Updated: Nov 10, 2019
For the past week Derek and I have been gallivanting around Wilmington, NC area taking in salt water views, searching for alligators, and learning about local history. This metropolitan and surrounding beach area made it to our must-visit list as we travel further south for winter. Wilmington is home to multiple beaches, cypress filled swamps, and eastern coastal forests, creating a unique and bio diverse habitat to traverse. Derek was also born and raised in Wilmington until he was 8 years old, making this stop extra special in our eyes. We have enjoyed being transported backward in time reminiscing, as well as creating new memories in Wilmington together.
Derek spent some time prior to our arrival in Wilmington trying to remember what it was like around here. He compiled a list of places from the hazy memories of a child and I had a jump start on planning our visit to the city. Arriving at the tail-end of peak season has benefits including smaller crowds and more temperate weather. Derek’s childhood memories took us to Carolina Beach State Park, Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and several spots in downtown Wilmington.
Carolina Beach State Park
Originally we planned to camp slightly south of Wilmington and commute into the city and beaches. Carolina Beach State Park made us rethink this decision. We were quickly enamored by the amount of trails, diverse wildlife, and short distance to several beach towns. The state park’s campground is located next to Snow’s Cut a wooded area with beaches along the Cape Fear River, and boasts 69 campsites with no hook-ups and 10 with. It is important to note when making a site reservation that not all amenities are the same at each campsite. We had to closely read the information on the reservation website to see the site size, if sites were available, had access to water, shower house, electricity, etc. The reservation website was difficult to use, and in the end it was easier to call the marina office where campers check-in and obtain a list of sites that were open during our stay. Rangers allow you to drive through the campground and find the most fitting site for your needs. At this state park the front gate is closed and locked each night at the posted closing time. During our stay we had to be back inside the park gates by 9:00 pm. We did not find this a hindrance, especially after receiving expert tips on local biking routes and permission to park our vehicle outside the gate for an evening if necessary.
Almost 9 miles of trails create winding patterns through a wide variety of ecosystems in the state park. Each of the sandy trails, with markers in a variety of shapes and colors, was relatively flat and easily walkable. During our visit to the park, we were able to hike most of the trails at least once. Sugarloaf Trail led us through sandy-soil forests to an impressive 50-foot sand dune along the Cape Fear River. We did find ourselves wishing for bug repellent on the Flytrap Trail while hunting for venus flytraps, native only within 60 to 70 miles of Wilmington, and other carnivorous plants along the walk. The park is also alive with birds that thrive in a coastal environment and serves as a migration corridor during the winter and summer. Click HERE to read all about the trails of Carolina Beach State Park.
Carolina Beach is a bike friendly community, providing several paths to travel toward the public access beaches, boardwalk, and restaurants. Derek and I took advantage of this luxury, keeping in mind that some routes take riders along 55 mph highways. One evening we took a leisurely bike ride from just outside the state park entrance to Good Hops Brewery. Good Hops’ motto says it all, “ Proudly pouring inventive beers for locals and out of towners since 2014.” This brewery immediately makes an out of towner feel like part of the hometown crowd while serving up delicious beer and encouraging patrons to use the free 9-hole disc golf course located on property.
Just down the road from Carolina Beach State Park is the actual Carolina Beach seashore. Click here to watch our YouTube video about Carolina Beach. Street parking and lots are available throughout town. Off-season parking is cheaper or free; we just missed the October 31st deadline, but our trips to Carolina Beach were well worth the few dollars it cost to park. After parking we walked directly to the boardwalk to get our lay of the land. Many shops were hosting season end sales, or were already closed. The boardwalk itself was gorgeous and offered great beach amenities. Private alcove benches along the boardwalk orchestrated a perfect atmosphere for watching sunsets. Eager to dip our toes in the sand we hurried over the boardwalk to set up. The day was spent lounging in sunshine along flat beaches, hunting for seashells and splashing among foamy waves. During the past week we were able to enjoy 80 degree beach days with minimal crowds- and by crowds I mean around 15 people! Boone was able to spend his first day at the beach. While I wouldn’t consider him a ‘beach dog’, I’d say he’s well on his way to tolerating the beach. The beast loves to gain some more stench credit by rolling in the sand, but skitters away from rushing waves. Sometimes when he peers out across the ocean waves I like to imagine his bewilderment at so much water, that you can’t even drink.
