Lake Waccamaw State Park is perfect for winter or summer outdoor adventures. The lake is a Carolina Bay, one of thousands of mysterious oval-shaped craters filled with water. No one knows how they were created.
Lake Waccamaw State Park has hiking trails, interesting campsites, and friendly staff. I enjoyed my stay, even though it was 20 degrees the night I was there. All I can say is all the campers were eager to get going in the morning.
I also want to note that the staff is some of the friendliest and most efficient of all the North Carolina State Parks I’ve visited. When I arrived, there was an envelope for every person with a campsite reservation just outside the Visitor Center. Inside The envelopes included car tags, campsite rules, and information on how to find the sites. I’ve never seen campsite check-in done this well.
What to Know Before Visiting
There are a few things you need to know before visiting the park.
There are a lot of off-leash dogs
One thing I noticed was the abundance of off-leash dogs. While you see this at a lot of parks, in one day I counted over 19 dogs with only 2 on leashes. I noticed several owners grabbed a leash when they saw me coming. Overall, I didn’t have an issue, but if you’re afraid of dogs, or with someone that’s afraid of dogs, be aware.
The boardwalks are slick
You need to be careful on the boardwalks. Almost every boardwalk and wooden bridge is slippery. The park trails hover around wet areas so it’s no surprise this happens, and I’m sure the staff do their best. It’s not always obvious the surface is slick so be careful and watch your step. Nothing seemed dangerous, you just need to know before you step on them.
You can’t really hike 14 miles around the lake
Lastly, if you’re thinking of hiking the 14 miles around the lake, I don’t see how this is possible for 2 reasons.
First, the section of Lakeshore Trail just before the dam is flooded. While it may be somewhat passable if the weather has been dry for days, it will be muddy and your feet will get wet at some point. The lake has taken over the trail in this area. If it’s been raining, it may not be doable.
Secondly, you won’t be walking around the lake itself. It’s more a walk along the roads that surround the lake. There will be houses between you and the lake. And no sidewalks.
What I would do is explore Lake Waccamaw State Park and then drive to the dam to enjoy bridge, and views.
A Note About the Park’s Website
This is a busy park and I’m sure the staff will update the website soon. In the meantime, there are a few critical pieces of information that need to be corrected.
There are 5 campsites and they’re all considered group sites. There is no official “group” campsite. The park is testing out allowing campers to drive to their sites rather than hike in.
The park does not sell firewood. You’ll need to bring it with you.
I think there has been a change to the Pine Woods and Sand Ridge Nature Trails. This was difficult to decipher, but what shows on the map as part of the Pine Woods Trail by the restrooms has a sign that says Sand Ridge Trail. And the entrances to the horseshoe that used to make up the Sand Ridge Nature Trail are covered. If you look, you can find them and still get on the trail, but they appear to be deliberately blocked.
I’ll cover the trail changes more in the Trails section below.
Entrances to Lake Waccamaw State Park
There is one main entrance to the park. GPS took me straight to it with no issues. There’s a boat ramp on Bella Coola Road just before the park entrance with parking.
The main entrance to the park is off Bella Coola Road in Lake Waccamaw, North Carolina. As you make the turn, you’ll see a sign and paved entrance road. It doesn’t look like much until you reach the Visitor Center.
The blueish-grey building appears fairly new and there’s a good amount of parking in front. You can also drive further down the road to a second parking lot near the boardwalk that goes out over the lake.
Trails can be picked up from either parking area. I really didn’t feel one section was more advantageous than another. There are five primitive campsites. Camping is different here. If you’re interested in spending the night, jump down to the Campground section for more details.
For a great view with minimal work, head behind the visitor center where there’s a paved walkway leading to an overlook. After the paved section, it’s about 0.1 or more miles on a wood boardwalk to reach the overlook.
Things to do at Lake Waccamaw State Park
Officially, there are 6 trails providing around 7.5 miles of hiking. Two of the trails are 0.1 mile boardwalks. You may think about skipping these but don’t. They’re worth the extra mileage.
Most of the trails are one-way so the 7.5 miles of trail is deceiving. Depending on your route, you could wind up hiking a lot further than that.
There are 5 primitive campsites noted as group sites. You can fit 3 2-person tents comfortably on all sites and some can fit more. They’re more for larger families or 2 families and not huge groups.
