Guide to Coastal North Carolina
Significant Natural Areas of the Northern NC Beaches

Northern Beaches * Roanoke Island * Cape Hatteras National Seashore * Ocracoke * Cape Lookout National Seashore

Northern Beaches

The Outer Banks of North Carolina from Corolla south to Nags Head have seen an amazing amount of development in the last few years. The entire area is quickly becoming covered with beach homes and resort properties in an unbroken line. Some areas, like the area just north of Corolla and Ocean Hill, remain almost completely undeveloped though and offer great recreational and educational opportunities for those with a sense of adventure. A major reason why some areas have remained undeveloped is because they are distinctly hard to get to and require 4-wheel drive or boat access.

Currituck National Wildlife Refuge/ Currituck Banks National Estuarine Research Reserve/Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge-

More Information;
Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge
PO Box 39
Knotts Island, NC 27950

Coastal Reserve Coordinator
North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve

7205 Wrightsville Ave.
Wilmington, NC 28403

Several thousands of acres of beach, marsh and maritime forests are preserved on the northern Outer Banks and islands slightly inland that are maintained by various groups, including the Federal and State government, the Nature Conservancy and others. Access is limited to 4-wheel drive vehicles, which are required to operate between the dune line and the ocean, by boat, or by foot. There are no facilities.

The area is prime habitat for many birds all year, but especially during the winter for migrating waterfowl. It is a transitional area between northern and southern maritime vegetation and an area where species of both zones intermingle. Besides many species of birds, the area is also home to deer, fox, raccoons, wild hogs and the Corolla wild horses.

Evidence suggests these horses are descended from Spanish horses that came to the New World with Spanish Explorers in the 16th and 17th Century (They are missing a lumbar vertebrae- a trait characteristic of Spanish horses, not shared by most American domestic horses.). Some mixing of the herd has probably occurred from local people who grazed their own herds on the Outer Banks in years past. Some of these horses make their home in a pen at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse, where they are cared for.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse

Open daily 9-5, Easter through Thanksgiving. Easily accessed from NC 12.
More info, call 252-453-4939. Nominal Fee for entrance to the lighthouse.


Located nearby is a short nature trail going out onto the marsh and a pen containing several members of the Corolla wild horse herd who have made it their more or less permanent home.

Visitors can climb 214 steps to the top to reach the 158' view point in the lighthose. The Lighthouse Keepers' house is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility and Pier

North of Duck, NC on Hwy 12. Open 9 AM to 4:30 PM weekdays. Every summer walking and guided tours are offered Monday-Friday at 10 AM. For information call 252-261-3511. Free.

This is a permanent research facility dedicated to the study of waves, currents, water-levels and bottom changes, as well as an official tide-monitoring station. Various government agencies conduct research here. Don't be scared off by the fence. They happily accept visitors.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

Hwy 12, Kill Devil Hills, NC. Nominal fee. Open year-round. 252-441-7430.


Site of the first powered flight by the Wright Bros. On Dec. 17, 1903. Reproduction of the Wright Flyer, Visitor center, Historical markers.

The memorial is located at the site of one of the areas large dunes, called Kill Devil Hill. It has been stabilized with grass planting to protect the site.

Nags Head Woods

Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve
Visitors Center

701 West Ocean Acres Drive
Nags Head, NC 27948


1100 acre Nature Conservancy Preserve. A fantastic example of maritime forest containing 300-500 year-old trees, fresh water ponds with rare aquatic vegetation, other plants at the extremes of their geographic range and nesting areas for many birds, including rare and endangered species. There are also mammals and snakes including poisonous ones. Visitor Center, trails and special programs. Open to Nature Conservancy members Monday through Friday during daylight hours and on Saturdays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Open to non-members 10 AM to 3 PM on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. You must register at the Visitor Center before beginning your explorations.

Jockey's Ridge State Park

Parking on West Carolista Street, off NC 12, Nags Head, NC. Hours- 8 AM to 9PM, June through August; 8 AM to 8PM, April, May, and September.

Jockey's Ridge State Park
PO Box 592
Nags Head, NC 27959


400-acres. Largest natural, living sand dune on the east coast at about 140 feet in height. Self-guiding Nature Trail open year-round. Nature programs during the summer. Very popular spot for hang-gliding, kite flying and sunset watching. Visitor center, picnic facilities, restrooms.

Roanoke Island

Some folks have the mistaken impression that the first British Colony in the New World was in Virginia, and while the area was originally called Virginia, it is definitely in North Carolina. Roanoke was the site of the first attempts by the British to gain a foothold in the New World, but the fate of the settlers who were left here is in question. They weren't there when the relief from England came back to re-supply them, although it is suspected that they moved to an Indian settlement called Croatan on nearby Hatteras Island and possibly mixed with local native peoples.

Fort Raleigh Historic Site

Off US 64 in Manteo, NC. Open year-round. 252-473-3493. Park service web site has site info and history.


The site where Sir Walter Raleigh's settlers first established settlements in the New World in 1585. Visitor Center, interpretive programs, nature trail. Free.

Elizabethan Gardens at Fort Raleigh

At Fort Raleigh, US 64 in Manteo, NC. Open mid-March through November. Admission fee. 252-473-3234.

The Garden Club of NC has created a beautiful 16th Century garden as a memorial to the early colonists. Flower-bordered walkways, garden statuary, wildflower area and gazebo highlight this area.

North Carolina Aquarium/Roanoke Island

Currently closed for remodeling. Grand Re-opening Spring 2000. Other NC Aquariums are located in Atlantic Beach, NC and at Fort Fisher at Kure Beach, NC.

Off US 64, on Airport Rd. 3 miles north ofManteo, NC.


One of three NC aquariums. The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is situated on 14 acres of property overlooking the Croatan Sound. The 68,000-square-foot building houses aquariums ranging from 300 gallons to 285,00 gallons, two touch tanks, interactive exhibits, classrooms, meeting rooms, research space, a large auditorium and a gift shop. Outside is a nature trail, shoreline boardwalk with observation decks and mounted telescopes, and an excavation area where visitors can dig for fossilized shark's teeth.


Cape Hatteras National Seashore

Cape Hatteras National Park National Park Service
Rt. 1, P.O. Box 675
Manteo, NC 27954 Call (252) 473-2111

and Map of Nat. Seashore and Outer Banks from Southern Shore to Ocracoke.

National Seashore covers 70 miles of barrier island for a total of 30,000 acres, from just south of Nags Head to, and including Ocracoke Island. Camping, fishing, surfing, wind surfing, nature, sight-seeing and history are highlights. Open year-round. Free. Limited facilities.

National Park Camping-

There are four campgrounds in the park - Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, Frisco, and Ocracoke. All are open during the summer season; contact the park for opening and closing dates. Ocracoke campsites may be reserved through Biospherics in June, July, and August. All other campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Camping fees are charged. Camping is allowed only in designated campgrounds. All campgrounds have cold showers, drinking water, tables, fire grills, and modern restrooms. No utility hookups are provided. Dumping stations are located near Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, and Ocracoke campgrounds. Sand and wind conditions require longer-than-normal tent stakes. Shade awnings and netting for insect protection will make camping more enjoyable.

Bodie Island Lighthouse

near Oregon Inlet off NC 12, south of Nags Head, NC. Open year-round. Free.
Bodie Island Visitor Center -252-441-5711.


150 ft. lighthouse is not open for climbing, but has a visitor center with a life saving museum, open May to September.

Self-guiding nature trail through marsh environment offers opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially birds.

Bodie Island Marshes

Parking off Hwy 12 for bird watchers. Free. Bodie Island Visitor Center -252-441-5711.

Many species of migrant birds over-winter here, including Tundra Swans and many ducks and geese. Egrets, herons, glossy ibis and wading birds from spring through fall. National Park Service regulates hunting during season.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe. Information and headquarters on Hwy. 12, 7 miles south of inlet. Free.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
PO Box 150
Rodanthe, NC 27968


6,000 acre refuge is home to many birds throughout the year, but fall and winter are the most popular viewing times as many species of migratory waterfowl over winter here. Observation platforms, hiking trails, programs offered during summer months.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Off NC 12, Buxton, NC. 252-995-4474.


The tallest (208'), and probably most widely recognized brick lighthouse on the east coast of the US.

Buxton Woods/Cape Hatteras

Access from the Lighthouse area.

The area around the site of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is called Buxton Woods and Jennette Sedge, a maritime forest ecosystem with fresh water marshes that are home to a variety of wildlife and plants. There is a short nature trail with a trail head near where the Lighthouse was standing.

Cape Point is regarded by mariners as some of the roughest waters on the east coast, and by fishermen as some of the best fishing. The area is also popular with surfers, but can be treacherous for swimmers.

The National Park Service operates a campground here.

Frisco Native American Museum and Natural History Center

just off Hwy. 12 in Frisco, NC. Open: Year round, 11AM - 5PM, Tuesday thru Sunday. Admission by donation.

Frisco Native American Museum & Natural History Center
P O Box 399
Frisco, NC 27936


Authentic artifacts and unusual displays. Self-guided nature trails, exhibits and picnic area.

The colonists at the Roanoke Colony had good relations with the Hatteras Indians according to the records that exist. They were instructed to leave a message for their relief coming from England if they left the site of their colony and when the English sailors finally did return they found the word "CROATAN" carved on a house post at the ruined and deserted fort. It has been supposed that the colonists left their fort to go stay with the Indians in their village of Croatan, near Frisco.

Ocracoke Island

14 miles of undeveloped beaches with picturesque fishing village at the western end of the island. Restaurants, accommodations and shopping. Accessible only by ferry, or by air. Frequent hiding place of Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard, the pirate, slain here in 1718. Ocracoke Lighthouse, built in 1823 is oldest lighthouse still operating in NC. National Park Service operates a visitor center May through September. 252-928-4531.

The island also features large expanses of maritime forests and marsh environments, though few trails exist. Formerly wild horses descended from Spanish stock are housed in a pen on the island. There is camping in a NPS campground near the beach.

Cape Lookout National Seashore

Visitor Center at Harkers Island, NC maintains current list of ferry operators.
Visitor center hours are 8 am - 4:30 pm daily.

Cape Lookout Nat. Seashore Headquarters
131 Charles St.
Harkers Island, NC 28531


Low profile sand, thinly vegetated and undeveloped Islands. Access only by boat. An International Biosphere Reserve- for research and conservation purposes. No roads or water supply. No residents. Miles of beach and marsh, fishing, bird watching, shelling.

Fortunately for us there are still some places that are almost completely undeveloped and will remain that way. Cape Lookout offers the largest expanse of primal Barrier Island ecology available on the east coast.

There are a number of ferries offering shuttle service to the seashore from Ocracoke Island and Harker's Island near Beaufort, NC.

Portsmouth Island and Village

30 mile long island across the inlet from Ocracoke. 4 wheel drive vehicle access only. Ferry from Ocracoke.

During 18th Century, Portsmouth was a major port-of-call for all NC shipping. Boats were "lightered", or cargo transferred to shallower draft for cross sound trips. Portsmouth and Ocracoke were seized by the British in War of 1812 in an effort to disrupt commerce.

A storm carved Hatteras and Oregon Inlets in 1846 and shortly after, Ocracoke Inlet shoaled up. The last residents left Portsmouth in1971, leaving a ghost town that is on the National Register of Historic Places. No facilities or concessions. Camping allowed. Bring everything, especially insect repellent. Great shelling. Fishing.

Core Banks (North and South) Cape Lookout Lighthouse is a popular destination on South Core.

There are a number of ferries offering shuttle service to the seashore from Harker's Island near Beaufort, NC.

Shackleford Banks

Once home to 600 people, Diamond City and Wade's Shore on the west side of the island were important whaling towns. Beginning in the 1890's, a series of hurricanes struck the island destroying homes and maritime forests. Wild horses remain in their wildest and most uninhibited state as the only full-time residents. The maritime forest is still recovering.

Ferry to NW and near Beaufort Inlet. Bring everything. Water pump and restrooms near the ferry landing. Additional restrictions: All wildlife and vegetation is protected. Stay out of posted areas. Fires only below the high water mark. Walk only at the lowest part of the dunes. Shelling is limited to 2 gallons of uninhabited shells/day. No metal detectors. Carry trash out.

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