Published Somedays

The Carolina Bays

(updated: Apr 27, 2010)

Every year I take my son camping for cub scouts. The camp is always the same: Camp McNeil near Elizabethtown, NC. Last week was our third year going. Last year I took my Pugsley, because the camp is large, and the dirt roads are loose and sandy. When I rode to the edge of the camp, I came across an area relatively free of trees and consisting of deep pure white sand. On this sand were many animal tracks, including wild turkey, racoon, coyote, and bear. The sand seemed to be confined to a strip less than 100ft wide but long. I wondered how this white sand strip came to be and concluded that at one time this area was covered by the sea and this was what was left behind after it receded.

This year we took our bikes again, as I planned on exploring this area some more. There is some terrain here and would be ideal for bike trails. It would be very similar to Santos trails in FL. When I went to google maps to get directions because I can never remember where it is, I turned on the satellite view and noticed the white strip that I rode on last year. But then as I zoomed out I noticed that it formed a neat oval shape. Surely this was man made I thought at first...but why would it be an oval shape? Then I started noticing more ovals, and pretty soon I was seeing ovals everywhere, different sizes, some with lakes in them, but all the same oval shape and all major axes aligned in the same direction.

The pin marked "B" is where the scout camp is located. I explored the bay to the left. Look at all the other ones in the vicinity.

Click for larger image.

Ok, so many of you know about this but for some reason I had not heard of this at all. Turns out that people have known about these weird geographic features since the 1930s when FDR as part of his New Deal had aerial photographs taken of all counties in the US. It caused a huge sensation and many theories as to their formation sprung up.

There are as many as 500,000 of these oval depressions along the eastern seaboard, from FL to MD. But it seems that the highest concentration of them lie in this region of NC.

This is along the ridge or rim of the one I explored shown above. Sand is pure white. Not much vegetation although on either side it is quite thick and the interior is impassible.

I rode my fat bike down the overgrown grassy road next to the drainage ditch until I got to the center. But it so thick that I couldn't even get a few feet off the road and the mosquitos nearly carried me off. I had to bail.

The sandy ridge was definitely raised and the terrain dropped off on either side. You can even see this in the picture above. There was a clear definition between the tree line and sand where little grew. It is really perplexing and fascinating to try and figure out why not much grows along the ridge still after tens of thousands of years.

So they could be natural formations from wind, wave, and movement of sand dunes, but I haven't seen a simple explanation. Recently however, they believe they've found some in VA about 350ft above sea level, which couldn't be explained by sand dune movement or waves, or sea currents. Also, the ages are in question, with estimates from 12,500 years old to over 100,000 years old! Amazing that they could still be visible after that many years.

LIDAR image of a few of the bays.

If you draw lines through the major axes they seem to all converge near the great lakes area in Ontario. So one theory was that it was a comet that struck there during the ice age and part of it flew off and sprayed the southeast. A comet is suspected because it is essentially a dirty snowball that would cause a steam explosion and shallow craters rather than the deep craters that would arise from meteorites. In addition, it would leave little trace of itself.

So it could be possible that I was riding on was the rim of a crater, at least I'd like to think so, even if it turns out that's incorrect. Just seems a lot more interesting and simpler than a bunch of geologist hand waving. Can we employ Occam's Razor here?

So then I started looking for more, even ones in Wilmington. I think I found one at the intersection of Independence and 17th St Extension. Check it out from this google map.

Here is a potential bay located at the intersection of S 17th St and Independence. I spotted a few more off of Hwy 17 near Jacksonville.

There were likely others here but have been developed over. Incidentally, they are called Carolina Bays not because they are shallow and often filled with water, but because of the Bay trees that grow on the ridge.

White Lake is another bay. So is Lake Waccamaw and Singletary Lake. These are great places for road riding, by the way. So if you are doing the triathlon there in the next two weekends know that it may have been formed by comet fragments.

White Lake and others...

Click for larger image.

Many of the bays have been drained, including the one near the cub scout camp. In fact, there is an activity field on it, and further along a skeet shooting range in an area they call The Desert. Some are even farmed within them. Interesting that people have built roads around the ridges and farmed within and basically followed the ridges rather than cut straight through them. Some have been turned into parks or natural preserves, such as Woods Bay State Park in Turbeville, SC.

The bays are very shallow. I think White Lake is only 12 ft deep. The one I explored seemed even less in elevation change as far as I could tell from riding it.

So get on google maps or google earth and see for yourself. Once you start seeing them, you will see them everywhere.

The trails around the camp. All doubletrack, but this terrain would be great for some singletrack. Hwy 87 on the way has some elevation change and would be another great place for bike trails.

Links to more information about the bays:


Wikipedia reference but it can border on gobbledygook: Carolina Bay

And all sorts of other links if you do a search.


Filed Under: General Entries > North Carolina > Wilmington


1. Jennifer Page said...

I find these fascinating. The bay you spotted in Wilmington is just the lemon next to the pie. Please check out some art work I have done on them, etchings and relief print:
I have one in the big print gallery too.

Apr 27, 2010 @ 1:30 PM

2. B said...

Just another tidshit of bit: The bays are the reason that we have one of the few climates in the world that can sustain the growth of Dionaea muscipula (venus flytraps).

Apr 28, 2010 @ 7:24 PM


Comments are closed.

Back To Top