Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Black Bear at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Some posts on this site contain affiliate links, meaning if you book or buy something through one of these links, I may earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you!). Opinions are always my own and I’ll never promote something I don’t use or believe in.

Guess what? The best place to see bears in North Carolina is NOT the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but rather in the coastal region. In fact, the Albemarle peninsula has the highest density of black bears in North America and the largest! There are 2 locations where you can easily see them and if you visit at the right time of day you are [nearly] guaranteed. I am starting with the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge because it is the most accessible. It is a great day trip from Raleigh or the perfect stop on the way to the Outer Banks.

Mr. Misadventures and I moved to the Raleigh area in February of last year and we have already been to the refuge a dozen times. Mr. Misadventures has been there even more on solo trips during the week. Our visits have thus far taken place in late spring, summer, fall, and early winter so we have almost seen all the seasons and it is a really great spot for observing all kinds of wildlife, above and beyond the black bears.

The first time we visited the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, we didn’t realize just what a gold mine it was. Mr. Misadventures was researching the various types of wildlife in North Carolina that he could photograph. He was already aware of bears and elk in the mountains and wanted to learn more. It was at that time he discovered this secret paradise and we made our first trek over from Raleigh.

The refuge is so extraordinarily big that we didn’t even realize what we had stumbled across. It is a whopping 152,000-acre plot on North Carolina’s coast located right off of Highway 64 on the way to the Outer Banks. But the sign for the refuge is so nondescript that if you blink you miss it and the opportunity to see the bears!

The History of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Black Bear-Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Before the NWR was founded, the swamps, forests, and wetlands in this area were dubbed “no man’s land.” Even the locals didn’t venture into its murky depths very often. However, as time passed, small settlements began to form along the coastline. These later became Manns Harbor, Swan Quarter, Engelhard, and Stumpy Point. If you know this area at all, you’ll know that they’re still there today (even though they’re only 10 miles from each other, they’ve stayed separate, small communities). 

We have driven through Swan Quarter a couple of times and there are other wildlife refuges nearby. In addition, Swan Quarter is also one of the 2 ferry terminals (along with Cedar Islands) for getting in and out of Ocracoke Islands in the Outer Banks. Aside from these little pocket-sized towns, the area was so desolate that the Air Force used a section of the wetland as a military bombing range in 1959! Fun fact: it’s still there today.

Conservationists started to notice the landscape in the late 1970s. They suddenly realized that it had a very bizarre and interesting aggregate of habitats — forests, marshes, and wetland. Upon further investigation, they realized that it was home to various species that were otherwise insanely hard to find on the East Coast. These species lived in this region because of the unique pocosin habitat (i.e. “swamp on a hill”) which is a bespoke kind of wetland.

This resulted in the establishment of Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in 1984. Their mission was (and still is) to protect this wondrous habitat and all the natural species that live there, including the bears and tiny population of re-introduced red wolf.

What Can You See and Do At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge?

Animals, lots and lots of animals and birds! Since the refuge is massive you can return every day (or as Mr. Misadventures does, every week) for a very long time and still not see or explore everything. However, here are some of the things I recommend that you do if you only have one day to visit.

Head to The Visitor Center

[NOTE: Closed at the moment due to COVID-19.] IF you have kids, this is the best place to start. I say that as the Visitor’s Center is actually 35 minutes away from the refuge (location: 100 Conservation Way, Manteo, NC 27954), so if your main goal is to see wildlife, you don’t need to visit here. Otherwise, you can get to know the surroundings a bit better this way and map out what your favorite spots might be. Inside, there are interactive exhibits, audio tracks, visual programs, and you can even experience a simulated airplane ride over the area. 

If you are looking for a map of the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, you can get one at the Visitor Center, BUT you can also get one at the entrance off of Highway 64. They have them available as leaflets where the trail starts. The maps are also available online on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service site (there are 3 useful maps at the bottom of the page, the tearsheet (pdf) is what you will get at the refuge entrance.).

Perhaps one of the best things (in my opinion) is the fact that you won’t just learn about the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll learn about all 11 NWRs in North Carolina. 

Head Down The Murphy Peterson Wildlife Drive

Turtles-Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Exploring this 15-mile collection of gravel tracks will give you the best chance of spotting wildlife. You might see some of the 250 different bird species that live in or pass through the refuge including wild turkeys and waterfowl, a variety of turtles and snakes, river otters, black bears, and if you’re extremely lucky, a red wolf.

Certain tracks are closed off depending on the season (for example when certain birds or migrating through) and many are impassable in wet weather unless you have a 4×4. However, a large portion of them are accessible throughout the year, and it’s a great opportunity for a family outing to see wildlife from the safety of your vehicle. [More ways to see wildlife below!]

There are tram tours offered every Saturday during the summer, and once a month during spring, fall, and winter (which did not happen in 2020 due to COVID-19). But to tell you the truth, I think it’s best to do this drive in your own car.

