounds, and today white-tailed deer, raccoons and gray fox, as well as herons and egrets, live in the island’s thick maritime forest. The island’s rich history also includes being home to a Confederate six-cannon battery from 1861 to 1862.
With so much nature and history all around you and miles of sandy beachfront to enjoy, Hammocks Beach State Park is one of the few places that remains untouched by development and is ready to be explored. Once you visit, it’s up to you to decide how long you’ll remain off the grid, or how strong the pull is to flood Instagram with your Bear Island pictures.