Whether they come by RV, motorcycle or in their pickup with a boat in tow, visitors flock to the North Carolina coast each year. And it's no wonder. With gorgeous weather, scenery, and miles of beaches, the Outer Banks offers something for every outdoor enthusiast. Where else but on the Outer Banks can you climb the tallest lighthouse in the U.S., cool your feet in the Atlantic Ocean, fish in the surf and catch a fish you can cook for dinner while staying at a nearby campground? And if that's not enough, there are plenty of other destinations including unsung inland lakes and other barrier islands that make this a one-of-a-kind adventure.
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Welcome to The Loop
One of the best trips to make is "The Loop." This adventure begins at the Wilmington-Carolina Beach area, turns north along U.S. 17 and U.S. 64 to Lake Phelps then east along U.S. 64 to the Outer Banks at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. You can retrace your steps to get back to Wilmington, but most travelers opt to take N.C. 12 south and hop onto one of two NCDOT ferries.
One ferry travels from Hatteras to Ocracoke and the other steams from Ocracoke to Morehead City. After Morehead City, the scenic route along N.C. 58 takes you to Bogue Banks and Cape Lookout, if you have a boat for visiting Core Banks.
The return route continues on N.C. 58 to Croatan National Forest for camping and hiking. Leaving Croatan and taking N.C. 24 will take you through Jacksonville back onto N.C. 17 then on N.C. 210, which loops through Topsail Island before connecting with U.S. 17 again to bring you back to Wilmington.
It sounds like a lot of candy for a nickel. However, the ferries make the return trip pleasant and easy. If you were only staying on the main route, you could drive The Loop in a day or two. But, anyone who travels The Loop will find dozens of side trips that will make spending an extra day or two worthwhile. And since the ferries accommodate all types of vehicles, you can make this trip in your RV, a pickup truck with a camper top, or even a motorcycle.
To get the best of all the beauty and opportunities, some adventurous souls designate an RV driver to scout out the best camping places ahead while towing a boat or personal watercraft behind. Motorcycle riders follow along, using the RV as a "mother ship" for camping overnight at various locations along the way. Summer is high season on the Outer Banks, but no matter when you come, you're going to have a great time.
Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville Beach
The Loop begins at Carolina Beach State Park, which has a campground and visitor center with exhibits of the southern coast's wonders. Not only does it have hiking and biking trails, it borders the Cape Fear River and Snow's Cut, which is part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). Camping anglers can fuel up and pay a small fee to launch their boats at the park marina or walk across the parking lot to the public fishing dock at the west end of Snow's Cut. A free public ramp is located at the east end of Snow's Cut as well. Bank anglers can fish from the shores of Snow's Cut. Flounder are the highest profile fish, but red drum, black drum, bluefish and speckled trout are also abundant in these waters.
Carolina Beach also has two excellent ocean fishing piers, Carolina Beach North Extension Pier and Kure Beach Fishing Pier. All ocean piers allow easy access, even for those with impaired mobility, to fish the Atlantic. Anglers catch flounder, bluefish, red drum, sheepshead, black drum, pompano Spanish mackerel, king mackerel and cobia from the piers. Other species, including spot, croaker and whiting fill the piers with anglers when the fall runs begin. The beach strand also has dozens of public access points along U.S. 421 where anglers can park their vehicles and walk to the beach to cast in the surf.
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area is one of the few remaining places along the coast where anglers can buy a permit at the park office and use a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive on the beach and fish in the surf. The same species that roam the waters of the Cape Fear and the ICW are present in the surf.
Other places to visit include the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher and the fort itself, where kids can climb the huge earthworks and marvel at massive cannons overlooking the Cape Fear River that guarded this area during the Civil War.
Two other ocean piers, Johnnie Mercer's Pier and Crystal Pier, are located a short drive away at Wrightsville Beach. Mercer's is the better fishing pier and was the state's first concrete pier. Anglers can catch Spanish mackerel, bluefish, king mackerel and many other species at the pier. Crystal Pier has a restaurant, where diners can experience the finest seafood dishes the area has to offer while watching anglers try their luck.
The next destination is Lake Phelps, which is the most beautiful natural lake most folks never heard of because it so far off the beaten path and has only a few homes on its shoreline. The trip from Wilmington is about five hours and the lake is located near Plymouth off U.S. 64. The 16,600-acre natural lake has huge largemouth bass, colorful pumpkinseed sunfish, abundant yellow perch and big catfish.
