North Carolina’s Last Best Place

IMG_3435-1Just outside Bozeman, Montana…about 100 years ago

When we were in our 20s, Jennifer and I lived in Bozeman, Montana for a while.


Long story…we moved there sight unseen…we loved it, but moved back to start a family. We wanted the kids to know their family (and we missed the ocean!)…but all that’s another story.

Back in the late 1980s, an anthology of stories about Montana was published entitled The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology.

It was edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith. Kittredge came up with the title, and as he said of the expression, “It immediately took on a life of its own.”

The phrase always makes me think of Big Sky Country, but it also has this feel of wonderful, but fleeting places that might just disappear forever if we’re not careful. Last week’s hurricane, Arthur, made me think about how a single storm can change our coastline.

It also made me hope that one of North Carolina’s last best places is still with us post-Arthur.

IMG_7578-700Looking north toward Beaufort from Sand Dollar Island

That last best place is a little island near Beaufort, North Carolina. It’s called Sand Dollar Island, and island is really an overstatement.

IMG_7614-700Looking east at low tide

It’s a collection of sandbars, fully visible only at low tide, so it is fleeting.

Where is Sand Dollar Island?

Sand Dollar Island runs east to west on the south side of the Rachel Carson Reserve, just past Bird Shoal, between the Reserve and Shackleford Banks.

How did it get its name?

Because of all the sand dollars, of course.

IMG_7572-700On Sand Dollar Island

In the past, we found plenty of broken sand dollars, but only a hand full of whole ones…ever. On Sand Dollar Island all you really have to do to find a whole sand dollar is to look down.

There’s a whole one every few yards.

IMG_7577-700And another one!

How do you get to Sand Dollar Island?

Only by boat…if you don’t have your own or access to a friend’s, we wholeheartedly recommend Island Ferry Adventures in Beaufort. They have their own Sand Dollar Island page. Island Ferry Adventures is located near the corner of Front and Queen streets just across from the Inlet Inn at the far east end of the Beaufort docks.

Despite hearing about Sand Dollar Island for years, we never had the opportunity to visit until last month, when Jennifer and I took the whole family.

We were a little unsure what to expect, and had visions of 10 square feet of sand surrounded by a rising tide.

IMG_7665-700There’s actually plenty of room on Sand Dollar Island

We ventured out an hour or so before a mid-day low tide and arrived to find a series of sand bars, at the highest maybe a foot above the low tide, stretching about a mile and interspersed with spots of ankle deep water. There was a deep channel on the north side between Sand Dollar and the Rachel Carson Reserve, but on the south side shallow water seemed to extend more than half way to Shackleford Banks.


It really felt like we were in a tropical paradise.

I had the same feeling I get when I look down at the clouds from a jet…we humans are not supposed to be enjoying this view, so we better get the most of it.

In just a few hours it would be gone again.

We were so excited when we hit the island, we immediately dropped our stuff – a small cooler with drinks and snacks and a beach bag with towels and a few beach toys – including a bucket.


We were a few steps off the boat when we started finding our first sand dollars.

It was wonderful.

The best spot for finding them seemed to be the spots with ankle-deep water.

IMG_7594-700A live sand dollar in ankle deep water – leave the live ones!

There you would find both live sand dollars and dead ones.

Do not take live sand dollars, these are the ones that are dark and have a velvety texture. There will be plenty of the white ones you can take.

IMG_7592-700Ready for the taking!

We had dozens in just a few minutes, so the girls went in one direction and our son and I headed east to explore the Island’s far reaches.

We found one spot that looked like it probably stayed above water at high tide, put just barely. The girls found more and more sand dollars, along with a few small live whelk shells, which will no doubt grow into the big ones you can find near Cape Lookout.

IMG_7604-700Sand dollars spread out on our beach towel

Before we knew it, the low tide had come and gone and Sand Dollar Island was getting smaller and smaller.

IMG_7638-700More water, less Sand Dollar Island, as low tide has come and gone

Our boat arrived and we gathered our things and layered our sand dollars with sand in a bucket. We had a ball and couldn’t have been more excited about finding so many sand dollars.

Was it ever relaxing!

Some hints for visiting Sand Dollar Island:

1. Bring plenty of sunscreen…remember when visiting Sand Dollar Island, you’re bar hopping…sand bar hopping. There’s no vegetation and no shade.

2. Bring water…see number 1.

3. Bring a few beers along if you like.

4. Bring a great bucket! We just brought along a small plastic bucket the kids enjoy on the beach. A five gallon plastic bucket would be ideal, though. Just don’t fill it more than a third of the way or so. And layer the sand dollars with some sand to give them a cushion.

Thankfully, Arthur does not seem to have caused major damage to Beaufort or the Crystal Coast, but it remains to be seen what Sand Dollar Island will look like the next time we visit.

Get yourself to Beaufort, see the folks at Island Ferry Adventures, and check out one of North Carolina’s last best places!


And don’t forget t0:

Relax…you CAN get there from here!