Little-Known Fact: Okracoke Island, on the south end of the Cape Hatteras Beach Trail, was where Blackbeard the pirate met his demise.
There’s no finer way to get to know the seashore, short of living there, than to backpack its beaches. The 75-mile Cape Hatteras Beach Trail on North Carolina’s Outer Banks National Seashore is about the best place in the country to make this coastal connection.
The barrier islands that make up the cape and skinny little strips of land—some are barely more than overgrown sandbars—constantly change. The shore erodes in one place but builds up elsewhere. An inlet closes and two islands become one. The sea and the wind rule here, not humans, despite the dredging and jetty building. The 600 shipwrecks that have occurred off the islands’ shores make it obvious why this place is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
On this April day, however, all is calm, peaceful, and warm. My path often leads down to the water, where the sand is compacted and walking is easy at low tide. The beaches are nearly deserted, except for large, perfect whelk shells and piles of colorful “beach gravel” scattered across the sand. I take breaks on these gravel mounds, picking up too many sea-smoothed bits of shell that make my pack heavier as the days pass.
There are lighthouses to investigate, including the tallest on the East Coast built from one million bricks boated over from the mainland. During the summer, national seashore personnel re-enact old-time rescues at the historic life-saving stations.
Although most of the hike follows the beach, there is enough deviation to keep it varied and interesting. I meander through a piney maritime forest, walk along the Pamlico Sound, cross a dramatic three-mile bridge linking one island to the next, and ride a free ferry to Ocracoke, my last island.
Most of the days are clear, with full-moon nights and lots of privacy. This is a place to build sand sculptures, watch sand pipers run from the waves, and fall in love with beachpacking. At this time of year, the sun never feels hot and the bugs are almost nonexistent. In the six days it takes to cover the trail, only once do I get a taste of the infamous Outer Banks wind and rain. The ferocity of the weather offers a small sample of what occurs here, and leaves me with a huge respect for the people who make these islands their home.