Last Updated on September 7, 2021
Last Updated on September 7, 2021
If you plan to visit Western NC, please check beforehand to see if the area is safe following the recent flooding. Officials have closed some sections of Pisgah National Forest (including Forest Heritage Scenic Byway and Blue Ridge Parkway stops) to keep visitors out of danger. Please respect signage and local guidance.
This roughly 4-mile island near Swansboro (and its south-facing beach) is the most sought-after part of Hammocks Beach State Park, and you need a boat to reach it, but that doesn’t mean everyone can’t enjoy it.
A variety of privately run boats can take you over to Bear Island, and the Hammocks Beach State Park ferry runs from April to October, weather permitting. If you brought your gear (and booked a spot), you could also camp on Bear Island.
We think a trip to Bear Island is one of the best things to do in North Carolina, but what exactly can you do while there? We’ll explain that, including camping info and more in this guide.
If you’re searching for something specific, here’s how we’ve organized our guide to Bear Island:
- Bear Island Facts and History
- Things to Know Before You Go
- How to Reach Bear Island
- Things to Do on Bear Island
- Bear Island Camping Options
- Things to Do Nearby
You can scroll ahead to the info you need or continue reading about some interesting Bear Island facts and history.
Bear Island Facts
Bear Island is 3.5 miles by 0.5 miles wide and covers 900 acres, more than half of Hammocks Beach State Park’s 1,611 acres. It faces the Atlantic Ocean to the south, with Emerald Isle (part of Bogue Banks Island) to the east and a restricted island to the west.
A shrub thicket and marsh dominate the northern sound side of Bear Island, which you’ll first see when traveling from the mainland. Further inland on the island, you’ll notice a series of dunes and small pockets of maritime forest.
A variety of animals pass through or call Bear Island “home.”
The loggerhead sea turtle nests here, and its eggs and hatchlings have to survive multiple predators before reaching the ocean, where more await.
Raccoons, foxes, and ghost crabs are a few animals that threaten turtle nests and hatchlings. Migratory shorebirds and dolphins also frequent the shores and channels.
American black bears have even been spotted roaming the shore and forest. However, the name didn’t come from the latter omnivores.
It was originally named “Bare Island” due to its lack of vegetation. The spelling eventually changed to “Bear,” but still not because of an abundance of black bears.
Bear Island History
Bear Island was first inhabited by Native Americans who traveled here via dugout canoe. The last known natives were Neusiok and Coree, who were forced to leave when Britain claimed ownership of Bear Island.
Pirates eventually rose to prominence here, thanks to the abundance of inlets and shallow waterways on the sound side. Blackbeard and Spanish privateers frequented the area, hiding behind the island and terrorizing merchant vessels and colonists for many years.
Forts, including one near Bear Inlet, were constructed to protect the colonists. Bear Island also saw action during the Civil War and even World War II, when the Coast Guard used the island to secure our coast and monitor the area for German U-boats.
Bear Island was eventually purchased by retired neurosurgeon Dr. William Sharpe, who fell in love with it after a hunting trip. Near his death, Dr. Sharpe hoped to will the land to the family of his longtime guide and friend John Hurst.
The Hurst family requested that the land go to the African American-comprised North Carolina Teachers Association (NCTA).
The organization tried to develop the island as a private beach destination for African Americans during segregation. However, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful.
In 1961, the NCTA donated Bear Island to North Carolina for planning as a park. The state initially planned to develop the park for minorities and opened it, along with the rest of Hammocks Beach State Park, in 1961.
Following the Civil Rights Act passage, Hammocks Beach was integrated as a state park for everyone to visit.
Things to Know Before You Go
Before you visit Bear Island, there are some important things to remember. These are helpful for first-time visitors and as a refresher for anyone familiar with the island.
- Bug spray and sunscreen are a must, as mosquitos thrive here and the sun shines down on the island and the waters that surround it. Overcast days are also ones where you can get burnt, so apply and reapply per instructions.
- Bring your own food, drinks, and ice before venturing over to the island.
- There’s a small cash-only concession stand on the island, which should be open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
- Carts and wagons are prohibited on the State Park Ferry due to limited space. Strollers and wheelchairs are allowed.
- Open fires are not allowed on the island, so bring your own camp stove or use one of the picnic area’s grills for cooking.
- Leave No Trace on the island and take all of your trash back to the mainland. Also, please cover up any holes you dug so animals (including turtle hatchlings) don’t fall in and get trapped.
How to Reach Bear Island
There are technically four ways to reach Bear Island, and here’s a breakdown of them, from easiest to the most DIY of all:
- The State Park Ferry runs from April through October and leaves from the Hammocks Beach State Park mainland entrance. Fees range from $4 for Children (ages 3 to 12) and Senior Citizens (ages 62 and older) to $6 for Adults. A North Carolina State Parks Annual Pass ($90) covers ferry rides for up to six people.
