The Crystal Coast of North Carolina has got it going on! Long known for it's beautiful, white sand beaches, the area is also loaded with history from before the colonial era. Visit each of the charming fishing villages along the coastline: Beaufort, Morehead City, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, Swansboro and even the colonial capital, New Bern. Rich with both Civil War, Revolutionary War and even WWII (German U-boats were off the coast trying to bomb our merchant vessels), this area is a history buffs dream.
Hiking the Crystal Coast Trails
None of these hikes are particularly challenging as the coast of NC is pretty flat. Plus the soil is sandy so it's easy on the joints! Here are a few of my favorite local hikes:
Hike The Beach on Bogue Banks
You can walk over TWENTY MILES each way along the gorgeous Bogue Banks barrier island. Just be sure to pay attention to the tides as it is a LOT harder to walk at high tide in the sofe sand. Much better to walk near low tide! Here is the local tide table. There are two bridges to get to the island: one at each end at Atlantic Beach and Emerald Isle on Hwy 24/70. Great year 'round (but dress warmly in winter).
Hike Fort Macon by the Beach
One of my favorite hikes is the 3.2 mile Elliot Coues Nature Trail located at Fort Macon State Park, at the east end of Bogue Banks by the inlet. The Fort is worth a visit on it's own, but also take advantage of the beautiful trail that winds through the Maritime Forest (a super cool ecosystem in and of itself) and ends along the ocean before bringing you back to the Fort. Check out the Events page and try to time your visit with a Nature Hike with a Park Ranger! Nice year 'round.
Hike Patsy Pond Trail in the Croatan Forest
Take a peaceful walk on the Patsy Pond Trail through the pine forest and bogs offers an opportunity to see carniverous plants such as Venus Fly Trap and Pitcher plants in the low, boggy areas. This forest is hunted in Oct-Dec so be sure to wear bright orange during these months. Avoid the summer due to mosquitos. Best Fall-Spring.
Hike the Coastal Cedar Point Trail
One of my favorite hikes is the Cedar Point Trail, while also in the Croatan forest, is along the White Oak River where the river meets the sea for HUGE water views! On this short (1.4 mile) but fun trail, you walk over some bridges and boardwalks over the tidal marsh as well as through the forest. Be on the lookout for egrets and great blue herons!
At low tide, the abundant fiddler crabs will race to their mud holes as you approach -always comical. There is also a boat launch (or kayak launch) here, as well as a campground. There is an island just a quick paddle away that is a great spot for a picnic (and I even took a yoga class there once!). Best Fall-Spring, but if windy, summer may be ok (mosquitos may be present).
Hike the Neusiok Trail by the Neuse River
A great trail by the massive Neuse River. On the Neusiok Trail you can camp here for FREE! I would recommend a hammock to sleep as the land is not very level. If you don't want to hike the entire 20+ miles, you can park a few miles (or even AT the river) and hike as much as you'd like. There are also three shelters along the trail. Best Fall-Spring (on the river itself you MAY escape the mosquitos, but no promises:)
This is the trail that I almost killed my Mom by using poor judgement (she was 90 and it was HOT and we entered the woods without water, food, etc. and ended up being out there SEVEN hours! You can here the saga on the podcast player above). Anyhow, as promised in the podcast, here is what I bring when I enter ANY woods, no matter HOW INNOCENT LOOKING:
2. Power bar or bag of nuts
4. FIre Starter (I like vaseline (TM) mixed with dryer lint in a plastic zip bag plus a small cigarette lighter
5. Heat blanket – they weigh little and take up little more room than a deck of cards
6. Sunscreen and a hat
7. If there is any chance of cold, a thermal and a rain jacket
Hike Flanner's Beach Trail
Short but nice is the Flander's Beach trail, where you'll also find a nice campground (paid). This trail is located between New Bern and Havelock, so if you've just arrived and want to stretch your legs before heading to the beach area, take a quick detour off of Hwy 70!
Bike the Crystal Coast
Bring or rent a fat tired bike to ride the trails above. There are more and more dedicated bike paths throughout the Crystal Coast, especially in Emerald Isle. In the winter time, I like to ride the length of Bogue Banks along Hwy 58 as there isn't much traffic. If you ride your bike along the beach, be sure to rinse it thouroughy to remove the salt and sand(make sure your rental company allows beach riding)! Also be sure to watch the tide table as riding on soft sand during High Tide wis really tough. Here's the local tide table. Low tide occurs twice a day, so a window of a couple of hours before and after the Low Tide is optimal.
