Boardwalk with Lake Phelps in the background

A Day at Pettigrew State Park

Author: Allyson Wainright

William B. Umstead Park and Raven Rock State Park are popular nature spaces, but have you heard of Pettigrew State Park?

Pettigrew State Park became North Carolina’s sixth state park in 1939. Located in Washington and Tyrrell counties, it’s the perfect mixture of nature, history, and recreation. There are nine miles of hiking or biking trails and visitors can explore fishing, paddling, swimming or camping on the grounds. The park can be a pitstop on your way to the Outer Banks, a day trip or a weekend getaway.

I settled for a day trip, so I met with the Superintendent of Pettigrew State Park, Jim Trostle, so he could show me around the park.

wooden pathway with surrounding trees

Home to the second largest natural lake in North Carolina, Lake Phelps is one of the main attractions at Pettigrew State Park. While people love to visit the lake today, in 1775, the unexplored area was called the Great Alligator Dismal. Benjamin Tarkington and Josiah Phelps ventured into the area looking for farmland. They were just about to leave when Tarkington spotted a lake from a tree he had climbed for a better vantage point. Phelps ran into the lake first, declaring that he had the right for the lake to be named after himself (the ultimate dibs).

Boardwalk with lake

It was a particularly brisk day with rough waters. Visitors can see migratory animals like Tundra Swans (check all proper names are capitalized) and snow geese on the premise during winter months, and for a brief second, I saw the flutter of wings as I walked on the boardwalk. They disappeared just as quickly as they had appeared. Later in the walk, during a moment’s pause, I could hear Tundra Swans calling in the distance and it made me wonder what other wildlife the park had to offer. Beyond overwintering waterfowl, Pettigrew is a hot spot for birdwatching during all four seasons. Visitors can see Carolina Wren, Northern Mockingbird, Carolina Chickadee, and many others. You may also come across animals like Eastern box turtles, snow geese, black bears, white-tailed deer, and other mammals.

Lake Phelps

As we headed away from the boardwalk and to another part of the trail, Trostle pointed out an area of the lake that had suffered due to the drought.

cracked mud

While walking the trails, visitors will come across Somerset Place, established by Josiah Collins in 1787. It’s a worthwhile detour where I saw what life was like in the Antebellum South. I saw housing units and kitchen quarters for enslaved people where things were in pristine condition (as if people had lived there yesterday? Something like that?). On my first step into the kitchen, I saw a huge fire escape that enslaved women used to cook meals for the Collins family (we’re sure it was women? Probably but good to know for sure for things like this). The room had various pots and pans, cooking utensils, firewood, and wooden bowls. There were 26 houses for enslaved community members, and most houses were two stories with a couple of beds with baskets full of blankets underneath. With over 861 enslaved people that lived and worked at Somerset Place, I can only imagine how cramped it must have been for larger families. You can explore the place for yourself or set up a tour from Tuesday through Saturday.


Watch this video for a brief history of Somerset Place.

 After our walk-through history, we headed back to the visitor center, and along the way, I saw some trees that I could look right through. Unfamiliar with what type of tree it was, Trostle informed me that they were sycamore trees and became hollow inside after some time. Even though they have been here for a very long time, I couldn’t help but ponder how fragile some of these trees might be. However, it doesn’t seem like these trees are going anywhere anytime soon, so they make for a great photo opportunity.

A colloage of two photos of Sycamore trees with holes in the middle

After our walk, we hopped in the car to the Moccasin trail to see the outlook that showcased cypress trees with beautiful Spanish moss. Visitors can walk or bike to the location, totaling five miles altogether. Pettigrew State Park has a lot to offer; from its vast history, stunning views and, endless activities, it’s a hidden gem that every North Carolina resident ought to enjoy.

Collage of four photos with Lake Phelps and trees with Spanish moss
Trees with Spanish moss

Physical Disabilities:

• Marked accessible parking spaces.

• Entrance has a ramp.

• Some family and drive-to campsites are accessible, but the washhouse is not.

• The primitive group campsite and two picnic shelters are accessible.

• Boardwalks are accessible.

The ADA-compliant, quarter-mile Lakeshore Trail boardwalk has wooden guards on both sides; multi-use platforms for fishing, swimming or accessing kayaks/canoes from; and two swim ladders to access the water.

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