You’ve seen all the famous attractions: lighthouses, beaches, botanical gardens, etc. Now it’s time to head off the beaten path and explore hidden Outer Banks havens where tourists are scarce but natural beauty abounds. You may find that these uncrowded spots are the most memorable activities of them all!
Heading to the Outer Banks with children in tow? You’ll be glad to know that these beautiful barrier islands offer countless opportunities for family-focused fun. Here are a few suggestions.
To learn about our native critters, the best place to start your vacation is at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education in Corolla. This incredible 22,000-square-foot education center is the ideal place to bone up on animals you might see, so you know what you’re spotting as you enjoy your getaway. Here are some of the most popular animals to see in the Outer Banks:
Five different kinds of sea turtles nest on Outer Banks beaches: leatherback, hawksbill, Kemp’s ridley, loggerhead, and green turtles. Watch for sandy mounds on the beach, especially near the dunes. Remember: If you see a turtle or a nest, don’t disturb it.
Everyone’s favorite Outer Banks animal is the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin. Dolphins can pop up anywhere in the water — in the calm waters of the sound or inlet, to the choppy waves near the beach or offshore. Watch for dolphin from the beach or pier, or take a special dolphin-watching boat ride to maximize your chances of seeing these slippery critters.
Of course, the wild horses of the Outer Banks, known as “banker ponies,” are the most famous residents of the islands. These horses are believed to be descendants of Spanish horses that swam ashore after shipwrecks hundreds of years ago. Banker ponies are protected, and they have the run of the place. You’re most likely to see them on Corolla beaches and in Ocracoke, but they have been seen elsewhere.
Wild boars are common to barrier islands because they’re good swimmers. Outer Banks wild boar are big, and they have long tusks and bad attitudes. You probably won’t see them in town or on the beach, but if you’re exploring the rural areas of Corolla, you may spot one rooting around for a meal. They’re skittish, so watch from a distance and let them go their way.
If you are wondering why Outer Banks bunnies are so massive, it’s because they’re not bunnies — they’re hares. Hares are much larger than rabbits, with long back legs and ears. They are common on Roanoke Island, where you may see dozens upon dozens at twilight.
Many folks driving into the Outer Banks are surprised to see a black bear standing alongside, or crossing, the road. Black bears are frequently seen in the islands, especially in Currituck and around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Black bears don’t have a reputation for being aggressive, but they are bears after all. Best to steer clear, give them space and don’t feed them.
Once thought to be virtually extinct, red wolves have made a comeback in recent years. Spot these magnificent creatures around the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, or keep an ear out for their haunting songs at night.
Mink, Beaver, Muskrat
If you’re staying in Corolla, you may get lucky and catch a glimpse of a mink, beaver, or muskrat. Once prized for their pelts, these water mammals disappeared from the area until the late 1930s. Today they are more common and may be seen at dusk or dawn along streams and creeks.
Bobcats are so elusive that most locals don’t know they exist in the Outer Banks. However, every so often one of these short-tailed felines decides to take a beach break and surprise everyone. Bobcats are about twice the size of a domestic cat and are most often seen at dawn or dusk.
Grey and Red Fox
Grey foxes can be seen all over the Outer Banks. They’re small — much smaller than wolves — so there’s no mistaking a sighting. Foxes hunt near sunrise or sunset, but it’s not unusual to see them out and about during the day. If you have your windows open at night and hear a little howling, it’s likely one of our furry grey friends singing at the stars.
Deer are frequently seen around the Outer Banks in wooded areas. Nags Head is especially flush with deer, and sightings of herds are common near sunset. If you’re driving near dusk or dawn, go slowly and keep an eye out for the tell-tale shining eyes in the brush.
Yes, there are alligators in the Outer Banks. Alligators are shy, so it’s not likely that you’ll see one in your rental neighborhood. If you want to see an alligator, your best bet is to take a trip to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, a 12,000-acre preserve.
