It will happen, mark our words. Sometime during the January thaw, when the glow of the holidays has faded and the reality of a long winter sets in, you’ll suddenly get the urge to flee, to escape civilization, even for a short time, to simply save your sanity. It’s not memorable, adrenaline-filled adventure you seek, just peace, quiet, a little nature.
Typically, when you think of camping you think of points west. But really, overnight temperatures at your favorite mountain escapes in the 20s — or lower? Besides, most of those favorite escapes are closed for the season.

What to do, what to do?

What to do? Throw your camping gear in the trunk and head for the coast, home to some of the most hospitable — yet ignored — camping options in the region.

Oh, it cools off at night, but usually not below freezing and lows in the 40s are common. Daytime temperatures average in the 50s, but temperatures in the 60s and 70s aren’t unheard of. If you’re close enough to the beach, there’s that invigorating ocean air. And there’s plenty to do as well: cool temperatures make for better hiking at the coast, and the paddling is better than ever thanks to the absence of bugs and the abundance of views, courtesy a stripped-down canopy. Best of all, many of the campgrounds stay open.

There are a lot of good camping options at the coast; to help you whittle the options we offer five of our favorites. We give you the reason why, then direct you to our online adventure guide, where you’ll find the information you need to plan and execute a weekend camping escape.

In the dead of winter, when you’ll need it most.

Photo by Paul Naoum
Photo by Paul Naoum

1. Goose Creek State Park
Several years ago, we discovered a great way to vanquish the demons of the dark season — atop a picnic table at Goose Creek. After cooking a camp meal and cleaning up, we thought we were destined for bed — at just 6:30 in the evening. It was cool, but the sky above our campsite was crystal clear. We yanked our cold weather bag and sleeping pad out of our tent, laid it atop the table and crawled in. The lapping waters of nearby Goose Creek and a steady breeze put us in a zone — a zone that would not be interrupted by fellow campers, because there were none. The lone interruption in our reverie: a deep sleep that took us past morning’s first light.
Stuff to do nearby: Hiking, paddling, fishing, toddle into nearby Washington for some off-season waterfront wandering.
More info here.

2. Carolina Beach State Park
Carolina Beach
Looking for a little more adventure on your weekend camping trip to the coast? Carolina Beach State Park has six miles of trail that take you through surprisingly diverse terrain: along the east bank of the nearly mile-and-a-half-wide Cape Fear River; through a pine savannah; up 60-foot-high Sugarloaf, a forested dune; across white sand expanses; and through a maritime forest with a nice collection of carnivorous plants. Bring your kayak and paddle to one of the islands in the middle of the river, or head east up Snow’s Cut and explore the backside of Wilmington’s barrier islands. Or head a short ways down U.S. 421 to Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and wander the beach and marsh expanse down to Zeke’s Island.
Stuff to do nearby: hiking, paddling, fishing
More info here.

3. Pettigrew State Park
There’s an eerie element of heading back in time at this lesser-known state park that hugs the north shore of Lake Phelps. Despite being 16,000 acres, it took the invading Europeans a surprisingly long time to discover its presence in the lush woods of this lowland area. Even then, it was a challenge to clear the forest of the behemoths that flourished in this, the Pam/Albemarle Peninsula. Fortunately, the north shore was spared and today houses one of the last old growth forests in eastern North Carolina. Here, you’ll see bay trees, sweet gums, persimmons, and pawpaws that are among the largest of their species; the trunks of some bald cypress trees measure up to 10 feet in diameter; poplar trunks exceed six feet; and there are Atlantic white cedars that top 100 feet in heigh. Though the park is small, you’ll be captivated by its otherworldly feel and hard-pressed to venture much beyond its borders.
Stuff to do nearby: Hiking, paddling, nature

4. Oyster Point Campground
Croatan National Forest, Newport
Up for a long saunter in a coastal forest of cypress swamps, loblolly pines and bogs dense with a jumble of vegetation? Maybe you enjoy the special joys of a winter paddle at the coast, of the vast sightlines courtesy a forest stripped to its essentials by the seasons. In either case, the opportunities for wildlife viewing are heightened come winter, especially in this reach of the Croatan National Forest, where the 15-site Oyster Point Campground makes its home. That long saunter would be on the 21-mile Neusiok Trail, which calls the campground its southern terminus. As for paddling, there’s the Newport River and numerous smaller offshoots that make for great exploring on a winter’s day.
Stuff to do nearby: Hiking, fishing, paddling

5. Cedar Point Campground
Croatan National Forest, Swansboro
Cedar Point is the perfect jumping off point for nature lovers taken by the winter season. A nature. Two loops — of 0.6 and 1.3 miles constitute the Tideland National Recreation Trail; the lengths may not sound like much, but it’s possible to spend ours on this heavily boardwalked trail scoping the bordering treeline for a variety of birdlife — including Carolina chikadee, Brown-headed nuthatch, Tufted titmouse, Northern mockingbird and Rufous-sided tewhee — while the salt marsh it wends its way through is good for spotting osprey, red-tailed hawks, egrets, herons and more. Plus, the adjoining White Oak River and Bogue Sound make for long, quiet days behind the paddle exploring a hodgepodge of islands.
Stuff to do nearby: Hiking, paddling, fishing