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Where to Search for Seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

Where to Search for Seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina

alt="Brightly colored seashells, starfish and scallops lay on a wooden tabletop"If seashell hunting ranks at the top of the list of your favorite things to do on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, chances are you’re already well-aware that this particular stretch of barrier island paradise is one of the best places in the world to stroll along the shoreline looking for hidden treasures.

It’s definitely possible to stumble across some rare finds on the beach right outside your quaint cottage or hotel room. However, if you’re hoping to find an unusual variety of seashell—or even a couple pieces of seaglass—you might have to venture a little farther from your cozy accommodations and scope out the spots that offer some of the best opportunities for seashell hunting on the entire East Coast of the United States.

Whether you’re planning your next vacation to the beach or you’re already on the islands and ready to get outside and start searching, check out our list of the top places for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks below before you go!

OCRACOKE ISLAND:

alt="Ocracoke Island is a prime spot for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks"
Photo: Our State Magazine

Few places on the Outer Banks are better spots for finding a plethora of unique seashells than along the shoreline of Ocracoke Island. Accessible only by ferry, private boat or private plane, Ocracoke Island is situated at the southernmost portion of the Outer Banks, bordered by the Pamlico Sound to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. This tiny island—which is home to a population of fewer than 1,000 year-round residents—comprises only 8.6 square miles of land but boasts 16 miles of pristine and undeveloped beaches. In fact, Ocracoke Island was recognized by Dr. Beach as the No. 2 beach in the United States in 2019 and has repeatedly received similar honors by Coastal Living Magazine, being recognized as one of the “Best Beaches in the USA” and “Best Beach Towns in North Carolina” in the past several years.

alt="A scotch bonnet seashell lays on a wooden deck"
Scotch Bonnet

Thanks to its prime location off the beaten path and its positioning just south of the spot where the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current converge at Cape Point on nearby Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island is the perfect spot to find an abundance of rare seashells—including the elusive scotch bonnet. This hard-to-find shell was officially named the state shell of North Carolina in 1965; however, even the most dedicated beachcombers and experienced seashell collectors have struggled with successfully finding one completely intact along the beaches of the Outer Banks. In addition to scotch bonnets, visitors who search for seashells on Ocracoke Island will also find an assortment of other interesting finds ranging from scallops, sand dollars, periwinkles and coquina clam shells to olive shells, whelks and queen helmet conchs.  

PEA ISLAND NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE:

alt="Hundreds of seashells are strewn on this Outer Banks beach on Hatteras Island"
Photo: Fine Art America

When it comes to searching for seashells on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, one particular spot that consistently delivers a wide array of stunning and rare varieties is Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Located just south of Oregon Inlet on the northernmost tip of Hatteras Island, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is 13 miles long and covers nearly 6,000 acres of land and more than 25,000 acres of water. Like its Ocracoke Island counterpart, which sits a few miles off the coast of the opposite end of Hatteras Island, this uninhabited stretch of sandbar is a beachcomber’s dream come true.

alt="Seashell hunting on the Outer Banks also provides beachcombers the chance to find seaglass such as these bright pieces"
Photo: Carolina Designs Realty

In addition to serving as a sanctuary for 400 different species of wildlife ranging from dolphins and sea turtles to migratory birds, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge offers wide expanses of open shoreline just waiting to be explored by visitors who are searching for the perfect shell to add to their collection. Here you’ll likely find an assortment of colorful scallop shells, clams, whelks and moon snails. And if you’re truly lucky, you just might stumble upon a piece or two of Outer Banks seaglass because this sliver of secluded shoreline is a hot spot for these hidden gems! For more information about Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, check out our detailed blog here.

COQUINA BEACH:

alt="Coquina Beach is an excellent place for seashell hunting on the Outer Banks as seen here with hundreds of shells in the foreground"If you’re visiting the northern beaches of the Outer Banks and a trip to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge or Ocracoke Island is a bit too far to travel for an afternoon of seashell hunting, simply head down to South Nags Head and take a stroll along Coquina Beach to search for the perfect find.

Coquina Beach is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and it is conveniently located directly across N.C. Highway 12 from the Bodie Island Lighthouse at Milepost 22. This popular Outer Banks beach access offers both a bathhouse and plenty of parking spaces. Coquina Beach is just a short drive from the bustling beach towns of Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head to the north, but it boasts seemingly endless stretches of undeveloped beaches and windswept sand dunes. This makes it the perfect place to spend your day searching for seashells without a lot of competition from other shell collectors.

alt="Numerous coquina clam shells of various colors lay on the wet sand"

What is a Coquina Clam?

