Crystal Coast Weekend – Rachel Carson Reserve

We recently embarked on a long weekend trip back up to the Crystal Coast area of North Carolina. We had previously visited the Inner Banks area of Little Washington, Belhaven, Oriental & Engelhard plus on a separate trip, we explored the Harkers Island, Shackleford Banks and Cape Lookout area of the lower Outer Banks. We chose Beaufort & Morehead City for two main reasons….horses and shrimpers! We weren’t disappointed, especially on the horses front!

Morning across the harbor from the docks at Duke University Marine Lab

The Rachel Carson Reserve, which is one of the 9 NC state reserves, is an uninhabited string of very small islands just across the Beaufort waterfront. The reserve is managed through a federal-state partnership between NOAA and the NC Division of Coastal Management to protect the islands’ ecosystems for research, education and compatible recreational uses. There is actually a NOAA Southeast Fisheries Science Center Lab right across the narrow channel in Beaufort, not to mention the Duke University Marine Lab, part of the Nicholas School of the Environment adjacent to NOAA on Pivers Island. It is an area rich in research and marine education!

The outer trail on the North side of carrot Island with a view of the Beaufort waterfront

The Reserve includes a collection of islands, salt marshes, and surrounding water, and includes Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Middle Marsh, Bird Shoal, and Horse Island. The entire site was acquired by the North Carolina National Estuarine Reserve system in 1989. The only access to any of the islands is by boat and there are absolutely no services available on any of the islands. There are a couple of boat services in Beaufort that will transport you over to the islands and pick you up at a predetermined time. We chose to visit Carrot Island which is the closest to the Beaufort waterfront. It’s just a few hundred yards across the harbor where we were dropped off at the edge of the marsh where we began our hiking quest to catch a glimpse of some of the 3 dozen or so wild horses living on Carrot Island.

Bird Shoal in the foreground; the ICW & the flag over Ft Macon on Atlantic Beach

There are 2 reasonably well-marked trails on the island, one of which follows along the shoreline for a good portion of its length and the other is an island trail that takes you through a remarkably diverse maritime forest with some lovely views of the surrounding waters. We chose the inland trail since we got to the island at just about high tide. Everywhere we walked along the trail were signs, many fresh, of horses. Step with caution! A good portion of the trail was heavily wooded until we reached an opening with a stunning view of Bird Shoal. At low tide it is possible to cross over to Bird Shoal, however, an incoming tide can leave you stranded there. There are boats that will take you directly to Bird Shoal. It’s an ideal spot for shelling, wading in the water and relaxing in your beach chair (yes, you can bring it with you)

Across the harbor to Beaufort waterfront

After exiting the thick portion of the forest, we came upon wide-open spaces with significant elevation changes. The views from the top certainly were rewarding. The waterfront of Beaufort was clearly visible to the north and to the south was Bird Shoal and the ICW in the distance. No horses though!!…and we were running out of time in order to catch our return boat. We walked hundreds of yards across and around the sandy hilltop, half of the time pulling sand spurs and prickly pear off of our shoes! As we got to the far eastern edge of the clearing where it once again met the maritime forest, there they were in all their glory!  First just a couple and then slowly they came into the clearing, exiting the thick forest until at one point we counted eight of them casually grazing in the warm October sun. These beautiful animals were kind enough to allow me to photograph them to my heart’s delight!

Please click on the photo below to view some of the photos from the Reserve. As a reminder, these photos can be shared to social media; they can be purchased as reprints or as digital downloads which allow you unlimited, non-commercial use. You can also order any of these photos as canvas prints here. 

Wild horses on Rachel Carson Reserve

Stay tuned here where next up will be some photos and tales of Beaufort & Morehead City

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