With more than 100 miles of shoreline stretching from Carova to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks of North Carolina is best-known for its pristine barrier island beaches and opportunities for world-class watersports ranging from kayaking to kiteboarding. Although the wide, sandy beaches and ride-worthy waves are undoubtedly the region’s biggest attractions—drawing thousands of visitors to the coast each year from across the country and around the world—the area is also home to an array of hidden gems just waiting to be discovered. One such spot that’s worthy of a lengthy visit to explore everything it has to offer off the beaten path is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve.
Situated on the western edge of the island along the shores of the Roanoke Sound, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve comprises 1,400 acres of maritime forest, saltmarshes and sand dunes. This unspoiled Outer Banks attraction—which is bordered by Run Hill State Natural Area to the north and Jockey’s Ridge State Park to the south—serves as a protected habitat for more than 100 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians and nearly 30 species of reptiles. Visitors who wander along the trails within the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve will also discover several freshwater ponds, which are home to seven species of fish and an assortment of unique aquatic plant life, including a rare flower called the water violet.
Before the town of Nags Head became the busy, bustling beach town it is today, it was home to a small population of year-round residents, some of which resided within a tiny village that was located on the grounds where the ecological preserve exists today. From the middle of the 1800s until the 1930s, these Outer Bankers lived within the protective confines of the maritime forest, developing 13 home sites and building two churches, a factory, a school, a gristmill and a general store. Despite the fact that nearly an entire century has passed since the Nags Head Woods were inhabited by a thriving village of local residents, visitors strolling through the preserve today will likely stumble upon a few remnants of the former structures, including a handful of headstones and gravesites, as well as pieces of brick foundations from the houses that once stood in this same location several decades ago.
In the 1970s—as the barrier islands began to gain popularity as a desirable vacation destination for travelers throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and up and down the Eastern Seaboard—hundreds of vacation rental homes were constructed along the coastlines of both the ocean and the sound to accommodate the surge of seasonal visitors. In an effort to prevent the entirety of the area from being divided into parcels that would soon be purchased and developed with vacation rental properties and hotels, Nags Head and the neighboring town of Kill Devil Hills formed a partnership that sought to save the untouched natural area. The towns joined forces with The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental organization whose stated mission is to “conserve the lands and waters upon which all life depends.”
In 1974, Nags Head Woods earned its status as a National Natural Landmark, and in 1977 The Nature Conservancy and the towns of Nags Head and Kill Devil Hills designated 1,000 acres within the woods that would be free and open to the public but could never undergo development. Additional parcels of land were added to the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve throughout the decades that followed, including more than 400 acres on the preserve’s western border that were generously donated John and Rhoda Calfee and Diane St. Clair.
Today, outdoor enthusiasts who visit the barrier islands can escape the hustle and bustle of the busy beaches by venturing into the picturesque ecological preserve to enjoy a sense of peace and tranquility. Seven marked nature trails meander through the lush saltmarshes and dense maritime forest, giving visitors an opportunity to witness an array of different species of plants and animals, and the chance to explore an Outer Banks landmark that has remained completely unchanged over the course of the past several centuries.