The Byway Journey Begins: Sweeping Natural Terrain
Bodie Island Lighthouse
At Whalebone Junction, enter the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first nation’s first national seashore. Encounter a verdant six-mile passage through the seashore to the Bodie Island Lighthouse, one of four along the Byway. This light, 156-feet tall, was turned on Oct. 1, 1872. The adjacent Lightkeepers’ Quarters serves as a small bookstore. Across NC 12 is Coquina Beach Day Use Area with bathhouse and parking area.
At the end of Bodie Island find the Oregon Inlet Campground and Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, home to a large charter boat fishing fleet. An active U.S. Coast Guard Station is beside the fishing center.
The majestic Herbert C. Bonner Bridge rises above turbulent Oregon Inlet and affords a long view down Hatteras Island. Marvel at the construction of a new bridge spanning the inlet, which was opened by a hurricane in 1846. Before 1963, people used ferries to cross the inlet.
Pea Island Impoundments
Driving through windswept Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge brings the natural world up close. The Byway flows through the refuge’s 13 wild miles. The refuge was established for migrating waterfowl and, throughout the year, hosts 365 bird species. Midway through the refuge is the visitor center. A hiking trail leads from the visitor center.
Heritage Alive at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe
Chicamacomico is one of the first life-saving stations built along the Outer Banks. It is the most complete site of remaining life-saving stations in North Carolina. The site contains 1874 and 1911 stations and outbuildings. The station anchors a small historic district that is National Register-eligible. The district illustrates village settlement around life-saving stations. Historic homes, a harbor and the village school house, now a community gathering place, can be easily viewed on a short walk. The site is open from mid-April through the Friday after Thanksgiving and by appointment in the off-season.
Salvo Day Use Area in the Cape Hatteras National Seashore provides Pamlico Sound access for swimming, kiteboarding and wind surfing. Between Salvo and Avon stretched a dozen miles of national seashore with ramps to access the ocean beaches and soundside locations.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse: A National Treasure
In Buxton, the Cape Hatteras light, international icon of seafaring troubles, warns mariners of hazardous Diamond Shoals and the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Climb 269 cast iron steps to see the cape and its roiling shoals, to view a narrow barrier island, to look at the fishing fertile Pamlico Sound and to be amazed at Buxton Woods, a rare maritime forest. All these vistas are part of living along the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. Tickets for specific times must be purchased for a lighthouse climb. The lighthouse, the tallest masonry lighthouse in the United States, was built in 1870. Just past the lighthouse entrance is a small British cemetery with the graves of two sailors who lost their lives during World War II off the Hatteras Island.
Ocean, Sound and a Once (and Future?) Inlet
Between Frisco and Hatteras villages are the Frisco Day Use Area and Sandy Bay parking turnout. The Frisco Day Use area has a convenient comfort station and boardwalk to the ocean beach. Sandy Bay provides access to Pamlico Sound. Outer Bankers live at the beach and on the sounds. This is one of the points in the island chain most vulnerable to inlet formation. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel sliced through this area, isolating Hatteras village from the rest of Hatteras Island.
A Welcoming Barrier Island Village
On a late afternoon stroll along Hatteras Harbor, visitors witness a parade of deep-sea fishing boats back from a day’s Gulf Stream adventure. Mates flop the day’s catch along the dock for all to see. In 1937, Capt. Ernal Foster started the sports fishing industry using the Albatross I, a boat built in Down East’s Marshallberg. That historic boat, captained by Ernie Foster, Capt. Ernal’s son, is still in use and docked mid-way along the Harbor at the Albatross Fleet. The fall Day at the Docks is a hallmark cultural event celebrating watermen.
In the center of Hatteras village, visit the NPS-restored 1902 Weather Bureau (the Hatteras Welcome Center) and the recently renovated Hatteras Library and Community Center. Evidencing community determination, a half-century of fish fries built the village’s close-by medical center, library and volunteer fire department.
Hatteras: A Museum with Tales to Share
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum tells the nation’s maritime history through shipwrecks. The dramatic one-story building resembles a shipwreck. Hatteras villagers raised over $6 million to build and almost complete the now state-owned museum. Civil War markers are located in the museum’s parking area.
NC Ferries: A Maritime Culture Continues
Ferries crossing to Ocracoke take vehicles and passengers past tidal flats. Watch other ferries bustling back to Hatteras, and fishing boats heading out to sea or returning. Gulls chasing the ferry will cry for handouts from folks standing on deck during the hour-long, free ferry trip. If the trip to Ocracoke is a late crossing, possibly the sun will be lighting the horizon of Pamlico Sound at this point in this journey.
Historic, Natural Ocracoke Island
Isolated Ocracoke Island presents 12.5 Byway miles through the Cape Hatteras National Seashore and delivers visitors to a historic, Preserve America community. Wild ponies roamed until 1957 when the Byway road made a corral necessary.
Try House Creek’s name recalls early settlement by whalers and fishermen (a try house was a facility for rendering whale and fish oil).
Visitors to Springer’s Point Reserve can view the cove where Blackbeard was killed in a bloody battle in 1718.
