Authorized in 1937 as America’s first national seashore (though not established until 1953), Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX) region protects a 70-mile stretch of coastline consisting of long, narrow, windswept barrier islands with unspoiled beaches, tidal marshes, picturesque lighthouses, and other attractions, including a national wildlife refuge.
More than two million people a year visit Cape Hatteras National Seashore to enjoy the outstanding scenery, diverse recreation opportunities, and unusual historic sites. While even motorists confined to a no-time-to-stop schedule can find much to praise in the windshield touring and inter-island ferry boat rides, this place handsomely rewards visitors who can spend more time, stop more often, and sample more widely of its many delights. The spectrum of recreational choices includes nature walks, seaside camping, boating, kayaking, fishing, swimming, windsurfing, bird watching, shrimping, shelling, kite flying, visiting historic sites (including a lighthouse you can climb), some of the best stargazing and surfing on the Atlantic Coast, and even sport hunting.
Cape Hatteras is a big, diverse place with significant environmental hazards, some visitor regulations unique to the Seashore, and other features unfamiliar to most visitors. You can help to minimize your problems and maximize your fun by doing some homework before you go to the Seashore.
• Go to the Seashore’s website, download a copy of the park map, and explore its principal features. The map shows that the Seashore consists of interlinked islands, and that a trip through it basically is a drive (with a ferry connection) along North Carolina Highway 12 with the ocean beach on one side of you and Pamlico Sound and its salt marshes on the other.
• If your plans include beach use or active outdoor recreation activities of any kind, download the current Superintendent’s Compendium. Reading the relevant portions will acquaint you with visitor rules specific to this Seashore and the activities that interest you. It’s a good idea to remember that the Seashore’s managers take resource protection and visitor safety very seriously.
• If you will be visiting the Seashore anytime between Easter weekend and mid-October, make your lodging reservations early. If you wait too long you stand a good chance of being disappointed with the choices and prices, especially during the summer peak. In 2009, the Seashore had a little over one million visitors – roughly half the annual visitation -- during June-July-August alone.
• Commercial campgrounds with full hookups and the usual amenities are readily available in the Seashore vicinity, but you’d be wise to make your reservations early. If you plan to stay at the Seashore’s Cape Point campground, or if you need a group campsite in the Seashore, be sure to make a reservation. Cape Point is the only NPS campground in the Seashore that has reservable sites. Group camping (7 to 30 people) is available by reservation only at Oregon Inlet Campground. For more information about campsite reservations within the Seashore, visit this site.
• If you plan to enter or exit the Seashore at its southern extremity (Ocracoke), be sure to make advance reservations for ferry service across Pamlico Sound. Two ferries connect Ocracoke Village with the mainland. One runs to Cedar Island and the other to Swan Quarter. To find the schedules and reservation information pertinent to the Cedar Island ferry and the Swan Quarter ferry, phone 1-800-293-3779 or visit this site and click on Ferry Schedules. (Don’t forget to adjust your lodging reservations accordingly, remembering that hotels on Ocracoke tend to be expensive and are often fully booked. Be warned that the only motel at Cedar Island is overpriced and badly in need of major renovation.)
• As the time of your visit approaches, pay close attention to weather forecasts for the Outer Banks. This is a relentlessly windy place with fickle, rapidly changeable weather. It’s notorious for its powerful storms too, including occasional hurricanes (especially from mid-August through September) and nor’easters. You’ll want to take into account any weather conditions that might adversely impact your recreational activities or pose a threat to your safety. Strong winds are commonplace throughout the year, even on sunny days, and summers bring high heat and humidity.
Visiting the Seashore
** Seaside camping is a delight at Cape Hatteras, but remember that camping within the Seashore is allowed only at designated campgrounds. There are National Park Service campgrounds at Oregon Inlet, Frisco, Ocracoke, and Cape Point. The first three are generally open from Easter weekend through Columbus Day, and the Cape Point Campground is generally open Memorial Day through Labor Day. As explained above, the only reservable NPS campsites are the ones at the Ocracoke Campground and the group sites at Oregon Inlet. Visit this site for more camping information.
** Stop at the visitor centers. In addition to the Whalebone Junction Information Station on Highway 12 at the north entrance, the NPS maintains visitor centers on Bodie, Ocracoke, and Hatteras Islands. All three visitor centers are open year-round -- from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., mid-June through Labor Day, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. the rest of the year. (A fourth visitor center, one at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, is maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
The Bodie Island Visitor Center, which is located about six miles south of the Seashore’s north entrance, is ensconced in the historic Bodie Island Lighthouse Double Keepers' Quarters building and has exhibits on Bodie Island Lighthouse history. Nearby are the 156-ft Bodie Island Lighthouse and a pond with a wildlife observation deck.
