If you’re an outdoor enthusiast searching for a series of hiking trails where you can escape the hustle and bustle of the busy beaches on your next vacation to a sun-kissed shoreline, you’re in luck. The Outer Banks of North Carolina—a string of barrier islands situated right off the coast of the Tarheel State—are home to an assortment of nature preserves, wildlife refuges and hiking trails that provide the perfect place to soak up some one-on-one time with Mother Nature. For more information about what types of terrain you’ll likely experience and which species of wildlife you can expect to encounter on your next ecological adventure, check out our list of the top wildlife hot spots and hiking trails on the Outer Banks below.
Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve
Nestled along the western edge of the island in the popular vacation town of Nags Head, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve sits along the shoreline of the Roanoke Sound and comprises several unique habitats ranging from sand dunes and salt marshes to wetlands, ponds and a lush maritime forest. Visitors to this tranquil preserve that is positioned just off the beaten path will find seven marked hiking trails that meander through an ecological hot spot teeming with so much wildlife that it was officially designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1974.
Here you’ll find more than 100 species of birds—including egrets, wood ducks, green herons, red-shouldered hawks, clapper rails and ruby-throated hummingbirds—as well as 15 species of amphibians, seven species of fish and 28 species of reptiles. Thanks to its location on the sound side of the island where it is protected from the ocean winds, the preserve also supports a variety of plant life, including the rare water violet. To learn more about the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, click here.
Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve
One of the lesser-known natural areas on the Outer Banks of North Carolina is the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Preserve, a large section of land situated along shores of the Currituck Sound in the western portion of northern Kitty Hawk. Much like its neighbor nine miles to the south, the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve comprises a maritime forest, salt marshes, soundside beaches and brackish swamplands—as well as a series of small uninhabited islands just offshore in the Currituck Sound—making the reserve an excellent place to encounter the wide array of wildlife that can be found within its borders.
The Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve can be accessed via a number of trailheads as well as the multiuse path that runs along Woods Road—or, for the more adventurous outdoor enthusiasts, by boat, kayak or standup paddleboard. Once you’ve arrived, you’ll discover several designated hiking trails that wind through the maritime forest and eventually make their way out to the edge of the Currituck Sound. Tucked well away from the busy bypass and the hundreds of vacation rental homes that dot the coastline, the Kitty Hawk Woods Ecological Reserve is a secluded spot where visitors will have the chance to witness dozens of species of wildlife in their natural habitats.
Keep an eye open for the woodpeckers, wrens and warblers that seek protection from predators under the lush canopy of the maritime forest, as well as the hawks, owls, ospreys—and even the occasional bald eagle—that can be spotted sitting atop the trees or soaring across the sky above. In addition to numerous species of snakes, turtles and salamanders, the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is also home to gray foxes, white-tailed deer, river otters, muskrats and bobcats—as well as seven rare plant varieties that are protected by the state of North Carolina.
CAPE HATTERAS NATIONAL SEASHORE:
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
When it comes to wildlife refuges and hiking trails that feature picture-perfect landscapes and boast the raw, natural beauty of a pristine and undeveloped shoreline, few in the world can compete with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Stretching 70 miles from end to end, the Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins at the border of South Nags Head and encompasses all of Hatteras Island, including the towns of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Frisco, Buxton and Hatteras. At the northernmost tip of Hatteras Island, where the sandbar meets the waters of Oregon Inlet, visitors will come across some of the most diverse ecosystems on the entire Eastern Seaboard at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Extending over 13 miles from north to south and comprising 5,834 acres of land and more than 25,000 acres of water, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is home to nearly 400 species of wildlife ranging from dolphins and sea turtles to migratory birds and blue crabs. Of the hundreds of species that reside within the refuge—which covers both the ocean side of the barrier island to the east and the sound side of the island to the west, as well as all of the land that falls in between—315 species are birds, 34 are fish, 32 are reptiles, 21 are terrestrial mammals, eight are marine mammals, and 20 are other types of aquatic organisms. Many of the species of wildlife that live within the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge are threatened or endangered, including loggerhead sea turtles, green sea turtles and piping plovers. Best explored either on foot or via kayak or standup paddleboard, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge features a visitor center and two hiking trails that wind their way through this slice of barrier island paradise.
The North Pond Trail is a half-mile long and takes visitors on a relatively easy stroll around a series of ponds along the sound side of the refuge. On this hiking trail you’ll have the chance to witness a variety of wildlife up close and personal via a wooden boardwalk as well as a double-decker observation tower and three observation decks. The Salt Flats Trail offers more of an “off the beaten path” terrain, but a hike along this trail is well worth the effort. Here you’ll likely encounter an assortment of birds ranging from falcons to snowy egrets as well as more than two dozen types of reptiles. The trail ends with a scenic overlook, and during the summer months volunteers are available to answer questions about the plethora of species that live in the unique habitats that comprise Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. For more detailed information about the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge, check out our in-depth blog here.