Carolina Beach State Park offers a diverse array of ecosystems. Sitting just above the Outer Banks, it’s about 12 miles from Wilmington, NC and is bordered by the Intracoastal Waterway and Cape Fear River.
This is the most amazing State Park I’ve visited. As I hiked, I saw the Venus Flytrap which grows naturally in this area (one of the top fun facts about NC), beaches, dunes, limesink ponds, cypress trees with Spanish moss, loblolly pines, longleaf pines, and a marina with beautiful boats.
Everywhere I turned, there was something new to see. I’ve been to a lot of North Carolina’s State Parks and have never seen anything quite like Carolina Beach State Park.
Around 9 miles of easy trails suitable for any level
2 wheelchair accessible gravel trails
Family campground with 79 tent/RV sites and 6 cabins (book in advance because they fill up fast)
A variety of ecosystems that will keep you entertained
- History of Carolina Beach State Park
- What to Know Before Visiting Carolina Beach State Park
- Entrances to the Park
- Things to do at Carolina Beach State Park
- Trails at Carolina Beach State Park
- Camping at Carolina Beach State Park
- Tips for Visiting Carolina Beach State Park
- Wrap Up: Carolina Beach State Park
History of Carolina Beach State Park
Originally named Masonboro State Park, it was established in 1969 as North Carolina’s 14th state park. The name was changed to Carolina Beach State Park in 1974.
The goal was to preserve the unique environment along the intracoastal waterway. Now 761 acres, the park sits on a strip of land known as Pleasure Island between the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River. While it’s sometimes confused as part of the Outer Banks, it actually sits above them.
What to Know Before Visiting Carolina Beach State Park
When it comes to hiking, this is one of the easiest parks around. The trails are well maintained, mainly packed sand, and flat. You don’t need hiking boots.
If you head down the Oak Toe Trail to the Marsh Overlook, you’ll encounter soft sand here and there, but nothing too difficult.
While there is tree cover in places, you’ll have heavy sun exposure throughout your hike.
We encountered wasps at the end of the Oak Toe Trail near the sign noting it’s the end. Be careful. They seem to be ground wasps and they’re tiny.
Head to the marina for sunset, it’s stunning.
Campsites book fast. Do not show up without a reservation, the chance of getting a site same day is close to 0%.
There are no equestrian trails in the parks. Bicycles are only allowed on the 1 mile Fitness Trail just outside the park entrance.
Entrances to the Park
There’s one official entrance, but the Fitness Trail is off on its own with separate parking. Google and Apple Maps both lead you to the main entrance if you type in “Carolina Beach State Park”. The official address is 1010 State Park Road, Carolina Beach.
Parking for the Fitness Trail is at the Recreation Center on Seventh Street. If you make a left turn out of the park, it’s the first right you come too. Just a note here, the map says 7th St. but the street sign is “seventh” street, with the number spelled out. That threw me.
Things to do at Carolina Beach State Park
According to the park’s website, there are 9 trails for a total of almost 9 miles. Check the map before you head out because some trails require a hike to reach them.
All trails are marked easy and I agree with that assessment. You don’t need hiking shoes here, sneakers will work fine. The trails are flat and mostly packed sand except for a few areas of loose sand.
I have never encountered a park where the trails are so well marked as Carolina Beach. You cannot get lost. The trails are well maintained and the blazes are perfectly placed. There are just enough to keep you on track, but not so many it detracts from your hike.
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Carolina Beach State Park has a family campground with 79 sites around 2 loops. Each loop has a bath house. There are also 6 cabins.
For a more remote experience, established groups (scout troops, church groups, etc.) can book one of the two group campgrounds. You’ll have to hike in about a quarter mile from the parking lot.
Trails at Carolina Beach State Park
Prepare to be blown away by the trails at Carolina Beach State Park. Each trail is like hiking in an entirely new environment. We kept finding ourselves pointing and saying “OMG, look at that. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Mileage: 1 mile (one-way)
Blaze: Blue circles
Location: The trail can be picked up from either campground loop, and near the Visitor Center
The Campground Trail forms a horseshoe from Sugarloaf, up around both campground loops, and then back past the Visitor Center to Sugarloaf. If you hike the entire trail, you’ll cross 3 roads. You’ll pass one of the trailheads just before you turn into the Visitor Center parking lot.
