One of the places I looked forward to visiting again, as J.L. and I began to work on our new North Carolina parks guidebook was the Outer Banks. J.L and I frequently visit the South Carolina coast for vacations but I had not been to the Outer Banks since visiting with my parents as a girl. We had gone to Virginia Beach for a summer vacation to see my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Aubrey and they took us down the coast to drive along the Outer Banks one day, stopping to play on the beach for a time, and then driving into Manteo on Roanoke Island to see the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony” one evening. J.L. had never visited the Outer Banks at all so both of us looked forward to seeing the beauty we’d always seen in photos and movies.
The Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands along the upper coast of North Carolina, stretching for over 120 miles from the Virginia border to Okracoke Island in the south. Unlike in the 1960s when I first visited, more than five million visitors now come to the Outer Banks every year. The island had certainly changed from those sleepy years long ago. I would have to say, with honesty, that the descriptions I read about the Outer Banks … that ‘one would find no main street tourist traps, no hotels blocking the view of the ocean, no boardwalks, and only pristine, quiet beaches’ to be a “slightly off” description, except in the areas protected by the state park and national park system and by organizations like the Audubon society. Please know, if you visit, that some areas have become highly commercial and crowded with beach homes, hotels, restaurants, and amusements with little conscientious effort made to preserve the natural ecology
In its earliest days, the Outer Banks were home to Native Americans and many place names still give remembrance to them, like Kinnakeet, Manteo, Ocracoke, and Hatteras. The first English settlers came to Roanoke Island, in 1587, to establish a permanent English settlement. Sir Walter Raleigh helped to persuade the Queen to send the settlers and he helped finance the venture, which was led by John White, governor of the new colony. With a need for more supplies for the fledgling colony, John White returned to England, but problems prevented him from returning for three years. When he did return, he found the colony had simply disappeared with no trace. To this day no one knows what happened to these first settlers, called “The Lost Colony,” like the name of the long-running outdoor drama held on the grounds at Fort Raleigh.
After the failure of the Lost Colony Europeans tended to avoid settling the island, but pirates loved them. Eventually settlers did move to the Outer Banks but they lived very isolated simple lives, mostly working as fishermen. These “Bankers” had only boat access over to the island, with no roads or bridges built yet. But gradually in the late 1800s and then more so in the early 1900s after the automobile gave Americans more mobility, people began to come to the area for recreation. The Outer Banks separation from the mainland always limited the island growth but Highway US 12 was paved in the 1920s -1930s, transforming the Outer Banks. Blessedly, the Federal Government designated large tracts of land in 1937 for the Cape Hatteras Seashore, followed by the creation of the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge.
In the 1960s the building of the Herbert Bonner Bridge and other New Deal Highway provisions began to provide more links to the mainland. Today you can drive across to the Outer Banks from several points, and access to the islands has brought a mixed blessing to the area. The tourism industry began to flourish and grow, with development pushing rapidly into all areas of the Outer Banks not protected by the state or national government. The growth continues today, still basically unchecked. In a 1973 speech author David Stick said: “In our quest for growth and so-called progress, it is possible that we are gradually destroying the things which made us love the Outer Banks and attracted us here in the first place.”
The Outer Banks today has three main sections:
(1) The Northern Beaches – which includes the five oceanfront towns of Duck, Southern Shore, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head;
(2) Roanoke Island and the Dare Mainland – with the town of Manteo, Fort Raleigh, the village of Wanchese and access to the Croatan Sound and Roanoke Sound.
(3) The Southern Beaches – with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Pea Island, and the towns of Hatteras, Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, and Frisco.
Despite commercialism, there are interesting things to see in all three sections of the Outer Banks and if you wish for spots of peace, quiet, and beauty, you can still find them if you seek them out. Visitors who want to stay at the Outer Banks can choose from motels, inns, campgrounds, or rental houses in the busier areas or the quieter spots.
Here are some of the special places you might want to visit at the Outer Banks, most of which we visited in June on our exploration.
At the Northern Beaches:
- In Corolla is the first of four lighthouses, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, a red brick lighthouse, 162 feet tall, that opened in 1875. Because so many shipwrecks occurred along the Banks, often called “The Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the Federal Government built all these lighthouses to try to warn ships of the danger of the long string of barrier islands and reefs jutting out into the Atlantic.
- Also in Corolla is the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary and Center, with its mission to conserve a 2600-acre preserve for beauty and wildlife. There are nature programs there and a nice nature trail.
- A special treat to see at Corolla are the Corolla wild horses, a wild herd originally brought in 1500s on Spanish ships and probably left behind from shipwrecks. Their lands are sadly being more and more invaded by tourism. You can learn more about the horses at the Wild Horse Museum in Corolla and perhaps take a tour to see the horses, too.
- At Duck, a more commercial spot, is the one-mile Duck Soundside Boardwalk passing by a park, amphitheater, boat launch, piers, playgrounds, and a multitude of cute retail shops and restaurants while winding alongside the scenic beauty of the Currituck Sound.
- At Kitty Hawk, moving south, plan to visit the Wright Brothers National Memorial where the Wright Brothers built and flew their first plane. The visitor center there is exceptional and an interesting place to visit to learn about the brothers and early aviation. There is a fee per car and at our visit they would only accept credit cards.
- At Nags Head, don’t miss visiting Jockey Ridge State Park. It’s tucked in the middle of a hustling tourism area but the park is spacious and beautiful and we loved exploring the high dunes and trails and learning about the history of this interesting park.
At Roanoke Island on the Mainland:
- We greatly enjoyed our visit to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. We learned there about the first English settlers to the New World, saw the earthen remains of Fort Raleigh, walked the trails, checked out the fine theater where the “Lost Colony” outdoor drama is held and visited the Elizabethan Gardens.
- It’s fun, also, to walk around the historic downtown of Manteo with its scenic old buildings, restaurants, and shops. In season, you can stroll through the downtown farmer’s market with its artisans and vendors, produce and flowers, check out the Roanoke Maritime Museum, and visit the Roanoke Island Festival Park. Another treat is walking along the boardwalk on the historic Manteo Waterfront.
At the Southern Beaches:
- At the Southern Beaches you will find less commercialism and more natural beauty, starting with a visit to Bodie Island and the Bodie Island Lighthouse. A marvelous nature trail and boardwalk leads out to the black-and-white striped 156-foot lighthouse, opened in 1872. For a fee you can also climb the lighthouse if you wish.
- Beyond the Bodie area, after crossing the new bridge, you move into the protected land of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. As you drive along Highway 12 you can look to the left to see the dunes and the ocean or to your right and gaze across the Croatan Sound – and with no motels or commercial development for miles and miles. The park has created designated parking spots to stop and enjoy the beaches. Do use them as we saw a tourist with his car mired in the sand for trying to park where he shouldn’t.
- As you enter the 6000-acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, do stop at the wonderful visitor center with its exhibits and learn about the refuge from the knowledgeable staff there. There is also a nice crossing to the beach right across the street from the center for a little time by the ocean.
- Further along, we found spots of interest to stop and explore. We moved through the towns of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo rather quickly, glad to get back into the National Seashore again. We did enjoy stopping in Avon to see the huge 665-foot Avon Fishing Pier. You can spend the day fishing there for a fee but for sightseers you can also walk out to enjoy the views for only two dollars..At Cape Hatteras, we went to see the third of the Outer Banks lighthouses, The 193-foot Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is a black-and-white “barber-shop” striped lighthouse. It’s important that all lighthouses look different in color, for recognition by day, and by night with different flash patterns to identify them to guide ships safely in the dark. Due to time limitations, we didn’t take the long ferry to Ocracoke to see the fourth Outer Banks Lighthouse … but if you have a lot of time, a visit to quiet Ocracoke is nice to add to your Outer Banks travel list.
- For one final treat before leaving Hatteras, drive down past the ferry terminal to see the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum with its interesting maritime exhibits. And stop in Rodanthe on the way back to visit the old Chicamaconico U.S. Lifesaving station and learn about sea rescues.
Even though the Outer Banks have grown more commercial—and I’m aware many people like that type of vacation spot best—it is still a beautiful place to visit. At the Welcome Center after crossing the bridge onto Roanoke Island, stop to pick up brochures and maps that will help you enjoy your visit more. We visited in June, one of the Outer Banks busier times, but if you visit in the “shoulder seasons” rather in the summer you will find the area somewhat quieter and less trafficked.
See you next month! … Lin
Note: All photos my own, from royalty free sites, or used only as a part of my author repurposed storyboards shown only for educational and illustrative purposes, acc to the Fair Use Copyright law, Section 107 of the Copyright Act