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Exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

If you’re searching for an escape from everyday life, look no further than the pristine beaches and secluded salt marshes of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Nestled on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, this 13-mile-long stretch of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is home to more than 400 species of wildlife ranging from migratory birds to endangered sea turtles. Whether you’re a local looking for a relaxing place to spend a day away or a visitor to the Outer Banks enjoying a family vacation for the week, taking a trip to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is an activity that should not be missed when visiting North Carolina’s barrier island paradise.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

The roots of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge date back to 1937, when the United States government designated the section of Hatteras Island north of Rodanthe as an important breeding ground for area wildlife. Bordered by Oregon Inlet to the north and sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, Pea Island served as the perfect spot for birds migrating from colder regions to make a series of seasonal stops. The lush salt marshes of the region attracted an assortment of species ranging from ducks and swans to geese and egrets, making it a popular place among waterfowl hunters in the early-20th century, long before the Outer Banks became the bustling vacation destination it is today. When the land was deemed a wildlife refuge, hunting was no longer permitted, and huge congregations of birds began to take up permanent and seasonal residence along the soundside ponds and shallow salt flats.

Richmond Navigator
Photo Credit: Richmond Navigator

Today, visitors can take a trip over the Bonner Bridge from the southern edge of Nags Head to Hatteras Island, where they will be treated to beautiful stretches of unspoiled shorelines and opportunities for a wide array of recreational activities, including birdwatching, surfing, shelling, kayaking and standup paddleboarding. A small visitor center is located on the west side of NC Highway 12, about five miles south of the bridge. Here you’ll find a set of informational kiosks, public restrooms and a gift shop, as well as a staff of volunteers who can direct you to the various spots of the refuge you’d like to visit.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Comprising 5,834 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of water, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a unique vacation destination that can be explored by foot or by sea and sound. Two nature trails wind their way through the refuge: the North Pond Trail and the Salt Flats Trail. Access to the half-mile-long North Pond Trail begins behind the visitor center and takes hikers around a series of ponds where they will witness various types of wildlife up close and personal. A wooden boardwalk allows visitors to cross what is known as “turtle pond,” a body of water full of freshwater turtles that can easily be spotted from the walkway above. This trail also features a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks—all of which contain mounted binoculars and interpretive panels—that give visitors a higher vantage point for viewing area wildlife and scenery.

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Birds soaring over the Oriental, a shipwreck off the coast of Pea Island

The Salt Flats Trail, which is situated at the northern end of North Pond, meanders along the top of the dike that separates North Pond and the Salt Flats area. This trail boasts an off-the-beaten-path type of terrain and is a bit more challenging to travel than the neighboring North Pond Trail. Hikers can expect to see various species of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen species of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook station that gives visitors the chance to see a large cross-section of the soundside portion of the refuge. In the summer months, volunteers provide programs that discuss the various animals and habitats that comprise the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge and are on hand to answer any questions visitors may have about the area.

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Pea Island Lifesaving Station

While the region is most commonly explored by foot, experiencing the refuge by canoe or kayak is an Outer Banks activity unlike any other.  The New Inlet boat ramp provides easy access to the shallow, brackish waters of the Pamlico Sound, where paddlers can put their vessel in the water and embark on a unique journey through the wide canals and salt marshes along the margins of the refuge. As you paddle through the calm waters of the sound, keep your eyes peeled for the hundreds of species of migratory birds and various species of amphibians that thrive within this saltwater habitat.

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Photo Credit: Seaside Vacations Outer Banks

Although both nature trails and the majority of wildlife are found on the sound side of the refuge, visitors to the Outer Banks shouldn’t skip a trip to the wide, natural beaches bordered by towering sand dunes on the eastern edge of the park. Stroll the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean and search for the assortment of incredible shells that wash up on these secluded stretches of sand, and be sure to keep a lookout beyond the breakers for pods of dolphins that can be found dancing in the surf. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is also known for attracting several species of sea turtles to its undeveloped and unpopulated shores. While loggerhead sea turtles are the most commonly found species to venture out of the sea and lay their eggs safely above the high tide line here, a handful of other species—including leatherback, green, Kemp’s Ridley and hawksbill sea turtles—have also been spotted nesting within the confines of the wildlife refuge.