There is a boat ramp just outside the park where motor boats and paddlers can put in.
There are plenty of places to fish with a valid NC Wildlife License.
Trails at Lake Waccamaw State Park
The trails are well-maintained and easy to follow. While I wished for a few additional blazes, overall, it’s hard to get lost.
The terrain is mostly easy. I would say sneakers are fine except the ground can be soft and muddy, especially if it’s rained recently. You may want a hearty shoe that can handle mud.
Pier Boardwalk Trail
Mileage: 0.1 mile one-way
Location: From the far parking lot. Hike past the gate blocking the road, and keep going straight
This is a lovely wooden bridge that comes to a gazebo at the edge of the lake before continuing over the lake. There are benches where you can sit an watch the water, and stairs leading into the lake at the end.
When I went, it was windy with the lake creating crashing waves against the boardwalk and shoreline. It was freezing, but I enjoyed the look of the lake. In the morning, the winds had died down and it was a completely different scene. A serene pool of blue greeted me with the sun overhead.
Mileage: 4 miles one-way
Blaze: Blue blaze
Rated: Moderate due to length
Location: Can be accessed from behind the Visitor Center or just before the Pier Boardwalk Trail reaches the gazebo
This is a hard one to describe. The entire trail is 4 miles one-way. You can start behind the Visitor Center and hike to the dam (if you can make it across the washout section) before heading back for an 8 mile day.
If you want to hike to the dam and don’t have a lot of time, I would park close to the boardwalk and pick up the trail right before the gazebo. The trail weaves between pretty areas with nice views and “meh”.
There are benches in a few areas where you can sit for a view. About 50 feet before the dam, the trail can be washed out making it impossible to pass. It depends on the weather, but even if it hasn’t rained, it will be muddy with large areas of water.
In my opinion, the area between the Visitor Center and boardwalk is a more pleasant hike. The trail hugs the lake for pretty views, and it feels more like a trail. There’s an overlook at the trailhead near the Visitor Center.
Mileage: 0.6 miles one-way
Blaze: Red Blaze
Location: Across the street from the Visitor Center, or via the Pine Woods Trail
Loblolly is a pretty trail through a pine forest, but it can be difficult to locate. From the paved walkway behind the Visitor Center, head down towards the boardwalk which starts the Lakeshore Trail. Keep going.
The walkway ends and there’s a little section that heads to the road. It doesn’t look like a trail, but you want to head in that direction to the road. The start of the trail is across the street. If you look, you’ll see the sign.
Pine Woods Trail
Mileage: 1.8 miles one-way
Blaze: Yellow blaze
Location: Can be accessed from the lower parking lot or via the Loblolly Trail
After being at the park and looking at the map, I believe this trail has changed. It used start from the Loblolly Trail and go through the campsites to the Lakeshore Trail. It now appears to end at the service road just past the second parking lot by the boardwalk
The section that goes through the campsites is now the Sand Ridge Trail. (They dropped the nature from the name). Overall, this isn’t an issue, but I think the trail is now shorter than the 1.8 miles noted on the park website.
If you look at the map, even though the trails may have switched names and sections, the overall routes are correct.
Pine Woods is my favorite trail in the park. As you hike, you’ll wander through different ecosystems. At times it was covered trail and in other places the sun was shining. It’s a popular trail, especially later in the day. I had it to myself in the morning.
Sand Ridge Nature Trail
Mileage: 0.6 mile one-way
Blaze: Orange blaze
Location: From the lower parking lot to the left of the Pier Boardwalk Trail
This trail has changed. It now starts at the boardwalk trail and leads to the campsites before connecting to Lakeshore Trail. As you hike, the blazes may change colors because some of the ole Pine Woods Trail blazes are still up.
The original Sand Ridge Nature Trail is still there, but the entrances are hidden. Just before campsite 3 is a bench and several downed trees. If you slide around the bench, you’ll see the original trail. You can follow it but it disappears after a bit. It looks like it’s been purposely blocked.
This is a nice trail, but it’s really more to reach the campsites and connect them to the rest of the park.