Paddle the Crystal Coast
Hammocks Beach State Park
Kayak or SUP along the marshes, creeks and sound of the Crystal Coast! There are three blazed Kayak Trails at the beautiful Hammocks Beach State Park. You can even kayak over to Bear Island and reserve a camp site on either the sound or the ocean!
If you want to explore the many small islands and grassy marsh lands off the trails, be sure to waterproof your GPS so you can easily find your way back. All that marsh grass can get confusing! You can pick up an inexpensive wet bag for your phone. You can rent kayaks from the Park Service. There is also a lovely Visitor's Center with tons of cool displays of the coastal area (FREE – donations gladly accepted).
Beaufort : Carrot Island, Shackelford Banks and The Rachael Carson Reserve
One of my favorite areas to explore by kayak is Taylor's Creek and the Beaufort area waterways. You can launch from historic downtown Beaufort and go on a hunt for the wild ponies across the way at Carrot Island. Explore the beautiful Rachael Carson Reserve, made famous by the book, SIlent Spring, which kick started the environmental movement. There are several cool little islands, including Carrot Island, to explore. Bottlenose dolphins are a common sight, as well herons, egrets and other water fowl.
Bring a picnic and head over to Shackelford Banks – always a favorite. You can even camp here (for FREE) – best Fall – Spring to avoid mosquitos. Here you'll see dozens of wild ponies, descendant from old ship wrecked Spanish ships and beautiful beaches.
You can rent kayaks and SUPs at Beaufort Paddle.
If you prefer paddling on the beach side, whether for sound or ocean kayaking, check out AB Watersports for your rentals. They offer not just kayaks and SUPs, but they can also rent you JetSkis, boats (including my favorite, a Pontoon Boat) or you can book with them to go Parasailing!
The “Running Root Estate” video clip shows “The Point” at Emerald Isle. The other is footage of the ocean by Atlantic Beach, shot by my friend Marc Connolly.
Historic New Bern – Gateway to the Crystal Coast
I didn't discuss New Bern on the podcast, but if you have the time, allow at least one night in this historic area. It has a charming downtown where the Neuse River meets the Trent River. If you stay in the historic district, you can walk to everything.
Whether you are flying in to Raleigh (RDU) or New Bern(EWN), you will need a car to get around, so consider driving if it's not too far from home.
On your way to the Crystal Coast on Hwy 70, you'll go through the little town of Havelock, also home of the Cherry Point Marine Corp Air Station. There's a small visitor exhibit at the Convention Center that is worth a quick stop. And if you are a history buff, before you even get to Havelock there is a Civil War Battlefield exhibit on Hwy 70 on your way out of New Bern.
THINGS TO DO IN NEW BERN
• Visitor’s Center: pick up free self-guided walking tours
The walking tours: Historic Homes, Revolutionary War, African American Heritage, Churches and Cemeteries, A Walk to Remember (author Nicholas Sparks lives here and often sets his novels in Eastern NC)
• Union Park and walk around downtown, the old churches and cemeteries
• Historic downtown trolley tour
• Tryon Palace – NC’s colonial capital and former Governor’s mansion (rebuilt 150 years after a fire)
• Fireman’s Museum 1922 Fire burned down 1/3 of the city (NC's largest urban fires)
• New Bern Academy Museum (free) Old Civil War hospital
• Ghosts of New Bern tour (evenings in season)
• New Bern Battlefield Park (site of the battle where the Union took the area in 1862)- Free if self-guided (guided tours available). This is on the way to the coast, just outside of a development called Taberna. Site where General Burnsides and his 60 ships and 15,000 troops overtook the local milita and then occupied the area for the remainder of the Civil War.
Havelock is on Hwy 70E en route to the coast. Home of the US Marine Corp Air Station Cherry Point. Stop by the Visitor's Center by the Hampton Inn if you are interested in fighter planes. There is also an exhibit about the local area, how pre-Civil War, Havelock was a major shipbuilder, but after the war, with a collapsed economy, many turned to making moonshine, for which it became famous up and down the East Coast. The base was built during WWII and revived the area.
CRYSTAL COAST : BEAUFORT
Beaufort is a quirky, vibrant former fishing village located on Taylor's Creek and across from the Beaufort Inlet, which made it an important safe harbor for ships from the colonial days on. It is also on the intra-coastal waterway, so especially during the spring and fall, the yachts come through as they make their way to their summer or winter homes. Budget Magazine named Beaufort “Coolest Small Town in America” and Travel and Leisure puts it in the Top 20. Be on the lookout for wild ponies on Carrot Island across the creek, or bottle nosed dolphins and sea turtles in the waterway.
