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Exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

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.

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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.

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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.

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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History of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

Few attractions that dot the coastline of North Carolina are as famous as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Located in Buxton, this iconic black-and-white spiraled structure is the crown jewel of Hatteras Island and attracts nearly 200,000 visitors each year. If you’re planning a trip to our barrier island paradise, your vacation won’t be complete without a visit to this Outer Banks landmark that has protected the treacherous shoals of the Graveyard of the Atlantic for centuries.

Just off the coast of Cape Hatteras, the Labrador Current—a current of cold water that flows south from the coast of Canada—and the Gulf Stream—an ocean current comprised of warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico—collide and create one of the most dangerous spots for ships and sailors in Atlantic Ocean: the Diamond Shoals. When Congress recognized the hazards posed by this stretch of shoreline in 1794, the construction of a lighthouse was authorized to protect those attempting to navigate their way around the 12-mile-long sandbar.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

The construction process began in 1799, and in October 1803 the original Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—a 90-foot-tall sandstone structure that boasted a lamp powered by whale oil—was lit for the first time. Despite its builders’ good intentions, the lighthouse was unable to effectively warn the sailors out at sea that they were entering the perilous waters of the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Deemed too short to send a strong enough signal to those whose ships were nearing Cape Hatteras, the lighthouse received numerous complaints, and in 1853 the Lighthouse Board approved the addition of 60 feet to the height of the structure.

Taking into account other complaints sailors had frequently made about the original lighthouse—namely that the unpainted sandstone exterior didn’t provide a stark contrast to the sky during daylight hours—the second version of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was painted white on the bottom and red on the top so it no longer blended into the background. To ensure the structure’s signal was strong enough to reach mariners sailing toward the treacherous coastline, the new lighthouse was retrofitted with a kerosene-powered Fresnel lens that allowed it to emit a much stronger beam of light that could be seen nearly 20 miles from shore. After years of use, however, the structure was in need of extensive repairs, and funds were soon appropriated for a new lighthouse that could better serve the needs of sailors traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

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Construction got underway in October 1868, and in February 1871—two months after the new lighthouse was first lit in 1870—the 1803 lighthouse was demolished. In 1873, the present-day Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received its characteristic spiral marking of black and white stripes. Assigned by the Lighthouse Board, this distinctive daymark pattern as well as a unique light sequence—known as a “nightmark,” in which the light flashes every 7.5 seconds—helped to distinguish the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from other navigational aids along the East Coast.

Although the newly constructed third rendition of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was both tall enough and bright enough to successfully warn ships of the dangerous shoals that lay ahead, the structure soon found itself facing another major challenge: Mother Nature. The tower was originally built in a spot deemed safe from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean; however, with each year that passed and every hurricane and nor’easter that hit the Outer Banks, more of the shoreline was stripped away, leaving the lighthouse increasingly vulnerable to imminent destruction.

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In 1893, the lighthouse stood 1,500 feet from the shoreline, but by 1975 only 175 feet separated the structure from the pounding surf—and cracks in the tower resulted in the lighthouse being closed to the public. In 1980 the lighthouse sat just 50 feet from the ocean, and the following year the “Save the Lighthouse Committee” was formed by U.S. Senator Helms and North Carolina Governor Hunt, among others. An independent study requested by the National Park Service (NPS) recommended relocation of the Outer Banks landmark, and the NPS later announced that moving the lighthouse to a safer spot posed less of a risk than leaving the structure in its perilous position. Restoration of the damaged tower began in 1990, and the lighthouse was reopened to the public in 1993.

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Six years later, in 1999, the keepers’ quarters, oil house and two cisterns were moved to a new site further inland, and soon after, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse began a journey that would garner worldwide attention. Over a period of just 23 days, in an effort to combat the ever-present threat of shoreline erosion the lighthouse faced as it stood precariously perched mere feet from the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. The 4,830-ton historic structure was lifted off its foundation at the edge of the encroaching sea, loaded onto a transport system and moved 2,900 feet to the southwest from the spot where it had stood since 1870. In 2000, the lighthouse finally reopened to the public. Now safely situated 1,500 feet from the shoreline, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse resumed its longtime duty of serving as a sentinel on the southern shores of the Outer Banks and continues to provide warnings to mariners brave enough to navigate the Diamond Shoals to this day.

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At a height of 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. From the third Friday in April through Columbus Day, visitors can climb 257 steps to the top of this Outer Banks landmark, where they will be treated to unparalleled 360-degree views of the Atlantic Ocean, Pamlico Sound and the villages that surround this historic structure located in the heart of Hatteras Island.

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