- You can also reach the island by taking your own boat. You can launch from one of Swansboro’s town docks, the public launch at Hammocks Beach, or from Shell Rock Landing at the Intracoastal Waterway (250 Shell Rock Landing Road, Hubert).
- A really fun way to reach Bear Island is by kayaking or canoeing from Hammocks Beach State Park with your own boat. You can also rent one from Paddle NC between mid-April and October at the park. Reservations are recommended and required if you’re seeking a guided tour.
- Finally, a local tour operator will take you to Bear Island. Each has its own particular spot where they’ll drop you off at the island. For example, Marsh Cruises took us (courtesy of Onslow County Tourism) through channels before dropping us off at the western end of Bear Island. After we walked and shelled for a while, the very knowledgable captain then took us around the island and eventually between Emerald Isle and Bear Island’s eastern end.
Including Marsh Cruises, here are three tour operators that we recommend:
Things to Do on Bear Island
Even though you have very few amenities (good!), there are plenty of things to do on Bear Island.
There are 11 family campsites (up to six people and two tents) and three group campsites. One group site accommodates up to 26 campers, and up to 16 people can stay at either of the other two campsites.
These sites can all be reached via the State Park Ferry.
There are also three “boat-in” campsites on the east end of the island. When paddling these waters, we’ve learned that please be mindful of strong currents, tide changes (portage possibilities at low tide), and wind.
Don’t be afraid to ask for advice at the Hammocks Beach office or Paddle NC if you’re feeling uncertain.
Due to intense King Tides, the family campsites will not be available on specific dates. For 2021, closure dates are April 26 to 29, May 24 to 28, June 22 to 26, July 21 to 25, October 6 to 12, November 3 to 9, and December 2 to 7.
Speaking of boat-in, you can paddle around the north side (sound side) of the island.
There are five official paddle trails at Hammocks Beach State Park. Two of them leave from the kayak launch on the mainland, with one originating at the island’s ferry dock.
The Bear Inlet Trail is 5.6 miles one way (Orange over White Blaze), runs from the kayak launch, and ends up at the island’s western side. The Bear Island Trail will take you 2.6 miles (White over Orange Blaze) from the kayak launch to the island’s campsites on the east side.
The Trout Channel Spur Trail is a short 0.1-mile connecter (Orange over Blue Blaze) leading to the Bear Island Trail and the boat-in sites.
Queen’s Creek Trail (Yellow over Blue Blaze) will take you 0.7 miles between the mainland and Great Neck Landing for additional paddling adventures. Finally, the Huggins Island Trail is a 6-mile loop that circumnavigates Huggins Island and through oyster beds.
Again, please be mindful of these waters’ strong currents, tide changes (portage possibilities at low tide), and wind.
Loggerhead turtles come to Bear Island to nest, and in recent years, additional endangered turtles (such as the green sea turtle) have chosen the island to nest.
Nesting season is typically between mid-May and late August. If you encounter a sea turtle on Bear Island, please keep your distance, limit light usage, and do not use flash photography around them.
Failure to follow these guidelines could inhibit the nesting attempts of endangered and threatened species.
Enjoy Life Off the Grid
Your phone may have a signal on Bear Island, but why would you want to use it other than taking photos of this paradise? This is one of the most isolated places in North Carolina, and you’re here to enjoy some peace.
Unless you have an emergency back on the mainland, put your phone on airplane mode and embrace the disconnect.
With the beautiful beach on one side and the maritime forest on the other, you’d better believe there are some wonderful birding opportunities on Bear Island. If you’re hoping to capture the birds that pass through, there are innumerable chances to reach your goals.
Common birds found on the island include herons, egrets, and osprey.
The 4-mile beach is technically listed as a hiking trail, and we’ll take it. The challenge to completing the trek is trying not to stop and admire your surroundings for the millionth time.
We also listed Bear Island among our personal favorite beaches in North Carolina. You’ll see why if you’ve never visited before.
You can bring your own blanket and picnic on the beach or sit underneath the covered shelter on bright, sunny days. The shelter sits near the concession stand and seasonal swimming area, not far from the ferry dock.
Many people will say the island’s shell supply peaks during winter, but you’ll find a healthy supply throughout the year. During warmer months and especially summer, start early in the day, and you’ll beat the crowds to some beautiful conches, sand dollars, and more finds.
You can swim and enjoy waves near the picnic area in the center of the island. On most days between Memorial Day and Labor Day, there’s also a lifeguard on duty.
Some of Eastern NC’s best fishing awaits at Bear Island (and its surroundings in Onslow County), especially during fall. You can catch trout, flounder, bluefish, and puppy drum here.
Ready to Visit Bear Island?
Visiting Bear Island was near the top of our NC Bucket List, long before we first set foot on it. This is one place that absolutely lives up to its hype.
Whether you’re seeking isolation, a chance to walk a beach with sea turtles, or an excellent camping spot, Bear Island is all of that and more.
Have you ever visited this wonderful island? We’d love to hear more about your experiences. If not, please feel free to share your first encounters with us!