Coquina Beach is aptly named after the coquina clam, whose shells are found in abundance along this particular piece of shoreline. This is especially true during the warm spring and summer months, when coquina clams are the most active. The wedge-shaped shells of these bivalve mollusks are small, ranging in size from about 1 centimeter to 1 inch in length. They also come in a rainbow of colors ranging from yellow, white and pink to purple, blue and orange.

Visit Coquina Beach in the spring and summer and you’ll likely witness live coquina clams quickly burrowing back down into the sand along the water’s edge after they are uncovered by the waves washing up along the shoreline. Coquina Beach may be best-known for the number of coquina clams that call this spot home; however, beachcombers will also find a variety of additional seashell varieties here. Keep an eye out for whelks, scallops and moon snails—as well as a plethora of driftwood and the occasional shard of Outer Banks seaglass!

TIPS & TRICKS FOR FINDING SEASHELLS:

  • Seashell hunting on the Outer Banks is typically the best in the morning hours (ideally just prior to or during sunrise). Getting to the shoreline before other beachcombers collect the most highly prized finds is key!

 

  • Scope out the beach during or just after a storm or period of rough surf. Intense wave action can stir up shells that are normally nestled along the seafloor or buried beneath the sand and deposit them onto the shoreline.

 

  • Hit the water’s edge as the tide is going out or when the tide is at its absolute lowest for the day. A receding tide reveals an abundance of shell beds that are normally covered by the ocean waves. These are often the best spots to discover hard-to-find treasures, particularly pieces of seaglass!

 

 

 

 

The Top Pet-Friendly Outer Banks Attractions

alt="A Shiba Inu stares out at the Atlantic Ocean from the sand dunes on the Outer Banks of North Carolina"
Photo: Stephanie Banfield

With more than 200 miles of seashore stretching along the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean to the east as well as the Currituck, Roanoke and Pamlico sounds to the west, the Outer Banks of North Carolina offers something for everyone to enjoy—including the four-legged members of your family. From the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton and the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kill Devil Hills to Jockey’s Ridge State Park in Nags Head and the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on the northern tip of Hatteras Island, you’ll find dozens of pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions that welcome your furry friend to tag along on your adventures.

If you wouldn’t dream of leaving your four-legged family members at home while you spend your summer vacation on the barrier islands, be sure to scope out the following dog-friendly places on the Outer Banks the next time you visit:

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

alt="A hang-glider soars over Jockey's Ridge State Park, one of the most popular pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions"
Photo: Pinterest

Stretching 100 feet into the sky and covering a 420-acre area along the shores of the Roanoke Sound in Nags Head, Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest “living” sand dune system in the eastern United States. The colossal mound of sand that makes up this popular state park is best-known for providing a prime spot for outdoor adventurers to take to the air while hang-gliding down from the top of the ridge. But hang-gliding isn’t the only form of outdoor recreation Jockey’s Ridge has to offer.

alt="The sun sets over the Roanoke Sound on the western edge of Jockey's Ridge State Park in Nags Head"
Photo: WAVY TV

The park comprises three unique ecosystems—the sand dunes, a maritime thicket and an estuary at the edge of the sound—which are home to a wide array of native species of wildlife. Leash up your four-legged friend and go for a hike along one of the three self-guided nature trails that weave through the scenic parklands. During your journey you’ll have the chance to spot everything from white-tailed deer and red foxes to raccoons, luna moths and six-lined racerunner lizards.

Pet Rules in Jockey’s Ridge State Park: Dogs are permitted throughout Jockey’s Ridge State Park, with the exception of inside the buildings. Dogs must be on a leash at all times, and leashes should not be longer than 6 feet. Learn more about Jockey’s Ridge State Park here.

Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

alt="The sun shines through the trees at one of the top pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions: the Nags Head Ecological Preserve"
Photo: Outer Banks This Week

Another of the best pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions located within the oceanside community of Nags Head is the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve. Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the busy beaches, this hidden gem boasts 1,400 acres of maritime forest, sand dunes and saltmarshes just waiting to be explored by you and your furry family members. The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve was established in the 1970s when area conservationists came to the realization that the vast majority of land on the barrier islands was undergoing massive development to accommodate the booming tourism industry on the beaches of the Outer Banks.

alt="A man kayaks along a tree-lined waterway in the Nags Head Ecological Preserve on the Outer Banks"
Photo: The Nature Conservancy

In 1974, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve was designated as a National Natural Landmark, guaranteeing the forever protection of the unique series of ecosystems it encompasses and the assortment of wildlife that call the confines of the preserve home. This unspoiled natural area—which lies along the shoreline of the Roanoke Sound on the western side of the island—is bordered by Jockey’s Ridge State Park to the south and Run Hill State Natural Area to the north.