Historic, Storied Ocracoke Village
Visitors experience firsthand a village that evolved organically, in response to natural conditions. A pedestrian’s delight, Ocracoke centers on a large scenic harbor, Silver Lake, once called Cockle Creek. Many narrow and winding lanes remain unpaved sandy paths. Picket fences and old trees covered in lichens line village lanes. Deeply shaded Howard Street, just off the Byway and paved only with oyster shells, is a favored walking route from the harbor to Ocracoke Lighthouse. Wanderers from the parking area by the National Park Service’s visitor center and the ferry docks should include the Community Square and the Ocracoke Seafood Company, the island’s fish house cooperative, among stops.
The United Methodist Church includes a reminder of World War II. An altar cross is carved from wood salvaged from a ship torpedoed offshore in 1942. An Ocracoker was the vessel’s engineer. A British Cemetery similarly honors four British seamen whose British armed trawler was lost at sea while defending American shores off the Outer Banks.
Ocracoke Museum & David Williams Home
A handsome “four-square” residence, circa 1900, this building was owned by Ocracoke’s first Chief of the U. S. Coast Guard and moved by the Ocracoke Preservation Society to this prominent location beside the harbor, ferry docks, and the National Seashore Visitor Center with the help of the National Park Service. Part house museum and part exhibit space, the building illustrates island life in a variety of ways. Just visible behind the traditional picket fence is the rounded top of an above-ground cement cistern, a rare survivor illustrating what once was the only source of water for village residents. Behind the building is the 1934 fishing vessel Blanche, awaiting restoration beneath its outdoor shelter. The deep front porch still cools folks who like to visit. Summertime brings the Society’s highly popular summer “front porch talks” given by village residents.
NC Ferries: A Maritime Culture Continues
Standing guard over Ocracoke’s Silver Lake is a majestic 1935 Coast Guard Station, now a NC teachers’ institute. Perhaps the sight of bottlenose dolphins or brown pelicans will grace this crossing of the Pamlico Sound on the Cedar Island ferry. On the 2-1/4 hour toll ferry ride, experience the vast sound, splendid sunsets, and, on a clear day, see Portsmouth Island. Duck blinds and pound net stakes thickly populate the shallow sound. The more leisurely trip across Pamlico Sound past Ocracoke Inlet and Portsmouth Island to Cedar Island may offer time for a chat with one of the ferry workers, many of whom are native “bankers.”
Portsmouth was settled in the 1700s and incorporated in 1753. The village was once one of North Carolina’s busiest ports of entry. The last townsfolk left in 1971. Remaining are homes, the church, the post office and a school. Portsmouth Island is a National Register Historic District, managed by the National Park Service’s Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Cedar Island Refuge at sunset. Photo: Elizabeth Watson
Cedar Island: Waterman’s Paradise
Visitors hunt and fish on Cedar Island. The village includes a restaurant (try the fried oysters), motel, beach, campground, and horseback riding. The Byway here traverses a six-mile causeway through one of the East Coast’s largest marshes and connects Cedar Island to the mainland. Down East’s fringe of splendid marshes dictated village locations. The marshes shelter shellfish, crabs, finfish, raptors and waterfowl, and make the waters here among NC’s cleanest.
Harkers Island Shrimper. Photo: Elizabeth Watson
Unique Cultural Landscape: Drive Through Down East
Byway travelers enjoy many views of the waters that shaped, divided and linked the 13 communities. Villages center on their churches and country stores; small shops and a nursery sell homemade or handmade items. Village harbors offer views of traditional boats, many hand-built in back yards from native juniper and live oak. Harkers Island boats of all sizes can easily be identified by their unique flared hulls. Their design is a powerful example of humans’ response to nature.
Core Sound Museum. Photo: Courtesy CSWMHC
Keeping Traditions and Memories Alive: Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center
A visit to the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center reveals details of the rich, less-visible culture that continues to shape and link Down East’s thirteen villages. Outdoors, the Jean Dale, a 1941 Harkers Island boat, awaits restoration. Indoors, village-designed exhibits offer visitors the chance to enjoy privately owned artifacts, memorabilia, models and photos, lovingly cared-for and carefully explained. A gift and book shop sells decoys and other local artworks.
Nature trails centered on an ecologically rich freshwater pond are available. Willow Pond Nature Trail (.8 mi) and Soundside Loop Trail (.3 mi) are found on the side-by-side properties of the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center and the Cape Lookout National Seashore Harkers Island Visitor Center. The pond attracts many migratory birds; the loop trail adds beautiful views of Core Sound.
Harkers Island and Its Distinctive Traditions
Harkers Island, at the end of a two-day tour, provides a culminating experience of a maritime village. Long-isolated, the island preserves unique cultural characteristics. Fishing, fishing vessels and homes of fishing families dominate the cultural landscape. “Shrimp burgers” are a local favorite. End the tour at sunset and watch the play of colors from picnic tables at Cape Lookout National Seashore’s Harkers Island Visitor Center. Watch for wading birds out for an evening meal or a fisherman casting a bait net or workboats returning to Harkers Island harbor.