Boardwalk Connector Trail
Mileage: 0.1 mile
Location: Connects the Lakeshore Trail to the main park road. You can pick up the Pine Woods Trail on the other side of the street
This is a long boardwalk that connects the Lakeshore Trail to the road that goes through the park. You can pick up Pine Woods Trail on the other side of the road.
The boardwalk is slick most of the way – be careful and take baby steps. It doesn’t look slick, but if you go to fast or take big steps you’ll go flying.
Even though it’s short, I would still make the effort to hike across it. Personally, I love wooden boardwalks and this one is long and windy and awesome.
Camping at Lake Waccamaw State Park
There are 5 primitive campsites at the park. While they are considered group sites, it’s more for a large family or possibly 2 families.
If you’re looking the park map, the site location can be deceiving. Campsites 2,5,4 are (in that order) on the right as you go down Sand Ridge Trail. Campsite 3 is on the left.
The location of campsite 1 is correct on the map, but it’s still hard to find. You’ll see a picnic table on the service road beyond the gate that separates the parking lot from the area with the restroom and start of the boardwalk trail. Make a right and keep going. The site is a little ways down on the right.
Lake Waccamaw State Park is experimenting with allowing campers to drive to the sites. This means you go through the “official vehicles only” gate and drive down Sand Ridge Trail (which is a dirt road) for about 0.5 mile before parking at your site.
The issue I had is that this seems to be attracting campers that want to car camp without the rules. Two other sites were occupied the night I was there and they were both playing music from their car stereos.
Another note is they give campers the gate code. I’ve never been given the code. Once you’re in, you’re in. Unfortunately, campers were calling friends and family with the code so people could come and go. While things settled down around 9:30, I have a feeling it was due more to the cold temperatures than the time.
The campsites are primitive with a place to pitch your tent, fire ring for grilling, fire box for a fire, and multiple picnic tables (the number depended on the site). There’s a pit toilet near site 3.
There are no showers. The restroom about a half mile away has flush toilets and sinks. They have signs noting that bathing and washing dishes is not allowed. I get this because the dishes clog the sinks fast.
If they were hike in, it would be a quiet retreat. But I understand it’s a long walk for families and groups. While perfect for anyone with backpacking equipment, you certainly wouldn’t want to make 2 trips or carry heavy, awkward containers. .
Tips for Visiting Lake Waccamaw State Park
While the map has issues, I would still grab one or download it from the park’s website. Even if the trail may have switched up a little, the routes are correct, and you can orient where you are based on the boardwalks, road, and lake locations.
The staff is friendly and knowledgeable. It too me three tries before I realized I had to drive up the Sand Ridge Trail to the campsite. The kind woman at the Visitor Center was on the phone talking me through it the whole time.
And to say they’re efficient is an understatement. I have never encountered a faster, more seamless campground check-in. The park is also immaculately clean. Every trash can had a new bag in it, the bathrooms were clean, and I didn’t see any trash hiking around.
Winter is a great time to come for a hike and grab a campsite. Campsite 1 will be the quietest since it’s away from the others, but it’s off a trail so you may get hikers passing by during the day.
The dam is pretty and there’s a bridge there with great views of the lake. If you’re not up to hiking there, consider driving. It’s about 15 minutes away with a small parking lot.
The park is buggy in the summer. Grab your bug spray and sunscreen. In the winter, even though it’s at the coast, it can get cold. Check the weather and pack accordingly. Since you can currently park at your campsite, load up on the blankets.
While the trails are easy enough for sneakers, if it’s been raining, consider heavier shoes. Also, the boardwalks are slippery and tread helps.
Ask for Help
Depending on the time of year and time of day, you may not encounter a lot of people. I saw the most people on Lakeshore Trail and a few on Sand Ridge Trail. Overall, the park felt busy on Saturday, but not Sunday.
My phone had signal the entire time I was in the park, and the staff is responsive if you run into any issues.
Lake Waccamaw State Park – Wrap Up
This is a great park with the most efficient staff I’ve encountered. The other hikers I encountered were friendly. It can be a place to relax or put in some miles. There’s plenty to do around the area too.
I enjoy visiting lakes in the winter when there are less crowds and fewer bugs. Lake Waccamaw did not disappoint. The views from Lakeshore Trail are beautiful, and hiking down Pine Woods was serene.
The next time you’re down this say, stop by.