Nature and Eco-Adventures
With a diverse ecosystem featuring coastal waterways, the Atlantic Ocean and Cape Fear River as well as state and local parks teeming with wildlife, it's easy to find nature during your stay. Explore deserted barrier islands, discover native Venus flytraps during a hike in a maritime forest and uncover hidden gems found only at low tide.
Accessible only by boat, Masonboro Island off Wrightsville Beach is a North Carolina Coastal Reserve and National Estuarine Research Reserve System rich with wildlife. The largest undisturbed barrier island along southern North Carolina’s coast, coastal birds flock to their natural habitat here and dolphins can be seen enjoying the area on a calm day.
Paddle out to Zeke's Island, an important shorebird habitat home to tidal flats, salt marshes, dunes and beaches. Perfect for birdwatching of rare migrating species, keep your eyes peeled for dunlin, black-bellied plover, white ibis and more. The Reserve protects coastal habitats for long-term research and education. Located on the Cape Fear River Basin, visitors can access the island by renting a kayak from Kayak Carolina and paddling out at the public wildlife ramp or by private boat. Once there, traverse to the barrier-spit portion of the Reserve and explore the North Island, the largest and most ecologically diverse of the three islands and enjoy walking trails overlooking the Reserve Site.
Crossing the iconic drawbridge from the mainland into Wrightsville Beach, visitors can look off towards the northeast and see a sandbar known by locals as “The Diminishing Republic,” complete with a fake palm tree and a parking meter. Some claim it is maintained by a “secret society of locals” that show up when the treetop needs replacing. Boaters often anchor there on either side of the low tide to temporarily inhabit the island, which slowly disappears as the water begins rising toward high tide. The treetop is the only visible part of “The Diminishing Republic” at high tide. See if you can spot it!
The renowned Fort Fisher State Recreation Area’s Hermit (Robert E. Harrill) lived in an abandoned World War II-era bunker near the Cape Fear River along a salt marsh for 17 years, from 1955 until 1972. He became known as the Fort Fisher Hermit in 1955 at the age of 62. People heard of and came to visit the Fort Fisher Hermit to listen to his philosophies and imparted wisdom throughout his stay there, and today you can still see the bunker he made into a home on the recreation area’s 1.1-mile trail. There have been many documentaries and numerous articles written about the Fort Fisher Hermit including a live stage production.
Did you know that Venus flytrap (Dionaea) grows naturally only within a 75-100 mile radius of Wilmington? This remarkable plant’s bristly leaves form a trap that closes when an insect crawls onto the leaf. Blooming in May, the Venus Flytrap Trail at Carolina Beach State Park showcases this remarkable plant. The trail’s half-mile loop also features other indigenous carnivorous plants such as the Bladderwort and Pitcher Plant. Or visit the Stanley Rehder Carnivorous Plant Garden, the only public carnivorous plant garden in the world. Find more locations here.
Coastal Wildlife & Beach Gems
Did you know that Loggerhead sea turtles visit Kure Beach between mid-May and September? This threatened species is protected by the Endangered Species Act. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is an excellent place to see a live baby sea turtle. Each year, the Aquarium nurtures a handful of hatchlings that have been rescued from doomed nests and then releases them the following year. The Aquarium also studies Loggerhead migration patterns. The Pleasure Island Sea Turtle Project ensures the preservation and protection of threatened and endangered sea turtles and is comprised of volunteers dedicated to the protection of all sea turtle species. During nesting season (May 1 - August 31), volunteers monitor from the southern end of Kure Beach to the northern end (including Freeman Park) of Carolina Beach.
North Carolina Birding Trail
Peruse 11 sites on the North Carolina Birding Trail across Wilmington and our Island Beaches, including Airlie Gardens, Zeke’s Island Reserve, Oakdale Cemetery, Fort Fisher State Historic Site, Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and more. North Carolina's unique geographic setting along the Atlantic coast flyway provides both breeding and wintering grounds for many birds, making the state a premier birding destination.
On Wrightsville Beach, there is a special mailbox where people pour their hearts out to complete strangers in the sand dunes on the north end of the beach. There is no name on it and the Post Office doesn’t pick up or deliver to the box. People can write letters to clear their conscience, place them in a mailbox, but never have them sent. The mysterious mailbox somehow stays stocked with paper, pens, and stories from visitors sharing their fondest beach memories year after year. The current mailbox is the second mailbox located on Wrightsville Beach. The first mailbox was a landmark on the north end of the island for 11 years and the hundreds of notes left in it can now be found on display at the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.
Gain a new perspective of the history and ecology of our waterways and the area surrounding the Cape Fear River aboard a catamaran with Wilmington Water Tours. Cruise by historic downtown and Eagles Island during the Eagles Island Cruise where you can learn about local rice plantations, flora and fauna. Or, book the Black River Cruise to enjoy the variety of wildflowers, wildlife and spectacular trees along the meandering river or enjoy the hour-and-a-half Breakfast With The Birds tour. Cape Fear River Boats invites visitors to partake in a 4-hour tour of the Black River. On the nature cruise, visitors will learn about plant and wildlife from local coastal ecologist Andy Wood and see amber-colored waters framed by spectacular swamp forests that appear similar to their original views.
Walk along the Riverwalk to explore a part of the Cape Fear Estuary. This estuarine area is an extremely important ecological system that’s home to animals that you can see and learn more about from signage displayed on the 1.75-mile Riverwalk. Animal species you might find include the American Alligator, River Otter, Snowy Egret, and even manatees, among others.