Located in Buxton about 50 miles south of the north entrance, the Hatteras Island Visitor Center and Museum of the Sea has exhibits and other attractions, most notably a two-story museum located in the historic Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Double Keepers' Quarters. There is beach access and a nice nature trail nearby, but these amenities are overshadowed by another adjacent attraction, the world-famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse – about which, more later.
The Ocracoke Island Visitor Center is located in picturesque Ocracoke Village at the southern end of NC Highway12 where the highway enters the ferry terminal. This small, nondescript building is a good place to get Seashore information, but contains little more than a bookstore and some exhibits on Ocracoke history. The Ocracoke Lighthouse is visible across the Ocracoke harbor, which bears the unusual name of Silver Lake.
** Take advantage of the ranger programs. All three of the visitor centers offer ranger programs during the summer months. The Hatteras Island Visitor Center has some at other times as well. You’ll need to inquire about programs that may be offered during your visit.
** Get out of your vehicle and walk. If you prefer nature trails, they’re available at the Ocracoke Campground and near the Bodie Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Hatteras Island Visitor Centers.
** Weather permitting, simple leisurely beach activities are loads of fun at this Seashore. Many people just take a rejuvenating stroll on the sandy beach, sometimes finding that they have it virtually all to themselves. Other relaxing activities, like bird watching, kite flying, shelling (empty shells only), and beachcombing are popular with people of all ages.
The birding and shelling are excellent at Cape Hatteras. If you’re interested in these activities, you can get relevant, timely information at the visitor centers. In any event, you’ll get more out of these activities if you bring a birding guide and a shelling handbook along with you.
** Swimming can be very enjoyable at this Seashore, which has some of the continent’s finest beaches. (The Ocracoke and Hatteras Island beaches in particular perennially rank in the topmost quality tier.) You do need to remember that chilly water, impressive waves, and unseen rip currents can make swimming much more hazardous than most visitors realize. For ocean swimming safety tips, visit this site. Use the lifeguarded beaches if you can. The Park Service generally operates lifeguarded beaches during the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day) at Coquina Beach on Bodie Island, at Cape Hatteras Beach (near the old lighthouse site), and at Ocracoke Lifeguarded Beach.
Red warning flags are posted at lifeguarded beaches when swimming conditions are hazardous. Since the lack of red warning flags is no guarantee that swimming is safe, exercise due caution no matter where you swim at this Seashore.
** The USFWS-administered Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, which sports a visitor center, nature trail, and related visitor facilities, preserves nearly 6,000 acres of interlinked tidal marsh, beach, and barrier island ecosystems that offer excellent sightseeing, wildlife watching, and other nature appreciation activities for casual visitors as well as outstanding birding and nature photography for special interest visitors. You’ll have to drive through the refuge anyway, so why not stop and enjoy it?
Birding is a year-round activity in the Seashore, and the wildlife refuge is one of the very best places to enjoy it. The spring and fall seasons are excellent times to view shorebirds, hawks, and songbirds, while terns and herons are abundant in the summer and ducks and geese are common during the winter. Bring a birding guide.
** Many visitors enjoy paddling in the Seashore’s quieter waters. If you don’t have your own kayak or canoe to bring along, commercial rentals are available locally. If you do plan to go kayaking or canoeing, be extra-careful checking the weather before your trip, and never forget the hazard posed by tricky currents, especially in the inlets.
** Visit the Seashore’s three historic lighthouses. The recently refurbished Ocracoke Island Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse in North Carolina. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, which is currently being restored, is the third lighthouse to be located at its site on the southern end of Bodie Island. The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse – the Seashore’s signature landmark – is the tallest lighthouse in America and one of the tallest brick structures in the world. The Park Service had to move it a quarter-mile inland some years ago to save it from beach erosion. Today it is the best known of the Seashore’s lighthouses, and also the only one that visitors are allowed to climb.
If you think you’re up to the task, which is considered strenuous, climb the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. It’s open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day. (This year that means April 16 through October 11.) Climbing hours this year are 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily in the spring and fall, and 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily from May 28 through Labor Day (September 6). The lighthouse will remain open through Columbus Day, Monday, October 11 (check for hours). Tickets are required.
** Don’t forget the other historic sites. The lighthouses may get the lion’s share of the publicity, but some of the Seashore’s other historic structures are outstanding by any standard. The Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station, for example, has fascinating exhibits on lifesaving history as well as living history lifesaving demonstrations (check for scheduled times).
