Bear Island is part of Hammocks Beach State Park in NC. The island is totally undeveloped except for a docking area, picnic tables and other day-use facilities. It is accessible by ferry or boat from the mainland portion of the park near Swansboro, NC. Primitive camping is allowed on the island, and you can kayak very close to some of the sites.
Bear Island is one of the favorite destinations for paddlers on the North Carolina coast, and it would be considered an easy trip under good weather conditions. The park has a marked trail to eastern end of the island, but there are several other routes you can take -- including the main ferry route. The trail is about 2.5 miles from the mainland to the ferry dock or the campsites near the lagoon on the eastern end. The park has a separate kayak launching dock on the mainland with excellent facilities at no charge.
We had ideal weather conditions on our trip in late August. It was warm with just a light breeze and very calm water. We left the mainland just after high tide so had the tidal current with us most of the way. Coming back, we waited until just after low tide so we could take advantage of the rising tide on the return. The water was too low for us to paddle all the way into the lagoon, which apparently becomes unnavigable at low tide. So if you want to paddle all the way into the lagoon, plan your trip to coincide closer with high tide.
The trail out to the island crosses the Intracoastal Waterway and then winds through salt marshes with many egrets and other coastal birds. The island has lots of fairly high sand dunes covered with cedars, pines, sea oats and various shrubs and grasses. The day-use area has very nice facilities with picnic tables, showers and a snack area with a nice view of the beach. The beach is broad and lightly sloped, so it's very easy to walk on, and the campsites are located very close to the shore among the first line of the dunes. Campsites are assigned first-come, first-serve and you have to sign up for them on the mainland, but they don't allow advance reservations.
Bear Island is a fantastic place to paddle, either for a day trip or extended over several days. There are lots of other coastal waters and islands to paddle around in the area, and you could easily base an extended trip from a campsite there. A local outfitter, Barrier Island Kayaks in Swansboro, offers rentals and guided trips.
Several motels with reasonable rates are available in Swansboro, with a much broader selection in Morehead City and Jacksonville. Lots of seafood and other restaurants in the area. Bring plenty of food and drinks to the island because facilities are very limited; the park does sell a few drinks and snacks but that's it.
Permits required for camping, but not for kayaking out to the island. There is a charge for the ferry.
Take NC Highway 24 to Swansboro from either Jacksonville or Morehead City. Hammocks Beach road leads south to the park about 1/2-mile west of the bridge in town.
Hammocks Beach State Park: 910-326-4881
Guide to Sea Kayaking in North Carolina, by Pam Malec.