North Carolina's Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Hidden in the eastern part of North Carolina, the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge consists of over 50,000 acres of open water, marsh, timber, and cropland habitats with Lake Mattamuskeet as its glorious centerpiece. In fact, Lake Mattamuskeet, North Carolina's largest natural lake, covers 40,000 acres with a surprisingly shallow basin depth of 2 to 3 feet or about a "swan's neck deep." A must see for nature lovers and a paradise for birders!

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

great blue heron flying over Lake Mattamuskeet with ducks in the marsh

Our planned Saturday night stay at nearby Goose Creek State Park had us leaving our home in central North Carolina at 3:30am to catch the first rays of sunrise over Lake Mattamuskeet by 6:30am.  Our early departure was driven by our desire to see the overwintering tundra swans  - the largest such gathering on the East Coast, numbering between 65,000-75,000.  They flock to the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge from Canada and Alaska and put on quite a show and -  along with the other waterfowl - create quite the racket.

History of the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Ducks flying over a misty Lake Mattamuskeet at the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge

Originally, Lake Mattamuskeet covered 120,000 acres, but the rich soil at the lake bottom enticed farmers to cut a canal from the lake to the sound, reducing the lake to its current size.

With the desire to access the remaining rich lake soil, developers in the early 1900's built the world’s largest centrifugal pump, capable of moving 800,000 gallons of water per minute, in order to drain and convert Lake Mattamuskeet and the surrounding wetlands to farmland and a residential community. Fortunately, even with advanced technology, the effort proved to be impractical and thus abandoned.

Former hunting lodge and observation tower at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

In 1934, the United States purchased the property and established the Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. Then, in 1937, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) turned the pumping station into a hunting and fishing lodge and the smokestack into an observation tower. Until the 1950's, this region was known to hunters as the "Canada Goose Capital of the World."

However, the 1970's brought a dramatic decline in the wintering goose populations and the lodge closed hunting operations in 1972. The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge currently hosts managed waterfowl hunts through lottery permits.  

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center Headquarters

Wildlife dioramas at the visitor center at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Stop in at the Mattamuskeet National Wildllife Refuge visitor center and view the natural resource exhibits and dioramas that explain the history of Lake Mattamuskeet and display taxidermy of the wildlife found at the refuge.

Pick up a Mattamuskeet and Swanquarter National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife List.  The detailed pamphlet contains lists of possible wildlife to be seen:mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. The bird list is coded by seasonal appearance and abundance of avian species. 

  • Visitor Center Hours: 8am - 4pm
  • Public restrooms available
  • Picnic tables near the former hunting lodge

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge Activities

Scenic Drives: Highway 94 Causeway, Entrance Road, Wildlife Drive

Entrance Road along the marshes of Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

One great place for viewing waterfowl is along the Highway 94 Causeway which goes across Lake Mattamuskeet. Pull off at the Kuralt gazebo observation deck about midway down the causeway and use the free spotting scope.

Other great places for viewing birds are along both the Entrance Road and Wildlife Drive in the refuge.

Maximize your sightings by learning bird field marks and calls. Additionally, exploring the different habitats and visiting at different times of the year will increase the variety of animals encountered.

TIP: During winter months, parts of refuge are closed to public so observe refuge regulatory signage.

Festivals

The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge hosts the annual Swan Days Festival each December to celebrate the return of the tundra swans to Lake Mattamuskeet.  The festival features birding tram tours, photography workshops, wildlife presentations, and more.

The Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge also participates along with five other area national wildlife refuges in the Wings Over Water Wildlife Festival each October with an encore birding event in December.

Wildlife Viewing

Tundra swans at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

As a valuable wintering area, Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge attracts large concentrations of migratory waterfowl such as tundra swans, snow geese, and 22 species of ducks that use this refuge as their winter feeding ground. From November through February, a total of 200,000 waterfowl visit the area.  

We witnessed several species such as tundra swans, American coots, Northern pintails, snow geese, Northern shovelers, great blue herons, and Canada geese during our two-hour visit.

Be on the look out for otters, black bear, deer and bobcat - if not the animal, then the scat or tracks.

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge signage at sunrise
American coot at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina
Northern shoveler at Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, North Carolina

Fishing

Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge permits sport fishing in accordance with NC state regulations. Anglers may catch largemouth bass, striped bass, crappie, and catfish. However, Mattamuskeet refuge closes the lake to all boats, including small ones, from November  1 thru March 1 each year to protect the wintering migratory birds. Bank fishing along the causeway and canals near the refuge is permitted all year long.

Crabbing

Another favorite sport at Lake Mattamuskeet is catching blue crabs (it does require a North Carolina freshwater fishing license for ages sixteen and up). Rules for crabbing include: crabs must be 5 inches long, hand lines only, and a limit of 12 per person per day. Chicken necks or fish heads make great bait. Have a dip net ready for hauling your crab in and a pot ready for dinner!

Read about the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in our post on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

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