Meet the Maze Man of Sunset Beach, North Carolina
Most beach towns have boardwalks, large hotels and busy shops right by the water. In North Carolina's Sunset Beach, there's none of that. Instead, you'll find blue water, soft sand and giant mazes.
Since 2005, this peaceful beach has made the headlines because of its larger-than-life, intricate sand mazes. These interactive pieces are the work of the Sunset Beach Maze Man.
We caught up with him to find out more about these incredible mazes, which make Sunset Beach one of the coolest places in North Carolina.
The Legendary Sand Maze Man
Hunter Gibbes — known to the public knows as the Sunset Beach Maze Man — has spent the last 17 years of his life bringing joy to the hearts of beachgoers.
On any given day, he'll wake up, check weather conditions and head out to the beach. He'll then spend up to two hours drawing in the sand. To an unknowing bystander, Gibbes may look like a random man with a makeshift shovel making figures in the sand. But to anyone who knows Sunset Beach, the sight of Gibbes is a happy one: It means that this will be a maze day.
After the maze is done, people of all ages lose themselves in the game. Children, Gibbes says, usually finish more quickly, while the overly rational adults that go in with them get stuck trying to plan a logical way out.
Could they simply jump over the lines and leave? Of course. But where's the fun in that?
A Spontaneous Art
The first maze came about by chance. In 2005, Gibbes was on his yearly family vacation at Sunset Beach. During a conversation, he started "doodling" in the sand with a stick. His thoughts quickly drifted away from words, and he went into a type of trance. When he came back to reality, 30 minutes had passed. Looking back at his drawing, he saw the potential for a maze.
Gibbes says that his first mazes "lacked well-defined forms," but with time and practice, they grew in complexity (and, we'll add, artistry). The one thing that hasn't changed is the spontaneity of each maze. Rather than have a plan, Gibbes heads to the beach and simply starts drawing, seeing what kind of maze comes out.
But this doesn't mean that there's no thought put into each one. On the contrary, according to Gibbes, it takes a great amount of focus to ensure there are no mistakes. If he messes up, people will waste no time calling him out on it.
Becoming an Icon of Sunset Beach
For the first 12 years, Gibbes made his mazes when he came to Sunset Beach for a week during the summer.
His popularity grew so much that he claims they were instances of people trying to change their rental schedules to coincide with his visit. He's had other vacationers tell him that the mazes are the highlight of their summer or that they look forward to them all year.
These are the kind of interactions that have motivated him to keep going. In 2017, Gibbes made the permanent move down to the beach, working remotely until early 2022 when he retired. Now, he dedicates a lot of his free time to making people's days brighter with his mazes.
Gibbes states that he's gathered quite a following. "I enjoy doing it because of people's response," he explains. He elaborates that the growing expectations "challenge me to make the mazes cumbersome, hard and frustrating in a fun way. If I do a good job, it’ll take you a while to do it and you'll have that satisfaction [of succeeding]."
His wife, Linda, who deemed herself the official Maze Man manager, was his biggest fan and motivator. Seeing how much he and other people enjoyed the project, she supported him unconditionally. After her passing in late 2021, Gibbes finds that doing mazes is a way of honoring her memory.
How to Find a Sand Maze at Sunset Beach
Since Gibbes is now a permanent resident of Sunset Beach, he is able to do mazes throughout the year. His most active time is still summer, when there are more people on the beach and when the weather favors maze making. During this season, he usually makes three to five mazes a week.
While vacationing in the small beach town, you can try your luck and see if you stumble upon a maze. But if you're one to always plan, follow the Sunset Beach Maze Man on Facebook or Instagram, where you'll find updates on new mazes and their location.
In general, you have higher chances of finding a maze on clear days and at times when the tide is going out. Gibbes likes to stay on the beach for a while, observing people. This allows him to help lost souls with hints, fix any mistakes and see people's satisfaction when they finally make it out.
While vacationing in Sunset Beach, you'll have a pretty good chance of meeting the Maze Man himself — just don't interrupt him for too long when he's at work.
Other Things to Do in Sunset Beach
Sunset Beach is one of North Carolina's Brunswick Islands. Gibbes describes the small barrier island as "a family beach where whatever fun you have is the one you bring." Well, that and whatever fun the mazes bring.
This isn't a vacation spot for people who need constant entertainment, but one for those who want a quiet seaside getaway where the days will be spent swimming in the ocean, laying in the sand and eating an unhealthy amount of ice cream.
Besides the beach, you should plan to visit Bird Island, a natural reserve with salt marshes and tidal creeks that is home to numerous species of beautiful birds. On rainy days, if you don't want to stay in with a book or a movie, visit Ingram Planetarium, a fun place to go with kids.
And if you ever want a bit more action, you're only 40 minutes away from Myrtle Beach, one of the most popular beaches in South Carolina.
Where to Stay in Sunset Beach
Much of Sunset Beach's charm is due to its lack of hotel chains and tall apartment buildings. Most people rent a beach house or a condo. But if you want to be pampered, the Sunset Inn is a great option.
The inn has been operating since 2000 and is a mere five-minute walk to the sea. Its 14 rooms are cozy, with the grand rooms boasting whirlpool tubs and personal porches. There's also a general deck where you'll be able to rock back and forth while sipping lemonade and feeling the delicious sea breeze.