The Outer Banks are home to more wildlife than most people know. For the best chance at seeing some of our furry (or slippery) locals, drive slowly, walk quietly, and watch for movement near the ground or the surface of the water.
Sport hunting eventually took a toll the bird population, and it became clear to conservationists that waterfowl needed a safe haven on their journey along the coast. In 1937 the government decided that the area from Oregon Inlet to Rodanthe should be protected as a breeding ground for migratory birds. Today this area is known as Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, a 5,834-acre nature preserve.
For more than 80 years Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge has been a sanctuary for birds, sea turtles, and other animals. In fall and winter, Pea Island becomes a temporary home for hundreds of species of migratory birds — now undisturbed by humans as they rest for days (or months) on their journey. No hunting is allowed in the sanctuary, so all wildlife is protected within its boundaries. Besides the magnificent birds that live or stop in the refuge, the island is home to deer, otter, red wolves, and other animals.
Pea Island is about midway on the Outer Banks island chain across the Sound from Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on the mainland. It’s a little over an hour’s drive from Corolla in the north and about 50 minutes from Hatteras to the south.
What to Bring
Pea Island National Refuge has restrooms, but you’ll want to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, a hat, binoculars, a birding field guide, a camera, and bug spray. If you’d like to fish from the surf or in the Sound, bring your fishing gear and license. The refuge includes a pristine, quiet beach that’s ideal for swimming — bring your swimsuit, beach toys, and kites. There’s enough to see and do on Pea Island that you may want to bring a picnic and stay all day.
Whether you’re an expert hiker or a novice outdoor person, start your visit at the informative Visitor Center. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, or as volunteer staff is available. Take your time browsing the exhibits and wildlife viewing decks, then pick up a trail map to get the most out of your time on the island. Ask staff about that day’s guided interpretive program, which may include a free birding walk or the opportunity to see, hear, and learn about endangered red wolves. And don’t miss a chance to ride the tram. Tours are $10 for adults 13 and up and free for kids 12 and under. The trip will take you through the refuge while an expert guide explains the best places to see wildlife and the history of the area. These tours fill up, so it’s a good idea to register ahead of time.
Exploring On Your Own
There are two wildlife trails that circumnavigate the refuge. The North Pond trail picks up right behind the Visitor Center and is a short and easy hike that passes through a half-mile of ponds full of ducks and freshwater turtles. There are 3 bird observation platforms as well as a double-deck observation tower. The second trail, called the Salt Flats Trail, picks up at the north end of North Pond. This path takes walkers along the top of the dike between Salt Flats and North Pond.
To explore the marshes of Pamlico Sound, book a canoe tour. Canoe tours are a novel way for families to get up close and personal with the birds and animals that live in this unique environment. Take your binoculars and watch for blue and tricolor herons, egrets, and oystercatchers.
The refuge also includes miles of unspoiled dunes and beaches. From the Visitor Center, cross the road and go over the dunes. Walk the shore hunting for seashells, and you can fly kites, make sandcastles, swim, or just enjoy the peace and quiet.
Pea Island National Refuge is a wonderland for birders. Bring your binoculars and your Life List, as you’re likely to see waterfowl such as widgeons (including the rare Eurasian Widgeon), plovers, stilts, avocets, skimmers, terns, herons, and egrets. Watch for duck species such as black duck, pintail, canvasback, and redhead. Birds of prey in the refuge include osprey, peregrine falcon, kestrel, and harrier.
Pea Island National Refuge has been a safe haven for animals and a quiet respite for humans for decades. It’s a beautiful place to experience the natural wonders of the Outer Banks and well worth a visit on your vacation.
Richard Etheridge-Integrity and Courage
If Dare County Commissioners have their way, the new bridge over the New Inlet on Hatteras Island will be named the Richard Etheridge Bridge. Provided NCDOT agrees to the name, it would be a fitting tribute to a remarkable man.