The Best Time and Place to See Bears

Black Bear in a field Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

This is based on our experience. We have the bears to be most active in the early morning (before 10) and just before sunset. During the day they are less active and spend their time in the woods where you will not see them (unless you wear camouflage and go into the woods). A portion of the land on the refuge is designated cropland. Cooperative farmers cultivate the fields and a portion of the crops are left for the animals, including the bears. So your best chance of finding bears is near the fields. Depending on the season, the bears will be easier to spot than at other times.

Remember, these are wild bears, all rules apply. Keep your distance (25 feet is the law), don’t corral or block their path. We carry bear spray with us because we get out of the car. Should you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation (bears have terrible eyesight), make a lot of noise. Never get between a female sow and her babies. Bears in North Carolina don’t really hibernate in the strictest sense of the term. They usually begin to enter their winter dens in mid-December, although it can be as early as November and come out in late March or early April. But in eastern North Carolina the sows den in January to have their cubs and the males may not den at all, it depends on the weather and scarcity of food.

Walk on the Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail

Copperhead-Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge
Watch for snakes! This copperhead is poisonous!

There are 2, 1/2-mile wildlife trails. Sandy Ridge Wildlife Trail is wilder than Creef Cut Trail. It is a one-way trail (1-mile round trip). It follows part of the paddling trail. The water is full of reptiles and an alligator or two. On a quiet day, you may hear red wolves howling, although not likely ones “in the wild.” Red wolves were reintroduced into this area in the 1980s, but they look so much like coyotes (which are deemed a pest) that their endangered population is still not very large and there are about 30 red wolves in captive breeding facilities, including one near the refuge.

Just an f.y.i. for pet owners, dogs are allowed on leash on this trail.

Kayak Along Milltail Creek

Otter in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

You can grab a paddling map from the visitor center and then set off on one of the color-coded creeks. There are 15 miles to explore (spanning across Alligator River, Sawyer Lake, and others) and kayaking is the best way to spy a river otter, types of waterfowl, and hundreds of other amphibians and reptile species.

Take Part In a Guided Tour

[NOTE: Not available at the moment due to COVID-19.] During the spring and fall months, you can take part in a “Red Wolf Howlings” event on a Saturday. You’ll learn all about the red wolf, and then your group will head into the depths of the forest to (hopefully) hear the species howl (although as I mentioned previously it is likely a captive wolf you will hear as real sightings are extremely rare).

Take Wildlife Photos

This is the main reason we visit the refuge over and over. Observation and taking photos. In addition, at the visitor center (when they are open), you can reserve a photography blind for free (remember to reserve it beforehand). This means you can safely and inconspicuously observe the wildlife and take stunning pictures to build up your portfolio (or just for fun). (I honestly do not know what they are doing at the moment due to the pandemic as I can’t find a way to reserve a blind online.)

How to Plan a Trip to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

This is a really great day trip from Raleigh (3 hours from central Raleigh) or a nice stopover in the morning on the way to the Outer Banks or an afternoon stop on the way back from Raleigh. If you are visiting on a day trip from Raleigh or on the way to the Outer Banks, the town of Plymouth is a great spot to fill up on gas. In addition, there is a nice rest stop with extremely clean restrooms. There is also information about the area including wolves and bears. There are NO facilities in the refuge, this will be the last bathroom stop.

There is no food or restaurants once you pass Plymouth (of course there are great restaurants in Outer Banks, but the refuge is before the Outer Banks) so consider packing a picnic (which is what we do) or eating before you arrive. There is a small parking lot and information stand before you enter the refuge. After that, there are no other parking areas (except at the Milltail Creek kayak dropoff point) and you will be picnicking on the side of the road. There are also no trash cans (logical) except one at the entrance, so be prepared to pack your trash out.

For your drive to Alligator River, you will stay on Highway 64 the entire route, once you pass Plymouth, you have just about an hour to go. You’ll see a sign for “Buffalo City Road” which is a kayak trail and then a sign for Manteo, then you will see a sign for Milltail Road and the Creef Cut Wildlife Trail – blink and you will pass it!

What to Bring

  • Picnic supplies, including a garbage bag
  • Water
  • Binoculars
  • Hat and layers
  • Sunscreen and bug spray (there are mosquitoes! and ticks!)
  • Don’t forget binoculars for the kids! (also prepare them for the day with this book from Nat Geo)
  • Bear Spray. If you are wandering away from your car into the woods, you may want a can of bear spray. You can not fly with it, so if you are not local, you may want to pick up some at REI or Cabela’s.

I started with Alligator River for where to see bears as it is more accessible and more family-friendly than the other options, which I am attacking next. Mr. Misadventures and I have already been here over a dozen times and it never gets old. Each season brings new things to see and at least 3/4 of the time we see bears! The times we didn’t were usually in the middle of the day and there are still plenty of things to enjoy. The refuge is only 45 minutes from Nags Head and an hour from Kitty Hawk so it absolutely can be incorporated into any Outer Bank trip!

Go see the bears!

How about you? Have you been to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge? If yes, I’d love to hear about your experience! If not, have I enticed you to check it out? Do tell!

For a visual summary of this post, check out my Alligator River NWR web story!

Like it? PIN it!

