Black Bear Festival in Plymouth, NC

The annual North Carolina black bear festival held in Plymouth, NC may just be the best event in the state, possibly even the southeast. And yes, you heard that first part right, the NC Black Bear Festival is on the coast in eastern NC, not in the mountains.

Plymouth is right on the Roanoke River near Albemarle Sound, and nearby is where you’ll find one of the highest black bear densities in North Carolina., and the largest bears. Yep, it’s a fun fact about North Carolina, the WORLD’S largest black bears are found on our coast. The flat terrain and ample food equal easy living for these magnificent animals.

Founded in 2015 by Tom Harrison, the director of Washington County Travel and Tourism, this is more than a festival, it’s also an educational event designed to raise awareness and celebrate black bears.

The award-winning festival is held the first weekend in June so mark your calendar now. While there are some events on Friday, the bulk of the festival is held on Saturday.

People kayaking on Roanoke River with manufacturing plant behind them. Wooden bears on anchored boards are floating on the water with them.

Why the NC Black Bear Festival is Unique

This small coastal town knows how to put on a festival. I’m not sure how they cram everything into one day, but it’s a full day of fun and adventure.

You can enjoy several activities including Pontoon boat rides on the river, or have fun at one of the best Kids’ Zones I’ve seen. Oh, and they toss in an amazing air show which includes the Golden Knights Parachute Team.

There’s plenty of food to eat, great bands, and a classic car show. Plus, you can purchase a ticket for a black bear tour at a local refuge where you can see wild bears. Other experiences include helicopter and hot air balloon rides.

This year they made a huge announcement that the 2023 9th Annual North Carolina Black Bear Festival was the last. In 2024, it will officially become the National Black Bear Festival. I’m not entirely sure how they can make it bigger and better though.

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Plymouth also gets the award for best festival setup. You enter through the bear tunnel on Washington Street and one block later you hit Water Street. To the right are all the food stands plus entertainment. To the left are craft vendors and the Kids Zone. Smart thinking on someone’s part.

I’ll also say that this was the most laid-back festival I’ve been to with the most polite attendees. 

Single donut covered in chocolate with pecans on top.

Festival Food

There was a variety of foods including the usual festival options with giant turkey legs, meat on a stick, Duck Donuts, and plenty of other options. This was the first time I saw the German pretzel booth though, I really enjoyed that.

Many visitors hit the standard fair food booth for the fried onion blooms and funnel cake.

While crowded, it’s not crazy and the lines aren’t long. You won’t have to wait more than 5 minutes for food.

If you head towards the local vendor section, several bakeries were there with packaged goods like cake and cookies for a treat.

Giant inflatable dinosaurs at the Kids' Zone section of the Black Bear Festival.

Festival Activities

I really don’t know where to start because this festival is loaded with activities. The Kids Zone had giant dinosaurs, a blow-up water slide, a test to see if you could outrun a bear, and a bear train.

There were bands on stage all day. Many people brought chairs and set up for the day. The audience had a nice, shaded area to sit back and just enjoy the show.

Since Plymouth is on the Roanoke River, there were plenty of water activities. If you wanted to paddle, kayaks were available for rent, and there were free Pontoon boat rides. You could also walk along the boardwalk and enjoy the river.

Bear-Ology downtown was offering free wildlife photography seminars and offering workshops to educate the public about black bears.

For an extra fee, there were bear tours, helicopter rides, a mechanical bear ride, and more.

Of course, there was also the Plymouth air show. This is the highlight of the event.

It started with the Bandits Flight Formation Team which is a group of highly trained, experienced pilots that fly vintage aircraft. Their flight was narrated by Plymouth’s Mayor who sometimes flies with the group. I found it helpful to have his colorful narrative explaining the moves and providing insights into why the pilots were making certain decisions and what they were experiencing.

A group of three pilots performed together, then 2 pilots performed acrobatic tricks that had the crowd in awe.

Then came the crowd-pleasing finish. The Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team ended the show with a spectacular performance. I had no idea you could do a flip with a parachute. It was an amazing show.

Black Bear Tours

The Black Bear Tour requires registration prior to the festival. This is popular and fills up fast. The tour takes approximately 3 hours including travel time and there is designated parking for anyone going on a tour.

You’ll head to Pocosin Lakes where there’s the greatest chance of seeing the black bears. 

Skydiver with yellow and black parachute that says army. He is trailing a large black flag with a star that says US Army.

Festival Events

It’s difficult to separate activities from events, so I’m classifying events as something requiring pre-registration.

A local favorite is the Baby Bear Dress Up Contest where kids dress up as bears. It’s one of the cutest things you’ll see.

Runners can compete in the “Run With the Bears 5K”. This is a big event and attracted more runners than I usually see at festivals.

Rounding up the contests is the Rowing Race. Having lived in Boston for a bit, I was blown away by how good the rowing teams are in North Carolina.

White sign listed activities at the Black Bear Festival.

Tips for First Timers at the Festival

Ordinarily, I would say plan on 3 to 4 hours for a festival, however, this is one where I would say, plan to spend the day. There’s so much going on and you won’t want to miss anything.

My recommendation is to arrive early, peruse the vendors, enjoy the seminars at Bear-Ology, and grab a snack. Then head over to the stage and set up some chairs to enjoy the concert. After the first act, you can see the air show which is right next to the stage.

Enjoy a few more bands, get some food, watch the chainsaw artist, explore the classic cars, and maybe go on a Pontoon boat ride.

Lastly, relax a bit and wait for the fireworks to end your day.

It’s the perfect mix of relaxed and busy in one day.

Parking and When to Arrive

Parking is creative. There are a few lots designated for the festival, but they fill up fast and it’s not clear if you can park on the street in some areas or in some church lots. On top of that, people weren’t leaving space for folks parked at the far end to get back to the driveways to exit the lots. There was a lot of driving over curbs and up small grassy hills.

If I had to do it again, I would head to the lot on the corner of Martin Lane and E. Water Street. That seemed like the largest area for parking.  Arrive around 10 or 11 am.

Festival vendors under a white awning in an alley with red brick.

Attractions and Vendors

Before heading out, check the festival website. With so many things to do, you’ll need to plan your day. 

It doesn’t take long to explore the vendors. Most of your time will be at Bear-Ology, riding the mechanical Bear, watching the air show, listening to bands, and enjoying all the entertainment.

Sunscreen and Water

The area for bands is shaded, but the rest of the festival is out in the open. I would bring plenty of sunscreen and some bug spray.

You’ll want a lot of water. There was soda and lemonade at the food vendors, but water was lacking and pricey. If you bring your own bottle, there are places to refill it.

Navigating the Festival with Groups

This is an easy festival for groups and families. While there is strong attendance, it’s not overcrowded. You won’t have any trouble staying together. There were a lot of families having a good time.

People tend to move slowly at the Black Bear Festival and take their time. Everyone was respectful and let families through or made way for scooters and people with mobility issues.

Two story building with bear statue climbing on awning and bear-shaped sign that says Bear-Ology.

Wrap-Up: Black Bear Festival

I have to admit that I was dreading a 4.5 round-trip drive to the Black Bear Festival. It didn’t seem worth it. But then I watched the air show, enjoyed 2 bands, saw the dinosaurs, talked to some of the classic car owners, watched the helicopter rides go overhead all day, and met the lovely people at Bear-Ology.

I can’t wait to see the schedule for next year. I’ll be finding a place nearby so I can attend the entire day and watch the fireworks. 

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