In 1880, Richard Etheridge became first the African-American to command a Lifesaving Station, and the bravery and training he demanded of his crew would earn Station #17—the Pea Island Station—the Coast Guard’s highest honor.
But that is just one part of his story.
Born a slave on Roanoke Island in 1842, the property of John Etheridge, there is reason to believe he was the son of the slave holder.
According to a written statement by John Etheridge, Richard was, as “…an infant, child, boy, youth, and man…” raised as member of the family. So close was the relationship that the slave was taught to read and write, a skill that was expressly prohibited by North Carolina law. It is also significant that after the Civil War, Richard returned to Roanoke Island and lived on the Etheridge property until he married in 1867.
Although close to the Etheridge family, it is clear he did not wish to be a slave and when Union forces captured Roanoke Island in 1862, Etheridge shook off his shackles of slavery and volunteered to serve in the Union Army, although he was unable to enlist until 1863 when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Etheridge served in the 36th United States Colored Infantry (USCI) Regiment until he mustered out in October of 1866. The regiment began service guarding Confederate POWs but eventually saw action during the campaign to retake Petersburg.
Because of his leadership and literacy, he rose through the ranks, becoming a sergeant in September of 1863 and was the regimental Commissary Sergeant when he left service. Commissary Sergeant is no longer part of the US Army, but it would be the equivalent of a Master Sergeant.
Noted throughout his life for his integrity, he demonstrated even in a segregated army, a willingness to take on leaders that he felt were abusing their position.
Stationed in Virginia in 1865, word reached him of abuses at the Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony—a settlement of recently freed slaves on the north end of the island. To protest he wrote to Oliver Otis Howard, steward of the newly established Freedman’s Bureau, writing, “The white soldiers break into our houses act as they please…and if any one defends their-Selves against them they are taken to the guard house for it. So our familys have no protection when (the Union soldiers)…here to protect them and will not do it.” He signed the letter, “in behalf of humanity,” a phrase that would come to define his actions.
He returned to Roanoke Island, married and became a father, earning a living at fishing and farming, much like most of the residents of the area.
In 1874, the federal government, recognizing that an investment had to me made in maritime safety, built seven lifesaving stations in North Carolina. An experienced and respected waterman, Etheridge had no problem signing on, although because he was African-American he held the lowest rank possible—Surfman #6.
Although lifesaving stations had been constructed there were a number of problems with the service. Employment was seasonal, ending in November and not beginning again until spring; supervisory positions were by political appointment and crews and equipment often unprepared for the rigors of ocean rescue.
On November 24, 1877 the USS Huron ran aground 200 yards off the Nags Head beach. Of a crew of 132, only 34 survived; two months later, on January 31, 1878 the Metropolis broke up and sank just 100 yards from the Currituck Banks with a loss of 102 lives.
The two disasters so close together rallied the nation behind a professional year around lifesaving service.
Rife with corruption and cronyism, changes had to be made and Sumner Kimball, the Superintendent of the Lifesaving Service was the man to make those changes. He demanded his inspectors find the best and root out the worst.
One of the best was Surfman #6, Richard Etheridge.“Taking him all in all, (he) seems to be a superior man for the position,” Inspector Frank Newcomb wrote in recommending Etheridge for a promotion.
In 1880 the Pea Island Lifesaving Station was put under the command of Richard Etheridge. In the 19th century, no white man would serve under an African-American in any capacity, and if the Lifesaving Station was going to be manned, it would have to be by an all African-American crew.
Even with that provision, hatred still existed, and the station was burned down before Etheridge could take command. Typical of how he went about his work, Etheridge oversaw the construction of a new station, housing his men in the storage area until the new building was completed.
He was known as a driven task master, drilling his crew incessantly, pushing them to be their best. Indirect evidence suggests he felt his crew had to be better than the white crews because of their race, although their are no writings at the time he was a supervisor that indicate he felt that way.
Because he crews were so well trained, though, his crews were widely respected and regardless of race trained regularly with neighboring lifesaving stations.
On October 11, 1896 the training paid off.