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

31 Comments

  1. Tammy
    January 14, 2021

    Writing this place to visit in the future. We love going to places like this to see and enjoy nature. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. melissa chapman
    January 14, 2021

    I am a little too far up north for this refuge but it does look amazing. I love viewing wildlife but i have never seen bears how exciting.

    Reply
  3. Bri
    January 14, 2021

    Wow! That would be such a fun trip! My girls would have a blast seeing all the animals!

    Reply
  4. Amber Myers
    January 14, 2021

    This would be a cool spot to check out. We love to see wildlife. I’ll keep this place in mind!

    Reply
  5. Katie
    January 14, 2021

    I love it! I love anything where you can go to take wildlife photos. My favorite park has been yellowstone, but I’ve been visiting some state parks near me this year.

    Reply
  6. MELANIE EDJOURIAN
    January 14, 2021

    This sounds like such a lovely place to visit. I do love natural areas teeming with wildlife.

    Reply
  7. Sheryl of SHE.ph
    January 14, 2021

    My family and I love camping and usually make it an annual activity with my in-laws but bears will entirely be a new experience. I’m just not sure if I’m up to it.

    Reply
  8. Chef Dennis
    January 15, 2021

    I am so excited to visit Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and I am really glad that I have discovered this. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  9. Nikki Wayne
    January 15, 2021

    I haven’t been there and thanks for sharing about it.

    Reply
  10. Rose Ann Sales
    January 15, 2021

    I love animals. Seems like a fantastic experience to have.

    Reply
  11. Lynndee
    January 15, 2021

    We’re in NC but we’ve never been there. Would love to go and explore the place someday.

    Reply
  12. catherine santiago jose
    January 15, 2021

    I’ll fall in love with the place in an instant, I’m a nature lover and this one is definitely for me. Thanks for sharing this amazing place with us, loved it!

    Reply
  13. Kathy
    January 15, 2021

    This is wonderful. I would love to go there someday. I think my family would really love it. We love seeing all kinds of animals.

    Reply
  14. Bolupe
    January 15, 2021

    I’m up for any outdoor adventure and this sounds just fantastic. I didn’t realise we can spot bears here. This will be a great adventure for my family.

    Reply
  15. Marysa
    January 15, 2021

    What a cool place to visit! We love checking out natural areas and wildlife, and this sounds like a wonderful place to see.

    Reply
  16. Nile Flores
    January 15, 2021

    Great pictures! I don’t get to do much wildlife watching, except the once a year visit to the zoo. Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
  17. Ghanashyam K
    January 16, 2021

    I love going to such places and seeing all the animals. And all the pictures you have clicked are terrific.

    Reply
  18. Catalina
    January 16, 2021

    Thank you for telling us about this place! It would be awesome to see a black bear once in my lifetime!

    Reply
  19. Anosa Malanga
    January 16, 2021

    This is indeed an amazing experience! I wish I can go and explore this too! I wanna see actual bears too. I will bookmark this so that I can go back from time to time especially when things get back to normal and we can easily travel back again.

    Reply
  20. Sue
    January 16, 2021

    This place sounds amazing, I’ll have to add it to my list of things to do on the way to the Outer Banks!

    Reply
  21. Brianna
    January 16, 2021

    I’ve heard of Alligator NWR but really had no idea what a goldmine it is for viewing wildlife! I’ll definitely have to plan a trip down here.

    Reply
  22. Krista
    January 17, 2021

    What a beautiful area to go around and see some of the wildlife at the same time! I hadn’t heard of this place before reading your post.

    Reply
  23. Kristina
    January 17, 2021

    What a fascinating place! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  24. kmf
    January 17, 2021

    Wow…this place is so cool! Would love to go hiking to see all the wildlife (at a safe distance).

    Reply
  25. Emese
    January 18, 2021

    What a great place to live within driving distance from! I would be visiting every chance I’d get, too. Gorgeous photos, thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  26. mohana and aninda
    January 20, 2021

    Your photos are amazing! I’ve never seen wildlife so close and especially in their natural habitat. I’d love to explore this part of the world.

    Reply
  27. Malcolm Tabor
    February 4, 2021

    I have been there a few times and I have seen bears every time ,but I enjoy mountai bikes as a mode of travel you see so much more.

    Reply
  28. Mike C
    February 17, 2021

    Thanks for posting this detailed guide on a great hidden treasure. One thing I would emphasize even more: there are so many bears between spring and fall that it’s hard to miss them. I’ve driven the scenic drive four times at dusk and lost count of how many bears we saw each time…maybe 10 to 25! That’s aside from otters, hawks, eagles, owls…

    Reply
    1. Andi Fisher
      February 18, 2021

      @MikeC thanks for confirming your experience! I cannot wait for spring to come around again to see more! I have loved every season there.

      Reply
  29. Ed
    February 21, 2021

    My wife and I visited Alligator NWR in June of 2020, our first time. The first evening about an hour and a half before dark we saw 6 bears. What an amazing sight. We went again around 6:30 the following morning and saw 9 more before 8:30. Being a huge bear fan this was amazing.

    Reply
    1. Andi Fisher
      February 21, 2021

      @Ed, so awesome to hear! We are headed this week, it’s a little too early, but we love this spot!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top
shares