The Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is easily one of the least visited refuges or wildlife reserves on the Outer Banks, even though it is also one of the largest. At a whopping 8,320 acres, the refuge encompasses almost an entire island, straddles two states, and is interrupted only by the small town of Knotts Island.

Adventurous visitors who make the trek will be rewarded with fantastic boating, fishing, hiking and hunting, as well as some of the best bird watching opportunities on the Outer Banks, particularly when the thousands of snow geese pay the area a visit. On your upcoming Outer Banks vacation, take a walk on the northern Currituck County's wild side, and make an expedition to the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge for a natural landscape that's miles away from the ordinary.

Geography of the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge takes up approximately 75% of Knotts Island, a small island that's located in the middle of the Currituck Sound and is comprised mainly of marshy areas. Though barely connected to mainland North Carolina and Virginia, Knotts Island is separated by a dense marsh barrier and a slip of brackish water that separated the two land masses, and puts it in a world all its own.

Only one main road winds through Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge, route 615, (also known as SR615), and although it is possible to drive along this road all the way from Virginia Beach to Knotts Island, for most Outer Banks visitors, the easiest way to visit the island is to hitch a ride on the Currituck / Knotts Island ferry. Located right off of US 158, the main road that winds through Currituck County to the Outer Banks, the ferry runs approximately 3-5 times a day from either side, and the ride itself lasts a brief 40 minutes or so, and is an exceptionally scenic way to explore the Currituck Sound.

The ferry drops visitors off at the southern end of the town of Knotts Island, and from there it is just a few minutes' drive to the borders of the refuge. The town of Knotts Island borders the refuge for the length of the island, and both the refuge and the town itself extend all the way to the state of Virginia, with the northern tip of Knotts Island located just above the state line.

As for landscape, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is comprised mainly of marshy regions, or barely navigable grassy regions that are submerged by sound waters, also known as wetlands. Over 6,420 acres of the refuge are wetlands, which extend in all directions into the Currituck Sound. Further inland, visitors will find 258 acres of croplands, or farming plains, and 1,460 acres of woodlands and maritime forest. There are also over 20 miles of canals and creeks for boaters and kayakers to explore, and a visitors' center can be found along route 615 next to the town's borders, located at the renovated Kitchen Tract Hunt Club.

With four staff members who man the refuge year-round, and an estimated 75,000 visitors a year, (compared to the Outer Banks' several million visitors annually), visitors will feel like they have the refuge in addition to the miles of brackish and freshwater extending from the refuge, all to themselves. With a neighboring small town with just a handful of residents, and thousands of acres of deserted landscape, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge will remind its sparse visitors of the Outer and Inner Banks of centuries ago: isolated, scenic, and naturally beautiful.

History of the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge and the sound waters surrounding it are one of the most unique geographical areas in the Outer Banks. For centuries, the Currituck County Mainland and the Currituck Beaches were separated by the Currituck Sound, which was connected to the Atlantic via a series of inlets located throughout the Outer Banks.

But as new inlets opened up on Bodie Island south of Nags Head and Hatteras Island south of Hatteras Village, the last of the northern Outer Banks inlets closed, and the Currituck Sound was separated from the salty ocean waters by at least 40 miles as early as the 1700s. Therefore, while other sounds, like the Pamlico Sound which borders Hatteras and Ocracoke Island, are constantly fed by incoming saltwater from the Atlantic inlets, the Currituck Sound is only replenished with rain water, and has been for hundreds of years. So as the centuries passed, the Currituck Sound lost its dominant salinity and eventually became brackish and a nearly fresh body of water.

In addition to the changes in salinity, due to the lack of water rushing through, overall water levels dropped, and small islands and marshes began to pop up all along the sound, unharmed by rough ocean storms or constant incoming inlet water. Already established islands, like Mackay Island / Knotts Island, simply grew bigger, with more and more wetlands freely growing around the island until the end result was the 6,000+ acres (and growing) of marshy terrain that the refuge is known for today.

By the 1940s and 1950s, the northern Outer Banks region and Currituck County were already well-known in national circles as some of the best waterfowl hunting grounds in the country. This area was an integral spot along the migratory route used by thousands of birds, known as the "Atlantic Flyway," and as such, countless geese, ducks, swans and other fowl could be easily found within the dense marshes. Early hunt clubs, including the notorious Whalehead in Historic Corolla in the seaside town of Corolla, and the lesser known Kitchen Tract Hunt Club on Knotts Island, were established by these wealthy vacationers to entertain friends and have a lavish getaway for these hunting expeditions.

Soon, the popularity of the Outer Banks flourished, and with new communities, businesses, and even bridges popping up to provide more travelers with access to these islands, it became apparent that natural regions of these islands would have to be preserved. Conservationists realized that the boom in seasonal population also mean that the local fisheries and waterfowl were being depleted at a rapid rate, and so steps were taken to ensure portions of the coastline remained wild and undeveloped.

As a result of these early efforts, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1960, and over the years, more "sister" locations were added along the beaches, including the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which technically borders the refuge though it lies just across the sound.

Since the refuge was established, the small town of Knotts Island has garnered enough of a year-round population to have its own small state-run ferry providing regular daily runs, and although the earliest visitors to the Outer Banks tended to skip over this area, today nearly 75,000 visitors take an adventurous trip to the refuge in search of the fantastic boating, fishing and hunting that attracted the first Outer Banks visitors to the Currituck region. Though that certainly pales in comparison with the overall population of the Outer Banks, considering that just a few centuries ago the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge was little more than a small marshy island barely peeking out over the waters of the Currituck Sound, it is an exceptional feat indeed.

