Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on May 15, 2023.
When we first visited the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort, we had one thing in mind: finding wild horses. That and the fact that we’d missed the most recent boat to Shackleford Banks are the reason why we hopped on a boat to Rachel Carson.
After a short ride to Bird Shoal (you can hire boats to go just about anywhere in the Reserve), we were off to find horses. But as we walked in search of those mysterious animals, we found there was much more to explore on this network of islands.
Life surrounded us in the form of birds, diverse landforms, and a mingling mix of fresh and saltwater habitats. We stuck around for all of it and want to share it with you in this guide, so you can enjoy the bucket list-worthy Rachel Carson Reserve, too.
Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort NC (Quick Info)
- Open Year-Round
- Getting There: By Boat. Find an operator along Front St in Beaufort or launch your own from 2370 Lennoxville Rd
- Things to Bring: Sunscreen, Snacks, Bug Spray, Closed-toe Shoes
- Beware of: Snakes and other dangerous animals near the marshes
- Things to Do: Kayaking, Hiking, Shelling, Birdwatching Searching for Wild Horses, Fishing, and Leaving No Trace
What is the Rachel Carson Reserve?
The Rachel Carson Reserve is a state-owned collection of four islands that sit across Taylor’s Creek from Beaufort. It’s managed by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management, within its Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve Program.
Included in its 2,315 acres are Carrot Island, Bird Shoal, Town Marsh, and Horse Island. There’s a salt marsh section known as Middle Marsh that’s part of the reserve, too.
As you may have guessed, the Rachel Carson Reserve is named for Rachel Carson, the famous environmentalist who happened to spend part of her early career in Beaufort. Carson paddled around Taylor’s Creek and wrote about all the life she observed in her first book Under the Sea-Wind.
In the 1980s, North Carolina began acquiring the land that makes up the Rachel Carson Reserve and lent her name to it. The first phase completed in 1985 and in 1989, Middle Marsh was added to the collection.
Life at the Reserve
Freshwater and saltwater mix here thanks to river and inlet dynamics influences. A variety of coastal habitats are found here, too, making the Reserve an excellent platform for viewing tidal flats, salt marshes, and ocean beaches among others.
The waters here teem with life, as Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, and sea turtles join many fish species around the islands.
More than 200 bird species have been observed here, too, partly because the Atlantic Flyway passes through. Quite a few mammals also call the area “home” and include feral horses (see below), river otter, and gray fox.
If you want to reach the Rachel Carson Reserve, you’re going to need a boat. There’s a ramp at 2370 Lennoxville Rd in Beaufort to launch your own.
And if you didn’t bring a boat, don’t fret. A variety of water taxis and ferries (guided and self-guided) leave from Front Street in Downtown Beaufort each day.
During the busy summer months, they’ll leave every 15 minutes and the ride takes about 10 minutes.
We opted for self-guided and took a boat over. Prices can vary depending on the season and the operator you choose. Island Ferry Adventures is one of many you’ll find on busy days.
Another option is to kayak or canoe as Rachel Carson did in the 1940s. You can start from one of the many launches on Front Street across Taylor’s Creek. The water is fairly calm and the journey takes anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes.
Kayaks and canoes are available for rental via outfitters in Beaufort.
Things to Bring: Please Prepare
There are no restrooms or water fountains on the Rachel Carson Reserve’s islands. Be sure to bring snacks and to stock up your bellies before hopping on the boat, grab a meal at a mainland place like Moonrakers.
Bug spray and sunscreen are a must, especially on clear and windless days. Our mosquitos are pretty rough throughout the warmer months, even more so at the Reserve since it doesn’t see as many humans as elsewhere.
Bring closed-toe shoes for the walk (water shoes are a bonus), since there are shells and soggy areas throughout. If you are venturing near the marshes, beware of poisonous snakes (ex. cottonmouth) and other dangerous species.
