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Shelly Island: A New Island Forms on the Outer Banks

Shelly Island: A New Island Forms on the Outer Banks

Photo by Chad Koczera

When it comes to vacation destinations, beach lovers will be hard-pressed to find a better spot to soak up the sun, surf and sand than the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Stretching nearly 200 miles from Carova Beach to Ocracoke Island, the Outer Banks comprises barrier islands composed of constantly shifting shoals and sandbars. Earlier this year, a brand-new island emerged off the coast of Cape Point on Hatteras Island—one of the most dynamic regions along the entire Outer Banks. Named Shelly Island for the abundance of seashells visitors to this recently exposed sandbar encountered as they strolled its shores, the new island has started to make waves among Outer Banks locals and vacationers alike.

Photo: Raleigh News & Observer

The story of Shelly Island begins in April, when a thin strip of sand began to become visible just off the southern shoreline of Cape Point. Because this area is the spot where the Gulfstream and the Labrador Current converge, Cape Point is no stranger to sudden changes in the hidden shoals that lie beneath the shallow salty water. Marking the southernmost point of the Graveyard of the Atlantic, the waters off Cape Hatteras National Seashore are sprinkled with the wreckage of thousands of sunken ships that ran aground on the treacherous shoals over the course of the past several centuries.

Photo: CBS News

While most sandbars that become exposed during constantly changing conditions around Cape Point are quickly covered again in just a few days or weeks, Shelly Island continued to grow larger and larger as spring turned into summer. Noticing the rapid expansion of the new island off the coast—and just how close it was to Cape Point—Outer Banks beachgoers began to make the journey through the relatively shallow waters that extend between the two islands via kayaks and standup paddleboards. Those brave enough to take on the strong and often dangerous currents that sweep along the shoreline of Cape Hatteras swam or waded to the new island to scope it out for themselves.

Photo: WCNC

What was found on the mile-long island caused a young beachgoer to nickname the sandbar Shelly Island—and the name stuck. As word spread of the hundreds of shells that litter this island that once sat deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, adventurous shelling enthusiasts showed up by the dozens to stroll the beach and add items to their collections. But seashells weren’t the only notable finds on Shelly Island. According to National Geographic, the surf has also washed a variety of other interesting objects onto the beach, including whale bones and shards of centuries-old shipwrecks.

Photo by Chad Koczera

From fishermen to history buffs to shell-seekers, there is something unique for every ocean lover to find on a trip to the Outer Banks’ newest island. But because of the strong and unpredictable currents Cape Point is known for, those who make a journey to Shelly Island this season are encouraged to exercise extreme caution when venturing out to the sandbar. If you’re planning to visit Shelly Island for yourself, you’d better act fast: like the hundreds of shifting sandbars along the Graveyard of the Atlantic that came before it and then suddenly disappeared beneath the white-capped waves, Shelly Island likely won’t stick around forever.

 

Discover the Island Farm on Roanoke Island

On the northern end of Roanoke Island lies a secluded spot few tourists vacationing on the barrier islands of the Outer Banks have ever been. Situated just west of U.S. Highway 64 in historic town of Manteo, the Island Farm is a unique destination for both visitors and locals, offering a slew of adventures and a wide array of activities for attendees of all ages. If you’re searching for a place to spend a day on your vacation well off the beaten path, a stop by this historic living site is well worth the trip.

When you first set foot on the grounds of the Island Farm, you’ll feel as though you’ve taken a trip back in time to 1847. The site sits on a slice of the Etheridge farmstead, a chunk of land where one of the area’s earliest settlers, a man named Adam Etheridge, built a house and established a farm with his family centuries ago. Today, the Island Farm comprises a period restoration of the house—including several 19th century furnishings, many of which were original to the property—as well as a dozen other buildings, such as a reconstructed slave cabin, smokehouse, cookhouse, dairy, corn crib, outhouse, woodshed and blacksmith shop.

Historical interpreters clad in period-specific attire can be found working inside and around the various buildings constructed on the Etheridge farmland, giving visitors a chance to witness what daily life would have been like on the Outer Banks in the middle of the 1800s. Throughout the year, interpreters perform a variety of tasks that bring Roanoke Island history to life. Here you can watch a blacksmith create his wares, help a farmer hoe a row of corn, assist the cook in making plates of corn cakes, or stroll along the fences of the pasture that houses animals ranging from a cow and an ox to several sheep and two banker ponies. Several free-range chickens also roam the grounds of this often-undiscovered island attraction.

If you’re not content to sit back and watch 19th century island life unfold before your eyes, you can take part in a wide array of hands-on activities and demonstrations. From woodworking, cooking and blacksmithing to garden planting, and harvesting, you won’t find a lack of things to do when you visit the Island Farm on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Once you’ve exhausted your list of daily “chores” on the farm, climb into an on-site wagon for an ox-drawn wagon ride around the premises, or embark on a self-guided tour of the farm and farmhouse.