Pettigrew State Park is located on the east side of the lake. It has a boat ramp and campground, plus a historic plantation site. The park also has a new fishing pier, where anglers catch all of the lake's fish species. On the west side, the park has a multiple-purpose kayak launch and fishing and lounging pier. Motorcyclists should beware of the road that chicanes, with many dips and wobbles due to the organic soils with poor structure that have deteriorated underneath the pavement. The ride is a lot of fun, but only if you remain alert and are prepared to slow down to compensate for the road conditions.
The lake is one of the few in the state you can wade-fish because it is shallow with a firm, sandy bottom. You can catch largemouth bass weighing up to 8 pounds by casting a popping bug with a fly rod or a topwater lure with a spinning rod in the grass beds. The water is so clear you can actually see the fish, so whether you can get them to strike or not you always know they are there.
The best bet is boating around the lake to take in the scenery and fishing the shallows among the cypress trees, grass beds and lily pads. During the day, the bass also seek the shady shelter of the few private boat docks. Anyone who has a personal watercraft should tow it to Lake Phelps because it provides the very best access to the grass beds for wade fishing. Simply your ride your PWC to a fishy looking cove, hop off and begin fishing. When you are finished fishing that area, climb back aboard and ride to another spot.
The Outer Banks
From Lake Phelps, the next segment of The Loop is a two-hour dogleg to the east, crossing the U.S. 64 Bridge to Manteo then over the next bridge to the Outer Banks. The destination is one of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore campgrounds at Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, Frisco or Ocracoke.
At Cape Hatteras National Seashore, anglers who want to drive their four-wheel drives on the beach can buy a beach-driving permit. While there are many restrictions, including closed access points and trails to protect nesting shorebirds, all of the information is available on the park's website and at the park office.
Anglers who do not want to go to the trouble of obtaining a beach driving permit or who are in a large RV that cannot make it through sand will find many places where they can park on the shoulder and walk to the oceanfront for surf fishing. Flounder, red drum, bluefish, whiting and many other species are swimming in the surf.
Boaters can launch at Oregon Inlet Fishing Center or one of the other boating access areas along the Outer Banks to fish in Roanoke, Croatan, Pamlico and Albemarle sounds or head for the Atlantic through Oregon Inlet. Oregon Inlet passes beneath the N.C.12 Bridge, which is a great place to catch sheepshead, flounder and other species that swim around the pilings.
One place you do not want to miss visiting is Jennette's Pier and N.C. Aquarium at Nags Head. If the fish are not biting or the weather is iffy, you can simply watch the fish in the tanks or participate in one of the many family and children's programs. The aquarium even hosts fishing schools for anglers who want to beef up their surf fishing skills. All species available at other ocean piers can be caught at Jennette's Pier.
The next leg of The Loop turns south toward Ocracoke, which is another Outer Banks island that is accessible only by a 40-minute ferry ride from Hatteras Island. After sightseeing and eating at one of the many fun restaurants, (the Jolly Roger is one of my favorites), it is time to take another ferry ride from Ocracoke to Cedar Island. This ride takes two hours, 15 minutes and is one of the most scenic and pleasant voyages on the entire ferry system.
10 Things Outer Banks Campers Should Take Along
2. Casting Tackle
For fishing backwaters from a boat or pier, use a 7-foot spinning rod with 15-pound test line. For surf fishing, take a 10-foot spinning rod with 20-pound test line.
10. Beach Tent
Carry a collapsible beach cabana for protection from sun and rain when you are cooking or lounging.
Bring a Coleman gas, propane, or battery powered lantern along for surf fishing at night and for campsite illumination.
8. Air Compressor
Stow a 12-Volt air compressor in your repair kit for re-inflating tires after lowering their air pressure for driving on sand or to re-inflate punctured tires.
7. Insect Repellent
Aerosol repellents work better during windy weather or when you are moving. In camp, a Thermacell personal insect repellent device or Thermacell lantern will keep mosquitoes away.
5. Outdoor Grill
If you're traveling in an RV or truck, bring a Coleman propane, liquid fuel or charcoal grill with plenty of fuel for cooking up your catch.
4. Fly Tackle
Use a 7-weight fly rod with floating line for fishing the grass beds of Lake Phelps for pumpkinseed sunfish and largemouth bass or for red drum in the marshes of Morehead City. The best fly is a yellow popping bug. Fish it on floating line with a 10-pound leader. The same 7-foot spinning rod you use for pier and boat fishing will work for casting Zara Spook topwater lures.
3. Bait Bucket
A battery-powered aerator keeps minnows and mullet alive during a walk to the marsh, beach or fishing pier. If you are fishing from a boat, use a Flow-Troll Bait Container to keep baitfish alive.
Take along an Angler's Fish-N-Mate pier cart for carrying fishing and camping equipment to beaches and piers.
1. Good insurance from GEICO
Before you begin any trip, make sure your GEICO insurance is up to date. GEICO offers special coverage for RVs, boats, and motorcycles.
