Cape Hatteras National Seashore

North Carolina Outer Banks

By Cliff Maurand

  • Location: Bodie Island NC - Ocracoke Island NC
  • Length: 70 Miles (North - South)
  • Entrance Fee: None (Free)
  • Campgrounds: Three (4-NPS & Several Commercial)
  • Speed Limit: Various
  • Website:

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore is a two lane roadway that stretches 70 miles down the North Carolina's Barrier Islands. This Barrier Island starts much further to the north, in a section of the city of Virginia Beach Va., and runs southward from there, adjoining almost the entire North Carolina coast. This area has long been called the Grave Yard of the Atlantic, a place where there have been more shipwrecks than anywhere else in the country.

The Barrier Islands, commonly referred to as the Outer Banks (OBX for short) is a thin strip of sand which rises from the sea and forms a succession of broken island chain down the coast. These islands are very fragile, and are constantly changing in appearance and size. The coast has been ravaged by storms and hurricanes, but has otherwise survived for thousands of years. Though designated a National Seashore, it shares much of the islands with current civilization, as you'll pass through numerous towns and quaint villages.

The National Seashore picks up just south of NC's busiest resort communities of Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head. From Whale Bone Junction, you'll turn south and continue on NC12 where you enter the park within a few miles. The drive begins on Bodie Island. The roadway is narrow and flat, and for the most part runs fairly straight. You'll drive past sand dunes, salt marshes, and scrub pines. There is an abundance of animals and birds, some of them very rare, that makes this place their home.

One of the most enticing aspects about a visit here, is the shear expanse of beach which is pretty open to the public. Secluded and unfettered beaches of the seashore are everywhere. You can find places along the shore where you are the only people there. While wildlife is abundant, the off shore fishing is good too. Some of the area's are open only to foot traffic, but much of the uninhabited sections of the seashore are open to vehicular traffic, though you'll need a four wheel drive vehicle to negotiate the loose and sometimes treacherous sand.

On Bodie Island there is a nature trail you can follow, and a lighthouse that can visited. The first of these is called Bodie Island Dike Trail, this flat, 1.5 mile, round-trip trail, located near the Bodie Island Lighthouse, chronicles the story of man's occupation and natural forces which have shaped this island's history. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is one the more famous ones along the mid-Atlantic coast, and serves as a Park Ranger Office and a Visitors Center. The light stands 156 feet tall, has a beam range of 19 miles, and is currently owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. Also located on Bodie Island is the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, which is a commercial outlet within the Park. Here you'll find a full service marina and home of the largest and most modern fishing fleet on the eastern seaboard.

The first campground on the island chain is also located near tip of Bodie Island, across from the Fishing Center. The Oregon Inlet Campground is a National Park Service facility, has no hook-up's, but there is an access ramp located there for 4x4's to drive out onto the beach. It is also one of the more popular places for off road visitors, as it's the closest open beach to the more populated regions to the north.

From Bodie Island, you continue south across the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, which spans the Oregon Inlet. From atop this bridge you can see well out into the Atlantic ocean to the east, and the Croatan and Pamlico Sound's to the west. At the southern end of the bridge, you'll enter the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. While it is open to foot traffic on various trails, there is limited access in this area. Continue south on NC12 to the triple villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo. Here you can find numerous stores and other business that mostly cater to the tourist traffic, and plenty of beach homes, several of which are seasonal rentals. There are also several commercial campgrounds, a couple of them (Camp Hatteras, KOA, & Ocean Waves) are the most popular on the island.

Just south of these three towns you'll run across a small parking area on the ocean side of the roadway, and a small vehicle trail leading east into the dunes. This is the first of the off road access ramps (ramp #23) that is open to the public. While the fragile dunes are strictly off limits to off road traffic, the NPS has cut these access points through for the public. Once on the other side of the dunes, great expanses of beach open up to the north and south. At this first ramp, you won't be able to go very far to the north, as the beach is closed to vehicular traffic in the populated regions.

Driving on the beach is tricky at best, and quite treacherous at it's worst. And you SHOULD NOT attempt this without a four wheel drive vehicle. If your not familiar with beach driving, and don't follow some rudimentary principles, you'll find yourself bogged down or stuck in deep sand in very short order. This could pose a particular problem if you near the water line, and the tide is on the way in! Getting a tow truck out here is not impossible, but if you do manage to find one, it'll cost you dearly.

