North Carolina’s Outer Banks are rich in history, nature and outdoor recreation. A haven for all kinds of ocean lovers, Cape Hatteras National Seashore encompasses 70 miles of these barrier islands. While any trip to the Outer Banks is worthwhile, Cape Hatteras National Seashore spans miles of undeveloped coastline with secluded and wild areas to explore.
Designated by the National Park Service in August, 1937, this seashore was created to be a public space for all to enjoy. It now protects the land from just north of Oregon Inlet south to Ocracoke Inlet, including the eight small beach towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, Hatteras and Ocracoke. Much of the land was donated by locals who were concerned that their home would fall prey to increasing development and urbanization.
Shortly after driving into Cape Hatteras National Seashore from south of Nags Head, the buildings and rental houses start to disappear and are replaced by wetlands and rolling sand dunes. A little known fact about the dunes lining NC Highway 12 is that many were created artificially over 75 years ago to protect the land and villages of the islands. Covered in thick vegetation, you would never guess that these windswept mountains of sand were man made.
As you near Bonner Bridge, signs appear, advertising some of the first areas of interest: Bodie Island Lighthouse and Coquina Beach. Conveniently, they’re right across the road from each other. Coquina Beach is a favorite among locals and visitors alike— a gorgeous beach that’s out of sight from any nearby towns but still has ample parking, restroom, shower facilities. You can see Bodie Island Lighthouse from Coquina and make a quick visit of it before or after hitting the beach. Though not quite as tall as some of the other famous Outer Banks’ Lighthouses, Bodie Island Lighthouse offers a beautiful vista of the area, and it is surrounded by easy hiking trails through the coastal maritime forest. It’s also very photogenic at sunset!
Over Bonner Bridge and down the coast of Pea Island is one of the most scenic drives in the state. There are many places to pull off and head to the beach, and it’s likely you’ll have it to yourself! Continuing south, the road winds through the little town of Rodanthe, dotted with little cottages and shops. If you want to get some great views of the ocean, or try your hand at fishing, you can check out Rodanthe Pier. The Cape Hatteras area is renowned for fishing, and not only from piers and charter boats. It’s one of the surf fishing capitals of the nation due to the the mixing of the Laborador Current and Gulf Stream offshore. These nutrient-rich waters attract large, oceanic species, many of which migrate up the coast at different times of the year.
Perhaps the best fishing on the Outer Banks, and most well known area in the seashore, is Cape Hatteras Island itself. Sticking out into the ocean like a sore thumb, Cape Point is a great area to explore. You can check out Cape Point Beach and the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which has protected one of the most hazardous sections of the Atlantic coast since the mid 1800s. The shifting sands of this area that make boat passage difficult also make it a haven for water sports. If you’re into surfing, windsurfing or kiteboarding, Hatteras Island is the place for you.
Taking the free ferry from Hatteras Island to Ocracoke Island will bring you to the end of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Ocracoke is a joyful little beach town with serene beaches and a homey atmosphere. There is no lack of accommodation, however many choose to camp at the Ocracoke Campground. This cozy area is right next to the beach, which you can walk to from your tent. In fact, beachfront camping is a great accommodation option throughout the entire seashore. The National Park Service operates four campgrounds spread out over the 70 miles of coastline. In addition to Ocracoke Campground, you can check out Cape Point Campground, Frisco Beach Campground or Oregon Inlet Campground.
You can’t go wrong exploring Cape Hatteras National seashore at any time of the year. It’s one of the only places on the East Coast with miles of untouched, beautiful shoreline— just as nature intended.