After disembarking from the ferry at Cedar Island, it is an hours' drive along N.C. 12 and U.S. 70 to Morehead City, where you can dine at the Sanitary Fish Market on the city's waterfront. The restaurant is renowned for its fresh-off-the-boat seafood and shellfish recipes. A walk along the waterfront reveals many other restaurants, shops and dozens of charter boats, their sterns turned toward the bulkhead and proudly displaying their names.
The Morehead City Visitor Center has a boating access area with plentiful parking. Anglers can launch their boats directly into the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and experience excellent fishing for speckled trout, red drum, flounder, black drum and whiting. Fish swarm around the causeway bridge pilings, along the boat docks and in the deep channels at the State Ports turning basin. The tidal backwaters also have excellent fishing for red drum.
If you have a big enough boat, you can head offshore through Beaufort Inlet to catch bottom fish, such as black sea bass, just a few miles off Cape Lookout. By navigating along the southern end of the Cape, you may catch a glimpse of the wild ponies that live on Shackleford Banks. You can also land your boat to visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse. The South Core Banks area of Cape Lookout National Seashore also hosts excellent surf fishing, but walking to the good fishing spots can be arduous.
Fort Macon State Park is another Civil War historic site worth visiting. To get to Fort Macon from Morehead City, cross the Morehead Avenue Causeway to Atlantic Beach and turn north on N.C. 58 for a short distance until it ends.
Touring the fort's concrete walls and earthworks, with their cannons facing the ocean, is worth the side trip. However, the park is also nearly surrounded by water and has a generous parking lot where anglers can park large RVs and walk down to fish Beaufort Inlet, a notorious hotspot for flounder and speckled trout. The inlet also holds bluefish, Spanish mackerel and red drum. At low tide, the beach at Fort Macon is wide and firm yet the dunes and banks are high enough to protect anglers from strong winds. If you want to take a dip, the park has a bathhouse for washing off the sand afterward.
Hitting the road again, your next camping destination is Croatan National Forest's Cedar Point Campground at Cape Carteret. Stick to the island route of N.C. 58 if you want the best scenery and hottest fishing action with views of the ocean and Bogue Sound. The highway rides the spine of Bogue Banks and passes the Oceanana and Bogue Inlet fishing piers. The piers are excellent places to fish for flounder, red drum, king and Spanish mackerel, pompano and other fish. This route, which takes longer than the mainland route, takes you paste the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, where you can get the kids out of the summer heat for a few hours of distraction.
From Croatan's Cedar Point Campground it is only a short drive to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission's Cedar Point Boating Access, which gives access to the ICW, Bogue Inlet and White Oak River. Sheepshead lurk beneath the bridges and flounder, red drum and speckled trout swarm in the channels. Heading out through Bogue Inlet in a boat takes you to some nearshore reefs and ledges famous for holding flounder, Spanish mackerel and king mackerel.
From Cedar Point, taking N.C. 24 south takes you through Jacksonville where you will pick up N.C. 17 until you reach Dixon. Turning east on N.C. 210 takes you to Topsail Island, where you make a loop that carries you through Surf City and back to N.C. 17 again.
Topsail is another island that allows beach driving, but only from October 1 — March 31. Permits are available at the Topsail Beach Town Hall.
Anglers who visit in summer can still fish the surf because the town has several public beach access areas. Anglers of any age can also fish from the Jolly Roger and Surf City ocean piers. Topsail Island's surf is well-known for its red drum and speckled trout action. The piers produce great catches of Spanish and king mackerel, along with flounder, red drum, pompano, whiting and other bottom fish.
The short hop back to Wilmington from Topsail takes about an hour's drive and brings you full circle. If you want to try one last cast, launch your boat at the city ramp at Castle Street, which provides access to the Cape Fear River. Striped bass swim in the river year round. However, the fishing is excellent for flounder, red drum and speckled trout. Another bonus is blue catfish, which can top 40 pounds. Anglers can catch them in the center of downtown right along with saltwater game fish because it is one of the state's largest estuary systems. Head upriver a bit and you might also catch largemouth bass and sunfish.
Wilmington is full of attractions, including fine dining and horse carriage tours of historic buildings in the downtown area. One of my favorite places to eat is the Caprice Bistro. The drive from Carolina Beach State Park's campground to the downtown area takes less than 30 minutes, so campers have plenty of choices if they want to visit the larger city and no visit to Wilmington is complete without touring the USS North Carolina Battleship Memorial.
The Loop is one of the hottest RV-ing, four-wheel driving, boating, fishing, and motorcycling destination. So what are you waiting for? Simply pick out a segment of The Loop and let the fun begin!