An Adventurer's Guide to the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina

North Carolina's Brunswick Islands offer plenty of beach fun along with outdoor adventures.
North Carolina's Brunswick Islands offer plenty of beach fun along with outdoor adventures. Pineapple PR
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Autumn is taking over the Carolinas. The brilliant colors of the season have begun their march from the top of Mt. Mitchell just as moderate temperatures are replacing hot, muggy summer weather. The mountains, hills, and forests of North Carolina are among the most breathtaking places to hike, ride, and run this time of year. But eventually those chilly nights turn to frost-filled, freezing winter. Capturing one more slice of summer can be just the salve needed to survive the cold months ahead.

Luckily, fall comes late to North Carolina’s Brunswick Islands. Warm days tempered by ocean breezes continue long after the first frost on Grandfather Mountain. These five narrow barrier islands, tucked between Wilmington, NC, and North Myrtle Beach, SC, are filled with enough dramatic sunsets and seaside charm for a dozen Nicholas Sparks novels.

While there are plenty of opportunities for sitting on the sand and watching the world go by, your Brunswick Island itinerary doesn’t have to be all relaxing and no play. Here are some of the best outdoor adventures on and off the beach at this scenic getaway.

Run and Ride the Beach

Densely packed, fine sand makes a fantastic running surface
Densely packed, fine sand makes a fantastic running surface Rob Glover

Due to its particular orientation, Holden Beach runs more east to west than north to south. This means you can see both the cool blue and orange tones of sunrise and the fiery reds of sunset from here. For your early morning jog, hit the beach and head west. The fine grain sand packs into a dense running surface that returns most of the energy you put into it, but it’s still more forgiving than asphalt or concrete. The wide beaches of the eight-mile long island have plenty of space to stretch out. Save some energy for your return, though. The constant sea breeze that invigorated you on the way out will challenge you on the way back. Your inspiration comes in the form a chorus of gulls cheering overhead and the stunning glow of early morning on the ocean.

Keep an eye out for turtle nests. Loggerheads typically bury several dozen nests at the base of the dunes along Holden. Local turtle watch programs construct simple barriers around these nests and keep near constant vigil until the last nest has hatched. The height of turtle hatching is August, but there are still several nests into late September. Time your visit with a full moon for the best light by which to watch the baby turtle’s march to the sea.

For decades visitors to Sunset Beach have left their stories in the mailbox
For decades visitors to Sunset Beach have left their stories in the mailbox Brunswick Islands

You’ve earned some breakfast and a cup of coffee on your deck overlooking the crashing breakers. But the day has just started. After grabbing your bike from Julies Rentals , head back out to the hard-packed sand on Sunset Beach—the southernmost North Carolina barrier island. Travel west from the main pier and the sights and sounds of tourists begin to fade away. This end of the beach is inhabited by Bird Island, a 1,300-acre sanctuary providing an important habitat for a whole host of the areas bird and animal species.

About a mile and a half from the pier, tucked into a break in the head-high sand dunes, sits a solitary black mailbox. No postal delivery service stops here and there’s never a stamp needed to send a message. The mailbox was placed here a few decades ago and has since collected thousands of thoughts, prayers, hopes and wishes on the notebooks placed inside. A bit like the pads left for AT thru-hikers, The Kindred Spirit mailbox is a repository for the pilgrims who make the trek to visit. One note describes the perfect day on Sunset Beach. Another simply thanks a beloved sister for the memories of a life well lived. Crashing waves and brilliant sunsets have a way of making one take stock of life and the Kindred Spirit mailbox is where those reflections are recorded.

Singletrack on the Coast

The Brunswick Island Nature Park holds a collection of biking and walking trails
The Brunswick Island Nature Park holds a collection of biking and walking trails Rob Glover

About a half hour north of the barrier island beaches, the 911-acre Brunswick Nature Park offers a completely different backdrop for a day in the outdoors. With the help of Cape Fear SORBA , six miles of multi-purpose singletrack and 3-plus miles of foot-only path has been carved out of the low-lying wetlands typical of eastern Carolina.

Three trails make up the biking options. Canebrake is a true beginner trail with little elevation and no technical features. It’s a pleasant ride on forgiving, sandy soil with gentle bends allowing for some good speed. Diving into the intermediate Gator Loop is like entering another world. Open skies and well-spaced pine are replaced by a tunnel of dense vegetation that seems to be hiding an ancient secret. A few hills and tighter turns add a little difficulty to this trail. The Copperhead Loop is the most advanced in the park with more man-made features. Still generally fast with good flow, this trail takes you through the heart of the wetlands and is a blast to ride.

Sandy soil is a forgiving surface for a trail run
Sandy soil is a forgiving surface for a trail run Rob Glover

The mountain bike trails are open to hikers and runners. With the additional three miles of foot-only path it’s possible to complete a 10-mile trail run without duplication. The well packed but sandy soil offers good grip and the relatively few rocks and roots—compared to typical western trails—make for a swift pace. But keep an eye out, this ecology is teeming with flora and fauna. You’re bound to catch a glimpse of some cool wildlife.