SeaTurtle-Orsulak-520x289 FWS
Photo Credit: FWS.gov

Whether you visit the Outer Banks in the middle of a cold winter or during the dog days of summer, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge—with its hundreds of diverse species and array of recreational opportunities to enjoy—offers something for everyone to enjoy during their time spent on the barrier islands of North Carolina.

The Shifting Sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are home to a wide array of historical attractions and iconic landmarks. From manmade structures such as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to naturally occurring phenomena like the converging currents found at Cape Point, the 200-mile-long string of barrier islands that comprise the Carolina coast attract hundreds of thousands of vacationers each year. Whether you’re an avid adventurer searching for a spot to attempt a one-of-a-kind activity or a wildlife enthusiast who wants to witness a series of native island species up close and personal, the shifting sands of Jockey’s Ridge State Park offer something for everyone in the family.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Photo by Ray Matthews.

Situated along the Roanoke Sound on the western edge of the town of Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge is a natural sand dune that stands 100 feet tall and extends over 420 acres. According to geologists, the dune was formed over the course of several decades, as strong currents from storms that struck the Outer Banks picked up sand from offshore shoals and pushed it onto area beaches. As time went on, gusts of wind grabbed these grains of sand and blew them inland to the sound side of the island, where they settled and slowly grew into an extensive system of sand dunes that stretched along the coast. Although maritime winds continue to blow grains of sand in myriad different directions—changing the size, shape and height of this Outer Banks landmark—Jockey’s Ridge retains its status as the largest living natural sand dune system in the Eastern United States.

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Hang-gliding at Jockey’s Ridge. Photo courtesy of Pinterest.

If you’re traveling along U.S. 158, this enormous mound of sand between sound and sea is impossible to miss. But while many visitors to the Outer Banks are aware the state park exists, few can boast that they have experienced everything the unique sand dune system has to offer to the fullest extent. When most people think of Jockey’s Ridge, the first thought that comes to mind is hang-gliding—and for good reason. Since the mid-20th century, the sand dune has served as a mecca for both experienced hang-gliders and those looking to give a new activity a try. With steady, year-round winds ranging in speed from 10-15 miles per hour, Jockey’s Ridge provides the perfect place to launch a hang-glider and soar through the sky from the top of the dune to a soft and sandy landing spot at the bottom.

Jockey’s Ridge may be best known for offering prime conditions for hang-gliding, but you don’t have to take flight in order to enjoy the many incredible features of this North Carolina state park. One of the most popular ways for visitors to experience the park is by embarking on one of its nature many trails that wind their way through the dunes and along waters of the Roanoke Sound. Hikers will find three main trails ranging in difficulty from easy to moderate and in lengths that range from 360 feet to more than a mile and a half.

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VIews of the Roanoke Sound from Jockey’s Ridge. Photo: WAVY TV.

Pick the Boardwalk Trail located just behind the visitor center for a leisurely stroll that features a series of interpretive displays detailing the different types of plants and animals that can be found within the park’s borders. Choose the self-guided, mile-long Soundside Nature Trail for a more scenic route that takes visitors through a variety of coastal environments, including maritime thickets, grassy dunes, wetlands and the nearby shoreline of the Roanoke Sound. And if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, take a journey along the coveted Tracks in the Sand Trail—a self-guided trail that takes visitors on a 1.5-mile round-trip trek through the sand dune system. Popular among nature enthusiasts, this trail exposes hikers to tracks left by an assortment of animals ranging from deer and foxes to a variety of different species of birds. And if you’re lucky, you might just encounter one of these animals face to face during your excursion along the sandy pathway.

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The Atlantic Ocean from the top of Jockey’s Ridge.