The town has over 300 homes over 100 years old, many from the 1700's and 1800's. Look for the historical plaques beside the front doors.
Not only famous for fishing and boat building, but it is also where the feared pirate Blackbeard wrecked his flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge. The shipwreck was finally discovered in 1996. You can get the history and see relics at the Maritime Museum (free with suggested donation). The museum is also home of Echo, a sperm whale that beached in the area. His complete skeleton is hanging from the ceiling and his heart was preserved. If a volunteer is around, they will let you touch the heart and smell Echo's unusual oil (for which they were often hunted). Across the street you can watch wooden ships be repaired or built.
Stop by the Visitor's Center to visit six fascinating old buildings on site, pick up a map of the Old Burying Ground, or to schedule a historic trolley tour. Be sure to check out the human hair art in the Bell House! Want something a little more wacky? Take one of the quirky, historic or culinary bike tours at Hungry Town Tours.
• Visitor’s Center and Historical Buildings tour
♣ Bell House: Mourning Wall: Prof mourners, hair art, certificate, screen
♣ Old Jail: Windows, bankrupt
♣ Oldest Standing wooden courthouse
♣ Faux painting at Manson house
• Old Burying Ground cemetery
• Maritime Museum and Watercraft Museum – Free, donations suggested
o PIRATE INVASION : 2018 marked the 300 year celebration since Blackbeard's flag ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, sank off the coast of Beaufort, NC: a celebratory ‘Invasion' festival held annually. Remember their motto: “It takes a village to pillage” . Re-enactments and LOTS of pirates wandering around. In fact, it's not unusual to see a pirate walking around Beaufort any time of the year:). Maybe you want to go on a pirate ship yourself? Take a interactive and scenic boat tour and get stormed by an invading pirate ship! Get details here.
• Beaufort Ghost Walk tour at night, seasonally Beautiful old cemeteries
• Take a scenic cruise. Sunset and Pirate Sunset cruises available
• Take the ferry to Cape Lookout and climb the lighthouse or relax on the beach
• Take the ferry to Shackelford Banks to look for wild horse and explore this natural area
• Rent a kayak or SUP to explore Rachel Carson Reserve (Carrot Island and the wild ponies Doctor 10 =>30)
• Enjoy the harbor front benches, boats, boutiques and restaurants
• Explore Harker’s Island, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
• Horseback ride in the ocean waves near the Cedar island ferry
• Take Cedar Island ferry to Ocracoke for a day trip
‘Hoi Toiders' the Wonderful High TIders of NC
There are a few pockets of North Carolinians who speak a dialect that we locals refer to as “Hoi Toiders (High Tiders)”. Because the Hoi Toider's descendants lived isolated lives away from the general public, their accents retain much of the original Olde English which over time has morphed into something that often Brits and Americans have difficulty understanding. In the podcast, I tell a humourous story about a misunderstanding with the Hoi Toiders and the Coast Guard during WWII. Watch this YouTube to hear the accent for yourself. If you visit Harker's Island, you might just meet a Hoi Toider!
In the Victorian era, it was unseemly for women to cry at the loss of a loved one, so in Beaufort, they hired these two professional mourners to wail and nash their teeth for them. The art is made from HUMAN HAIR of loved ones who'd passed. These are in the Bell House in historic downtown Beaufort.
CRYSTAL COAST : MOREHEAD CITY
Where Beaufort has the yachts, Morehead has more of the actual fishing boats. Along the dock, you'll see the many charter fishing boats alongside the many fine restaurants, art galleries and boutiques.
Morehead City History
Stop in the Visitor's Center located in the old train depot to pick up self-guided walking maps of the historic Promise' Land neighborhood located between 10th-15th St. Many of these homes were floated over by barge from a nearby island after the residents got fed up with hurricanes.
Visit the History Museum to learn about coastal life. Time it right, and you can do a Lunch with a Dash of History, where you hear our local treasure, Rodney Kemp, spin tales of Carteret County days gone by as you enjoy a tasy lunch – a locals favorite!
Morehead City Art Scene
Also pick up the Fish Art walking tour map. The artist hid a little something on each piece. See if you can find it! Morehead have even had local artists paint thebulky stainless steel boxes that hide the street light contraptions, turning an eyesore into a work of art worth exploring! Morehead is becoming both a foodie and art destination!