Wildlife of the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is probably best known for its extensive bird population, with hundreds of species and thousands of feathered visitors paying a visit every year. Bird watchers and nature photographers will be able to capture with a pair of binoculars or a camera ibises, snowy egrets, herons, ducks, geese, tundra swan, and dozens of other species on a daily basis. Endangered peregrine falcons and American bald eagles make seasonal nesting spots here, and osprey nests can also be found towering over the landscape in the marshy areas.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular sights for off-season visitors are the snow geese who make a brief appearance annually, usually around November. These purely white geese descend on Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge in the thousands, and fill up the sound waters surrounding the island, creating the noisy illusion of a constantly-moving snowfall.

Of course, birds are not the only animals that call the refuge home, and visitors may also spot a large number of mammals, (especially deer which attract the visiting hunters), reptiles and amphibians, which are located in each distinct region of the refuge. As for flora and fauna, visitors can expect to see plenty of cattails, black needlerush, and giant cordgrass, the hallmarks of a far-reaching wetland environment. On the low lying plains and forests, the refuge is comprised of clear farmlands, giant loblolly pines, sweet gums, black gums, bald cypress, red maple, hickory, and live oaks.

Essentially, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is a cross-section of a unique soundside environment that is hard to find along the East Coast, especially considering its expansive size. With watery canals that can accommodate freshwater and saltwater species, and thousands of acres of wetlands that serve as a home to some of the most prized species of waterfowl, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is truly a nature lover's paradise.

Visiting the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

There are a variety of activities that visitors can enjoy year-round at the refuge, and every season has its own unique lures for sportsmen, nature lovers, and anyone who adores the great outdoors.

There are several hiking and nature trails, conveniently located next to route 615, the main road throughout the island. The Great Marsh Trail is a scenic 1/3 mile loop which winds through a swampy habitat that is home to a number of songbirds, small mammals, reptiles, and other Mackay Island natives. Nearby, birders like to flock to the Kuralt Trail observation site, an elevated platform that overlooks the Great Marsh, and features a number of spotting scopes for getting a closer look at the local wildlife scene. Bikers and hikers will also want to plan a trip to the refuge from March until October, when the Mackay Island Road opens all the way to the dike gate, and provides visitors with seven miles of cycling and hiking trails that pass by waterfowl, deer, wading birds, and hundreds of other species.

The Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge is also a hotspot for fishermen, kayakers and boaters. A small boat launch is located within the refuge and is able to accommodate boats that are 16' feet or smaller. Considering the shallow sound waters, and the maze of canals that wind through 20 miles of the refuge, larger boats are discouraged, however a small skiff or kayak will easily lead anglers out to some of the best fishing holes in the area. Striped bass, catfish, perch, and even flounder can all be caught from these waters, in addition to largemouth bass, bream, and catfish. Visitor who love to fish but don't have a boat in tow can also head to the fishing platforms located along Corey's Bridge and the Great Marsh trail for easy angling that requires nothing but a fishing pole. Crabbing is equally popular from both of these locales, either with crab pots or hand lining, and is allowed at both locations.

While fishing and crabbing is permitted year round along multiple areas, including the Marsh Causeway, the Corey's Ditch Bridge, the Great Marsh Trail and the area along Mackay Island Road from SR 615 to the dike gate, visitors are reminded that a North Carolina state fishing license is required for any saltwater fishing in the Outer Banks.

Deer hunting is also seasonally permissible during the fall months of September, October, November and December Brochures are available to visitors around mid-August with the required information, and a hunting permit can also be obtained at the refuge office.

In addition to the everyday fishing, hiking, biking, bird watching and even hunting, the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge also hosts a number of seasonal events. Group deer hunts are held throughout the fall, and special fishing tournaments, like the Ducks Unlimited Green Wing Youth Fishing Event, are open to the public in the summer and fall seasons with advanced registration. Visitors will want to check out the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge's calendar of events before their visit to see what special events, educational programs, and other sessions are available at both the Mackay Island Refuge, and its sister site, the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge.

Tips and Tricks for Visiting the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge

  • Visitors to the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge should also spend a little time exploring the small and charming town of Knotts Island. Though miles away from the Currituck Beaches, both literally and figuratively, this town has its own down-home charm and features several farms and produce stands, in addition to a vineyard which is seasonally open to wine aficionados.
  • While it's possible to drive from Virginia into the refuge, Outer Banks visitors will most likely want to hop aboard the Knotts Island / Currituck Ferry for a scenic trip that captures expansive views of the Currituck Sound. Free to the public, the ferry is the perfect way to hop from the mainland to the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge and Knotts Island in a quick 40 minute trip, and enjoy exploring the Outer Banks from a new perspective.
  • Die-hard kayakers and boaters can access Knotts Island and the refuge by skirting across the Currituck Sound along Knotts Island Bay. The 5 to 7 mile trip is not for novices, but can provide experienced explorers with some incredible views of the soundside beaches of the northern Outer Banks and the borders of Knotts Island. Look for launching points along the 4WD accessible town of Carova, specifically the Carova Beach Park and Boat Ramp located on the southern edge of town.
  • Summer visitors should definitely load up on the bug spray, and should bring sturdy shoes for exploring some of the marshy and soggy terrain encompassing the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. Hip waders may come in handy for fishermen and birdwatchers who want to get into the thick of things for an up-close view, and sneakers are recommended for visitors who want to explore the long and seldom-traveled trails that circle through the refuge.

For a natural exploration of the Outer Banks the way it was a century ago, visitors should take the long and scenic trip to the Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge. With thousands of acres that re just waiting for kayakers, boaters, and hikers to breeze through, nature lovers will have a field day in this naturally rustic attraction.

Bring your camera, your binoculars, and your sense of adventure, and set sails for a wild exploration that your crew will surely never forget.