10 North Carolina state parks that are an easy trip from Wilmington

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Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in New Hanover County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in New Hanover County. (Photo courtesy of NC State Parks)

As North Carolina celebrated the 100th anniversary of its state parks last year, the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation said it saw a record number of visitors.

Despite the wildfires that closed state parks on the western side of the state for long stretches last fall, and the damage left from Hurricane Matthew on the shore, North Carolina hosted 18.8 million visitors last year, which was a 9 percent increase from 2015.

With the warm weather returning to Wilmington and Earth Day coming up on April 22, there’s no reason not to visit a state park this spring.

“We have a wide range of great places to visit from Wilmington — that’s for sure,” said Charlie Peek, the public information officer for the state parks. “You can go to many on just a day trip or really get out there and spend some time in nature.”

And the price is right. Most state parks charge no entrance fee.

Of the 39 state parks and state recreation areas in North Carolina, here are 10 (in no particular order) that are very accessible from Wilmington:

Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Hanging Rock State Park in Stokes County. (Photo courtesy of NC State Parks)

Hanging Rock State Park

Since its creation as a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps project, Hanging Rock State Park has offered the best of a traditional outdoor experience with 73-site campground, picnic grounds, stocked lake for swimming and canoe rentals and more than 20 miles of hiking trails that climb onto spectacular views and weave alongside clear streams and waterfalls.

“One of my favorite venues,” said Steve Livingston, a processing assistant at the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation. “It’s a great state park for trails and campsites but it’s also known as a great family park. And by that, I mean families are always showing up with kids in diapers running all over the place.”

There is also access on the Dan River for paddling, 8.4 miles of mountain biking trails and rock climbing opportunities with permit.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Stone Mountain State Park in Alleghany and Wilkes Counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Stone Mountain State Park in Alleghany and Wilkes Counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Stone Mountain State Park

The massive granite dome at Stone Mountain State Park keeps watch on park visitors enjoying nearly every type of outdoor activity – camping, hiking, climbing, fishing, picnicking, horseback riding and more. There are more than 18 miles of trails, matched by more than 20 miles of designated trout waters in this park that spreads below the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“They have a great variety of trails rated easy, moderate and strenuous so this park has a little something for everyone,” Livingston said. “Beginners and children are more than welcome to hike.”

A campground offers 90 sites, some with utility hookups, and group and backpacking campsites are nearby. Rock climbing is allowed by permit on the towering, 600-foot granite face of the landmark mountain.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

 Eno River State Park in Durham and Orange Counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Eno River State Park in Durham and Orange Counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Eno River State Park

Eno River State Park — like its namesake — flows near urban areas of Durham and Orange counties with five scattered access areas, each just minutes from town amenities. The Eno River’s waters roll past mature forests, historic mill and home sites and river bluffs covered with flowering shrubs and across fords used by early settlers.

The park offers nearly 30 miles of trails along a swift, shallow stream that’s popular with anglers, photographers and sightseers. Backcountry camping at individual sites and group campsites is available.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Carolina Beach State Park in New Hanover County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Carolina Beach State Park in New Hanover County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Carolina Beach State Park

With a marina providing access to some of North Carolina’s best fishing spots, a secluded camping area beneath towering trees, and miles of hiking trails that traverse a variety of distinct habitats — not to mention the presence of the Venus flytrap, one of the world’s most unique carnivorous plants — it’s no wonder Carolina Beach State Park is a popular coastal attraction.

“This park is very familiar to the people of Wilmington because it only about a half hour’s drive,” said Peek, who grew up in the mountain region of the state.

Located in an area steeped in both history and natural diversity, the park includes a visitor’s center with exhibits depicting the wonders of its environment.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in New Hanover County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Fort Fisher State Recreation Area in New Hanover County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

Alternate between nearly six miles of pristine beach and trails through salt marsh brimming with wildlife at Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, a park touching both the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. Development on this protected shoreline is limited to a visitor center and related facilities and boardwalks that attract birders and photographers.

“Visitors will also find a state aquarium, Civil War-era historic site and a boating ramp and paddling launch nearby,” Livingston said.

Loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers and other rare species nest along the sandy shore. The park is popular for surf fishing, and four-wheel-drive vehicles are allowed seasonally with required permits.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Fort Macon State Park in Carteret County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Fort Macon State Park in Carteret County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Fort Macon State Park

Fort Macon State Park has multiple personalities as the site of a perfectly restored Civil War-era fort, a museum-quality coastal education center and an unspoiled shoreline for swimming, surf fishing and beachcombing. Nearly surrounded by water at the eastern tip of Bogue Banks, the park offers undisturbed natural beauty and opportunities to explore and learn about salt marshes, estuaries and dune fields.

“It’s the same beach experience most visitors always get but what’s different about this park is a 1800’s-era fort and we also have an extensive natural resource museum there,” Peek said. “Easy day trip from Wilmington.”

The fort — once a project of Robert E. Lee as a young army engineer — has a history as intricate and unique as the ecosystem. Cannon and musket demonstrations and guided tours are regular features.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Lumber River State Park in Scotland, Hoke, Robeson and Columbus counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Lumber River State Park in Scotland, Hoke, Robeson and Columbus counties. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Lumber River State Park

On a national wild and scenic river, Lumber River State Park is all about eastern North Carolina paddling, fishing and exquisite scenery. The Princess Ann and Chalk Banks access areas anchor two ends of the riverine park, with tent-friendly campgrounds, group campsites, picnic grounds and short hiking trails at both.

“This is a paddling adventure,” Peek said. “It’s a blackwater river so there is a lot of paddling opportunities there. Open to beginners as well. We don’t offer paddling rentals but there’s some outfitters in the region.”

Pier and riverbank fishing is available for black crappie, largemouth bass, catfish and panfish. The park’s interpretive programs regularly include paddling and fishing excursions.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Lake Waccamaw State Park in Columbus County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Lake Waccamaw State Park in Columbus County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Lake Waccamaw State Park

A visit to Lake Waccamaw State Park unveils one of the most unique bodies of water in the world and one of the greatest geological mysteries—the phenomenon of Carolina Bays with species of aquatic life found nowhere else. A 700-foot boardwalk reaching into the shallow, tea-colored water accommodates wildlife viewing and fishing, and more than seven miles of trails allow hikers to explore multiple ecosystems and rare plants.

“It’s about an hour up Route 74 from Wilmington,” Peek said. “Another great venue for paddling and fishing.”

Fifty-two species of game and non-game fish are at home in Lake Waccamaw. Camping is primitive at four hike-in group sites, and a boat ramp allows lake access for paddlers and small boats.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Morrow Mountain State Park in Stanly County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Morrow Mountain State Park in Stanly County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Morrow Mountain State Park

Choose an adventure at Morrow Mountain State Park, whether it’s hiking, camping, paddling, fishing, horseback riding, swimming or just taking in scenery on one of the highest points in the piedmont.

Related: Places to visit on one tank of gas — Morrow Mountain State

“It’s more of a traditional park — one of the oldest,” Peek said. “Got some incredible views along the mountain and it has swimming pool that was built in the 1930’s but is still working fine today.”

Visitors can launch their own craft from a boat ramp. A family campground with 106 sites for tents, trailers and RVs is close by a swimming pool with bathhouse.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

Hammocks Beach State Park in Onslow County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks
Hammocks Beach State Park in Onslow County. Photo courtesy NC State Parks

Hammocks Beach State Park

A crown jewel of the North Carolina coast and Hammocks Beach State Park is Bear Island — a three-mile-long, undeveloped barrier island accessible by the park’s passenger ferry, private ferry or by paddling a canoe or kayak. A wide beach between massive dunes and the ocean is interrupted only by primitive campsites and a modest concession/picnic complex.

“The big difference with this park is that there’s no development on the island,” Peek said. “It’s virtually untouched. Very similar to parts of the Outer Banks, but much closer to Wilmington.”

The park’s mainland gateway offers a full-service visitor center and is the launch site for ferry service, canoes or kayaks.

From Wilmington: Click here for driving directions

IF YOU GO: Be sure to check out the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation website to get more information on each of the parks. The organization is also on Twitter and you can get a sneak peek of many of the state parks by viewing them on Vimeo. Also, Earth Day is April 22 and many state parks will be celebrating with different festivals and events.

For more information or to have your recent trip highlighted in our new travel section, please email travel editor Aaron Gray at aaron@localvoicemedia.com