How could this place be a free state park? The thought ran through my mind over and over as I walked along the grassy top of Fort Macon. To my right the sound of waves crashing on the beach in the distance created a soothing ambiance to the fort. To my left the interior of the fort was lined with wooden doors and wrought iron railings. I had the fort to myself today and I was determined to explore every square inch of the place. It was gonna take awhile.
Any visit to this fort begins at the bridge. Fort Macon was designed with a moat that could be flooded in the event of invasion, though I never did figure out how they would have gotten thousands if not millions of gallons of water into the thing to begin with. The wooden bridge is permanently fixed now and takes visitors across the moat, through the thick wooden doors at the entrance, and into the fort.
The Outer Wall
Before crossing the bridge you can opt to walk along the outer walls of the fort. This is a great way to get a feel for the size of the fort and gander at the massive brick walls that once protected them from Federal bombardment (for a few days at least). You will come across stairs leading down into the earthen walls of the fort; pick one and go exploring. These stairs lead into chambers beneath the ground, enveloped in pitch blackness, damp and cool even on the hottest of days. It’s one of those thrilling aspects of exploring this fort that shouldn’t be missed.
After exploring the outer walls finally cross the bridge and enter the fort. The inner courtyard is lined with dozens of rooms inside the walls of the fort. To the left several of the rooms have been renovated over the years and returned to their previous use. Behind the wooden doors are tiny museums with information on living inside the fort, medicine, weapons, and more.
To the right of the entrance as you walk in are a couple of rooms without a door, but still with exhibits. Keep an eye out for the exhibit on the daily nutrition for a soldier at the fort. It will probably surprise you and just might make you rethink what you’ve been doing yourself.
Just beyond this is one of my favorite sections of the fort. Several unfinished rooms have been renovated with wooden floors and nothing else. At the back of each room is a small doorway leading to the next. You can walk in the first room and journey all the way to the far corner of the fort without coming back to the courtyard. It’s always a little bit cooler in those brick rooms and even on busy days it’s a bit quieter. I have always found it fascinating to be able to just freely walk through the fort unhindered by “Do Not Enter” signs.
Top of the Interior Walls
Two stone staircases lead to the top of the interior walls. These room-sized walls are covered with dirt and grass creating a natural roof. This was also the location of dozens of canons used for the defense of the fort and harbor. A row of canons has been added over the years, facing the ocean about half a mile away across the park road. But if you look to the horizon and imagine Federal boats sitting out there blockading Beaufort it’s amazing to think these canons could propel an iron ball that far!
At the far back corner of the fort’s interior a single doorway leads to a wooden staircase and into the moat. On wet and rainy days this moat gets a bit spongy but on dry days it’s fun to walk through the grassy moat surrounded by towering brick walls. In another corner of the moat an entrance leads into several underground chambers used for storing ammunition and gun powder. If you really want to explore these chambers bring a real flashlight because your cellphone flashlight just won’t be enough. They aren’t all that big and you won’t feel like Indiana Jones but it’s still fun to explore a little.
The visitor center is the newest addition to the state park, built about ten years ago now. It’s a wonderful place to start your exploration of everything Fort Macon State Park has to offer.
There is a very nice video on the history of the fort. There has been so much more than just the Civil War to happen at this fort throughout the centuries. The video does a fantastic job of retelling that history and reenacting a few portions. The building is air conditioned (heated in the winter) with comfy chairs so be sure to start your day here.
Inside the large rotunda at the center of the visitor center is an information desk usually manned by a couple of volunteers. These men and women are always eager to help you out and answer questions. After all they are volunteers so they gotta love the job, right?
The gift shop is one of the better ones I’ve come across in a state park. It has the usual touristy items like toys for the kids, memorabilia to remember your visit to the park, and beachy kind of items. But they also have a very nice selection of books about history in the region and they feature the artwork of a few local artisans.
Finally, be sure to take a walk through the museum. There is a nice recreation of the interior of the fort, history explaining the people and events that have passed through there, and a nice exhibit on coastal landscapes and wildlife.
The state park features two beach accesses. The first is near the front gate and offers the best chance of getting a parking spot. This beach access also has a massive bath house with restrooms, changing rooms, and a nice shaded deck to get out of the sun on long summer days. The beach is wide and gorgeous at this spot so it’s a great place to spend the day with the family.
The second beach access is near the visitor center. The parking lot is smaller, as is the beach. The water is usually calmer here, though, because it’s not directly on the ocean but rather more along the entrance to the harbor. There is a nice covered deck with a good view of the beach and water, and the visitor center has restrooms nearby.
The park does not have a campground. I wish it did because it would certainly be the best location on Bogue Banks. But campgrounds are not cheap or easy to build so I can understand why Fort Macon State Park has stayed away.
The park also closes each night. No stargazing on the walls of this fort! Although that would be rather awesome, but it would also be a huge liability issue. The gates close each night and the entire park is off limits.
There is no admission to the park, something which I have always enjoyed so very much. It’s one of the most amazing parks to explore in North Carolina so the lack of admission means I could do it as often I wanted. But I still make donations to the park each time I visit. Sure, I enjoy the option to visit for free but I also understand it takes money to run the place.