Bald Head Island, North Carolina

Photo: Lee Ruk via flickr
Photo: Lee Ruk via flickr

Denial. There’s no other word for it. As autumn—and its plummeting temperatures—keep creeping farther and farther south, so do you. You gave up on Canada first. New England and its islands quickly followed. You spent October slowly moving down the East Coast. South Carolina is in your sights now. But there’s one more spot you can’t miss in North Carolina.

Bald Head Island isn’t that far from the South Carolina border. The 3,000-acre island lies south of Wilmington near the tip of Cape Fear. The small, picturesque island is known as the Nantucket of the South. It’s a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport to reach the remote island that’s full of beaches and maritime forests, freshwater lagoons and salt marshes. Birds, like the snowy egret and the American white ibis, call the estuaries home. Sea turtles, mostly loggerheads, nest along the beaches. While the southern end of the island trails into 30-miles of treacherous sandbars called the Frying Pan Shoals.

Before the colonists arrived, Bald Head Island was a peaceful fishing ground for Native Americans. The British built Fort George here during the Revolutionary War. The same fort, renamed Fort Holmes, was used as a Confederate shipping base during the Civil War. Then the island became peaceful again. Until 1980, there was no running water, and generators produced electricity. It’s since been turned into a coveted vacation destination, where golf carts, instead of cars, rule the roads.

Photo: The Sail Shop
Photo: The Sail Shop

Most of those vacationers are gone now. The exodus began after Labor Day, and by the end of September, only the diehards were left. The ferry is no longer fully booked. The inn is empty. The beaches are deserted. Though the temperature still hovers close to 70 degrees.

So what’s your plan on Bald Head Island? Usually, you’d head right to the beach, but the sea turtles already hatched and returned to the ocean. The M. Kent Mitchell Nature Trail, for 360-degree views over the island, or Old Baldy, the oldest—though now decommissioned—lighthouse in North Carolina, are your next thoughts. But then you see brightly colored kayaks tied to the docks. They’re the perfect way to explore the island.

The Sail Shop rents kayaks and sea kayaks, and also offers guided trips through the creeks. You’d start with a guided trip to learn about the island’s history and wildlife most of the time. But you immediately feel comfortable on the island and decide to explore on your own. Over the next few hours, you paddle up Bald Head Creek, through Fishing Creek, and around the salt marshes. You watch a bald eagle circle an old oak tree and stay completely silent as fiddler crabs boldly start approaching your kayak. You spot a great blue heron and lots of ospreys. All while soaking up the warm sunshine. This is the way you should always spend autumn.

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