Day trip to Hammocks Beach State Park

20 July 2022

In 2020, John and I both had Juneteenth added to our list of company holidays. Over the last few years, it’s been neat to learn more about it and find ways to celebrate it that feel honoring. This year, Juneteenth was observed on a Monday, so we took the opportunity to stay overnight at the North Carolina coast and visit Hammocks Beach State Park on our day off. It was a delight (and uniquely fitting for Juneteenth), and I’d love to tell you about it!

Hammocks Beach appeared on our radar pre-kids, when John turned it up as a contender for our annual camping trip. There are primitive camping sites on the island, but the logistical hurdles seemed a bit steep, so we put it on the back burner.

In 2019, I read an article in my favorite North Carolina magazine about the history of Hammocks Beach. In short: a (white) neurosurgeon and a (black) wilderness guide became friends in the early 1900s. Sharpe (the neurosurgeon) bought the property – 4,600 acres! – and hired Hurst (the guide) to manage the land. The families became close, and in the 1940s, toward the end of his life, Sharpe offered the entire property to the Hursts.

Instead of accepting, they forged a new plan together: in 1950, they deeded the property to the North Carolina Teachers Association, an organization of black educators and community leaders. From the article: “Because of segregation, African Americans were banned from public beaches in the state, including parks for which they paid taxes. [This plan] would honor teachers and give black schoolchildren and families in the state access to one of North Carolina’s most beautiful beaches.”

In 1961, Bear Island became a state park for African-Americans. The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned segregation in all parks, and though for several years afterward it continued to be a destination primarily for black families, it’s now enjoyed by all North Carolinians.

A fitting destination for Juneteenth, no? And what a beautiful beach it is! John and I could NOT get over the color of the water – it truly felt like we were in the Caribbean. We loved our trip, but there are a few helpful things to know if you go…

Where to stay at Hammocks Beach State Park:

Aside from the primitive camp sites, there are no accommodations on Bear Island. We opted to stay at the Hampton Inn in the nearby town of Swansboro (photos directly above from in town). It was $170 for two adjoining rooms (so nice to have when traveling with kids!). We usually stay in Airbnbs when traveling, so the hotel breakfast was a special treat for our kids :)

Swansboro is a cute waterfront town. After arriving on Sunday afternoon, we walked the main drag, ate dinner right on the water at Saltwater Grill, shared ice cream cones, and even caught some of an outdoor concert set up in the center of town.

Boarding the ferry and pulling away from the mainland

How to get to Hammocks Beach State Park:

This is part of the fun! Bear Island – the 4-mile-long, undeveloped barrier island that’s the centerpiece of the state park – is accessible only by the park’s passenger ferry or by paddling a canoe or kayak. You can find the ferry schedule here. When we visited, ferries left hourly from the mainland and from Bear Island, offset by half an hour. A round-trip ticket was $6 for adults and $4 for kids (Annie was free, but also needed a ticket).  

There are no advanced reservations and timed tickets are sold on a first come-first served basis. Since we were unsure of how hot demand would be for tickets, John opted to drive to the park office when they opened to buy tickets for the 10:30 ferry (it was only a 5-minute drive from the hotel, so not an inconvenience!). We probably also would have been fine arriving 30 minutes or so early, but our ferry did seem full.

The 15-minute ferry ride, which winds through pristine marshland, is beautiful!

What to know if you go to Hammocks Beach State Park:

  • It’s a half-mile walk from the ferry landing to the beach, so you’ll be hoofing it there and back. We all carried something on the walk!
  • Wagons are allowed on the ferry at the discretion of the boat captain. We did not bring one.
  • There is a concession stand and bathrooms on the beach. The concession stand has cold drinks, novelty ice cream, chips, and maybe some heartier food? The prices are adorably low: an ice cream sandwich was $.50.
  • There are no trash cans, so you’ll need to pack out any trash.
  • Like most beaches, there is very little shade (duh). Sunscreen is important!
  • When we arrived at the beach and set up our spot around 11, we were dismayed to be swarmed by small biting gnats. We opted to take a long walk down the beach first thing to avoid them, which worked well. By the time we were back at our things an hour later, the wind had picked up and sent the gnats packing. So maybe morning isn’t the best time to visit?