In the Air

Zip lining at Shallotte River Swamp Park
Zip lining at Shallotte River Swamp Park Rob Glover

The unique thing about Shallotte River Adventure Park is the seamless weaving of its adventurous activities with the beautiful landscape they inhabit. Guides take time to explain the swamps that rule the park. A special box is built to protect a branch that’s grown from the giant cypress that holds a zip line tree stand.

Exploring the natural environs at Shallotte takes on three forms. First is in the air. Coasting among the cypress canopy, the zip-line tour begins with a training session and a few fast rides high above the forest floor. From there the tour slows down, offering a more considered bird’s-eye views of the swamp and all its inhabitants below. The 1.25-mile trip is a rare mix of exhilaration and education.

Sailing from tree to tree gives a unique view of the black water swamp below
Sailing from tree to tree gives a unique view of the black water swamp below Rob Glover

For a more up-close introduction to the inner workings of the swamp, guides take small groups on flat bottomed boats through the black waters that run between the towering trees. A chorus of frogs fill the heavy air while turtles sun on downed logs.

The Aerial Adventure Park is the most challenging way to experience Shallotte. Like a Doctor Seuss inspired, American Ninja Warrior training course, the collection of high rope walks and obstacles—think dining room chairs floating in mid-air—offers three levels of difficulty. The first level is great for kids with the top level only accessible to those that have accomplished the others.

Paddling adventures take many forms at the Islands
Paddling adventures take many forms at the Islands Brunswick Islands

On the Water

It’s difficult to imagine a location with a wider variety of paddling options than the Brunswick Barrier Islands. Of course, there’s open-water paddling in the ocean complete with sizable swells and dolphin sightings. But for a more serene experience, the Intercostal waterway, which runs along the back side of the islands, is a flatwater paddlers dream. Take a tour of Montgomery Slough with The Adventure Kayak Company . Here, tall spartina grass hides rarely seen, but often heard, marsh hens. Snowy egret and great white heron stand vigil along the banks while osprey float overhead and huge bald eagles soar just on the edge of visibility.  If you’d rather explore on your own, the outfitter will rent and deliver a boat to you.

An alternative to the saltwaters of the slough, the Brunswick Nature Park also offers an elaborate kayak launch. The floating dock armed with rollers make putting in super easy. The calm, black waters—basically a tea brewed from fallen pine needles—are ideal for a morning SUP. Float around Town Creek and spot the amazing biodiversity of the low-lying wetlands.

Food and Drink

The signature shrimp burger at Holden Beach Provision Company is held together by cheese and magic
The signature shrimp burger at Holden Beach Provision Company is held together by cheese and magic Rob Glover

Whether it’s an early morning pre-fuel or an evening re-fuel, the Brunswick Islands host a crazy amount of options for food and drink. When visiting the idyllic town of Southport, where hundreds of years old knotty oak trees adorn the yards of pre-civil war era homes, a morning stop at Taylor Cuisine Café is a great beginning to the day. Famous for their purple pancakes, waffles, and walls, Taylor’s menu is filled with hearty breakfast options. Have a go at the sweet potato pancakes and a couple slices of their super thick sliced bacon.

For lunch or dinner in Southport it’s tough to beat Ports of Call. The menu reflects the goal of bringing flavors from the Mediterranean and weaving them with local ingredients. Chicken marsala shares space with pimento grilled cheese (which is mixed with bacon jam and built around a sturdy beefsteak tomato frame and is awesome).

Port of Call's version of grilled cheese is a southern twist on a childhood favorite.
Port of Call's version of grilled cheese is a southern twist on a childhood favorite. Rob Glover

For a true taste of Brunswick, complete with open-air seating and immediate views of commercial fishing and shrimping boats, Holden Beach Provision Company is a must. The simple counter-service restaurant features all the basics you would expect like crab cakes and flounder. But for something more uniquely local, try the shrimp burger. Sweet sliced shrimp are held together, seemingly against the laws of physics, by some sort of cheese and grilled. Go ahead and ask for the recipe. See where that gets you. A small container of creole remoulade and a pile of fries accompanies the sandwich.

Anchoring the middle of a strip mall just up the road in Southport, the aeronautically themed Check Six Brewing has brought the art of the hop to Brunswick County. Their wide lineup of beers include the hop forward Aerial Aggression Double IPA, the smooth Harley Pope Imperial Porter, and the slightly sweet Dougan’s Chocolate Stout. A constant parade of seasonal taps continually rotate at Check Six. Every brew seems to be a lighter, easier drinking version of its style.

While on the islands, there is no shortage of places to stay. The great folks at Brunswickland Realty and at Oak Island Accommodations are a great place to start. And for  more information, theBrunswick Islands Tourism Development Authority offers plenty of resources for planning your trip.

Originally written for OrthoCarolina.

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