I loved this trail. It winds through a forest of longleaf pines with small shrubs dotting the ground underneath them. In the fall, the pines are tall and green, and the shrubs turn pretty shades of red and gold. It’s an amazing thing to see.
The trial is flat and well marked.
Mileage: 3 mile loop
Blaze: Orange circles
Location: You can access the trail from the Campground Trail, the Flytrap Trail, and the Marina parking lot
This is the main trail in the park. If you want to get to the Sand Live Oak Trail, Sugarloaf Dune, Oak Toe Trail, or Swamp Trail, you’ll have to get on Sugarloaf. It’s worth it though. I don’t know how to describe it except to say you’ll see at least 4 different ecosystems.
We wound through a sandhill forest of pine trees, then reached a cypress-gum swamp, then what looked like a savanna with tall grass, then old live oak trees trimmed with Spanish moss. My hiking buddy and I kept breaking off our conversation to say, “Look at that!”.
In all my years of hiking, in all the parks I’ve been to, and all the wilderness areas, I have never seen anything like this trail.
Make sure you take the spur to Sugarloaf dune. It’s a small hike under Cypress trees to the top of a sand dune overlooking the Cape Fear River.
Along the way, stop at the marina to pick up a drink and watch the boats.
Sand Live Oak Trail
Mileage: 1.5 mile loop (you’ll need to hike almost 1.5 miles one-way on Sugarloaf to reach it so add 3 miles)
Blaze: Yellow-green diamonds
Location: Access is from almost the midway point of the Sugarloaf Trail
Part of the Sand Live Oak Trail goes outside the park and onto U.S. Federal property. You won’t notice this, but it’s important to stay on the trail.
About halfway around, you’ll start walking alongside the Cape Fear River. The park website says you walk through an ancient sand dune forest. All I know is the trees were short and had bright red and yellow fall colors. It was amazing.
The trail connects in 2 locations with Sugarloaf trail. One of them is near the spur to the Sugarloaf dune. Be sure to take this short spur for a fantastic view.
Oak Toe Trail
Mileage: 0.25 miles one-way (Add 1 mile one-way on Sugarloaf to reach the trailhead. Full mileage round-trip is 2.5 miles)
Blaze: Blue diamonds
Location: From the Marina parking lot, you’ll pick up Sugarloaf Trail and hike about 1 mile to the intersection with the Oak Toe Trail
This was our favorite trail. It wanders along the Cape Fear River over a marsh. You’ll cross a wooden bridge with views of the river to the right and a vast savanna with tall grass to the right. There are dwarf palmetto trees that look like mangroves.
Along the way you’ll walk on a beach area with driftwood.
At the end is a sign alerting you that you’ve reached the end of the trail. Keep going until you see this sign.
A word of caution: we encountered ground wasps at the very end of the trail. They were some of the tiniest wasps I’ve seen. It felt like little bug bites, but we quickly realized we needed to move.
Mileage: 0.75 miles one-way
Blaze: Red circles
Location: You can access the trail from the Sugarloaf Trail. The two fastest ways to reach Swamp Trial is to park near the Flytrap Trail and take that to Sugarloaf to Swamp, or park at the marina and take Sugarloaf to Swamp
Swamp Trail is home to the group primitive campsites. It’s a nice hike and a good way to add some extra mileage to your day.
Mileage: 0.5 mile loop
Blaze: Orange diamonds
Location: Take the first road on your left past the Visitor Center and it will dead end in a parking lot at the trailhead
This is a wheelchair-accessible loop through pocosin wetlands. There are also longleaf pines. But the trail is best known as the place where you can find Venus flytraps. This is one of the few places where the Venus Flytrap grows naturally.
There is a large boardwalk in one area and 2 wooden bridges. We looked for the Venus Flytrap and through we had it, but it turns out we had the wrong plant. I guess I’ll just have to go back and look again.
Mileage: 0.25 miles one-way
Blaze: Red diamonds
Location: You can access the trail from the loser campground look and from the picnic area on the road to the marina
The TRACK Trail is a Kids in Parks Trail. It’s one section of the Snow’s Cut Trail. At the trailheads you’ll find brochures including a guide where kids can look for certain items along the trail and check them off.
This is an easy trail through a forest alongside the intracoastal waterway. The ecosystem looks like what you would find in Piedmont parks like Haw River State Park.
