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.
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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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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!
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