Leave No Trace
Not only will Rachel Carson be very proud of you, but you’ll be leaving the reserve in tip-top shape for the next person to enjoy. Keep tabs on your trash, especially since the wind can quickly whip it out into the sea.
Things to Do at the Rachel Carson Reserve
Now that I’ve scared you and lectured you about the environment, let’s look into all the things to do at the Rachel Carson Reserve!
The waters surrounding the Rachel Carson Reserve are perfect for paddlers; as we mentioned, it’s how Rachel Carson got around the islands. You can take a kayak or canoe through the water trails that cut through marshes, with plenty of wildlife viewing spots throughout your journey.
Officially, there are two trails at the Reserve, including the 1.1 miles long Outer Loop Trail and .9 miles long Inner Loop Trail. The Outer Loop is only accessible at low tide while the Inner Loop stays accessible throughout most of the year.
We were dropped at Bird Shoal and didn’t notice any trail markers, which wasn’t a huge deal. We just hiked along the beaches, as it was low tide and we spotted birds and shells galore before finding what we came for (see “Wild Horses” below).
Tons of seashells can be found along the shores and in the sound waters of these islands. Look closely and you’ll be able to see oysters, scallops, and clams among many other species.
Hermit crabs also live here, so be mindful when picking up a supposedly uninhabited shell.
I mentioned the 200-plus species of birds that have been spotted at the Rachel Carson Reserve. If you’ve arrived on a good day, there will be many to see.
This stop along the Atlantic Flyway is perfect for Wilson’s plover, ibises, herons, and so many more species. It really is a birdwatcher’s paradise and if you’ve got a camera, bring it along.
Searching for Wild Horses
The reason that we came to the Rachel Carson Reserve was for the wild horses.
Info on Rachel Carson Wild Horses
Known as Banker Horses (also Banker Ponies), they have been walking around the islands since the 1940s (officially) when a group of six were transported to Carrot Island by a local physician.
Although no evidence can be found, it’s long been believed that horses have roamed this area for at least 200 years. Their numbers have fluctuated over the years, due to a variety of factors.
Where to See the Wild Horses
If you’re in Beaufort on a clear and lucky day, you might be able to see them from the waterfront. Don’t’ worry if you’re not that lucky because a boat operator will be happy to take you over as they did for us one foggy day.
An Unforgettable Experience
It took us about an hour and a half of walking on the sand to spot the horses. We began to doubt that they even existed until a faint brown spot turned into two, three, and more somewhere in the distance.
As we got closer, about 20 horses emerged. Or maybe we emerged toward them? Either way, seeing those wild horses remains one of the most unforgettable times in our lives.
Note: For the horses’ safety and your own, please always stay at least 50 feet away from them.
I don’t even think they knew that we were standing there taking photos of them. For the most part, they went through the motions, grazing, and moving to the next place on the Reserve.
Time stood still while we stared at them and eventually, a signal or some kind of sign told us to head back and call our boat.
Whether it was the horses moving away or our bellies beginning to grumble for lunch, I took a mental picture of this moment and hope that it was one that I’ll never forget.
It will always be on our NC bucket list, and I totally recommend adding this experience to yours.
Getting Back to Shore
You can tell the operator the time that you want to be picked up but keep their phone number handy and call them if you want to extend or shorten your stay at the Rachel Carson Reserve.
Also, keep track of how long you’ve been walking away from the pickup point to lessen your wait time when arriving at the pickup point.
Ready to Visit the Rachel Carson Reserve?
And after seeing all the wild horses, birds, and other awesome wildlife, I have to ask: will you really want to go back home? If you haven’t been yet, you’ll see what I mean. And if you’ve been before, do you agree that it’s a question that must be asked?
We’d love to know your thoughts on this awesome place, whether you’ve visited or not. Let us know in the comments section or contact us by email.
Don’t forget to share your Rachel Carson Reserve adventures in our North Carolina Travel Facebook Group!