The Adventurer’s Guide to Wilmington, North Carolina
This lesser-known outdoor hub has something for every kind of explorer, from novice to adrenaline junkie—on, under, and off the water
Don’t let the southern charm fool you; Wilmington and its surrounding beaches were made for adventure. Flanked by the Cape Fear River to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, this southern North Carolina destination is an ideal base camp for all sorts of activities, both on land and off. Here are some of our favorites.
Go Scuba Diving
History sits at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Wilmington’s island beaches, where The Condor, a Civil War blockade runner, sank in 1864. The ship, complete with its lower hull and paddle wheel, sits just 700 yards off the beach and only 25 feet under water, making it accessible as well as fascinating. And that’s just one site. There are nearly 100 shipwrecks in the ocean, river, and creeks of the Wilmington area. More interested in natural history? The region’s nearshore waters have some of the highest concentrations of giant prehistoric megalodon teeth in the world.
Tour the Coast by Outrigger Canoe
Looking for an unusual group activity? Grab four friends and head out on a guided outrigger canoe tour. Not only will you get to explore the island of Wrightsville Beach from the water, but you’ll also learn team paddling techniques from your guide and expert steersman from Wrightsville SUP in Wrightsville Beach. With the added stability of the outrigger (and added speed from the combined efforts of up to six paddlers), this unique vessel makes it easy to safely explore in open water. If you don’t have a group of five, don’t worry! Wrightsville SUP can match you with a group for the tour.
Catch Some Waves
In Wilmington’s island beaches, the surfing culture is as spirited as the waves, with numerous board shapers and professional surfers calling the area home. “Wilmington has a lot of rising-star surfers who are competing locally and starting to expand their horizons,” says Tony Silvagni, an Olympic gold medalist and pro longboarder who lives in Carolina Beach and runs a surf school there. “It’s a talented group of young kids who are surfing really well.”
Wrightsville Beach is known as one of the top spots for surfing in the southeastern U.S. The island’s Crystal Pier is the hot spot for up-and-coming local rippers and visitors alike, and the rock jetty at Masonboro Inlet can offer long right-handers for experienced surfers. Wrightsville Beach’s Access 4 area has an easier paddle to a sandbar break, and Carolina Beach’s Hamlet Avenue break can be one of the best spots for beginners to learn surfing. The key to getting the best surf in the Wilmington area: get in the water early in the morning before the winds pick up, and take a lesson if it’s your first time on a board.
Ride the Wind
Sailing off Wilmington’s island beaches is like skiing in Aspen—it’s just what you do. Kids grow up sailing and racing in these waters, and families spend weekends exploring the remote island beaches that are just off the coast. Intrigued? The greater Wilmington area has two renowned sailing schools, including one of just a handful of ASA-certified sailing schools in the state, where you can learn everything from knot tying to advanced sailboat maneuvers.
A number of yacht clubs and charter-boat operations also pepper the river and sound throughout the area, so if you’re not ready to be your own captain, you can book a sailing adventure that will take you out of the sound and into the open water of the Atlantic to see some of the smaller barrier islands.
Try Stand-Up Paddleboarding
When stand-up paddleboarding made its way from Hawaii to the contiguous U.S. a little over a decade ago, locals in the Wilmington area were quick to adopt the sport. Today, Wilmington and its surrounding beaches are known as some of the best SUP destinations in the world. Why? “It’s the variety,” says Mark Schmidt, founder of the Carolina Cup, an annual race that has athletes paddleboarding 13 miles around the island of Wrightsville Beach. “We have every kind of water you can imagine, from flat lakes to tidal creeks to calm sounds and open ocean.”
That variety has helped the Carolina Cup become one of the preeminent SUP races in the world, but you don’t have to compete to experience Wilmington’s goods. Paddle Wilmington’s historic downtown riverfront, or set out for Masonboro Island, a wild and undeveloped barrier island just off the coast of Wrightsville Beach.
Run the Trails
Adventure in the Wilmington area isn’t all about the water. Locals and visitors also enjoy a vibrant running scene. The Wilmington Marathon, famous for its fast, flat course, is a Boston Marathon qualifier, and the IRONMAN 70.3 takes in the best of the area, from Wilmington’s historic downtown to the Intracoastal Waterway. But racing is just the tip of the running iceberg in a town that’s putting serious energy into building out its greenway system.
Runners have Wilmington’s Gary Shell Cross-City Trail, 15 miles of traffic-free paths connecting city parks with the University of North Carolina Wilmington campus before ending at the drawbridge that leads to Wrightsville Beach. Carolina Beach State Park has nine miles of trails for runners, while Fort Fisher State Recreation Area gives you six miles of oceanside trails and beach.
Kayak the Coastal Waterways
If Wilmington had an official mode of transportation, it would be the kayak. You can wend your way along just about any waterway—from the open water and bewitching swamps of the Cape Fear River to uninhabited islands hidden in the salt marshes—via kayak. Rent a double or single kayak to explore on your own. Or for the full experience, head out with a guide: local knowledge of the tides and waterways will get you to places you might not discover on your own. Plus, many kayaking tour companies offer trips with wildlife biologists who can tell you all about the marine species you’ll encounter along the way or share stories of prehistoric shark’s teeth and fossils found in the area.
Take It Easy
If you’re not up for catching a wave or learning how to sail, there are plenty of soft adventures in the area. And soft doesn’t mean boring. The vast amount of preserved and public land makes Wilmington’s coast a hot spot for wildlife viewing—check out a bevy of shorebirds at Zeke’s Island Reserve or spot sea turtles on Masonboro Island. Or you could cruise up and down the beach on a fat bike, which has extra-wide tires that float on the sand.
Discover the crown jewel of the Carolina coast in Wilmington and Beaches with abundant recreational opportunities throughout the city and our island beaches. Hike on state park trails, jog the Riverwalk, explore gardens and boardwalks, and cycle along bikeways from river to sea. Paddle waterways, lakes and estuaries, or sail or surf the ocean waves.