Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
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.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Rt. 1, Box 675
Manteo, NC 27954
Cape Hatteras is off the coast of North Carolina, east of Pamlico Sound. North of Cape Hatteras are the towns of Nags Head, Kittyhawk, and Kill Devil Hills.
Motorists can reach the park from the north via U.S. 17 and 158 or from the west via U.S. 64 and 264. Park headquarters is off U.S. 64/264, three miles north of Manteo at the park sign. The trail begins on NC 12 at Whalebone Junction in Nags Head. The trail is not blazed. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore Ranger Station is located 6 miles south of Whalebone Junction at the Bodie Island lighthouse.
Two toll ferries travel from the mainland to Ocracoke. One leaves from Swanquarter, N.C., which is reached via U.S. 264. The other leaves from Cedar Island, N.C., reached via U.S. 70. Reservations are recommended (800/BY-FERRY). A free ferry links Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.
For hiking, the recommended seasons are spring and fall (April, May, September, and October) when the temperatures are mild and bugs aren’t a nuisance. In summer, temperatures can be in the low 90s with high humidity. In winter, temperatures are usually in the mid-40s; frost is rare. Wind is an everyday occurrence. Just hope you don’t experience the infamous Outer Bankers wind and rain; storms sometimes batter the islands with fierce winds and waves.
Your only companions could be high-jumping porpoises, low-flying pelicans, and giant sea turtles.
A walk around a large freshwater pond will bring you close to the egrets, herons, and other shorebirds who live here year-round. Migrant warblers flow through in a seemingly endless procession during spring and fall. Ponds and marshes are also home to mouth bass, leopard frogs, yellow bellied turtles, and muskrats.
Most of the island’s wildlife live in Buxton’s maritime woods. There you will see white-tailed deer, gray squirrels, and snakes ~ black racers, rough green snakes, and venomous cottonmouths.
The remnant of a horse herd that once roamed free can still be found on Ocracoke Island.
You may also want to visit the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Many species of waterfowl and other birds live in this protected area or stop here during migrations. You can see them from observation platforms or from walking trails.
Contact park office for information.
Flora ranges from beach grass to maritime forest.
Leathery-leaved live and laurel oaks, yaupon holly, and loblolly pines stretch over relic dune ridges. Less rugged species, such as flowering dogwood and American hornbeam, grow in the woodlands. Bright red holly berries and wildflowers provide a touch of color beyond green, brown, and blue.
There are national parks and private campgrounds along the route that are only a short walk from the beach. All camping within the National Seashore must be at a designated site.
- The National Seashore operates four summer locations: Oregon Inlet, Ocracoke, Cape Point, and Frisco. Campgrounds are usually open from Memorial Day through Labor Day; sometimes the season runs longer. Sites include grills, flush toilets, cold showers, tables, and drinking water. Dump stations are located at Oregon Inlet, Cape Point, and Ocracoke.
- For commercial campground information, contact:
- Dare County Tourist Bureau
- Box 399
- Manteo, NC 27954
- 919/473-2138 or 800/446-6262.
The Hatteras Island Visitor Center is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The Ocracoke Visitor Center and Museum contains photos and artifacts of island lifestyles and history. The Ocracoke and Bodie visitor centers are open seasonally.
The park has three concession fishing piers, located in the villages of Rodanthe, Avon, and Frisco. They provide fishing facilities, related gear, and supplies on a fee basis. The Oregon Inlet Fishing Marina also provides charter boat fishing and gear for a fee.
There is a convenience store marina located near Oregon Inlet.
There is lots of parking ~ over 20 sites ~ available on the islands.
No permits are needed.
Contact park office for information.
- Strong currents and shifting sand can make swimming dangerous. Don’t swim near surfers.
- Hurricanes can occur from June through October.
- Make sure to carry plenty of water to avoid heat exhaustion.
- There are no established bike paths in the National Seashore. Highway 12 is a busy roadway with soft sandy shoulders and narrow lanes. Use extreme caution and ride defensively. When bicycling on the highway be careful of strong winds and blowing sand.
- Watch out for sharp objects such as broken seashells, crabs, cactus, and spurs on the beach. Protect your feet from hot sand.
- Sand and wind conditions require longer-than-normal tent stakes.
Leave No Trace:
- Camp only at designated sites.
- Use recycling bins provided at each seashore campground.
- Try not to disturb migrating birds such as the piping plover, whimbrel, red knot, and sanderling.
- All LNT guidelines apply.
A trail brochure is available from Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and there’s excellent information in North Carolina Hiking Trails, by Allen De Hart (Appalachian Mountain Club, 5 Joy St., Boston, MA 02108.)
Other Trip Options:
- Visit Wright Brothers National Memorial (919/441-7430), site of the famous flying attempts, just 9 miles north of Whalebone Junction. A new one mile long bicycle path graces the outskirts of Wright Brothers National Memorial.
- Ft. Raleigh National Historic Site (919/473-5772), 8 miles west of Whalebone Junction, commemorates the “Lost Colony,” the first English attempt to settle the New World in the 1580s.
- Also worth a visit is Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head.
- If you’re a windsurfer, just head north of Buxton to Canadian Hole.
- For more information on the Outer Banks, call the Dare County Tourist Bureau at 800/446-6262.