Exploring and Protecting Nature
Just across the water from Bald Head Island and Southport is Oak Island, a narrow strip of land that includes the Town of Oak Island and Caswell Beach. Oak Island is over 12 miles long and averages about one mile across, making it Brunswick County's largest island. It consists of the Town of Oak Island and the Town of Caswell Beach.
Caswell Beach is the site of Fort Caswell, a military stronghold that dates from 1827. Fort Caswell is now owned by the North Carolina Baptist Assembly and welcomes visitors of all denominations each year.
Oak Island offers a 10-mile stretch of southern facing ocean beach with three piers, a marina, and public launch facilities. Early development of Oak Island as a community began in 1826 with the construction of Fort Caswell. In 1889, construction of the Oak Island Lighthouse was complete and the Oak Island Lifesaving Station was fully operational to protect sailors from the nearby rough waters of the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
The Oak Island Lighthouse was completed in 1958 and stands 169 feet tall. The main light is a four-light rotating fixture, reaching 24 nautical miles offshore and flashing every 10 seconds.
A single high-rise bridge leads to the island, coming down in what was once the Yaupon Beach section, which includes the main commercial district and a fishing pier. The former Long Beach, just as its name suggests, stretches eight miles to the west, ending at Lockwood Folly Inlet.
Until 1939, Oak Island was frequented mostly by fox hunters. The island was known to be a great place for fox hunting, and the hunts remained an important part of the island's early years. In 1936, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) was completed. This made Oak Island a true island as the ICW construction deepened portions of the Elizabeth River, severing it from the mainland.
Ernest Felder Middleton, a timber exporter from Charleston, South Carolina, bought land on Oak Island in 1938. Middleton, along with his partners in Carolina Lands, Inc., began development of the area on Oak Island known as Long Beach. By 1939, Long Beach was officially open to the public.
The town had a pavilion, a canteen with a dining room, and 20 bathhouses. During this time, Carolina Lands also finished construction on some roads, and offered the first oceanfront lots for sale for a mere $350 each.
The Town of Oak Island was formed in 1999 when the towns of Long Beach and Yaupon Beach consolidated. Today, Oak Island is the most populated Brunswick County town and is central to many activities. Homes are situated along the Atlantic Ocean, the Intra-Coastal Waterway, and the Davis Canal. There are also cottages in maritime wooded lots.
Because Brunswick County is uniquely situated along one of the "scalloped arcs" on the southeast coast of North Carolina, the beaches, including Oak Island, face south instead of east. This means that when you stand on the beach at Oak Island and look out over the Atlantic Ocean, you are actually facing the Bahamas, Florida and Cuba, and not Europe or Africa.
Oak Island has a flat topography, with some variation in elevation due to the sand dunes. The island also has a complex coastal ecosystem with areas of salt marsh, freshwater wetlands, maritime forests, and miles of beach strand. As the name implies, Oak Island is famous for its beautiful live oak trees found throughout the area.
The Island is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna, including the seasonal visits from Atlantic sea turtles returning every year to lay eggs. Sea turtle populations include the Green, Loggerhead, and rare Kemp Ridley turtles. The Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program is a local effort to protect sea turtles and their nests.
Within walking distance of the beach is the championship 18-hole Oak Island Golf and Country Club, one of 27 courses in the county. Oak Island also offers over 50 public beach accesses, several public boat ramps and additional areas where you can launch canoes and kayaks, plus multiple picnic areas and walking trails.
Middleton Park offers playing fields for baseball, soccer, basketball and lighted tennis courts, as well as a playground for the little ones. Schuster Park offers you a good view of Davis Creek with its abundance of vegetation and wildlife, and a great view of the waterway traffic. Memorial Park has a serene, short wooded nature trail, a butterfly garden, and a pier for relaxing and enjoying the traffic on the Inter-Atlantic Waterway. There's also a nature center, which is enjoyed by old and young alike. The Skate Park offers an excellent area for both inline skating and skateboarding for kids of all ages.
Oak Island has won national recognition for preserving and planting new trees (it's a Tree City, USA), for respecting wildlife (with both a Bird Sanctuary and a Sea Turtle Sanctuary), and it even has an ordinance which requires protection and preservation of vegetation on lots as they are developed.
At the Oak Island Environmental Overlook Trails, there's a Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden located on the trail. The garden has four platforms overlooking the path, as well as a talking live oak, other indigenous trees and flowers, and food plants that attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A trail to the right of the Recreation Center leads into the rainforest area, where the wetlands can be viewed from both the bird-watching platform and the rainforest overlook.
Next to the Recreation Center is Tidal Waves Park, where you will find a picnic shelter near the floating dock that can be used for launching canoes and kayaks. The Environment Crossover crosses the Davis Canal, giving visitors an elevated view of the canal and the wetlands on either side of the canal. The trail winds through the trees to the other side of the island, and a crossover walk leads to the ocean and gives a closer view of the salt marsh. Expect to see wildlife such as snakes, deer and various birds on these trails.
The Town of Oak Island has purchased land at the west end of Oak Island, where they are preserving the dunes for educational purposes, as well as to protect nature. You can walk through the dunes on a wooden walkway. On the path, there are two overlook points where you may get the chance to see red fox, black snakes, fiddler crabs, loggerhead sea turtles, raccoons and several species of shorebirds.
The Oak Island Nature Center offers a wide range of educational activities for children and adults alike. Take the Talking Trees Walking Trail, where you will walk the interactive trail as trees like the dogwood, red cedar, southern magnolia and black gum will talk to you.
At the Mineral, Rock and Animal Exhibits, you will see animals such as a ferret, prairie dog, hedgehog, guinea pig, rabbit, gecko, and moon crab. The Center also has a large touch tank with marine creatures native to the Oak Island community. The Nature Center and adjacent park feature restroom facilities, a picnic shelter and a fishing area.
Oak Island is about seven miles from Southport, 30 miles from Wilmington and about 60 miles from Myrtle Beach. To get to Oak Island from the north, take I-95 South to I-40 East. Then exit Route 53 West to Route 421 South. Take US 17 to Route 133 South to Oak Island. To get to Oak Island from the south, take US 17 North to Route 211 South at Supply. Then take Route 133 South to Oak Island. From Southport, follow N.C. 211 west (211 merges with N.C. 133). Then turn left (south) on 133 to the Oak Island bridge. Watch for signs directing you to Brunswick County Beaches and Oak Island.
There are four area airports. Major airline service is offered through two - Wilmington International Airport and Myrtle Beach International Airport. Brunswick County is midway between both airports and about 45 minutes away from each. There are also two small airports in Ocean Isle Beach and Oak Island.