With 150 miles of pristine coastline, and some of the East Coast's largest swaths of undisturbed maritime forest, the Outer Banks is a popular destination for nature lovers. As an important spot on America's "Flyway," which is the route that migrating birds take on their northern and southern treks across the country, the Outer Banks is the temporary home to hundreds of species of birds. Combine this with the number of deer, foxes, waterfowl, fish, turtles, and even alligators, and it's clear that the Outer Banks is truly a wild vacation destination.
On your next vacation to the Outer Banks, take advantage of some of the best spots on the beach to observe the furry and feathered locals in their natural habitat. From Carova to Ocracoke, there are plenty of winding nature trails, waterfront refuges, and state preserves to explore.
The Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve
Head to the northern end of the Currituck Beaches and you'll find the Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve, a nearly 1,000 acre natural retreat that borders Corolla and the 4WD beaches of Carova. Because of the variety of wildlife and ecosystems found in this reserve, it has the distinction of being one of North Carolina's 10 protected reserve sites, keeping it safe from future development.
Here, wandering visitors will find a wide sample of the ecosystems that comprise the Outer Banks, including shrub thickets, inter-tidal dunes and flats, maritime forests, and brackish and freshwater marshes. Its position adjacent to the Virginia border also makes it one of the southern-most locations for typically Northern wildlife, and one of the northern-most locations for Southern wildlife. As a result, a variety of species from both climates live and thrive here.
Fishermen will find a rich supply of game fish in the brackish sound and marsh waters, including largemouth bass, yellow perch, tidewater silverside, blue-spotted sunfish, pumpkinseed, bluegill, black crappie, and channel catfish. In addition, a number of migrating birds pass through the reserve, including wading birds, shore birds, songbirds, and various birds of prey. Hunting is allowed on the reserve as well, provided the hunters are properly licensed and follow North Carolina restrictions and regulations. You will also need a special permit to hunt in a state reserve.
Visiting the Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve
At the northern end of Corolla, a public parking area is located for the reserve, adjacent to a boardwalk and walking trail. The 1/3 mile boardwalk leads to a stunning view of the Currituck Sound, and the rustic walking trail winds 1.5 miles through the reserve into a maritime forest. Reserve visitors can access the site by foot or boat, though it should be noted that there is no boat ramp or dock located within the reserve itself.
Historic Corolla Park
For a slightly less wild adventure than exploring Corolla's Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve, head south a couple miles to the Historic Corolla Park. This 39 acre parcel of soundfront property offers a slice of Outer Banks' wildlife amid a collection of manicured walking trails, picnic areas and waterfront benches, and the historic sprawling Whalehead in Historic Corolla. At the park, duck, geese and osprey make frequent appearances, and carp and crabs fill the small ponds along the landscaped trails. Fishing is allowed at the park, and visitors are encouraged to being their rods, reels, and crab pots and spend a day on the parks grounds crabbing or fishing.
An interpretive trail circles the Historic Corolla Park, and leads to a nature boardwalk through historic Corolla Village. Over 20 markers are scatted throughout the trail, indicating the history of the area as well as points of interest, such as the Historic Corolla Schoolhouse and the Lighthouse Keepers' Quarters.
Nearby, the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education features a collection of exhibits, including an 8000 gallon tank showcasing the conditions both above and below the nearby Currituck Sound. Programs and classes are even seasonally offered for children and adults, and a gift shop is also on site.
Visiting the Historic Corolla Park
The self-guided nature trails, pond, and grounds of the Historic Corolla Park are open year round for visitors and are free to explore. Tours at the Whalehead in Historic Corolla home are seasonally available for a small fee, and the park is also a popular spot for weddings and special events. Seasonal outdoor concerts, programs, and educational sessions are also offered from the spring through the fall.
Kitty Hawk Woods Preserve
The Kitty Hawk Woods Preserve encompasses over 1800 acres of maritime forest, swamp lands, and marsh, and is tucked in the heart of Kitty Hawk, bordering the Currituck Sound. The preserve, which lies just a quarter mile from the ocean, is protected by a sturdy dune line that blocks ocean over wash and salt spray, and allows the maritime forest critters to flourish.
