The Outer Banks of North Carolina are undoubtedly best-known for the miles and miles of barrier island beaches that comprise the state’s coastline from Carova to Ocracoke Island. But wide expanses of unspoiled shoreline, world-class watersports, first-rate seafood and opportunities for top-notch offshore fishing are not all the area has to offer. Among the many hidden gems that can be found by visitors who scour the Outer Banks in search of attractions located off the beaten path is the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
All too often overlooked by vacationers heading to the coast for a week of fun in the sun and surf, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge consists of 152,000 acres of preserve land filled with nature trails, walking paths, picnic areas, fishing spots, hunting tracts, paddling trails and dozens of species of wildlife. And if the route from your hometown to the bustling beaches takes you along Highway 64 through the towns of East Lake and Manns Harbor, you’ve traveled right past the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge—and probably didn’t even know it. Whether you’ve got time to fill before your beach vacation officially begins this year or you’re up for a little bit of outdoor adventure that doesn’t involve the surf and sand, be sure to make a point of exploring this incredibly unique natural area this season.
Located on the North Carolina mainland, just 22 miles from Nags Head, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge spans 28 miles from north to south and 15 miles from east to west. Despite its close proximity to the popular vacation destination that lies less than a half-hour away, the land on which the majority of the refuge sits never attracted development like the nearby barrier islands that became a bustling tourist hotspot beginning in the 1950s. In fact, the site of the present-day nature preserve remained so desolate and undeveloped that in 1959 the U.S. Air Force sectioned off a 47,000-acre parcel of land in its center and established a military bombing range that is still in use today.
Toward the end of the 1970s, conservationists who visited the region discovered that the tens of thousands of acres of seemingly uninhabited land were actually home to an assortment of species—many of which were threatened or endangered. Bordered by its namesake, the Alligator River, to the west and the Pamlico Sound to the east, the preserve encompasses a variety of habitats, including maritime forests, wetlands, saltmarshes and several types of swamps. The most unusual habitat here, however, is known as a “pocosin.” A unique type of wetland habitat whose name comes from a Native American term that translates to “swamp of a hill,” pocosins are characterized by deep, acidic, sandy peat soils that are high in organic material and frequently retain large amounts of water.
In an effort to preserve the many unique habitats found within its borders, and to protect the wide array of wildlife that reside among them, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge was officially established on March 14, 1984. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the various habitats that constitute the wildlife refuge currently support 145 species of birds, 48 species of fish, 48 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 40 species of mammals.
Although the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is home to a wide array of species ranging from woodpeckers, white-tailed deer and raptors to black bears, owls and, of course, alligators, its most famous residents are also some of the most endangered: red wolves. Once abundant throughout the southeastern United States—with populations found roaming as far west as Texas, as far north as Pennsylvania and as far south as Florida—today the red wolf is one of the most endangered species in the world, and they can be found only in a five-county area of eastern North Carolina.
According to Defenders of Wildlife, red wolves—which are the smaller, thinner cousins of the gray wolf—had been hunted to the brink of extinction by the end of the 1970s. Determined to save the endangered species from imminent extinction, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured fewer than 20 red wolves to be bred in captivity as part of a red wolf recovery program.
Seven years later, the organization reintroduced red wolves to the wild, but due to a slew of misconceptions about the species, numerous political attacks and insufficient planning, the recovery attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, and red wolf populations continued to decline toward extinction once again. Today, red wolves only exist in the wild in two places in the entire world: Columbia, North Carolina’s Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
In addition to its miles of picturesque hiking paths, paddling trails, fishing spots and hunting areas, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge also offers an assortment of recreational and education programs, including a Red Wolf Howling Safari. Visitors who attend this one-of-a-kind safari will learn about the plight of the red wolf and take a guided journey into the heart of the preserve with refuge staff and volunteers to listen to the howls of this rare and endangered species that calls coastal North Carolina home.