Since 2007, the Hatteras Island Visitor Center has been ensconced in the restored Hatteras Weather Station, a U.S. Weather Bureau Station that was built in 1901 as one of only 11 such stations around the country. If you stop at the visitor center on Hatteras Island, be sure to take special note of this historic treasure, which is now one of only three remaining stations nationwide.
** Enjoy the night sky. Unlike locales in or close to large urban centers, the Seashore has skies that are dark enough for stargazing that can be surprisingly good on clear nights. If you've got a telescope, be sure to bring it.
The sparkle on the beach isn’t necessarily confined to the night skies. The beach sand may sparkle too if you kick it or stir it. When you do that, you disturb tiny dinoflagellates and there is a chemical reaction that causes them to glow with a blue-green light.
** Fishing and boating are hugely popular at the Seashore. Many different types of fish can be taken from the surf and piers, or from boats in inlets, Pamlico Sound, freshwater ponds, and even in the Gulf Stream. Visitors who don’t choose to go out on your own can use the services of concessionaires, including those at the Avon pier and the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center (which offers offshore fishing, including Gulf Stream billfishing, in season). Spring and fall are the best times to fish. By the middle of summer, the fishing is best offshore. Winter fishing can be productive, but the weather is harsh and sometimes dangerous. Only hardy souls fish in January and February.
** If you are into surfing, windsurfing, or kite boarding, you probably already know about the prime opportunities here (though you may not know that booties are needed to protect your feet from the broken shells littering the bottom of Pamlico Sound). The winds that sweep across Pamlico Sound on the back side of the barrier islands offer excellent windsurfing and kite boarding, two activities that can be expected to attract lots of onlookers. Many windsurfers and kite boarders use the Salvo Day Use and Haulover Day Use Areas on Hatteras Island (rentals are available), especially when the winds are from the northeast winds at 10 mph or better. On the ocean side of the barrier islands, the surf is so big – typically larger than anywhere else on the Atlantic Coast – surfers have called it “Hawaii East.”
When hurricanes or nor’easters threaten, some adventuresome surfers can be relied on to head to the shore, don their wetsuits, and take on waves and water conditions that are downright dangerous.
** It’s legal to drive ORVs on about 30 miles of the ocean beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and many fishermen, surfers, swimmers, and other recreationists rely on beach driving to conveniently access their favorite sites without having to haul gear, food, and other necessities long distances on foot. Whether driving on the beach for this or any other reason, ORVers must know the beach driving regulations and follow them scrupulously. Current regulations are spelled out at the park website and in the Superintendent’s Compendium. In general, vehicles are permitted on ocean beaches at Cape Hatteras National Seashore, where authorized, from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 pm during the period encompassing 1 May to 15 September. Driving on ocean beaches at night (10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) is permitted only from 16 September to 15 November and requires a Night driving Permit. At all times, beach drivers must use the designated ORV ramps to cross the dunes and access the beach.
The National Park Service closes certain stretches of the ocean beach on a seasonal basis to protect nesting shorebirds and sea turtles. This practice is loudly criticized by beach driving recreationists, who feel that the policy unfairly penalizes them, and by local businesses, who suffer a hit in the pocketbook when some tourists stay away because they can’t drive ORVs to their favorite sites on the beach. A draft environmental impact statement on ORV use at the Seashore is currently in preparation.
** You can ride your horse on the beach, too. You’ll need to follow the applicable rules, which are pretty generous. You may ride your horse anywhere that vehicles are permitted to drive, except in the NPS campgrounds. Riders must use the ORV ramps when crossing dunes.
** Though it comes as a surprise to many people, sport hunting for waterfowl is permitted in certain areas of the Seashore (not including the wildlife refuge). If you are interested in this seasonal activity, which is strictly regulated by state and federal laws, visit this site for additional information.
** Wreck diving is another Cape Hatteras attraction, albeit a very narrowly defined one. Storms, shoals, tricky currents, and other hazards have made the waters off Cape Hatteras some of the most dangerous navigable waters in the world. There are hundreds of wrecks out there, so it’s not for nothing that Cape Hatteras has been dubbed “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Cape Hatteras is now considered one of the best places in the world for diving on wrecks. It’s a dangerous sport with more than its share of fatalities. Even many experienced divers won’t mess with it unless, like test pilots and astronauts, they know they have “the right stuff.”
Postscript: Ocracoke Inlet was the favorite anchorage of the notorious pirate Blackbeard (Edward Teach). Blackbeard was finally killed in a battle near there on November 22, 1718. His decapitated body was thrown overboard at the inlet and his severed head, which was hung from the bowsprit of the victor’s ship, was turned in to claim the hefty rewards.