With a history that spans more than three centuries, and a unique ecosystem where barely coastal Nature Reserves run parallel to undeveloped barrier island shorelines, Beaufort is truly an enlightening destination for visitors of all interests.
Stocked with historical homes and residences, unique ecosystems, and a myriad of ways to explore further, there’s lots to discover in this educational coastal town. Stop by one of the region’s museums, take a walk around the historic blocks, or embark on an on-the-water adventure that you’ll never forget. In Beaufort, where history and culture is found around every corner, education is naturally a part of every vacation.
Ready to learn more about the local culture, history, and environment? Then start with these thoroughly engaging destinations to dive deeper into the local Crystal Coast and Beaufort scene.
Rachel Carson Reserve
The 2,315 acre Rachel Carson Reserve is a wonderland for visitors who want to explore a unique slice of the coastal ecosystems and habitats. Located just across Taylor’s Creek from the heart of Downtown Beaufort, this unique reserve comprises of a network of islands that span just three miles long by one mile wide, but which are home to hundreds of vastly unique species that call coastal North Carolina home. Visitors will need to take a water taxi, kayak, or guided tour to reach the site, but once on the undeveloped terrain, can follow two roughly mile-long nature trails to uncover a wide array of habitats, including marshes, shrub thickets, tidal flats, sand dunes, and waterfront beaches. Along the way, expect to encounter a diverse variety of wildlife including more than 200 species of birds, river otters, gray foxes, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, diamondback terrapins, and even sea turtles. A further education can be garnered by signing up for one of the reserve’s regular educational programs and guided tours, but even if visitors simply explore on their own, they’ll find a wealth of natural discoveries waiting around every sandy bend, as well as fantastic and beautiful scenery in every direction.
NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort
No visit to Beaufort is complete without a trip to its most culturally rich and educational destination – the NC Maritime Museum. Located along Front Street and easy to reach for all downtown visitors, this engaging museum with a nautical aesthetic is packed with stories and artifacts from centuries of local history. Visitors can learn all about the earliest roots of Beaufort’s maritime community and boat building trade, discover stories and relics from famed local pirates including Edward Teach, (better known as Blackbeard), explore Beaufort’s role in the Civil War, see seashells from more than 100 countries around the world, and much, much more. The museum also has a series of guest lecturers and special programs that shine a spotlight on a specific aspect of local history, which means that a typical visit can turn into an in-depth education with ease. With dozens of fascinating exhibits and a myriad of hands-on activities, (including a popular “Build a Boat in a Day” workshop), the NC Maritime Museum should be a first stop for any visitor who wants to dive deeper into the stories and legacies of Beaufort.
The Beaufort Historic Site
History comes to vivid life at The Beaufort Historic Site – an intricate collection of nine historic homes and buildings that date back to the 1700s and 1800s, and which have been carefully preserved to present a true portrait of what life was like in the early days of this coastal town. Visitors can embark on a guided or self-guided tour of the “town” to encounter costumed interpreters who share the stories behind the distinctive residences, and to explore this individual structures inside and out. With iconic local landmarks including the circa 1829 Old Jail, the circa 1796 Carteret County Courthouse, the 1778 Leffers Cottage, the 1859 doctor’s office, and the 1732 Russell House, (which is the current home of the Mattie King Davis Art Gallery), visitors can soak up the atmosphere of historic Beaufort with ease. Managed by the Beaufort Historical Association, a range of additional events, programs, and seasonal tours are also available for visitors who want to explore further, including community-wide ventures on board a 1960s English double decker bus. After a fine afternoon of exploring period antiques and modern works of art, visitors will be well-versed in both the history and the culture of this distinctive small town.
The Old Burying Ground
There’s a treasure trove of stories laying literally just below the surface at The Old Burying Ground, and visitors are welcome to take a guided tour or explore on their own to come face-to-face with some of the most memorable chapters in local history. Known as one of the oldest cemeteries in the state of North Carolina, with gravesites that date back to the turn of the 18th century, this graveyard serves as a roster of famed locals, which includes original Beaufort residents Samuel Leffers, Capt. John Sabiston, Capt. James Manney, and a hero of the War of 1812, Capt. Otway Burns. In addition to the well-known figures, visitors can also explore the gravesites of some of the town’s most famous although lesser known legendary residents, including the “Girl in a Rum Barrel” who died at sea returning home from England, and the unknown sailors of the Crissie Wright shipwreck. From ghost stories to heroes of three centuries of wars, The Old Burying Ground is easily one of the most educational spots in the town. Grab a map at the Beaufort Historical Association / Beaufort Historic Site, or sign up for a tour that uncovers the cemetery in depth.
