OUTER BANKS, N.C. – Nature lovers and those who revel in the outdoors will find their own personal paradise in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Long known for their tranquility and scenic beauty, the popular barrier islands along North Carolina’s East Coast provide a quiet haven for vacationers wishing to escape the hustle-bustle of their day-to-day lives. Whether relaxing on an isolated beach, fishing in a remote wildlife refuge, hang-gliding over the highest sand dune on the Atlantic Coast, or hiking the grounds of a historic lighthouse, outdoor lovers never run out of places to explore on the Outer Banks.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore

The nation’s first national seashore, Cape Hatteras National Seashore stretches 70 miles north to south across three barrier islands – Bodie, Hatteras and Ocracoke. The islands are linked by N.C. Highway 12 – a narrow, paved road – and the Hatteras Inlet Ferry.

A fascinating combination of natural and cultural resources, the National Seashore provides its visitors with a wide variety of recreational opportunities. The fishing and surfing are considered some of the best on the East Coast. The dynamic islands offer diverse habitats and are a valuable wintering area for migrating waterfowl, including snow geese, Canada geese and ducks. The park also boasts a wealth of history relating to shipwrecks, lighthouses and the U.S. Lifesaving Service.

Along the long stretches of pristine beach, visitors can be found surf fishing, sunbathing, swimming, beach combing, boating, canoeing, kayaking, sailing and surfing. Among the sand dunes, marshes and woodlands, others can be seen auto touring, biking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, camping, hiking, hunting, and stargazing.

The National Seashore offers three visitor centers to help vacationers enjoy their stay at the park. Each of the centers is located in one of the Outer Bank’s famous lighthouse stations – Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke. While the Bodie Island and Ocracoke lighthouse are closed for climbing, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse reopened to the public in April 2003, after an extensive renovation following its move 2,900 feet inland to preserve it from encroaching seas.

Visitors can purchase tickets to climb the lighthouse at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse Visitor Center, the 3rd Friday in April through Columbus Day in October, beginning at 8:30 a.m. daily. Self-guided tours begin at 9 a.m. and run every 20 minutes until 5:30 p.m. through Labor Day, where climbing hours are cut back to 4:30 p.m. until Columbus Day, the last day of climbing for the season. Fees are $7 for adults and $3.50 for seniors age 62 and older and for children under 12. Tickets are available only for the day of purchase, so visitors are advised to arrive early.

Each of the three visitor centers features a variety of exhibits about the history of the lighthouses, their keepers and the surrounding area as well as bookstores and walking paths. Ranger-led programs are offered at each from mid-June through mid-August.

Those who wish to explore the National Seashore for more than a day can camp at one of its four campgrounds. Cape Point, Frisco, Ocracoke and Oregon Inlet campgrounds are suitable for both tents and RVs and offer a variety of amenities, including cold showers, drinking water, flush-toilets, picnic tables and fire grills. No utility hook-ups are provided. While no lodging is available in the Seashore, the small villages scattered throughout the National Seashore feature a variety of inns, motels and private rental properties.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open year-round; and its three visitor centers are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from September through May, except for Christmas, and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from June through August. Admission is free. For more information, call the National Seashore at (252) 473-2111 or visit the web at www.nps.gov/caha.

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge

Nearby Cape Hatteras National Seashore is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since its establishment in 1937. Situated on the northernmost section of Hatteras Island, between Oregon Inlet and Rodanthe, N.C., the refuge is comprised of beautiful, barrier island beach; sand dunes; upland; fresh and brackish water ponds; salt flats and salt marsh.

More than 400 species of wintering waterfowl regularly visit the 5,834-acre refuge, including snow geese, egrets, herons and a large variety of wading, shore and songbirds. Several shorebird nesting areas and wading bird rookeries are located on the refuge. Winter, spring and fall provide ample opportunity for bird watching at what’s become known as a “Birder’s Paradise.”

In addition to its diverse bird population, the refuge is home to 25 species of mammals, 24 species of reptiles and five species of amphibians. Endangered and threatened species include: peregrine falcons, American bald eagles, loggerhead sea turtles and piping plover.

Besides boasting some of the country’s best bird watching and wildlife viewing, the refuge features a visitor center, two wildlife trails, observation platforms and towers with spotting scopes. Bird walks and children’s programs are regularly offered during the summer months; and guided canoe tours and several special events are held at select times during the year.

The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round during daylight hours. The visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. year-round and on Thursday through Sunday during winter months. Admission is free, but there is a nominal fee for guided canoe tours. For additional information, call (252) 473-1131, or go online to www.fws.gov/refuge/pea_island/about.html.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

The 400-acre Jockey’s Ridge State Park encompasses the highest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast and one of the Outer Banks’ best known visual icons. