Southeast

Of Wind and Water – North Carolina’s Outer Banks

From Towering Dunes to Crashing Surf, North Carolina’s Outer Banks Provides RVers a Scenic Seaside Experience.

The Outer Banks islands lie just beyond North Carolina’s eastern shore, sheltering the mainland like a fragile, broken finger. An ever-changing landscape carved by water and wind, this chain of small barrier islands has stood the test of time. Today it remains an enormously popular destination that seduces visitors with the lure of sand, surf and staggering natural beauty.

Jutting high against the wide sky, the big dune at Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a work in progress – the tallest natural sand dune on the East Coast, constantly shifting and sculpted by strong, battering winds.

But from its highest ridge —about 100 feet in the air—it is a marvel, a towering natural overlook that lends a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean to the east, Roanoke Sound to the west. It’s an important perspective in understanding the North Carolina Outer Banks — a delicate thread of land, only a few miles wide at some points, with a big appeal.

NC lighthouseFor such a long, lean landmass; this place boasts an abundance of attractions, from historical sites and national monuments to famous lighthouses and a sprawling national seashore. Today, the Outer Banks is a pleasant collision of the natural world — wildlife refuges and a wind-swept coastline — and the commercial scene, with restaurants, shopping and lively recreational opportunities.

The Outer Banks chain actually encompasses five distinctive areas: northern beach towns, including Corolla and Duck; central beach towns, such as Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head; Hatteras Island, Roanoke Island and Ocracoke Island.

RVers will find different flavors of attractions in all areas, and decent camping in most. But access to northernmost beach towns, with their narrow, two-lane roads, can become a problem, particularly during summer months and busy weekends, when traffic jams are the norm.

“Oh don’t even bother going north,” laughed Susan Wiggett, of Vermont, who was visiting the Outer Banks this spring with her husband in their Class C motorhome.

“It feels like every square inch of land has been developed and it’s very congested — you can’t even see the ocean,” she advised.

Ah, but head south and it’s a different story.

State Route 12 runs the length of the barrier islands, paralleling ocean beaches and forming an escape route from the commercial noise and congestion commonly found to the north.

By the time you leave Nags Head, housing thins out, the landscape opens and a national seashore beckons. Little wonder RVers like the Wiggetts find more contentment — and camping options — on the southern two-thirds of the barrier chain.

“We’ve never been here before, but wound up staying ocean-side in the Cape Hatteras KOA in Rodanthe, and have no complaints,” Bruce Wiggett said. “The scenery has been great.”

“Basically, we really love RVing. It’s just a great way to get out there and see the country,” he added.

Getting there is Half the Fun

No matter where you’re coming from, you’ll likely take one of the three approaches to the Outer Banks.

From the north, follow U.S. 158 East, which merges into State Route 12 just north of Kitty Hawk, a busy point during summer months. From the west, take U.S. 64 east to Roanoke Island and continue to the outermost islands, landing just south of Nags Head.

Wright brothers planeFor a more scenic, unhurried trip, try a trip across the water. Two toll ferries usher you from the mainland to Ocracoke Island. One departs Swan Quarter and can be reached via U.S. 264; the other leaves Cedar Island and is reached by following U.S. 70. Both trips take a little over two hours. From Ocracoke Island, catch the free ferry over to Hatteras Island, a relaxing ride. Bring some breadcrumbs to feed the gulls off the back of the boat.

The North Carolina Ferry system can handle vehicles or combinations of vehicles up to 65 feet long, and we noted several larger motorhomes navigating the ferry with ease. Fares vary based on total length: rigs from 20 to 40 feet and motorhomes or trailers 40 to 65 fee long.

Once you reach the Outer Banks, State Route 12 is your lifeline — a well-maintained stretch of highway that rambles the entire length of the barrier islands, including a heart-swelling section at the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge with some of the finest views you’ll see among any of the islands. Experienced visitors know to watch your speed limit, as the highway is regularly patrolled.

Take time to enjoy your trip over to the barrier islands, a landscape that gently morphs from serene farmland and small-town produce stands to salt marshes, wetlands and, finally, the sprawling waters of Pamlico and Roanoke Sounds.

Arriving on U.S. 64, you’ll cross Roanoke Island — a destination in itself, and considered the day trip capital of the Outer Banks, since it hosts four of the region’s most popular attractions. Here, the past feels tangible at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, once home to Sir Walter Raleigh’s pioneering colonists. Today, visitors can learn more about the colony, and its mysterious demise, by attending “The Lost Colony,” a symphonic outdoor drama, which runs June through mid-August.

Roanoke Island is also home to the popular Elizabethan Gardens, the North Carolina Aquarium and Roanoke Festival Park, where daily programs are offered aboard a 16th century-style sailing ship and history becomes fun in the interactive Roanoke Adventure Museum.

Make note of the Roanoke Island attractions and make the time to double back to sample a few, many make terrific stops for a rainy day or just a dramatic change of pace.

Once you reach Route 12, it’s time to make a choice. Need groceries, provisions, souvenirs or a decent coffeehouse? Head north. Anxious to find a campsite, stick your toes in the sand and settle back to enjoy some seaside scenery? Head south. The northern end of the Outer Banks is the most populated and, frankly, the most commercial. Through public access points (look for blue and white signs), you can always make your way to the beach, but it will likely be lined with towering beach houses and packed with people — especially on a warm day.

Turn right at South Nags Head, and it’s a different world. You’ll quickly find yourself passing through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, a pristine merger of beach, sand dunes, marshes, and woodland that continues 70 miles south toward Ocracoke Inlet.

Be sure to stop at the Whalebone Junction Information Center to pick up excellent maps and detailed information on the national seashore.

From North to South

Corolla is the northernmost town on the Outer Banks — the most upscale, touristy spot on the islands. The paved road literally ends here, unless you own (or rent) a four-wheel-drive vehicle, in which case you can drive even further north right onto the beach.

To those unaccustomed to beach driving, it’s a peculiar sight. Hundreds of tire tracks make the shoreline look like a deep, rutted highway. But for surf anglers, it’s a chance to drive right to your sport. And if you get lucky, you might see the remnants of wild horse herds that once thrived here — though today’s wandering ponies are said to be elusive.

The beach drive ambles on for about 13 miles, until a gate marking the Virginia line stops you.

Frankly, we found the drive to be over-rated. There’s one way in and one way out, and trust us — big rigs do not want to tackle the tight turnaround in Corolla at road’s end. And be aware that weekend traffic is extreme during summer months.

Far more fun was a stop at Currituck Beach Lighthouse, located in the Currituck Heritage Park. You can climb to the top of the 158-foot-tall lighthouse for stunning panoramic views of both sound and sea. Or stroll the nearby boardwalk and check out the historic Whalehead Club. It’s a park-like setting rich in charm, history and natural splendor.

Campgrounds this far north are few and far between, often unglamorously wedged amid high-end property developments, as if an afterthought. Our advice? Keep heading south.

Do make time to stop at the Wright Brothers National Memorial atop Big Kill Devil Hill. You can stretch your legs with an uphill hike to the 60-foot monument that honors the pioneering Wright Brothers – a windy spot, this home to the first powered flight in history.

You can also study replicas of the Wright’s famed plane, or learn much more about their story at a centrally located visitor center. And there’s ample parking for the largest diesel pusher.

For even more impressive sand formations, continue the push south to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, a true treasure and an excellent destination for day hikes, picnics and hang-gliding. The park can be found just off State Route 12 in the heart of Nags Head — look up, you can’t miss it.

The park’s crown jewel is a 100-foot-high sand dune, a great place to hike, fly a kite, drink in spectacular views of sea and sound, or just enjoy a moment of quiet solitude. (Visitors with disabilities can even get a ride to the top of the dune from park staff.)

Jockey’s Ridge is a great place to try your hand at hang gliding (you must register at the park office), sand sledding or simply pause to watch a sunset. Self-guided hiking trails knit throughout the park.

“Remember to wear your shoes when walking up the dune,” advised a park ranger. “This is a desert environment. Sand temperatures can be warmer than the air temperature, and you can count on encountering sand spurs out here.”

Meeting of land and sea

Barrier islands have a rough job, absorbing the force of pounding surf, surging winds and even the occasional hurricane. And few places illustrate their resiliency better than the unspoiled beauty of Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Here, land and sea have struck an uneasy truce, each impacted by the other. It is a lovely, sometimes lonely setting, with pristine, wind-swept beaches, gnarled trees shaped by sharp, salty breezes, ever-shifting sand dunes, quiet salt marshes and coastal woodlands.

NC beach housesHeading south, take a quick detour to visit the Bodie Island Lighthouse. With fat horizontal stripes, it is a distinctive sentinel. Pronounced “bawdie,” the lighthouse creates a great photo opportunity; make time to take a nature walk through the open surrounding marshlands.

Though not open for climbing, the keeper’s quarters at the lighthouse have been restored as a visitor’s center and bookstore.

Cross the impressive arching span of the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge and you’ll reach the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Birders will want to check out the observation platforms, which permit you to spy on egrets, herons, glossy ibis and snow geese, among an explosion of other bird life.

The 6,000-acre refuge is an Eastern haven for more than 360 species of birds. You can stop at the refuge visitor’s center, about five miles south of Oregon Inlet, attend one of the excellent public interpretive programs offered weekly during summer and fall months, or pay to take a guided canoe tour. (For information, go to www.fws.gov/peaisland)

Camping options quickly open up this far south, with both private and public campgrounds. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore hosts four campgrounds: Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, Frisco and Ocracoke. All are open during the summer season, and all but Ocracoke are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Ocracoke campsites may be reserved June through August by calling (800) 365-2267.

All campgrounds in the national seashore have cold showers, drinking water, tables, fire grills, and modern restrooms, but no campsite hook-ups. Dump stations are located nearby, and rangers recommend bringing shade awnings and net tents for insect protection during warm months. As you roll southward, you’ll pass through a string of small towns — Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton and Frisco. Many host private campgrounds, ranging from sandy, and bare-bones sites with no shade to more luxurious locations with sunrise views of the Atlantic or sunset views of Pamlico Sound.

Just north of Buxton, keep your eyes toward the sound. Windsurfers and kite boarders gather at Canadian Hole, where conditions are said to be ideal for wind-born water recreation. Local surf shops can outfit you to try your hand at the sports, and lessons are available. But it’s fun to just sit on the warm sand and watch.

Don't ForgetBuxton is also the place to visit the biggest, most popular of all Outer Banks lighthouses, the famed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. With its familiar black-and-white spiral-striped swirl, the beloved lighthouse — known as “America’s Lighthouse” — is the nation’s tallest, at 508-feet.

Learn the fascinating details about how this massive sentinel was actually recently relocated to protect it from coastal erosion. The lighthouse is open to climb from mid-April through Columbus Day.

This end of the island also hosts some decent museums. The Frisco Native American Museum and Natural History Center showcases artifacts and information on the first people to inhabit these islands, and offers nature trails that meander through a lush maritime forest — a good diversion on a warm day.

At the end of State Route 12 in Hatteras Village, next to the ferry landing, you can learn about the history of seagoing dangers in these waters at The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. There are more than 1,500 known shipwrecks that rest off the Outer Banks. It offers a curious, yet intriguing collection.

It’s also a good stopover if you’re waiting to catch the free ferry to Ocracoke Island — a ride worth your time. On the trip over, look for small structures on stilts scattered across the shallow Pamlico Sound.

“They look like Tiki huts, but they’re actually duck blinds,” a ferry operator told us. “This is a very popular area for hunting waterfowl.”

The Little Island that Could

For some, Ocracoke Island may seem like the caboose to the Outer Banks — a small, 14-mile stub of an island isolated from the rest of the world, reached only by ferry.

But others see that isolation as strength. They consider this the ultimate Outer Banks destination: unspoiled by development; miles of quiet ocean shoreline; a small village as original and colorful as its inhabitants. (Be sure and listen for the distinctive Ocracoke brogue, where words like “high tide” become “hoi toide.”) All of these ingredients conspire to make Ocracoke a charming, don’t-miss destination.

RV at NC ferry

Once you disembark from the Hatteras Island Ferry, again pick up State Route 12 and head toward the far end of the island, toward Ocracoke Village — a great place to grab a cold brew and crab cake sandwich.

On the way, look to the right for the Ocracoke Pony Pens, where raised observation decks provide decent views of remnant wild horse herds that historians believe may have grazed on salt grass here for some 400 years.

Directly across the highway is parking for easy beach access — in fact, some of the best, uncluttered, flat shoreline for strolling that we found throughout the Outer Banks.

The entire island is owned by the National Park Service — except for the village itself — so heed posted beach access rules.

Spin on into town, veering to the right. Be aware that streets are narrow, two-lane affairs. Ample parking — and a boat ramp — is available at the road’s end in the National Park Service parking lot, conveniently located next to a visitor center.

Look across Silver Lake Harbor for a striking view of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, the oldest beacon still operating in North Carolina, and a fitting place to catch a sunset at your journey’s end.

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