Downtown Beaufort Walking Tours
You never know what stories and secrets the historical structures and streets of Downtown Beaufort present, and a historical walking tour is a perfect way to explore the city from an entirely new perspective. Because Downtown Beaufort is home to nearly 20 homes or buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as a town layout that was plotted out more than 300 years ago, the town is teaming with history, and a walking tour will uncover all the lesser-known landmarks and points of interest that this town is famous for. Visitors can follow the footsteps of infamous pirates like Calico Jack, Anne Bonney and Blackbeard himself, or can discover the ghost stories that still haunt modern day pubs and shops. From the town’s role in the Civil War to its earliest roots as a busy port community, no shell or ancient stone is left uncovered when you let a knowledgeable and experienced guide take you on a stroll through town, while taking you back in time. Walking tours are available through private local companies as well as local organizations, including the Beaufort Historic Association / Beaufort Historic Site. Special themes may also be available, (such as specialized pirate tours or ghost tours), to cater to interests of all varieties.
Environmental education, brilliant open water views, and a little physical exercise are all combined on a kayak eco-tour of Beaufort, making it a fun and fascinating exploration that the whole family will enjoy. Several watersports companies along or around the Beaufort Docks offer regular kayaking excursions that lead to some of the area’s most scenic and naturally educational destinations including Taylor’s Creek, the Rachel Carson Reserve, and / or the outlying Shackleford Banks. Guided by a local expert, visitors will learn all about the local habitats while en route, and will have an exceptional opportunity to spot local water birds and migrating birds, herds of feral horses, and even friendly bottlenose dolphins who make regular appearances in the Back Sound. Tours are generally seasonably available, from the warmer spring months through fall, last 1-2 hours at most, and are easily accessible for experienced and brand new kayakers alike. With panoramic views throughout, a kayak eco-tour is a fantastic way to garner a newfound Beaufort education while enjoying a beautiful and completely fun adventure on the water.
Specialized Water Cruises and Tours
Learning is never an arduous task in Beaufort, and visitors can have miles of fun while gaining a deeper understanding of the region when they embark on a water cruise or tour that regularly departs from the heart of the downtown area. With several dozen tours and a myriad of tour companies to choose from – most of which are conveniently stationed along Taylor’s Creek on Front Street – visitors will have no problem finding a water tour or cruise that perfectly suits their interests. Spend an afternoon paying a visit to the local Banker Ponies which are believed to be the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs from roughly 500 years ago, or send time with the region’s most infamous pirates as your youngest crew members enjoy a battle on the open water. The educational water tours effortlessly combine learning with fun, which makes them unforgettable expeditions where an area-wide education simply comes naturally. Great for all vacationers of all ages, with lots of options to choose from, a water tour is a must for visitors who like their educational activities to come with a side of adventure.
Cape Lookout Lighthouse and the Cape Lookout National Seashore
One of the East Coast’s most distinctive lighthouses is just a ferry ride away from the heart of Beaufort, and visitors will find that a trip to this historic structure is just as fun as discovering the lighthouse itself. The Cape Lookout Lighthouse was built in 1859 to protect mariners from the treacherous Diamond Shoals, and today, it still stands tall as one of the most famous landmarks along the Crystal Coast. Recognizable for its black and white diamond-patterned exterior, seasonal visitors will have an opportunity to literally step inside history as they climb the circular interior staircase to the very top of the lighthouse. Though the climb up the 208 steps is an arduous one, explorers will be rewarded for their efforts with incredible vistas that span for miles, and which encompass the Atlantic Ocean, the Core Sound, and the stunning isolated beaches of the Cape Lookout National Seashore. A Visitors Center managed by the National Park Service is also located on-site with more info about the lighthouse itself as well as the national seashore, and visitors can easily reach the site via a 40-45 minute water taxi ride from the Beaufort Docks – a trek that’s just as scenic and enjoyable as the destination.
The History Place
Everyday visitors and researchers alike will adore exploring every nook and cranny of Carteret County’s history at the impressively thorough and engaging History Place. Located in the neighboring town of Morehead City, and therefore an easy 15 minute drive away for Beaufort explorers, this unique complex is home to an on-site museum, a research museum, an art gallery, and a charming tea room that’s perfect for leisurely luncheons and afternoons. The History Place has an ever-rotating series of exhibits that outlines centuries of local stories, and which includes a collection of unique antiques including military memorabilia, period clothing, first-hand accounts and photographs, and other relics, ensuring that visitors can enjoy a long and in-depth look into the area’s rich roots. With a regular series of educational programs, lectures, and classes, as well as rotating exhibits and more than 10,000 books and publications in the Jack Spencer Goodwin Research Library, visitors will find that every visit presents an opportunity to learn something new at this detailed and altogether fascinating Crystal Coast destination.
