Send me to the sands of a beach where I’m free to do three things prohibited here on the beachfront of the Grand Strand: drive a car, pitch a tent and burn a campfire.
Travel a little more than an hour north and cross the North Carolina border toward Wilmington’s Carolina Beach on Pleasure Island and you get just that trifecta berthed at Freeman Park.
After Labor Day—especially in October, when we visited—the rows of beached 4x4s at Freeman Park that liken a sandy parking lot and the scorching summer rays give way to more room to roam and less heat. It’s perfect timing, actually, for a family beach camping retreat or an intimate couple’s escape.
The slip of undeveloped land lies on the north end of Carolina Beach where Canal Drive comes to a dead end at the Atlantic. Pay the guard for a daily pass at the entrance gate ($20, or $50 for seven days), shift into four-wheel drive and be prepared to feel a little giddy and childlike. I mean, you’re driving on the beach!
Keep driving north at the 15 mph speed limit to claim your very own overnight beachfront area between sections 6 and 26. The lower parking sections closer to the entrance are for the sunbathers and fishermen who plan on packing up their bags at sunset. My husband and I decided to park somewhere in the upper 20s around the cusp of beach that stretches its long, lanky arm into the inlet at Masonboro Island.
It’s a beautiful, humbling place to call home for a few days, with the crash of the waves to rock you to sleep outside your tent flap, the soft sand underfoot like bedroom slippers and, in the wee hours of the morning, the peek of the sun over the horizon you almost feel like you can reach out and touch.
We set up camp plenty of distance above the tide line, backed by the massive dunes to block the wind that tends to whip up on the island. You’ll want to pack gear and tent stakes for the sand in mind, as sand is a bit different to anchor into than soil at a traditional campground. For an October trip, keep in mind that the night air is cooler, so blankets and sleeping bags are ideal.
The best thing with your gear is that it’s all right here! Whatever you plan on using at the beach (parents that have been laden down with equipment like a small burro can especially appreciate this)—toys, boogie boards, towels, coolers of food and drinks, umbrellas—you don’t have far to walk to the water.
When the sun was high, we were surrounded by a cluster of colorful kite boarders to the south of us, young kite fliers in general and serious surf fishermen everywhere. These guys had PVC pipes mounted onto the grills of their SUVs. You can pack bikes for low tide, the kayak, the family dog for playing, or just swim and sun bathe. We did a little surf fishing, took long walks and participated in a lot of relaxing in beach chairs with a good book while relishing the natural beauty of the park—no hotel high-rises or pavement or parking garages in sight.
And when the sun sets, be sure you’ve stopped at one of the convenience stores in town for firewood (and bait) so you can build a fire pit at your campsite for cooking. Grown-ups, if you’ve forgotten to bring the brew, Brew Thru on Lake Park Boulevard delivers beer right to the park. For dinner, stick to the basics like hot dogs and S’mores on a stick or, like my chef husband, bring sauté pans and grill a feast of sausage, potatoes and Brussels sprouts.
You don’t have to feel like you’re land-locked; venture out for dinner in Carolina Beach or nearby Kure Beach. Take the kids to the boardwalk and amusement park. A slew of eateries and activities are listed at www.pleasureislandnc.org.
If you’re staying on-site, just be sure to clean up after yourself, using one of the many trash cans set up along the beachfront. Also along the beachfront are several groups of Porta Potties (which are regularly cleaned, I might add). But they are Porta Potties, after all. Bring a jug of water, soap and extra toilet paper. No bath houses are here at the park, so pack toiletries accordingly.
But that’s OK, because this is camping. Beach camping! This is where nature reigns from sand and sea and high maintenance is a low priority. Smell the salt air, feel the sea breeze, close your eyes, feel the kiss of the Carolina sun and the lightweight rate of your overnight stay.
Having written that, I will say that I much prefer camping along the coastline versus in the forests of the mountains. Less bugs and creepy wildlife noises at night; more ambiance to breathe in.
Season per mits are $100 (good January 1–December 31) and may be purchased by completing a permit application linked to carolinabeach.org. Park rules and regulations are also thoroughly detailed here. Discounted season permits are $60 from December 1-31. Credit cards are accepted at the gate for daily or seven-day passes.