Phelps Lake (Pettigrew State Park)

Ancient cypress trees edging a five-mile wide lake. Hundreds year old canoes used by Algonquin hunters resting beneath shallow, acidic waters. Blue Herons resting in deep canals carved through the land. Why we waited so long to explore this overlooked Walden, I'll never know.

Often referred to as the Eastern Dismal Swamp, the Pamlico-Albemarle Peninsula, located south of Edenton, was once home to hunters and game, cypress trees and primordial wetlands. But sometime after 1755, daring settlers such as Josiah Collins drained the wetlands and converted much of the peninsula into farmland.1

How did these pioneers dry this pocked terrain and transfer the resulting crops to market? We learned that, in an amazing engineering feat performed under grueling conditions (wet land, an abundance of trees and vegetation, bugs, alligators, who knows what other beasts), workers dug a six-mile long canal—wide enough for a ship to pass through—that connected Phelps Lake to the nearby Scuppernong River. There, boats then traveled to the Albemarle Sound. The completion of this canal, which can still be seen alongside Thirty Foot Canal Road, sealed the land's agricultural destiny.

A portion of the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula is now Pettigrew State Park (Pettigrew being the family of the Confederate General.) We knew little about this place before our arrival, but a bit of research helped me prepare a decent outing. From the park's incredibly informative website, I learned Phelps Lake is on average only four and a half feet deep—nine feet at its maximum depth. And, though filled with the typical coastal plain blackwaters on windy days, on a calm day, one can see the lake bed through crystal clear waters.

From the website, I also learned about the twenty-nine canoes resting on the bottom of the lake. It's believed Algonquin Indians once used the canoes during seasonal hunting. At the end of the season, the natives stored the canoes in the water and recovered them when they returned the following year. Somehow, the freshwaters of this rain-fed, yet acidic lake actually preserves wood instead of destroying it. One canoe is on display in a visitor's center.

Po·co·sin 2 (\peh-KO-sen\ )
Etymology: probably from Virginia or North Carolina Algonquian
: an upland swamp of the coastal plain of the southeastern United States

exploring north carolina's natural areas section on the Peninsula (Pocosin Lakes and Wetlands, page 117-120) provided additional information on Pettigrew's ecosystem. Phelps Lake is elliptical shaped, much like a Carolina Bay. However, some resources indicate it's a Pocosin lake. Others imply it's surrounded by Pocosins. Since I'm still not entirely sure what a Pocosin looks like, I can't make the call.

We arrived at the park shortly before noon. Following the recommendation in the exploring north carolina book, we stopped in the Ranger's office for a map and a look at the stuffed animals crammed on shelves around the tiny office. The collection is amazing. I assume the animals once roamed Pettigrew's air and forest floor, however, I'm not a fan of taxidermed critters, so we grabbed a map and left.

To minimize problems born from unfamiliarity, we usually scout out a destination before we explore it on foot. Using the map we had obtained from the Ranger's office, we attempted to drive down a road to see where it went. The horseshoe-shaped lane led us around the Family Campground—a cleared area about a quarter mile in length separated into eight campsites. We circled back to see what we would find on the other end of the road. A short distance later, we found the boat ramp and the Visitors Center where the dugout canoe is on display. We spent a few minutes admiring the ancient relic and then went on a hike.

Phelps Lake has five hiking trails. Three are less than one mile (one way). The Moccasin Trail, which begins at the Ranger's office, is 2.8 miles, and the Morotoc Trail, just north of Cypress Point, is 4.2 miles, so visitors can get a decent workout while staying at Phelps Lake.

Short on time, we chose the one-mile Bee Trail. The trailhead is located at the far end of the Family Campground. The mowed vegetation path travels past the restored Somerset Place, where visitors can get a glimpse of plantation life as it once was on this isolated peninsula; Jurassic-style cypress trees, and the path to the Pettigrew family cemetery. It ends at a small platform overlooking Phelps Lake.

After our walk, we drove southwest to the Cypress Point fishing pier. Even if you don't plan to fish, this is a great place to relax, view the lake, and get a good glimpse of the black cypress trees edging the water.

We failed to make it to the Pocosin Natural Area on the south side of the lake. Next time, for certain.

In addition to hiking, camping, and fishing (check state and local regulations), Phelps Lake offers the aforementioned boat ramp and a canoe launch, located at Cypress Point, for those who prefer water recreation. Because the lake is so shallow, please call the park before planning activities such as waterskiing/boarding or parasailing.

Additional Info:
In addition to the Family campground, the park offers a group campsite off Bee Trail, complete with a restroom.

Navigating around Phelps Lake is somewhat confusing. Even with our GPS, finding our way to Cypress Point off Shore Drive proved difficult. From the Ranger's office, drive north on Thirty Foot Canal Road, then turn left on Mail Route Road. Mail Route appears to be partially unimproved, but it's the best, shortest way to Shore Drive (note: Mail Route Road turns into Cross Road.) Continue west until you reach Weston Road. Turn right onto Weston, then travel north, bearing to the left onto Secondary Road 1164 when the street forks. Turn left on Newland, and then left on Shore Dr. Watch for the signs to Cypress Point.

For a photo journey of our trip to Phelps Lake, click on the thumbnail:

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Phelps Lake

For more information on Pettigrew State Park and Phelps Lake, including a map of the park, go to

Informative Website on the Peninsula:


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