One of the last old growth forests in eastern North Carolina lines the northern shore of Lake Phelps. Various bay trees, sweet gums, persimmons, and pawpaws are among the largest of their species. The trunks of some bald cypress trees measure up to 10 feet in diameter and poplar trunks exceed six feet. Vines as wide as human thighs wind their ways up trees as tall as 130 feet.
Along the river are some of the largest individual Atlantic white cedars (locally called juniper). These relatively rare cedars reach diameters of three feet and heights of 100 feet.
Several of the park trees are listed on the state and national registers of big trees. Since the registers are constantly changing, contact the park office for the most current records.
Wildflowers lend color and beauty to the forests of Pettigrew. Atamasco lily, Jack-in-the-pulpit, jewelweed, buttercup, Maypops, and periwinkle are often seen around Lake Phelps. Along the river, expect to see blueflag iris, blue leather flower, evening primrose, cardinal flower and roughleaf and swamp dogwoods. The white fruited roughleaf dogwood is rare in North Carolina, and the Scuppernong contains a disjunct population separate from this dogwood’s normal range.
Pettigrew is located in the middle of the Pam/Albemarle peninsula, which is North Carolina’s least populated areas. As a result, the park lies in the midst of one of the state's largest wildlife populations.
Ducks, geese and swans use Lake Phelps and its adjoining woodlands as a primary wintering ground, making the park a great place for birdwatching. December and January are the best months to view tundra swan, snow goose and a variety of ducks. Owls, hawks, and eagles perch on the limbs of Pettigrew’s giant trees and feast on rodents in adjacent corn and soybean fields. The lake shore provides habitat for kingfishers, herons, egrets and a host of other avians who seek food at the water’s edge. Park land on the river houses the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Catch a glimpse of black bear and white-tailed deer, or spot other mammals including opossum, fox, bobcat, raccoon, mink, muskrat and otter. Butterflies are very abundant especially the zebra swallowtail. The area is also part of the red wolf reintroduction program, and the red wolf frequently visits Pettigrew State Park.
Pettigrew State Park includes 500 acres of pocosin habitat left untouched during the massive land clearings of the 1960s and 1970s. The park manages a small area of this pocosin, protecting its carnivorous plants, sundews and bladderworts.
Explore nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Adjacent to Lake Phelps, this plant and animal sanctuary contains more than 111,000 acres. A dense growth of evergreen shrubs and scattered pond pines, typical of a pocosin, populates the area. One particularly noteworthy area is Pungo Lake where about 50,000 snow geese winter.
The Carolina Algonkians used the Scuppernong River for transportation through the dense swamp. Scuppernong is the Algonkian word for land of the bay trees. Scuppernong is also the name of a bronze grape that was originally known as the “Big White Grape”. This variety of the muscadine grape was originally unique to this section of North Carolina and named for the River. Legends say that Sir Walter Raleigh sought out the grape and planted it on Roanoke Island for the colonist. In 2001, state legislators designated the scuppernong grape as North Carolina’s State Fruit.
The Scuppernong River was the main source for transporting logs, crops, and other products to market and importing staples for every day living during the years of European settlement. Except for the town of Columbia and several landings, the river remained undeveloped. In 2002 The Nature Conservancy approached the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation about preserving the river. The Conservancy owned four large tracts on the river and three large tracts were for sale. They proposed that if state parks purchased the three large tracts, The Nature Conservancy would give their tracts to the park. Thus the Scuppernong River Section of Pettigrew State Park began in 2004.