En route from Providence, Rhode Island to Norfolk, Virginia the three-masted schooner Newman ran into a hurricane that paralleled the Eastern seaboard. The winds and seas stripped the sails from the masts and the ship drifted until it ran aground two miles south of the Pea Island Station.
The weather had turned so bad, that Etheridge had halted foot patrols, but Surfman Theodore Meekins, was on watch when he thought he saw a distress flare. An answering flare went up from the station and there was a response from the Newman.
The crew sprang into action, using the station’s mules to haul the equipment to the scene, but it was clear the Lyle Guns, used to shoot a lifeline to the ship could not be used in the weather conditions. Instead, lifelines were tied to crew members who swam through the surf to the ship, tied a lifeline to crew members and hauled them to safety.
It took 100 years for the bravery and skill of the crew of Pea Island Lifesaving Station to be fully recognized, but on March 5, 1996 President Clinton awarded the descendants of Richard Etheridge, Benjamin Bowser, Dorman Pugh, Theodore Meekins, Lewis Wescott, Stanley Wise and William Irving the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest medal awarded by the Coast Guard for heroism during a rescue.
Etheridge was more than a station supervisor. A community leader, he may have been a county commissioner from 1874-1876, although the records are not completely clear. It also appears as though he served on what would now be called the Board of Education at various times.
He passed away while on duty at Station #17 from what is believed to have been a mosquito borne illness.
In 2012, the Coast Guard took delivery of the USCGC Richard Etheridge, a 154’ Sentinel-class cutter. Its motto is “in the service of humanity.
Enjoy a Unique Natural Environment
Natural beauty is undoubtedly one of the biggest draws of the Outer Banks. If you’re a nature lover, rent a kayak and spend the day taking in quiet water trails that wind through the islands, along the shore, through maritime forests, salt marsh canals, and estuaries. Floating in the bay for sunset is an unforgettable experience, as is paddling through a sound as birds and river otters play around you. Of course, no Outer Banks tourism guide would be complete without a mention of the area’s pristine wildlife refuges. Visit Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve,
Currituck National Wildlife Refuge
Here are some of our favorite nature spots in the Outer Banks:
Hatteras Island Ocean Center, Hatteras
Located near Hatteras Village, the Hatteras Island Ocean Center is a good starting place for your Outer Banks vacation. With a fully interactive setup, the center features exhibits, programs, and special events to help visitors of all ages learn about the unique environments of the Outer Banks. Want to develop your turtle sense? Looking to see, touch and hear some of the Outer Banks’ most popular marine wildlife? This is the place!
Duck Soundside Boardwalk, Duck
The Duck Boardwalk will take you through almost half a mile of sea breezes and scenic views of stunning Currituck Sound. There are multiple entry and exit points so you can pop in and out of the Waterfront Shops and Town Park for snacks and shopping breaks. Plan to take this walk slowly and really soak up your surroundings. This is a wide, level boardwalk, so it’s also an ideal way for those with wheelchairs or mobility challenges to enjoy an easy but majestic nature walk.
Duck Town Park, Duck
If you’re headed for the Duck Boardwalk, don’t overlook the Duck Town Park. This 11-acre green space features winding trails that lead through Maritime Forest, expansive green spaces, a swamp, and past breathtaking views of Currituck Sound. If you’ve got your own kayak, paddleboard or canoe, you’ll find an easy launch at the boat pier. This is a perfect dog- and kid-friendly place to hike — there’s a picnic shelter, playground, and even a water fountain just for your furry friend.
Jockey’s Ridge State Park, Nags Head
It’s hard to decide whether to join the action or just sit and watch at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This area sports the largest natural-living sand dune in the east, and due to the steady breezes, is a haven for hang gliders. There are miles of hiking trails, picnic tables and public restrooms, so bring your lunch and spend the day flying a kite or watching the daredevils soar.
Nature Conservancy at Nags Head Woods Preserve, Kill Devil Hills