Birding, Kayaking & Fishing at Wildlife Refuges

Visitors literally flock to North Carolina’s 11 wildlife refuges for the chance to rest, regroup and head on their way. But these aren’t people. They’re migratory waterfowl, birds of dozens of species and other (non-flocking) wildlife.

People, well, we head to these same refuges for the chance to experience undisturbed environments and amazing wildlife, and to hike, kayak, fish and hunt.

1 Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

1 Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

East LakeSee on mapSee on map

Located on the mainland of Dare and Hyde counties just 15 miles from the Outer Banks, this refuge preserves the pocosin habitat – a special type of wetland – and is a haven for black bears, American alligators, river otters, red wolves, waterfowl and other birds. Kayaking the creeks here get you close to the wildlife (you may even hear a wolf howling), and hunters and anglers brave the woods throughout the year.

2 Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge

2 Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge

Cedar IslandSee on mapSee on map

A 14,480-acre refuge comprises brackish marsh and a mixed pocosin-woodland habitat, many types of waterfowl winter here. Though easily accessible, Cedar Island offers solitude, undisturbed nature and the opportunity to observe sensitive species in a protected environment. Anglers come for the inshore fishing; boaters and kayakers to explore the islands, coves and creeks; and hunters get in on the act in season.

3 Currituck National Wildlife Refuge

3 Currituck National Wildlife Refuge

CorollaSee on mapSee on map

Protecting the fragile beach, dune and maritime forest ecosystems at the far northern end of the Outer Banks, Currituck is home to wading birds, shorebirds and waterfowl; reptiles and amphibians; and the stars of the show: the Colonial Spanish Mustangs. Visitors can take an off-road jeep tour to look for feral horses and other wildlife, hike through the refuge, go kayaking, or, in season, enjoy hunting and fishing among the marshy islands here.

4 Great Dismal Swamp

4 Great Dismal Swamp

South MillsSee on mapSee on map

Wild, lush and scenic aren’t how you’d think to describe something with “dismal” in its name, but the 125,000-acre, border-spanning Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge is just that. Arrive by boat or car at the South Mills visitors center before you head into the state park or wildlife refuge for kayaking and canoeing, fishing or trying to spy black bear, bobcats, foxes, mink and white-tailed deer in the wild.

5 Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

5 Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

Knotts IslandSee on mapSee on map

This marsh habitat tucked against the Virginia border on the Outer Banks is a key wintering area for ducks, geese and tundra swans, and at times flocks of 12,000 snow geese fill the sky and waters, making an impressive sight. The Charles Kuralt Trail, an elevated platform lined with spotting scopes overlooking the Great Marsh, gives every visitor the chance to be a bird watcher. Hikers, boaters, anglers and hunters head here for the unspoiled nature and the birds.

6 Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

6 Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Swan QuarterSee on mapSee on map

The largest natural lake in North Carolina, Lake Mattamuskeet, serves as centerpiece for this wildlife refuge. Roads ring the lake and birds come here by the thousands. Bird watchers, nature photographers, hikers and bikers come here to observe, record and explore, while others – hunters and anglers – come for a catch they won’t soon forget. Located on the Atlantic Flyway, the wildlife refuge stays busy with visiting birds much of the year.

7 Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

7 Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Oregon InletSee on mapSee on map

A popular feeding and resting area for wintering waterfowl and migrating shorebirds and songbirds as well as a 13-mile stretch of pristine ocean beach providing nesting habitats for loggerhead sea turtles, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a diverse, valuable and easy-to-visit refuge. Located at the north end of Hatteras Island on the Outer Banks, more than 2.5 million visitors stop in to walk the trails, use the photography blind and observation tower and swim.

8 Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge

8 Pee Dee National Wildlife Refuge

WadesboroSee on mapSee on map

This 8,500-acre refuge in southwestern North Carolina was established to give 10,000-plus birds a place to winter each year. Waterfowl are here in great numbers, but neo-tropical migratory birds, bobwhite quail and wild turkey call this protected patch of land home, too. As you tour by car or as you hike or hunt, don’t be surprised to see white-tail deer here as well.

9 Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

9 Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge

ColumbiaSee on mapSee on map

The largest refuge in the state, the 11,300-acre Pocosin Lakes provides the opportunity for visitors and photographers to catch tundra swans, snow geese and ducks, as well as deer, black bear and other wildlife in their habitat. Experience the refuge on the Scuppernong River Interpretive Boardwalk, at the visitors center or on tours to search for bear, birds, wildflowers and more.

10 Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge

10 Roanoke River National Wildlife Refuge

WindsorSee on mapSee on map

Along 70 miles of the Roanoke River, five protected areas provide nesting and wintering area for migratory waterfowl, ducks, raptors, osprey and neo-tropical migratory birds, including the largest inland heron rookery in North Carolina. Bird watchers gather here, but so do anglers who come in search of rock bass. Hiking and walking trails, like the Charles Kuralt Trail, get visitors immersed in the woods and waters, and interpretive programs – from simple signage to ranger-led walks – provide additional enlightenment on the flora and fauna in the refuge.

11 Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge

11 Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge

Swan QuarterSee on mapSee on map

An 8,800-acre patch of salt marsh and forested wetland on the Pamlico Sound provides winter sanctuary for black ducks, canvasbacks, redheads and scaup, but also habitat for nesting osprey and colonial waterbirds; the American alligator also calls Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge home. Visitors come for boating (four ramps provide water access), saltwater fishing and waterfowl hunting, but wildlife photographers find year-round opportunities to capture that perfect shot in a pristine place.

Plan Your Visit

The National Wildlife Refuges Visitor Center in Manteo serves as a gateway for all 11 refuges, offering visitors information on each as well as interactive exhibits and a gift shop complete with nearly everything you need to enjoy a few days of wildlife watching.

Updated March 25, 2018
About the Author
Jason Frye

Jason Frye

Jason Frye is the author of Moon North Carolina, Moon Blue Ridge Parkway Road Trip and Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He lives and writes in Wilmington.

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