The estuaries that flow through this preserve in the marshy areas provide a breeding ground for a variety of fish, and the marshes are also home to nutria, muskrat, river otter, and a high density of reptiles and amphibians. In the woods nearby, warblers, woodpeckers, hawks, wrens, and other songbirds can be spotted, and gray fox, raccoon, and white-tailed deer also make occasional appearances to lucky visitors.
Amateur horticulturists can hunt for the rare southern twayblade and wooly beach heather, both located on the preserve, as well as the hop hornbeam, which on the Outer Banks, can only be found in Kitty Hawk and Nags Head Woods.
Visiting the Kitty Hawk Woods Preserve
The preserve is located off of Highway 158, and intersects with Woods Road. A public boat ramp is located in the preserve with access to High Bridge Creek, and public parking is available at various preserve entry points.
Because the preserve is home to a number of rare or endangered species, visitors are encouraged to stay on the designated walking trails. Horses are allowed on the preserve, so long as the riders clean up after their horses. Hunting is also allowed, though hunters must follow all state hunting regulations and stay within appropriate boundaries. Hunters must also have an NC Coastal Reserve hunting permit.
Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden
The Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden is located in Kill Devil Hills, adjacent to the Thomas A. Baum Senior Center. Ideal for kids, the arboretum is a veritable "outdoor classroom" filled with carefully labeled local plants, shrubs and trees, giving visitors and locals alike a tutorial on the species that can thrive and survive in the challenging Outer Banks climate.
The Arboretum has a small brick walkway that winds through a series of Outer Banks climate samples, including sandy dunes, wetlands, and maritime forests. Along the path, visitors can marvel at the butterfly gardens, water gardens, and even "dune" gardens, and volunteers and members of the Outer Banks Garden club are usually on hand to answer questions.
Visiting the Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden
The Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden is open daily from 8:00 a.m. - 5:00 p.m. all year long, and every season has a different variety of plants, flowers and trees in bloom and on display. The Arboretum also holds a series of classes, special sessions and even annual events, including the annual Garden Festival in the spring, which all visitors are welcome to attend.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
It's hard to miss Jockey's Ridge State Park, the tallest natural sand dune system on the East Coast. The giant sand dunes tower over the Hwy. 158 bypass in Nags Head, and visitors can often be spotted climbing the giant, barren dunes for a bit of hang gliding, kite flying, or just enjoying a bird's eye view of the Outer Banks.
Nature lovers will love exploring the three self-guided natures trails that meander through the park. The "Tracks in the Sand" trail is a 1.5 mile walking trail that begins in the parking lot and winds through the dunes to the sound and back. The Soundside Nature Trail is a 1 mile loop that showcases the scrub thicket and estuary ecosystems of the Outer Banks, winding from the soundside parking area, and ending at a spectacular overlook. A handicapped accessible 360-foot boardwalk is also located near the entrance of the park and offers interpretive displays about the plants and animals that call Jockey's Ridge State Park home.
All of these trails allow visitors a chance to spot local wildlife, including native plants, birds, and even the occasional deer, fox, raccoon, or nutria.
Visiting Jockey's Ridge State Park
The park is open daily from about 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., depending on the time of year. There are two accesses to the park, including an entrance next to Highway 158, and a soundside entrance gate which is seasonally open. A Visitor's Center is also located at the park providing Outer Banks area information, and is open from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
On the outskirts of historic Downtown Manteo and adjacent to the Roanoke Island Festival Park lies the Elizabethan Gardens, one of the Outer Banks' favorite attractions for plant, tree and flower lovers.
The Elizabethan Gardens are open all year, and every season features an impressive display of North Carolina foliage in bloom. Summer visitors can admire acres of hydrangeas in an assortment of colors from pale pink to deep rich blues. Winter visitors will be greeted by dozens of camellias, and spring visitors will enjoy the rich variety of bulbs in bloom, like daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. The gardens' website, has a detailed list of what's in bloom by season and month, but visitors at any time of year will surely enjoy the scenery.