Morehead City Fishing and Waterfront
Often on Friday nights during the summer, there will be free outdoor concerts, Alive at Five, at the park near the Big Rock Weighing Station. Morehead City is home to one of the largest fishing tournament purses: the Big Rock Tournament.
Scuba Diving off the Crystal Coast
Ranked as #1 in North America and in the Top 20 worldwide, the shores of the Crystal Coast offer fantastic scuba diving opportunities off the coast. Called the “Graveyard of the Sea”, there are dozens of shipwrecks to explore in the clear, warm waters with colorful fish. Stop in the Oympus Dive Center to see relics of a Nazi German U Boat that was sunk off the coast. In Beaufort, check out Discovery Diving.
THE BEACHES OF THE CRYSTAL COAST
Stunning, in a word. Nice, clean white sandy beaches that are big and wide in most places. On this part of NC, the land faces south which means you get both sunrises and sunsets over the Atlantic!
The inlets at the two ends of Bogue Banks, a barrier island, are particularly beautiful (but you don't swim there as the current is too strong). On the east end is Fort Macon, an important fort protecting the Beaufort Harbor since the 1800's up to and including WWII, when German U-boats were patrolling the shore in hopes of sinking the merchant fleet (they damaged or sunk over 100 of our ships).
Fort Macon has a lovely exhibit which explores the interesting history of the fort, plus you can also walk around it. Bring a picnic to enjoy the scenic point where the Atlantic meets Bogue Sound at the inlet! Walk off lunch by hiking the beautiful path through the maritime forest which eventually leads to the ocean and then loops back to the fort.
There are two piers on the ocean: Oceana and Bogue Inlet Fishing piers (visitors can get a temporary license). You can also just walk out to enjoy a drink or snack and watch the waves and fishermen to see what they are catching. Fall is particularly popular for fishing both on the piers and ocean banks.
Visit the NC Aquarium located within the maritime forest land donated by Teddy Roosevelt and his wife in Pine Knoll Shores. Learn about coastal waters and the water's journey from the source in the NC mountains, to the sea. See a 3/4 replica of a German U Boat that we sank during WWII off our shores and check out the most popular star of the aquarium, Nimbus, a rare white loggerhead turtle who hatched on the Crystal Coast in 2007. There's also a nice walk through the maritme forest.
Bogue Banks is a 21 mile barrier island. On the other end of the island is Emerald Isle, which I consider the prettiest beach on the island. If you like to walk the beach, a gorgeous but long walk is from the Emerald Isle Beach Parking lot all the way to the Point, the inlet where the White Oak River meets the ocean. Head out a couple of hours before low tide so you have time to get out there and back before high tide. IT IS WORTH THE HIKE! Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, if you have four wheel drive, you can buy a permit to drive on the beach, so that's another way to get there. Mountain bikes at low tide work well, but are rough on the bikes and the local bike rental companies won't let you do that.
CRYSTAL COAST : SWANSBORO
Another cute fishing village is the historic town of Swansboro. You can get there from Emerald Isle, by going over the bridge back to the mainland and heading west on Hwy 24, or from Morehead City, take Hwy 70W to Hwy 24W.
Historic Downtown Swansboro
Swansboro has a charming historic downtown to explore and is home of the Mullet Festival, which is always fun. There is a tunnel under the highway that gets you over to the Riverfront Park on the White Oak River. A lovely place for a picnic!
Hammocks Beach State Park
Swansboro is also home of Hammocks Beach State Park. Here you can enjoy the Visitor's Center, rent or bring a kayak to paddle on one of the paddling trails, go over and spend the day or night at Bear Island – a beautiful beach. You can also take a ferry over to Bear Island, which is fun. The kayak trails are blazed, but I think its a good idea to bring your phone with GPS so you don't get confused in the salt marshes. You'll want to take photos anyway of the gorgeous waterway filled with herons and other shore birds.
Amateur Traveler Podcast
I was interviewed on Episode 612 of the Amateur Traveler Podcast with Chris Christenson. In this episode, I speak more about the history and other non-adventure activities that you can do here on the Crystal Coast. It makes a nice companion episode to my adventure podcast on the Active Travel Adventure podcast, Episode 037 (you can listen on the podcast player at the top of this web page). I think you'll enjoy both! You can play my Amateur Traveler interview below:
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