Our shadows grew long. As the last glowing rays of light shimmered below the horizon, all the fleeting colors of dusk began to fade. Feathery clouds floated across a brilliant burnt red and orange canvas until day turned to night. We rinsed off at a shower station and took to the town. A few blocks from the beach Derek and I found a wonderful little gem, The Fat Pelican. An ambiance proclaimed by the owner as “beach trailer park chic” does not disappoint, neither does the self-service walk-in beer cooler made from the refrigerated trailer of an eighteen wheel truck. Derek grabbed a Modelo, while I went with a more local brew from Sycamore Brewing out of Charlotte, NC. Then we sat back to take in this haunt’s oddities and read some of the signatures that covered almost every surface.
Kure Beach is located several miles down the coast from Carolina Beach. This small-town coastal retreat is home to one of the oldest piers on the Atlantic Coast. Derek and I toured close by Fort Fisher State Historic Site where the largest land-sea battle of the Civil War occurred. Over twenty placards informing about the battle surround earthwork remnants of Fort Fisher on a self-guided walking tour. Two oceanfront gazebos along a second walking path across from the visitor’s center lead to the Battle Acre Monument to Civil War Soldiers. Divers may enjoy this historic site as the remains of a sunken blockade runner are about 700 yards off the beach.
Farther south of Kure is one of North Carolina’s most popular attractions and one that Derek fondly remembers from his childhood. Named one of the best aquariums in the United States by the Travel Channel, we knew not to pass up a trip to the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Luckily, we got an added bonus on our visit. As an avid Halloween lover, I was thrilled to discover an aquarium bathed in rolling fog, spooky lighting and filled to the gills with bleached skeletons and floating eyeballs. Let me tell you, they know how to do it up right in North Carolina! The aquarium was an immersive and engaging experience for visitors of all ages. A two-story ocean exhibit and orange glowing lights created a feeling of being on the ocean floor. Staff and volunteers were actively excited to share their knowledge of ocean critters. The aquarium was full of up-close and personal encounters with marine wildlife. Derek and I were able to interact with a loggerhead sea turtle, sharks, rays, whelk, starfish, and anemones! The conservatory, two-story marine building, adventure reef playground, and outdoor garden boardwalk kept us busy for the better part of the morning.
Even when venturing into the city Derek and I are still on the lookout for beautiful outdoor locations. As we were driving just south of Wilmington’s historic downtown, Derek recognized a waterfall along the road and we pulled over to check out Greenfield Lake Park. Echos of family hikes, floating cypress cities, and alligator sightings rippled back. Greenfield Lake Park contains 250 acres with a 5-mile maze of biking and walking trails along the lake perimeter. Wildlife enthusiasts can find an oasis right in downtown Wilmington. Chirps and trills flood the air; Derek and I saw a number of different species of feathered friends on our trip. Signs along the scenic path heightened our hopes of seeing an alligator. Waiting quietly our eyes scanned mirror-like water in search of some clue that a scaled predator was lurking below. Wildlife was abundant and diverse ranging from anoles to egrets and herons.
Located at the shopping center of historic downtown in Wilmington, NC is the Cotton Exchange, a huge collection of boutique shops and restaurants with a historic twist. While walking atop uneven bricks through multiple courtyards and indoor walkways I could almost feel the history of the building. Multiple displays and placards give a detailed account of the Cotton Exchange’s past. Currently the shopping complex has a smattering of shops showcasing the best of North Carolina. While peeking around we checked out a bookstore, candy shop, and a boutique with locally made goods. One perk of stopping at this historic spot downtown to window shop is the free parking validation! Parking is free while shopping and dining. With a minimum purchase a merchant will validate parking tickets for two hours.
A 1-mile strip running between the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge and Isabel Holmes Bridge, along the Cape Fear River waterfront near historic downtown, is called the Riverwalk. After shopping at the Cotton Exchange we gravitated to the picturesque stretch of Wilmington waterway. Embedded stools helped us to rest while taking in views of the USS North Carolina Battleship, traveling boats, and historic architecture. Local eateries border a cobblestone section of the Riverwalk, enticing passing romantics to indulge with full glasses, laughter, and a sunset view on the water together.
Derek and I have been sharing memories, old and new alike, this week in Wilmington, NC. While Derek enjoyed seeing memories from childhood come back to life, I got to gain a greater sense of his beginnings. Now we are once again continuing our journey south to Florida. If you want to know more about our travels check out more of our blog posts jam packed with information the sites we've visited! Find us on YouTube for the latest video content and an inside look at what we’re up to. Facebook and Instagram work too! Stay in touch and follow along by liking, subscribing, following on whatever social media platform you use.
Catch ya’ on the flip side.
The Tie Dye Travelers