Gorgeous Elizabethan statues are dotted throughout the walking trail that winds through the formal garden, the Queen's rose garden, a soundfront Elizabethan gazebo, and a variety of other unique gardening spaces and areas with their own special species. All plants and trees are marked for easy identification, and a gift shop and plant store allows visitors to take a little sample of North Carolina's native wildlife home.
Visiting the Elizabethan Gardens
The Elizabethan Gardens are open 7 days a week, with seasonal hours. The gardens can be explored for a small fee, and the gift shop and plant store are open daily for everyone. The Elizabethan Gardens also hosts a variety of events throughout the year for kids and adults alike, including the Easter Eggstravaganza, Harvest Hay Day, and summer camps, workshops and classes. The plant store also has occasional sales at the end of the season, and winter visitors to the Outer Banks should definitely reserve an evening for Winter Lights, a month-long event where the gardens are covered in thousands of Christmas lights and holiday decorations.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge on Hatteras Island is one of the largest nature spots on our list. At a little over 13 miles long, the refuge runs from the southern side of the Bonner Bridge to the outskirts of Rodanthe, and motorists on NC Highway 12 will almost always spot geese, pelicans, osprey or other shore birds lounging along the border of the refuge.
The 5,800 acre Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is known as a haven and rest stop for thousands of migrating birds, and as a result, is the temporary home to more than 365 different species. Here, bird watchers can spot large concentrations of ducks, geese, swans, wading birds, shore birds, raptors, and other migratory birds that are seasonally abundant on the refuge. In the winter and early spring, even the rare and impressive White Pelicans make an appearance, feeding in the marshy ponds throughout the refuge grounds.
The refuge has become a popular destination for nature lovers, and is even part of the Charles Kuralt trail system, which recognizes the country's best wildlife locales and out-of-the-way destinations.
There are a variety of ways to explore and enjoy the refuge, including a series of nature trails which can be easily spotted on the soundside of NC Highway 12. A small visitor's center with public access, one of the only buildings on this stretch of Hatteras Island, guides the way to the North Pond Wildlife Trail. This trail winds through the border of the North Pond and New Field Pond, eventually leading to a boardwalk over a turtle-filled freshwater pond, and three observation platforms. All platforms feature featured mounted binoculars and signs detailing the refuge's ecosystems.
Another walking trail, the Salt Flats Trail, is located just north of the Visitor's Center and meanders along the top of the dike between the expansive North Pond and the Salt Flats area.
Visiting the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
The Refuge is always open to visitors, though be aware that there are limited facilities, so visitors should bring snacks and water as needed. You'll also want to bring a camera, as the birding at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is nothing short of exceptional. Expect to see Canadian Geese, pelicans, egrets, shorebirds, and even Great Blue Herons on your adventure through the refuge.
Seasonal events are held at the refuge as well, including the annual Wings Over Water event, a weeklong series of special programs and educational sessions geared towards dedicated bird watchers.
Little Kinnakeet (Haulover)
This little known nature hot spot is located on Hatteras Island in between Avon and Salvo. Marked only by two squat wooden posts, visitors will want to keep a close lookout for a small gravel and sand path that leads to the historic Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station and eventually to the Pamlico Sound.
This lifesaving station is a work in progress, and is currently in the process of being restored by the National Park Service. In the meantime, visitors can drive their 4WD vehicles down the small wooded sand path through the maritime forest to a sandy sound beach. Unpopulated and undiscovered, visitors who venture to make the trek are rewarded with an up-close-and-personal look at an Outer Banks soundside ecosystem. In this area, visitors can spot a variety of shorebirds, mullets, crabs, oysters and other mollusks, and reptiles.
There are no designated nature or hiking trails in Little Kinnakeet to speak of, but on calm days, explorers can wander along the sound banks all the way to the outskirts of Avon village.
Visiting Little Kinnakeet
Visitors without 4WD access can park near the Little Kinnakeet Lifesaving Station and walk the path to the sound, and 4WD vehicles can venture down the path all the way to the water. You do need a Beach Driving Permit, which is distributed by the National Park Service, in order to drive on the beach. Also, use caution when visiting as heavy rains can cause large puddles on the path to the sound.