The visitor center provides historical context via a series of educational exhibits on such topics as fishing, farming, boatbuilding, island culture, slavery and the locally famous Freedmen’s Colony. A family graveyard on the property allows visitors to pay respects at the final resting place of Adam Etheridge as well as many of his immediate family members and descendants. A large oak tree referred to as “Crissy Oak” marks the final resting spot of Crissy Bowser, a longtime resident and worker on the farm.

Whether you’re looking for a way to take a break from the beach during your Outer Banks vacation or you want to add a history lesson or two into your trip, you’ll find all that and more during your visit to the fun-filled Island Farm on Roanoke Island.  

*All photos courtesy of TheIslandFarm.com

 

 

History of the Ocracoke Light Station

Photo Courtesy of VisitNC.com

The most famous lighthouse along the Outer Banks of North Carolina may be the iconic black-and-white spiraled structure that stands on a spit of sand at Cape Hatteras, but when it comes to navigational aids guarding the Graveyard of the Atlantic, a lesser-known but equally important lighthouse should not be overlooked. Located on the southern edge of Ocracoke Island—a 16-mile-long stretch of sand accessible only by boat—the Ocracoke Light Station has a storied past that dates back to the days when Blackbeard the Pirate sailed the seas surrounding the barrier islands that comprise the Outer Banks.

An unincorporated community in Hyde County, Ocracoke is situated south of Hatteras Island and just a few nautical miles northeast of Portsmouth Island. Ocracoke Inlet—a narrow waterway that lies between Ocracoke Island and Portsmouth Island—became a popular channel during the late 1500s for ships needing to gain access to inland ports ranging from Elizabeth City to Edenton and New Bern. Because of the island’s convenient location between the Atlantic Ocean and Pamlico Sound where ships often traveled along area trade routes, a small village soon developed in what is currently known as Ocracoke Village in the 1730s.

Photo: Bob Muller

Due to the constantly changing sandbars beneath the surface of the sea, navigating the coastline near Ocracoke Island became extremely difficult, and many mariners experienced issues with shoaling and found themselves shipwrecked on the sandbars. To assist with the navigational troubles these mariners dealt with during their journeys from the trade routes of the Atlantic Ocean to points inland, numerous “pilots” who were familiar with the shoals were hired to help steer ships safely through what was quickly becoming one of the busiest inlets on the Eastern Seaboard. Because these pilots eventually settled on Ocracoke Island, the tiny village was originally referred to as “Pilot Town.”

Recognizing that a crew of pilots was not quite enough to assist mariners sailing the sound and sea near Ocracoke, the U.S. Lighthouse Service deemed the spot worthy of further aid to sailors, and in 1794 construction on a navigational structure began. The lighthouse—a wooden tower in the shape of a pyramid—was built on a 25-acre island between Ocracoke and neighboring Portsmouth Island to the south called Shell Castle Island. A small house was also constructed on Shell Castle Island to provide accommodations for the resident lightkeeper, as well as a handful of additional facilities such as gristmills and cargo wharves.

Although this first lighthouse was extremely successful in helping to warn mariners of the nearby sandbars and assisted them in navigating their way from the ocean to their inland destinations, after fewer than 20 years the structure was deemed obsolete. Shoaling had caused the channel itself to shift its location by nearly a mile, and, according to the National Park Service, the lighthouse and the keeper’s quarters were both destroyed by lightning in 1818, leaving mariners in the dark once more.

A few years later, the U.S. government purchased a two-acre area on the southern end of Ocracoke Island and hired Noah Porter, a builder from Massachusetts, to construct a new navigational aid for Ocracoke Inlet near the channel’s new location. The property was purchased for a total of $50, and, despite budgeting $20,000 for the lighthouse and the one-story keeper’s quarters, both were completed for just $11,359 in 1823.

At a height of 75 feet, the Ocracoke Light Station is significantly shorter than many of its counterparts along the coast; however, its light—which can be seen as far as 14 miles at sea—provided the perfect solution for sailors searching for assistance in safely navigating the shifting shoals off the North Carolina coastline. A sturdy structure whose solid, white brick walls are five feet thick at the base and taper to two feet thick at the top of the tower, the Ocracoke Light Station has withstood hundreds of storms and dozens of hurricanes in the nearly two centuries it has stood watch over the southern portion of the Outer Banks.

Photo: Our State Magazine

Unlike many other lighthouses along the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Ocracoke Light Station is not open to the public for tours or climbing; however, the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States still attracts thousands of visitors each year who stop by Ocracoke Village to see this unique piece of Outer Banks history in person.

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.

bonner bridge
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.

seashell seaside vacations
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.

birds over waves
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.

pea island lifesaving station
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.

sea turtle 1
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.

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