Fort Macon State Park
The battle to protect the Carteret County coastline comes alive at the Fort Macon State Park – a unique and historic destination that’s found just a 20-30 minute drive away from Beaufort in the coastal town of Atlantic Beach. Located on the eastern edge of the Crystal Coast, this state park that was established in 1936 is home to one of the best preserved coastal forts from the 19th century – the iconic Fort Macon which was built in the 1820s, and which was an important stronghold for both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War. The surprisingly intact fort has a barrier of 5 stone and brick walls as well as arched underground tunnels, or casements, where explorers can uncover secret rooms and batteries where soldiers once resided and prepared for attack. The site also features a regular series of primarily military-related talks, programs, and events, which includes occasional Civil War reenactments, as well as monthly cannon firings in the summer season – an event where real Civil War era cannons are ignited in a tremendous and unforgettable display. Bordering a gorgeous undeveloped beach, and featuring a wealth of history around every narrow turn, this site is a must-see attraction for Civil War fans as well as visitors who simply appreciate a beautiful shoreline.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
Take a drive to the small coastal town of Pine Knoll Shores on the Crystal Coast shoreline, and enjoy an educational activity that family members of all ages – especially the youngest ones – will adore. The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is renowned as one of the most extensive and all-encompassing aquariums in the state of North Carolina, thanks to a series of more than 50 exhibits that are home to more than 4,000 unique species. At the aquarium, visitors can watch river otters splash and play, touch starfish and stingrays in the popular touch tanks, chat with divers before and after they take the plunge into a giant tank that’s teaming with sharks, and even catch daily educational programs and / or animal feedings. With a host of ways to learn more about the distinctive ecosystems of North Carolina in a hands-on and completely interactive environment, the North Carolina Aquarium is a great destination for young vacationers to garner an education while having hours of fun.
Theodore Roosevelt State Natural Area
Combine a day at the aquarium with an exploration of this neighboring attraction where the local habitats of the Crystal Coast are wonderfully and naturally on full display. Comprising of 265 acres of undeveloped soundside terrain, visitors can encounter a wide array of varying habitats via an easy trek through this preserved site, including maritime forests, shrub thickets, sand dunes, marshlands, and much more. Along the way, expect to encounter a wide array of species including local blue crabs and fiddler crabs, water birds like osprey and egrets, and even more unique residents like river otters and local turtles. With two natural trails that wind through the reserve – the Alice Hoffman Nature Trail and the Roosevelt Nature Trail - exploring the area while learning first-hand about the plant life and species that call the Crystal Coast home is an easy and refreshing adventure.
Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail
This tiny slice of maritime forest that’s found in a surprisingly busy section of Atlantic Beach is a fine destination for explorers who want to uncover the local environments while enjoying a leisurely stroll along the soundside. Encompassing just 31 acres, and located just a 15-20 minute drive away from Beaufort, the Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail is an undeveloped ½ mile hiking trail that veers through several different habitats – including thick maritime forest – before reaching a pretty platform on the edge of the Bogue Sound. As a result of its isolated terrain and location, it’s a popular spot for birdwatchers as well as nature enthusiasts who want to learn all about the wildlife and plant life that call the Crystal Coast home. With easy terrain that includes boardwalks and walkways over soggier or marshy areas, the Hoop Pole Creek Nature Trail is an accessible destination for visitors of all ages who want to further their natural education.
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
Take a 15-20 minute drive to neighboring Harkers Island for an opportunity to dive deeper into the cultural roots of this coastal community. Harkers Island and the surrounding Carteret County region has a long history as being a destination for commercial and recreational fishing, hunting, and rustic adventures, and as a result, the area has deep ties to boat building, decoy carving, and other outdoorsy trades. The story behind these traditional industries is explained in great detail via a wealth of colorful and engaging displays at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center – a unique museum that honors Harkers Island’s authentic coastal roots. Visitors will see a variety of intricate decoys, (and may even spot live carving destinations), learn more about the centuries of fishing, and can even explore the natural terrain in detail all with one visit. Charming and scenic both inside and out, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center is a stunning destination where fishing, hunting, and the ingenuity of the locals are all celebrated with style.
Tips and Tricks for Uncovering and Enjoying Beaufort’s Educational Activities
- Check out the local Visitors Centers first. Visitors Centers that are managed by the National Park Service or the Beaufort Historical Association have a wealth of information on the area, including species or birdwatching guides, historical maps, and info on upcoming tours or current attractions.
- For a more extensive education, expand your horizons. Neighboring towns like New Bern and Havelock have additional museums and historical treasures, like Tryon Palace, the Pepsi Museum, and other educational attractions.
- Be sure and check out local events calendars before your trip. Many established sites or attractions – like the NC Maritime Museum, The History Place, and Fort Macon – all offer regular programs, classes or lectures year-round that will fascinate visitors of all tastes.
- Want to spend a couple nights surrounded by history? Then explore the local vacation rentals or B&Bs in Beaufort. A number of rental cottages or inns are historic landmarks in their own right, and can date back several hundred years and / or be furnished with authentic antiques and period décor.
- Be sure and reserve your educational expedition before your vacation begins! Many water cruises, eco-tours, or other guided adventures can fill up quickly in the peak summer months, so make a reservation well in advance.
Beaufort is overflowing with history and natural beauty, which makes it a divine destination to further an education. From pirates and war heroes to wild horses and sea turtles, learning is always a pleasure in this small town that is brimming with charm and culture.