(Photo courtesy of NCBBA)

Continue south down NC12 to the town of Avon. Here there is a fishing pier that reaches out into the surf of the Atlantic Ocean, where for a small fee, you can do a little fishing. This pier reaches out beyond the sand bar, and opens up some fishing opportunities you won't get from surf fishing on the shore. The town of Avon also host's a large chain grocery store, one of only a few on the island. There is also a commercial campground located here as well. Another interesting place to visit is the Little Kinnakeet Life Saving Station, which is listed on the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places.

Heading further south, you'll continue through several more miles of uninhabited seashore. While the scenery is mostly of Dunes to the east, the Pamlico sound can be seen on occasion to the west. On each side of the roadway, are more off road trails, where you can either access the beach, or explore the sound side of the island. The several ramps located along the way for beach access also include a parking area, where those not equipped with 4x4's can park their cars and make the short hike to the beach.

The next pocket of civilization you come to is Buxton NC, the largest town on the island, and also the widest section of island. Here the Outer Banks come to a point, and the seashore turns to a more south westerly direction, this point is the famous Cape Hatteras. Here you'll find another NPS campground, and the most familiar light house in North Carolina, the Cape Hatteras Light. The first tower was constructed in 1803, but was replaced by the present structure in 1869, and a fresnel lens installed a year later. The lighthouse was electrified in 1934, and was abandoned a year later due to severe erosion. It wasn't until the erosion process stopped for a while in 1950 that the light house was once again found safe for use. But the relentless ocean began eating away at it again, and erosion continued to be a problem. In 1999 the lighthouse was physically moved 2900 feet from it's original location, to a point that is 1600 feet from the ocean.

Leaving this town and heading further south, you'll pass through some additional towns and villages, and eventually come into the township of Hatteras. Along the way you'll run across a few more commercial campgrounds, and the NPS campground by Billy Mitchell Airfield.

In Hatteras the roadway ends at the Ferry Docks, where you can catch a free ferry ride to Ocracoke Island. On Ocracoke Island, NC12 continues on it's southern journey. There is not a lot down here, except for the village of Ocracoke and the Ocracoke lighthouse. There is another NPS campground located here too, as well as additional ferry service to the mainland (toll ferry). This is the most uninhabited stretch on the entire drive, and you can find plenty of unpopulated beaches here. There are additional off road access points along the way. The Scenic drive ends at the ferry station in the village of Ocracoke.


Beach Driving Tips

Before you attempt driving on the beach, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First and foremost, you don't want to attempt this if your not driving a four wheel drive vehicle. The sand is very soft, and in many places quite deep. Even seasoned veterans with four wheel drive can get stuck here. And once your stuck in the sand, it is generally a chore getting free again. Tow trucks on the beach are rare, and if you're lucky enough to find one, be prepared to lay out plenty of cash for the services. Many travelers on the beach are usually willing to help you, but if your buried to the axle's there will be little that can get you free short of a winch.

Air down those tires! The first rule of driving in soft sand (aside from making sure your in a 4x4 that is), is to reduce the air pressure in your tires. This has a two part effect on your off road vehicle. The primary benefit is additional traction, where the softer tires create a wider and longer "foot print" and the tire works more like a tank tread than a circular object. This in turn also helps the transmission and transfer case, by reducing the stress on these systems. Reducing air pressure to 18-25 PSI (depending on the terrain) is usually recommended.

Bring a shovel! The sand can get very soft, deep, and treacherous. If you do find your self bogged down, there are a few things you can do to try and free yourself. The first thing you should try is backing up. By backing through the same tracks you went in with, nine times out of ten you will free right up. Another little trick is to let some more air out of the tires, thus making the tire "foot print" a little larger. When all else fails, you're going to have to dig your way out! So make sure you bring a shovel along, those small folding Army shovels from the military surplus stores are ideal.

Other items... Be prepared for everything! Having your vehicle equipped with tow hooks is highly recommended. Take along tow straps or chains, and a few pieces of wood (small pieces of plywood work well). Two way communications like a CB Radio or a Cell phone can be very handy too! If your a real novice at this, you should first try this with a friend, driving in pairs with two vehicles.

Tread Lightly

Pack it in
Pack it out

Stay off the dunes!


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