An awesome dog-friendly road trip to the North Carolina coast

A dog-friendly road trip adventure that includes a swamp, a campground in the dunes, beers, and more.

By: Erin McGrady + Save to a List

This story is presented by Visit North Carolina.

After taking a weekend trip in our van in the mountains of North Carolina, we decided to head out for another expedition, this time along the coast! If you want to know the truth, it was Maggie's idea. (Maggie's our rescue pup.) She loves the water, and any chance she can get to go hiking near it, she's ready. 

So, not to disappoint her, we packed the van and set off. Here are our favorite must-sees and do's along the way and some of our top Outdoor NC Leave No Trace Principles that can help you be a more responsible traveler. 

8 a.m. | Greenville

Greenville, North Carolina, is a little over four hours from where we live in Asheville. Greenville was completely new to us. We'd heard about it through friends who'd gone to East Carolina University but had never visited ourselves. After doing a little research, we decided to start our road trip at Molly's Community Cafe (300 Evans Street), a women-owned, LGBTQ+-friendly space. We happened to show up on a Monday, and they were closed. Check the hours on their website before visiting to ensure you can try their delicious food!

Bummed to miss it, we made our way to the dog-friendly River Park North, which has five trails, pedal boats, and free parking. There's an accessible fishing pier, and it's a great spot for birdwatching. Your pups are welcome here, but keep them on a 6-foot leash to avoid disturbing the wildlife.

11 a.m. | Creef Cut Wildlife Trail

After spending some time at River Park North, point your vehicle eastward and drive along US-64. The landscape quickly changes from an urban college town to a more rural setting, and the towns became a bit further spread out. 

We recommend downloading the Trail Ahead Podcast, which will make your next hour and a half fly by. But try not to get too absorbed because after crossing over the Alligator River, you'll be in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Another 10 or 15 minutes ahead, you'll want to keep your eyes peeled for a small, paved parking area on your right. This is the trailhead for the half-mile-long Creef Cut Wildlife Trail, which is also paved and accessible. There's also an accessible fishing pier in case you want to drop a line in the water! 

3 p.m. | Oregon Inlet Campground

Though we'd already had two really cool hikes under our belts, we were super pumped about continuing our journey eastward. Why? Because we managed to score a campground at the Oregon Inlet, the northernmost campground on Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and it is gorgeous

The drive from the Creef Cut Wildlife Trail is just under 25 miles, so take your time and stop at Jennette's Pier, which is open year-round. You can surf, skim-board, go fishing, or even visit their 3,000-gallon aquarium. After that, continue south and snap a photo at the Bodie Island Lighthouse. From Spring through early Fall you can even purchase a ticket and climb the 200+ steps inside the lighthouse! 

Save a little bit of energy for camp, though, because the six trails that leave from the east side of the campground cut through the dunes and take you to one of the most beautiful beaches in the state. Tempting though it may be to cut across the dunes and forge your own path, please stay on the trail marked with small arrows attached to wooden posts to help keep the dunes in good health. 

8 a.m. | Front Porch Cafe

Oh, to leave the Oregon Inlet Campground! It wasn't easy. The only thing that convinced us to go was the promise of a delicious cup of coffee in Manteo. And we got just that at the Front Porch Cafe - bonus points for their spinach feta croissant and locally roasted Outer Banks beans. If you need wi-fi while on the road, this is a solid spot. They've got speedy internet and a nice bar by the window with several surge protectors so you can charge all of your devices at once. Plus, the parking is free and easy. Doggos are welcome on the front porch, too!

10 a.m. | Currituck Banks Reserve

Coffee in hand, hop back in your vehicle and set your GPS north towards Corolla. (If you have your bike with you, a path goes the entire way from the popular tourist town of Nags Head to the Currituck Banks Reserve.) You'll be traveling the thin strip of coast often referred to as the Outer Banks and will have multiple opportunities to stop and check out cute towns along the way, such as Kitty Hawk and Duck. 

While those two spots can get super busy during the summer, Currituck Banks Reserve awaits with the promise of a quieter, more peaceful nature experience. Plus, there's the bonus of potentially seeing wild horses! This is a one-of-a-kind spot where you can hike through a maritime forest and, if you're lucky, get to see one of the roughly 100 horses that call Currituck home. If you encounter them, follow Outdoor NC Leave No Trace's keep wildlife wild principle and give them at least 50 feet of space. Don't disturb or approach them. These beautiful animals live off island vegetation and don't need human food - even carrots or apples may make them sick.

2 p.m. | Sound Park

It is always tough to leave the Outer Banks. Trust me; it never gets any easier. Each time you visit, it'll just get more difficult to say goodbye! One thing that always helps me transition out of the leaving-the-beach-blues is to go for a run. Luckily, once you head south and west, you'll cross over Currituck Sound. Here, you can park for free in the big, open lot at Sound Park and head on a run. 

The facility includes a skate park, paved paths, picnic pavilions, a tennis court, a kayak launch, and nice open flat areas with a water view to get in some speed work reps or a leisurely jog. While there's little shade other than the picnic shelters, this is a beautiful spot to catch the sunrise if you happen to be in the area a little earlier than we were. 

4 p.m. | Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

Grab your binoculars and bird identification book because next up on our North Carolina road trip is the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. Though the refuge encompasses more than 8,600 acres of land, you'll only be able to see a little bit of it unless you have a boat. If you can get out on the water, there are over 20 miles of creeks and canals to float.

Don't worry if you're stuck on land because there are a handful of beautiful trails within the refuge that - if you are patient - may allow you to see numerous species of birds. I recommend the Great Marsh Trail, which is a .3-mile path that's a mixture of new boardwalk and crushed gravel. Parking on both sides of the shoulder of the road is free. 

If you visit in Winter, you might see tens of thousands of mallards, teal, gadwall, and wood ducks gather in this area. In fact, 187 bird species have been spotted in the refuge! There are no trash cans at the trailhead, so be sure to do your part and pack out what you packed in.

6 p.m. | Knotts Island Market

Birding makes me work up an appetite. I don't know why but put a pair of binoculars in my hand, and I suddenly crave chips and a sandwich. Luckily, the Knotts Island Market can take care of both of those urges and other needs, such as a fishing license, bait, or even craft beer. (We found some of our favorite beers from Wicked Weed Brewing out of Asheville!) Oh, and you can also fuel up your vehicle. You might want to fill up if you're low because Knott's offers the only gas on the island. We got food and fuel before heading out, and I can vouch for the egg salad sandwich with bacon as a solid 10/10 road trip meal.

7 p.m. | Sandy Point Resort Campground

Tent sites and full-hookup RV sites are available at the Sandy Point Resort Campground. When we called to make a reservation, we were given the option to park our van close to the bathhouse and near other campers or camp remotely. We chose the remote option, and it was incredible. 

We had a waterfront site all to ourselves with a picnic table, fire pit, and our own little private beach. Do your part to keep this campsite pristine by minimizing site alterations and leaving it as you found it (or better). Though we couldn't stay for a week, if you can, your 7th consecutive night of camping is free! 

10 a.m. | Dismal Swamp State Park

This state park is home to the largest remaining swamp in the eastern United States! There are 10 trails that add up to 21.5 miles of hiking and biking paths for you to recreate with or without your dog (so long as they're on a leash, they're welcome)! If you're looking for an accessible trail, opt for the Swamp Boardwalk / K.I.P. Track Trail. You'll follow blue blazes for .5 miles with a grade of less than 1%. This is one of the more popular trails, so go early if you desire a little solitude. 

12 p.m. | Fenwick Hollowell Wetlands Trail

Fenwick Hollowell Wetlands Trail on the College of the Albermarle campus is a great spot for a picnic and a hike. Parking is free and about 100 yards from the trailhead. Free dog poop bags and a trashcan are available, so grab one (or two) on your way out and do your part to Leave No Trace. Those traveling with kids might also appreciate that this site is a Kids in Parks site with four adventures for young hikers.

4 p.m. | Seven Sounds Brewing Company

All good things must come to an end, but what better way to cap off a North Carolina road trip than a delicious craft beer? A beer by the water, you say? We got you. Seven Sounds Brewing has some really tasty brews, especially if you like hoppy and hazy flavors. I'm still thinking about their Electric Feels Hazy IPA. 

This dog-friendly watering hole has a lot of indoor space where you can watch the brewing process or play board games with friends. Their spacious beer garden out back won us over. With views of the Pasquotank River, you can pull your finger over a map and retrace your route over the Currituck Sound, along Outer Banks, and the Alligator River. One thing's for sure; we'll be back.

Check out Outdoor NC Leave No Trace for more information on how to recreate responsibly. Head to Visit NC for more road trip information and ideas.

Erin McGrady (she/her) and Caroline Whatley (she/her) are queer writers, photographers, and filmmakers. They're also the duo behind Authentic Asheville (Portfolio | Blog). Asheville, North Carolina is home base though they travel frequently with their rescue dog, Maggie, in their camper van. You can follow them online at Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | YouTube

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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