Primed with miles of coastline, a national seashore, a national forest and dotted with islands, the Crystal Coast is a haven for adventure lovers. The biggest problem you’ll face is figuring out how many of them you can fit into your itinerary!
We spent the equivalent of a long weekend on the Crystal Coast and quickly realized that if you crave adventure, nature and a way to just get away, you really can’t find yourself in a better place along the coast.
While there are literally dozens of adventures to be had in the area, these are the ones that we filled our schedule with and without hesitation would recommend that any visitor to this area make time to experience during their stay.
Kayaking the Croatan National Forest
If you’re looking for peace, quiet and to get away from it all then you’ll want to book yourself onto a self-guided kayak trip in the Croatan National Forest. Located a short drive from Emerald Isle, this forest offers the opportunity to paddle in a protected marine area.
This means you’ll be able to get up close and personal with some of the famed marshes of the North Carolina coast, as well as enjoy spotting wildlife while you paddle.
We pushed off from the Cedar Point boat launch and paddled the three bays route during our visit. We’re experienced paddlers and found the route easy to navigate, even when encountering wind and current. The route can be shortened for more protection if you are new to kayaking too.
While we love a nice open paddle, the best part of this adventure was being able to get into the marshes. It was here that we found the quiet. Without the current or wind reaching us, we were able to just sit and watch the world move around us.
It was in this moment that we were able to observe a wide variety of wildlife along the national forest water edge. This included fish leaping above the water and various species of sea birds. We even spotted a couple of huge Osprey nests and had the pleasure of observing one of these massive birds just above the water in a tree.
Tracking Wild Horses on Shackleford Banks
One of the most notable things about the Crystal Coast is the chance to see herds of wild horses that are descended from the horses that survived several Spanish shipwrecks off the coast in the 1500s.
They have been studied and DNA typed, revealing a genetic diversity that cannot be linked to any other breeds in North America. The hardy Spanish breed has learned to survive in the harsh climates of the coast, including digging on the sand islands to filter saltwater into drinkable water.
While it’s possible to see the wild horses of the Crystal Coast on several islands in the area, it is on Shackleford Banks that you can see a herd that continues to live unmanaged and closest to the way the original horses would have when the ships wrecked.
To access the island, we booked a ride with Island Express Ferry and had them drop us on the island. The ferry backs up to the island and drops you on the beach, where you’re free to choose how much time you want to spend on the island.
We opted for an hour and as quickly as we were dropped, the ferry left us. Other than being pointed in the direction of some horses that were spotted from the ferry, we were left alone to hike and explore. This excursion is a true adventure, as there are no maintained trails, and you have to walk through the overgrown inland of the island to see the horses.
Of course, there are no guarantees that they’ll be where you can see them on the day you visit, but we got lucky and spent an hour observing 12 members of one of the stallion led bands.
You’ll want to bring plenty of water, binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens to best enjoy your experience. Remember, they are wild animals, and you should adhere to all NPS postings about safe distance and animal interaction.
Kubota Sand Adventure at Cape Lookout National Seashore
There really isn’t a better way to explore the Cape Lookout National Seashore than by 4WD Kubota RTV. These workhorse machines are similar to a UTV but have the tires and power to navigate the loose beach sand.
This means you have full access to drive the sand roads and head along the beach during your visit. It also means you can cover a lot of ground in a shorter amount of time. Especially when the alternative is walking.
Being dropped off at the lighthouse, we hopped in our Kubota and were able to explore the inner sand roadways all the way out to Cape Point. Here, we drove along the beach for miles. Stopping to watch the waves, fisherman, sea birds and look for shells.
As we made our way back towards the lighthouse, we cruised back towards the interior where we self-toured the Historic District. It is here that you can learn about life on the seashore, the lighthouse and how it evolved from a lighthouse station into a key base for the coast guard before becoming part of the National Park Service.
Not only is this a fantastic adventure for all ages, it is the absolute best way to maximize your time when visiting the National Seashore when you visit the Crystal Coast.
Horseback Riding on Cedar Island
If you’ve ever dreamed of riding a horse on the beach, then your dreams are about to be realized during your visit to the Crystal Coast. Located on Cedar Island, where you can catch the ferry to Ocracoke, is Cedar Island Ranch. The barn is located close to the coast meaning your entire ride takes place on the beach.
The horses are well trained, sweet and happy to play in the sand and water during your ride. You have the freedom to trot and gallop too if you have previous horse riding experience. For those that just want a leisurely ride, the horses are happy to comply with that too.
For the more adventurous, you can opt for a ride that takes you through the water from Cedar Island across to Sandy Shoal, where you have the chance to ride among a herd of the famed wild horses of the Crystal Coast!
History and Hiking at Fort Macon State Park
One of the highlights of the area is the opportunity to visit the civil war era Fort Macon. This beautifully preserved fort offers stories of war, peace, strategy, sacrifice and perseverance. If only the walls could talk. That said, the rangers do a fantastic job of setting the mood and indulging your curiosities in all things Fort Macon during a visit.
When you’ve had your fill of stories, be sure to leave time to stretch your legs on some of the trails that run throughout the 424 acres of the park. This includes the 1.5 miles beach trail, where you can watch dolphins playing in the ocean and identify up to 302 species of sea birds and the 3.2 miles Elliot Coues Nature Trail that weaves through the maritime forest and sand dunes.
When you’ve finished hiking your heart out, retire to the beach, one of the best on the Crystal Coast, for some fishing or relaxation.