Visitors can traverse the park via seven marked nature trails, each of which winds its way through the lush maritime forest, over the rolling sand dunes and past a series of freshwater ponds. While you’re hiking, keep an eye out for the more than 50 species of birds, 15 species of amphibians, 30 species of reptiles, 50 species of butterflies and 550 species of plant life that make up this one-of-a-kind ecological preserve.

Pet Rules in the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve: All dogs much be on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet in length. Leashed pets are permitted on trails 4, 5, 6 and 7. Learn more about the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve here.

Wright Brothers National Memorial

"The Wright Brothers National Memorial, one of the top pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions, sits atop a grassy hill"
Photo: National Park Service

The Outer Banks of North Carolina are famous for being the site upon which an array of historic events have taken place over the years. From the mysterious disappearance of the Lost Colony in the 16th century to the spot where the infamous pirate named Blackbeard met his demise, the barrier islands are brimming with landmarks and attractions that highlight the area’s rich history. But perhaps the most significant historic event to ever occur on the Outer Banks was the world’s first powered flight, achieved by brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright on Dec. 17, 1903.

alt="A stone marker at the Wright Brothers National Memorial indicates the length of one of the pair's famous flights"
Photo: Trip Advisor

Situated in the heart of Kill Devil Hills, the Wright Brothers National Memorial is one of the must-visit pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions. This historic site pays homage to the unprecedented achievement and the pair who forever altered the world of aviation well over a century ago.

When you visit the site you’ll discover an enormous monument that sits atop a huge hill in the middle of the park, as well as a visitors center, a series of exhibits and the “flight line” that shows the landing spots along the path where the Wright Brothers attempted several flights that day before finally reaching success with the fourth. If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, leash up your dog and head up the hill to the base of the monument overlooking the memorial grounds. From here you’ll enjoy stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Roanoke Sound to the west and the town that stretches out below. 

Pet Rules at the Wright Brothers National Memorial: Pets are permitted on the grounds of the Wright Brothers National Memorial but not inside any buildings. Pets must be on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet in length. 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

alt="The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound, as seen in this aerial of the island"
Photo: REAL Watersports

When it comes to the best beaches in the United States, nothing can compare to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And if your search for pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions includes coming across wide expanses of sandy shoreline, windswept sand dunes topped with sea oats, uncrowded and undeveloped beaches, and scenery that is unmatched by anywhere else on the East Coast, be sure to check out the area’s crown jewel: the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.

Extending more than 70 miles from South Nags Head and Hatteras Island to the southernmost tip of Ocracoke Island, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore encompasses nearly 25,000 acres of preserved and protected natural habitats. along the sea and sound. Whether you explore the national seashore by boat, bicycle, kayak, car or on foot, you’ll have the chance to enjoy a wealth of activities including kiteboarding, surfing, swimming, fishing, crabbing, shell-hunting, wildlife-watching, sightseeing and so much more.

alt="The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse stands tall amid sand dunes and sea oats on the Outer Banks of North Carolina"
Photo: Dhinoy Studios

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is also home to one of the most iconic landmarks in the country: the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Built in 1803 and standing 210 feet tall, the structure is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States and has served as a navigational aid that has helped mariners to safely navigate the constantly shifting diamond shoals off the coast of Cape Hatteras for centuries. For an unforgettable Outer Banks experience, climb all 257 steps to the top of the lighthouse to take in the spectacular 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and surrounding villages below. 

alt="The wide expanses of undeveloped shoreline make the Cape Hatteras National Seashore one of the best pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions"
Photo: Surf or Sound Realty

When your climb is complete, leash up your dog and venture south toward Cape Point via the pristine stretch of seashore that is commonly referred to as “Buxton beach.” Here you’ll find the spot where the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse originally stood—before it was moved farther inland in 1999 in an effort to save it from falling into the sea—as well as unparalleled opportunities for spotting wildlife, finding seashells and simply enjoying a leisurely stroll along one of the most beautiful barrier island beaches in the entire world with your four-legged friend.  

Pet Rules for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore: Pets are welcome along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, but are prohibited inside any marked closures (such as bird and sea turtle nesting areas) and inside buildings. Pets must remain on a leash at all times, and leashes must not exceed 6 feet.

OUTER BANKS LEASH LAWS:

To ensure your furry friend enjoys a safe and fun vacation on the barrier islands with you this season, make sure you follow the Outer Banks leash laws while visiting your favorite pet-friendly Outer Banks attractions. These rules and regulations vary from town to town, so check out our breakdown of the most up-to-date leash laws for 2019 by clicking here!

 

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