Big Lake – Phelps Lake at Pettigrew State Park

Captains Blog:  Mile 33143.  November 8, 2014.

Pettigrew State Park, site 4

Nights at site:  2

Miles Driven:  364 (round trip)

Miles Hiked:  8 (also rowed about 4)


There are not a lot of natural lakes in North Carolina.  Natural lakes, in North America at least, are most likely to be remnants of ice age glaciers.  The glaciers never made it quite this far south.

Our camp site.

Our camp site.

The most notable exceptions are in Washington (Lake Mettamuskeet) and Hyde (Phelps Lake) Counties, on the Albemarle-Pamlico peninsula.  They’re just short of the Outerbanks. To be clear (as Phelps Lake is), the glaciers did not cause them.

Both lakes are noted for their wintering bird populations.  Phelps Lake, at 16,600 acres, is about a third the size of Lake Mettamuskeet, but it has the advantage of hosting Pettigrew State Park, in the North Carolina State Parks System.

We got to Phelps Lake ahead of most of the migratory birds.  We saw a few pods of ducks floating on the water.  We heard some WP_20141109_020tundra swans flying in on a couple of occasions, and were lucky enough to see one line of about 20.  There were several pileated woodpeckers about, and while kayaking Rebecca flushed an owl that flew pretty close by.

The lake is lined with cypress trees.  From the water, it is a pretty site.  The weather was calm for us, so there were good reflections.  We also had the added benefit of fall colors settling into the cypresses. Since the lake is very shallow (around four feet deep), any wind will apparently kick up a lot of waves.

WP_20141108_016There are also a lot of large trees on the land side – notably tulip poplar and Sycamore.

There is one long trail that runs near the lake shore from the park. We took the first leg of that trail, to Moccasin Overlook.  It is not the most scenic trail in the world.  Apparently, the lake is shrinking, and the mess of trees, vines, and understory between the trail and the lake blocks the view of the lake for most of the hike.  However, the reward is worth the hike:  Moccasin Point features a short boardwalk to the edge of the lake, where the cypress trees are laced with Spanish moss.

Moccasin Overlook

Moccasin Overlook

The trail continues another four miles beyond Moccasin Overlook to Cypress Point. We did not make that trek by foot, although we were able to drive to it on our way out.

If you want to see the lake properly, take a boat. The park has a flotilla of canoes that may be available to rent on some occasions; contact the park office to find out.

WP_20141108_007There are several “canals” leading from the lake. They were dug to enable river herring to migrate back to the lake on spawning runs.

We hiked a short path (about a mile) the other way along the lake, which passed through an extremely well-preserved plantation complex. Somerset Place was one of the largest ante-bellum plantations growing rice, corn, and wheat. The Big House is preserved, as well as a number of outbuildings that housed enslaved families.

Somerset Place Plantation

Somerset Place Plantation

We did not see any of the other wildlife in the park, although we did see the results of bear digestion. In the park office one can find a large menagerie of former wildlife (now wilddeath). The park rangers, who were very friendly and helpful, assured us they did not kill the animals.

Nothing like a good reflection to enhance a good sunset.

Sunset on Phelps Lake.

When we left the park, we first drove around the west side, which has a few houses and not so many cypress trees. The roads in that direction wind through the Pocosin Lakes Natural Wildlife Regues.

We decided not to drive the dirt-road maze through Pocosin to Lake Mettamuskeet.  We will return later in the season when the birds are settled in.

But on the way back to Highway 64, we stopped at the catfish farm in Roper.  The catfish farm is frequented by eagles, who hang out waiting for an easy meal.  The catfish, and thus the eagles, were not feeding while we were there, but we still saw a good dozen eagles, perched in or soaring about the trees surrounding the catfish ponds.