Summer visitors will want to bring plenty of bug spray as well, as the mosquitos near the marshy soundside areas can be very thick in warm weather.
Buxton and Frisco Woods
Stray away from the main Hatteras Island attractions of the pristine beaches and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and you'll discover a world of wildlife waiting to be discovered. Buxton and Frisco are home to one of the country's largest maritime forests, spanning across both towns on the oceanside, and connected by a series of hidden trails that meander through dense thickets of forest, marshes, saltwater ponds, and even towering sand dunes.
Not for the timid, the trails along Frisco and Buxton woods are sparsely marked and even more sparsely populated. In fact, a hiker can walk miles through the trees and marshes and not see another soul.
Because of its immense area, these woods are home to a number of species, ranging from red foxes and deer to turtles and nutria. Legend even has it that alligators can be found deep in the marshes of Buxton Woods, and longtime locals who have many made treks through the area attest that they have spotted them in the milder summer months.
Along the saltwater ponds, a number of waterfowl can be also spotted including egrets, herons, cormorants, pelicans, and even great blue herons, and in the woods, squirrels and small "racing lizards" often dart across the sandy small trails. If you go, be sure and bring water, snacks, bug spray and a sense of adventure, as hikers can spend hours navigating through the miles of trails.
Visiting Buxton and Frisco Woods
The local rule of thumb is to find a small woodsy parking area on the oceanside of Buxton and Frisco and start walking. There are literally dozens of outlets to and from the small trails that encompass miles of Hatteras Island. A popular entry point is just past the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and before the 4WD access ramp to Cape Point. Look for the small trail that leads into the wood - hikers can literally follow this trail all the way through Buxton to Frisco, and will pass small ponds, acres of woods, and giant sand dunes along the way.
Exploring is best in the winter months, when the mosquitos are long gone, and the trails are relatively clean and free of brush and weeds. Be on the lookout for those giant sand dunes - these were the protectors of the original "beaches" of Hatteras Island from thousands of years ago, and lucky hikers can even find ancient seashells along the trail.
Springer's Point Preserve
There are plenty of nature spots to explore on Ocracoke Island, from hidden off-the-beaten-paths on the side of NC Highway 12 to deserted beaches loaded with Scotch Bonnets and whelks just waiting to be scooped up. But Springer's Point Preserve, located in the heart of Ocracoke Village, is unique as it features a vast array of local ecosystems in one concentrated area.
The preserve is just 120 acres, but with small paths that run through maritime forests, marshlands, and a small sandy beach bordering the sound, this nature trails seems exceptionally larger. In Springer's Point, you can admire massive, centuries old Live Oaks, Yaupon trees and Red Bay Trees as you head towards the infamous "Teach's Hole" on the soundfront.
Tidal creeks are scattered throughout the preserve, attracting white ibis, egrets and herons, and summer visitors should be on the lookout for the abundant small lizards and Geckos that tend to hang around, literally, on the preserve's trees and information stations. As Ocracoke is never too populated, visitors will find privacy and nature in abundance on the Preserve, making this leisurely stroll a truly tranquil experience.
Visiting Springer's Point Preserve
Springer's Point Preserve is located on the side streets of Ocracoke, tucked behind the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse and bordering the Pamlico Sound. The Preserve is free and open to the public year round, and visitors are invited to tour the preserve by foot or bicycle. Please note that there is no parking available at the preserve, but Ocracoke has public parking areas for visitors adjacent to the Swan Quarter and Cedar Island Ferry docks. Summer visitors may want to bring bug spray, and be sure and bring water and snacks as there are minimal facilities on the preserve.
Nature lovers have their pick of wild places to tour on the Outer Banks, both on and off the map. Visitors are encouraged to explore the state reserves, refuges, and national parks that encompass the majority of these barrier islands.
From the wild reserves of Corolla and the 4WD beaches of Currituck to the unpopulated National Seashores of Hatteras and Ocracoke Islands, there's plenty of great outdoors to discover. On your next vacation to the Outer Banks, embark on a nature hike, bike ride, or leisurely stroll through a maritime forest or along a desolate sandy beach, and get a taste for Outer Banks life at its most natural state.