While hang-gliding and hiking are two of the most popular activities to take place in the park, one of the best ways to experience Jockey’s Ridge is climbing to the top of the sand dune to take in spectacular 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Roanoke Sound to the west, as well as the town of the Nags Head below and the town of Manteo on nearby Roanoke Island. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better spot to view a sunrise over the ocean or to watch the sun sink into the calm waters of the sound than the peak of this Outer Banks landmark that has been enjoyed by visitors and locals alike for more than a century. 

Matt Jones
Sunset from the top of Jockey’s Ridge. Photo by Matt Jones.

 

The History of Jennette’s Pier

Whether you’re an angler hoping to snag the catch of the day or you’re a sightseer searching for the perfect spot to snap a photo of a sunrise over the sea, you won’t find a better place to spend the day than one of the many fishing piers situated along the Outer Banks. From Frisco to Kitty Hawk, the Outer Banks is home to eight fishing piers, and while these structures that jut out into the Atlantic Ocean all vary in terms of their age, length and current condition, each has a unique and storied past worth telling. Perhaps the most popular and famous of all Outer Banks fishing piers is Jennette’s Pier, whose history dates back to its original construction in 1939.

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Located within the heart of Whalebone Junction in Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier was initially built to meet the needs of vacationers and fisherman who ventured to the Outer Banks as the region first began to gain popularity among visitors. Recognizing the demand for a prime spot to cast a line far out into the surf, the Jennette family purchased five acres of property along the Nags Head oceanfront and set out to build the very first fishing pier on the Outer Banks.

Pier from endThe old adage “build it and they will come” proved true, and visitors from up and down the East Coast and beyond soon flocked to the newly constructed pier to cast their lines into the Atlantic Ocean. A series of small, bare-bones oceanfront cottages—which had formerly housed U.S. Civil Works Administration employees who spent time on the Outer Banks building a line of protective sand dunes from Corolla to Ocracoke during the Great Depression—were transformed into a camp for fishermen looking for affordable accommodations just a few steps from the fishing pier.  

old pier jennettes

The original wooden pier—built by Virginia Dare Construction and Salvage Corporation—stood 16 feet wide and stretched 754 feet out into the Atlantic Ocean. In an effort to provide anglers with ample space to set their lines and plenty of elbow room for reeling in their catch upon the most coveted spot on the structure, the builders of Jennette’s Pier also included a 28-foot-wide T-shaped section at the end of the pier. One of the original cottages from the fisherman’s camp was moved to the dune line and transformed into a pier house that served as a spot for fishermen to change their clothing, have a cold drink or grab a snack.

For decades, the pier was a prime attraction along the Outer Banks, and fisherman came from far and wide to catch species ranging from flounder and mackerel and red drum to bluefish and striped bass. As more and more fishermen and vacationers visited the pier each year, the demand for additional features grew greater. Throughout the mid-20th century, the Jennettes added a restaurant, tackleshop and arcade to the pier house, providing something for everyone in the family—not just fishing enthusiasts. In 2002, surviving members of the Jennette family sold their interests in the pier to the North Carolina Aquarium Society with the goal of the organization turning the pier and attached pier house into an educational facility.

Pier Sign

Not long after the purchase of the pier was complete, however, Hurricane Isabel—one of the most devastating hurricanes to strike the Outer Banks in over a decade—struck the barrier islands. Strong winds and rough surf slammed against Jennette’s Pier as the Category 2 hurricane edged closer to the coastline and eventually made landfall near Drum Inlet. In addition to cutting a new inlet straight through a portion of Hatteras Village and causing hundreds of oceanfront homes to fall into the Atlantic, Hurricane Isabel sliced more than 540 feet off the end of Jennette’s Pier and forced the pier to close down its operations.

old pier house

The North Carolina Aquarium Society quickly came up with a plan to replace the severely damaged wooden pier with a brand-new concrete structure that could withstand the force of the many hurricanes that frequently target the Outer Banks. A groundbreaking event was held on May 22, 2009, and in May 2011 the new pier was officially opened to the public.