What to do at Hammocks Beach State Park:

Bear Island is absolutely gorgeous! Pristine really is the perfect word to describe it. Our kids (6, 3, and almost 1) enjoyed walking on the beach, hunting for shells (we found whole sand dollars!), digging in the sand, and wading in the water (which was a balmy 80 degrees when we visited in June). We picnicked, we got ice cream sandwiches, and we even saw three dolphins surfacing just offshore!! Highlight of the day for sure. The ferry ride itself was another highlight!

What to bring to Hammocks Beach State Park:

With three young kids at a remote location, there were a few helpful things we brought beyond the beach basics:

  • Ergo | John carried Annie for the walk to and from the ferry and up and down the beach. She fell asleep while we beach combed, which was a great way to sneak in her morning nap.
  • Shibumi shade | This was only our third outing or so with our Shibumi, and my personal jury is still out for the price. But it is a snap to put up and gets major points (especially on this trip) for being light and easy to carry.
  • Cooler backpack | We packed gear in the top and our water bottles and Jersey Mike’s subs in the cooler compartment on the bottom.
  • Beach toys | Definitely worth the space!
  • Cash | For the concession stand.
  • Folding chairs | For the parents. Kids sat on towels, ha.
  • Sun hats for everyone | And lots of sunscreen.

My fellow North Carolinians, Hammocks Beach is totally worth adding to your NC bucket list! We loved our day trip and hope to be back. In the meantime, I’d love to hear: if you’ve observed Juneteenth, how have you celebrated?

P.S. More adventures here and more North Carolina here.

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July 20, 2022 11:11 am

What a thoughtful way to celebrate Juneteenth. My daughter and I spent the holiday with my sister at the pool near her house. You touched on this in your post, about how segregation prevented black people from visiting beaches. This ban extended to pools, which is how the stereotype of black people not being able to swim was born. The majority of black people didn’t learn how to swim because they were prevented from accessing pools. This is systemic racism, and it’s impact on me and my family is continually felt. My parents never learned how to swim, and me being the eldest child, they didn’t understand the benefit of signing me up for lessons. They weren’t allowed to visit pools for much of their youth, so they didn’t grow up with “vacations at the lake” or near the beach or the water. I ended up developing a fear of the water. My sisters, who are younger than me, expressed an interest in swimming so they begged for swimming lessons early in their lives. Not being able to swim truly bothered me and frightened me. As an adult, I didn’t want my daughter (who is adopted, but also black) to have to endure the same fear and ostracism I felt growing up. She’s nearly two now, but she loves the water, probably because we already started her on swimming lessons at our local pool, which she takes with my husband (who is white). Meanwhile, I finally started taking private swim lessons in March of this year, and have been going ever since. I finally learned how to swim! I never imagined that I’d spend the Juneteeth holiday at a pool, actually enjoying myself, with no fear. :)

July 20, 2022 2:46 pm

Firstly, I love that Juneteenth is now a holiday! I also love that you guys celebrated it with a nod to the reason it was granted. I think so many public holidays around the world are just taken for granted as a day off work that we don’t often stop to think (with the exception of religious holidays) about the why. Actually, in typing this and thinking of US public holidays, I think maybe Americans are better at this than most. Ha! But I really want to try be more intentional about our public hols in New Zealand. Thanks for always posting such thought provoking (and lovely!) posts.

July 21, 2022 8:44 pm

We visited Hammocks Beach last summer with my family and loved it! I loved learning about its history and thinking of all of the people who enjoyed its shores over the years. The trek was a bit hot and tedious for the 6 little cousins, but they endured it just fine and afterwards they could not stop talking about THE FERRY RIDE. What a thrill!

Kristen M
July 28, 2022 11:53 am

Emily – I absolutely love this. What a beautiful way to celebrate Juneteenth – a holiday that truly celebrates America as a work in progress towards all having the ability to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As I’m sure you’ve already seen as a fellow Our State fan – Jones Lake State Park would be a great future Juneteenth destination:
I work in the cultural heritage/library archives field in NC and I’ve been planning to take my kids to Historic Stagville and Somerset Plantation when they’re a little older but focusing on state parks such as Hammocks Beach and Jones Lake feels like a great way to enjoy NC’s beauty and learn more about the history of Black and white relations in the state (and wider South). Thank you for sharing this journey :)