Looking for a way to pack your next getaway to the North Carolina coast with outdoor adventure? Look no further than Wilmington and its island beaches. Here, we deliver a daily dose of exhilarating fresh air, whether you prefer to explore gardens and green spaces at your own pace, hop on your bike and go for a long — or even an off-trail — ride, or paddle your way to paradise on a kayak or standup paddleboard. And when it comes time to rehydrate and relax, we can help you wind down and be ready for more adventure tomorrow.
Read on for seven activities that will get you outside and experiencing what Wilmington, NC, and its island beaches are all about.
1. Choosing your trail
North Carolina has declared 2023 the “Year of the Trail,” and you’ll find plenty of options in and around Wilmington. Start at Carolina Beach State Park, where nine trails provide 8.5 miles of hiking through pine forest, along the banks of the Cape Fear River, and through the habitat of the Venus flytrap and other carnivorous plants. Recommended strolls include the Flytrap and Fitness Trails, which are wheelchair-accessible.
At the nearby Fort Fisher State Recreation Area, the Basin Trail makes for a rewarding family-friendly stroll. Follow it through the marsh, where it presents opportunities for wildlife viewing along with a chance to see an actual bunker from World War II. When hunger strikes, stop for an al fresco lunch either on the beach or at the picnic area.
Joggers love the route around Greenfield Lake, and in Wrightsville Beach there’s a 2.45-mile fitness trail known as The Loop that gives you a look at the area’s natural and architectural beauty. For a casual walk and to let your kiddos blow off some steam at the playgrounds and seasonal splashpad, Long Leaf Nature Park has a series of interlocking loop trails where you can get a taste of nature in the center of Wilmington.
2. Getting on the water…
With the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway to our east and the Cape Fear River to our west, there’s ample opportunity to get on the water in and around Wilmington. Bring your kayak, canoe, or standup paddleboard, or save space and arrange for a rental or guided tour.
Paddling around Masonboro Island and the vast marsh complexes along the Intracoastal Waterway gives you a different look at this part of the North Carolina coast. Another recommended outing is to explore the Cape Fear River on a guided tour to Shark Tooth Island — you’ll experience the blackwater of the Cape Fear and hunt for ancient shark teeth as you beachcomb on the shore.
And whether you’re an experienced sailor or are looking to climb aboard for an inaugural voyage, you’ll find several sailboats offering sunset cruises, pleasure sailings, and even lessons, giving you the confidence and skills to take to the water at the helm.
3. …and into the waves
As spring sets in and the waters turn warm again, surfers strip down to their shorty wetsuits and boardshorts for daily sessions on the waves. Don’t know how to surf? No problem. Pro surfers and accomplished amateurs offer lessons that will have you riding your first wave in no time.
There are surf shops, board rentals, and lessons at Wrightsville Beach, Carolina Beach, and Kure Beach, each of which has a tremendous family-friendly scene and plenty of places to eat and stay that will accommodate you and yours no matter your needs.
4. Satisfying your hunger, Wilmington-style
With all this outdoor time, expect to work up a hunger. Recharge with an Oyster Farm Tour and Tasting run by local operator Epic Excursions. You’ll ride their 24-foot skiff to Middle Sound Mariculture Farm and learn how oysters make it from sea to steamer, then cruise along Masonboro Island to find the perfect place for a camp kitchen. Get ready to sample raw and steamed oysters, practice your oyster-shucking skills, and sip some wine.
The whole family can take part in the Island Steam Pot Seafood Boil Excursion. After a private cruise to an island, the captain will prepare your customized steam pot dinner. The kids will relish not having to use a plate for this special meal poured right onto the table.
5. Exploring by bike
For cyclists, the Gary Shell Cross-City Trail and River to Sea Bikeway give you a chance to hit your stride with more than 20 combined miles of bike paths. Pedal along the edge of the University of North Carolina’s Wilmington campus, through lovely residential neighborhoods, and ultimately to Wrightsville Beach or the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington.
Mountain bikers can get in on the action, too, thanks to the trails at Blue Clay Bike Park, where there’s a pump track and 7.9 miles to explore, including elevated sections that traverse wetlands.
6. Observing our feathered friends
The North Carolina Birding Trail passes through Fort Fisher, Carolina Beach State Park, and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. Other notable stops along this premier birdwatching route include Greenfield Lake Park, where a 5-mile trail circles a cypress-filled lake; Airlie Gardens, a 67-acre waterside garden laced with paths to wonder at a slower pace; and Masonboro Island, a nature preserve accessible only by boat (making it perfect for a paddling trip) just south of Wrightsville Beach. Throughout the year, you’ll spot dozens of species of birds here, from full-time resident shorebirds to migrating songbirds and waterfowl.
7. Sipping, stretching, and refreshing
You won’t want it to end, but every day of adventure must. When it’s all over and you’re looking for a way to wind down, let the Wilmington Ale Trail lead you to 20+ participating breweries. Several are family-friendly — at Wilmington Brewing Company, for instance, there are games like cornhole, foosball, ping-pong, and giant Jenga in their converted warehouse, while the beer garden features picnic tables and a children’s playset with swings and slides.
Of course, the kids would probably prefer some cold treats of their own, so stop in at Boombalatti’s for homemade ice cream. Among the 26 flavors offered are vegan and lactose-free choices. And if more than one flavor strikes your fancy, order the four-flavor mini-scoop sampler. Don’t forget the waffle cone bowl and homemade hot fudge.
If your muscles are sore after hitting the trails or the water, show them some love with a yoga session. There are options in both traditional and hot studios, on the beach or pier, and atop standup paddleboards. You can even check out salt caves, basking in the positive ions as you recuperate.
Grab the family, pack your bag, turn on your road trip playlist, and get to Wilmington and our Island Beaches. We’re ready to explore with you.