Jennettes Construction

Today, Jennette’s Pier stands on thick, concrete pilings and stretches 1,000 feet into the sea, making it one of the longest fishing piers along the Eastern Seaboard. The pier house also underwent a complete renovation and now houses a retail store, snack bar, event space and tackle shop. The facility also offers a wide array of programs designed to educate visitors about the history of this iconic landmark and features an assortment of live animal exhibits that teach visitors of all ages about the myriad species of marine life that call the barrier islands of the Outer Banks home.

Pier sunrise

Wild Horses of the Outer Banks

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In the northernmost corner of the Outer Banks, a narrow stretch of sand between sound and sea called “Carova” is home to a herd of wild horses who freely roam the region’s beaches. An unincorporated community situated to the north of the village of Corolla and just south of the Virginia line, Carova’s name comes from its unique location on the border of two states: “Caro” for Carolina and “Va” for Virginia.

Although the community contains hundreds of Outer Banks vacation rental homes that require guests to use four-wheel drive in order to gain access, many visitors to this barrier island paradise are unfamiliar with this one-of-a-kind spot that has served as a sanctuary for Currituck County’s wild horses for centuries.

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The origins of these majestic Spanish mustangs can be traced back nearly 500 years to the days when pirates patrolled the coastline of the Outer Banks and shipwrecks within the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic were common. Many theories attempt to explain how exactly these mysterious colonial Spanish mustangs ultimately ended up on the sandy shoreline of the northern Outer Banks, the most popular of which claims they swam to shore from vessels that became shipwrecked in the shallow waters of the sea.

The Diamond Shoals—a constantly shifting collection of sandbars that lie along the coast of North Carolina’s Outer Banks from Carova to Cape Hatteras—lie hidden on the seafloor and have been blamed for hundreds of shipwrecks for hundreds of years. While modern technology has made it much easier for vessels to navigate the moving sandbars and avoid running aground, in centuries past many mariners found themselves shipwrecked when their ships encountered an unseen stretch of sand beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean.

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With the expansion of English colonization that occurred in the late 1500s came a trade boom that resulted in an increased demand for products to be shipped from ports in the West Indies to Europe and the United States. While the most common forms of cargo found on ships that traversed the seven seas ranged from rum and molasses to sugar and spices, livestock—including Spanish mustangs—were also frequently transported on the trans-Atlantic trips.  

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According to local legend and historic accounts of some of the island’s earliest settlers, ships sailed by European explorers often encountered issues navigating the Outer Banks, and the Spanish mustangs onboard were forced to swim the short distance to shore in an attempt to save their own lives when shipwrecks occurred. Foraging among the sand dunes and salt marshes of this desolate island habitat, the horses fought hard for survival and consumed a diet of native vegetation, such as sea oats, acorns and grasses. Able to sustain their lives in one of the harshest environments of the Outer Banks, the hardy herd of horses continued to breed as the years passed, and their descendants still roam the beaches and neighboring maritime forests and marshes to this day.

A wild Banker Pony mare and her foal, Outer Banks, North Carolina

While the herd was once able to freely roam a much larger area, development and the paving of N.C. 12 from Duck to Corolla posed a potential threat to the wild horses, and they were eventually moved farther north to their current location—an area comprising more than 7,500 acres of both privately and publicly owned land—in 1995 to protect them from any harm. Research conducted by National Geographic states that as many as 6,000 wild horses resided on the Outer Banks as recently as 1926. Today, however, the number of horses in the herd is only around 110.

In an effort to protect the remainder of the wild horse herd that claimed the Outer Banks as its home more than five centuries ago, the Corolla Wild Horse Fund was established, and its team of employees and dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to educate visitors and locals alike about these creatures that earned the title of “State Horse of North Carolina” in 2010. Encountering the Spanish mustangs up close and personal is an incredible experience, and several companies located in the village of Corolla offer wild horse tours that allow visitors to view the Spanish mustangs in their natural environment—an experience that should not be missed on your next visit to the Outer Banks of North Carolina!

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