Snow’s Cut Trail
Mileage: 0.75 miles one-way
Blaze: Red diamonds
Location: You can reach the trail from the lower campground loop, or the picnic area on the road to the marina
The trail takes you along the Intracoastal Waterway through a pine forest. It felt like my well known Eno River and Umstead State Parks, but with a large blue river with sand banks and dunes on one side.
In the morning you’ll find a lot of fishermen below the trail on the sand beaches. We headed down for a quick look, but the views were better from the top of the dunes.
It was cool to see the bridge I drove over to reach Carolina Beach as I hiked along the water.
Everywhere we went there was another view even better than the one before.
Mileage: 1 mile loop
Blaze: Yellow circles
Location: The trailhead is located on Seventh Street with parking at the Carolina Beach Recreation Center
This is the only trail in the park where bicycles are allowed. It’s also a wheelchair accessible loop.
As you hike, you’ll encounter little fitness stations along the way. There are six or seven stations widely spread apart along the trail. I have never seen some of the stations they had and there are no instructions so you’re hilariously on your own to figure it out.
The area the trail is on is small, but whoever designed it made the most of it by winding the trail seamlessly. I’m still not sure how it twists and turns yet never doubles back on itself, nor can you see where you’ve been.
Camping at Carolina Beach State Park
The park boasts a huge family campground with 79 sites and 2 group primitive camping areas. The sites here book up fast. I highly recommend reserving your site in advance. Showing up and trying to secure a site same-day is a long-shot and there aren’t many other options in the area.
Seventy-nine sites and 6 cabins are spread across two loops. Each loop has its own bath house with individual shower stalls and really nice sinks.
Trash is only available at the exit, past the dump station, so be prepared to either drive to the exit daily or have sturdy bags to pack up your trash and store it in your vehicle.
The sites are large and suitable for tents or RVs. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring.
You’ll check in at the Marina and get a tag for your car. Double-check the marina hours before heading out. This is also where you can purchase firewood.
The sites on the lower loop (one through 35) where nice but a little closer together than the upper loop (sties 36-79). Although the upper loop had more situations with trees growing in the middle of the campsite. Make sure you look at the photos on the Reserve America site before booking.
While it always depends on who is there, I found the campground quiet. It’s heavily wooded and relaxing.
Group Primitive Campgrounds
There are 2 primitive campgrounds for established groups like scout troops. These are located on the Swamp Trail near the Flytrap Trail. You’ll have to pack in all your items. From the Flytrap Trail parking lot it’s about 400 yards to the campsite. Not too bad for 2 trips of gear if you need to go back to the car.
These are primitive sites with no running water. There are privies but one was in bad shape. The sites include two picnic tables and fire rings.
Tips for Visiting Carolina Beach State Park
While the park trails are well marked, either download a map from the park’s website or pick one up at the Visitor Center. It will help keep you straight since the trails loop and connect in ways that can be confusing.
There are trash and recycling areas throughout the park but you may need to hang onto your trash until you reach one.
I cannot stress this enough, you will need sunscreen. Even though there are forested areas, it’s not dense in most places and you’re at the coast. Bug spray may also be helpful in spring and summer.
There’s potable water at the Visitor Center, Marina, and family campground, but you’ll want to have at least a liter if you’re hiking the trails.
The area is fragile and it’s important to stay on the trail and not meander off-trail, especially on the Flytrap Trail.
I wore a sun shirt which was helpful since both days were bright and sunny. Check the weather before you head out.
While the trails are flat and easy, the temperature will be warmer than the Piedmont and Western areas of the state. I had on my sun shirt and capris and my hiking buddy had a t-shirt and shorts in 76 degree weather. We were both comfortable.
Ask for Help
The park is popular with locals, although not crowded, you won’t be on a trail for long before seeing someone. Bring a map with you, but don’t be afraid to ask for help if you become confused.
Overall the trails are well marked and, if you follow the blazes, you should be fine.
Wrap Up: Carolina Beach State Park
Carolina Beach State Park is one of a kind. From pine forests filled with longleaf and loblolly pines to old live oaks with Spanish moss to a cypress pond to beaches and waterways, it truly has everything.
Grab your sunscreen, reserve a campsite and head out to the most unique state park in North Carolina.