North Carolina’s Wildlife Refuges

North Carolina’s Wildlife Refuges

Dismal Swamp Canal in South Mills

North Carolina’s 11 Wildlife Refuges were established primarily for the protection of wildlife, especially migratory waterfowl. But they also offer wonderful opportunities for outdoor activities such as hiking, kayaking, fishing and hunting, and they allow visitors the rare chance to view undisturbed environments and wildlife.

In 2012, the Coastal North Carolina National Wildlife Coastal Refuge Gateway Visitors Center in Manteo opened as a gateway for all 11 refuges. The center houses several high-tech, interactive exhibits – including a fascinating exploration of the Lost Colony of Roanoke – an auditorium and a gift shop.

Each National Wildlife Refuge area is unique in environment and scope; read about them below to plan your visit.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
This wildlife refuge, located on the mainland area of Dare and Hyde counties just 15 miles west of Manteo, was established to protect and preserve the unique pocosin habitat, a type of wetland with deep, acidic, sandy soil. Considered among the last remaining strongholds for black bear in eastern North Carolina and on the mid-Atlantic Coast, the refuge also provides valuable habitat for waterfowl, American alligators, river otters, and serves as the core area for re-establishing the red wolf back into the wild. Automobile touring, boating, fishing and hunting are allowed inside the refuge.

Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1964 by the Migratory Bird Conservation Act for use as a sanctuary for migratory birds, the refuge has since grown to contain 14,480 acres, 11,000 of which consist of brackish marsh and the remainder of pocosin and woodland habitat. It’s considered one of the best locations in the nation to observe wintering waterfowl. Although the refuge, located in Carteret County, is easily accessible, you can also find solitude here. There are more than 75 miles of roads inside the refuge, 25 of which are designated as ATV trails. Boating, saltwater fishing and hunting are available here.

Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
Located on the northern end of the Outer Banks, this refuge was established in 1984 to preserve and protect the coastal barrier island ecosystem. Habitat types common to most barrier islands are found on the refuge, including sandy beaches, grassy dunes, interdunal wetlands, maritime forests and shrub thickets. Various types of wildlife can be found here including wading birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, reptiles and amphibians, but perhaps the most interesting are the feral horses that call this refuge home. There is no development on this remote refuge and a four-wheel-drive vehicle is necessary to get there via the beachfront.

The Great Dismal Swamp
Remote and wild, the lush, scenic 125,000-acre Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge crosses the North Carolina-Virginia border. The Welcome Center in South Mills is the only visitor center in the country where you can arrive by car or boat and offers 150 feet of dock space for boaters. Wildlife is plentiful here: turtles, toads, lizards and salamanders inhabit the swamp and Lake Drummond, where you can cast a line and catch any one of 23 different species of fish. Black bear and bobcats usually roam unseen while gray and red foxes, mink and white-tailed deer are common sights.

Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge
The northernmost refuge in the state, McKay Island is locate between Back Bay in Virginia and the Currituck Sound in North Carolina and is comprised primarily of marsh habitat. The refuge is strategically located along the Atlantic Flyway, making it an important wintering area for ducks, geese and tundra swans. At times, the impressive sight of flocks of more than 12,000 snow geese can be seen here. A pair of bald eagles also nest on the refuge. Bicycling, boating, fishing, hiking, hunting are allowed. The Charles Kuralt Trail observation site, an elevated platform with spotting scopes for views of the Great Marsh, is a draw for visitors.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge
Located in Hyde County, the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of more than 50,000 acres of water, marsh, timber and croplands. The refuge’s most significant feature is Lake Mattamuskeet, the largest natural lake in North Carolina. This refuge also lies along the Atlantic Flyway and provides valuable migration and wintering habitat for waterfowl and other migratory birds. A three-mile entrance road and five-mile drive along lake give visitors access to much of the refuge. There are also several observation decks and two state boat ramps. Automobile touring, boating, fishing, hiking and hunting are allowed here.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
This popular wildlife refuge lies on the north end of Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. Pea Island is a popular feeding and resting area for many species of wintering waterfowl and migrating shorebirds and songbirds. Thirteen miles of pristine ocean beach provide nesting habitat for loggerhead sea turtles, and rare Peregrine falcons and bald eagles can occasionally be seen here. With a visitor center, two wheelchair-accessible trails with an observation tower on one and an overlook on the other and a photography blind, this refuge is a popular attraction, receiving more than 2.5 million visitors annually.

Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge
The Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge sits along the Pee Dee River in Anson and Richmond counties in southwestern North Carolina. The almost 8,500 acre refuge was established to provide wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl, and upward of 10,000 birds winter here each year. But Pee Dee has more than just waterfowl; neotropical migratory birds, bobwhite quail, wild turkey and white-tailed deer can also be seen here. Visitors can tour by automobile, hike, fish or hunt inside this refuge.

Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge
At 113,00 acres, the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is the largest in the state. This refuge, located primarily in Tyrell County, features a three-quarter-mile Scuppernong River Interpretive Boardwalk, a visitors center and observation and photography opportunities for tundra swans, snow geese and ducks, as well as black bear and other birds and animals. Public tours of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge – including the very popular bear tours – are conducted throughout the year with the help of the Friends of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge
The Roanoke River Refuge is comprised of of five tracts of land along 70 miles of the scenic Roanoke River as well as two satellite tracts in other river basins. Concentrations of wintering waterfowl, nesting ducks, raptors, osprey and neo-tropical migrants are common sites here, and the largest inland heron rookery in North Carolina is located within the refuge. The Charles Kuralt trail runs through the refuge; this one-mile walking trail is well marked with a sign along the highway and features a parking area and a kiosk containing interpretive panels about the Charles Kuralt Trail system.

Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge
Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, located on Pamlico Sound in Hyde County, is made up of 8,800 acres of salt marsh islands and forested wetland. An important estuarine and wilderness resource, it and the surrounding waters provide winter sanctuary for black ducks and canvasbacks, redheads and scaup. It also provides a habitat for nesting osprey and colonial waterbirds and supports one of the northernmost populations of the American alligator. Motorized boating, saltwater fishing and waterfowl hunting are allowed here; there are four boat ramps (one accessible only via a trail) and a fishing pier at Bell Island.

Jason Frye

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