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Each time I step into Fort Macon State Park I ask myself, “How can this park be free?” The astonishing fort is one of the best renovated Civil War-era forts in the country and a treasure along the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. That must be why I keep going back again and again.
Fort Macon State Park
Fort Macon State Park is located at the western end of Bogue Sound, a barrier island in North Carolina, in the small town of Atlantic Beach. The four-lane road through much of the town narrows as it enters the park and becomes Fort Macon Road.
The park does not have an admission fee, making it a rare pleasure for locals and tourists alike. The park is open during daylight hours throughout much of the year so it’s a great day trip destination.
Coastal Education Center
The exploration begins at the Coastal Education Center. The enormous visitor center has restrooms, an information desk, museum store, and exhibit room. I took a comfortable seat in the auditorium to watch a short video about the history of the park. Once finished I collected my North Carolina State Parks Passport stamp, picked up a map of the fort, and I was on my way to the adventure.
Any visit to the fort begins at the wooden footbridge crossing a dry moat into the sally port. There were a couple of benches just inside the entrance, a place to take a break or wait for a demonstration to begin.
The outer wall wraps around the moat and has placements for several canons, though I can’t recall any ever being placed out here. Visitors can walk along the wall, explore the rooms inside the casemate, and take stairs down to the floor of the moat. I always leave this exploration for an access port on the far end of the fort.
Inside the fort there are dozens of rooms within the casemate to explore. Some of the rooms have been set up as exhibit spaces, demonstrating life in the barracks, officer’s quarters, and the quartermaster’s office. Other rooms have nothing more than a wooden floor with a doorway at the rear connecting each of the rooms.
My absolute favorite thing to do at this fort is walk from room to room using the rear doorways. In the very corner of the fort is a room completely shut off from the interior of the fort. I think this must have been some sort of powder storage room because it is very secure.
Outside Fort Macon
At the far end of the fort is another sally port, or entrance, to the fort. A wooden bridge crosses to a stone staircase built into the outer wall. This is where I always climb to the top of the outer wall and walk around the entire fort.
A staircase in the corner leads down to one of the rooms buried deep beneath the ground. This is where gun powder and ammunition was stored to make sure it could never be ignited by enemy canon fire. It’s also a really dark, really cool place to explore.
Top of Fort Macon
Back inside the fort there are three staircases leading to the top of the fort. The last time I visited only one of those staircases was open, but it still allowed me to walk along the top of the fort. I found several canons on display here along with gorgeous views of the local beach and Atlantic Ocean.
It’s always about this time, standing on top of the fort, overlooking the interior parade ground on one side, the moat on the other, with the ocean nearby, that I realize just how astonishing this fort is. It’s one of the best renovated forts I’ve ever come across and easily on par with national monuments under the National Park Service. Kudos, North Carolina State Parks, you have created one of my favorite state parks in the country.
Fort Macon Beach
There is so much more than just the astonishing fort at this state park to explore. Fort Macon Beach is located along Fort Macon Road near the entrance to the state park. There is a huge parking lot which comes in handy for all the people hoping for a free beach access in Atlantic Beach.
The Fort Macon Bathhouse is one of the best at any public beach in North Carolina. The restrooms are rather nice, there is plenty of room for changing clothes, and the covered deck is a great place just in case that summer thunderstorm sneaks up on you real fast.
If you’re just looking for a place to hop out of the car and go for a swim, the main parking lot near the visitor center has several beach access points. The access almost directly across from the Coastal Education Center leads to a wooden boardwalk and covered observation deck overlooking the beach and inlet.
Third System of Seacoast Defense
Fort Macon was built as part of the Third System of Seacoast Fortifications along both the east and west coasts. Some of the other notable forts that are still open for exploration today include Fort Pulaski National Monument in Georgia, Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, and Fort Jefferson at Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida.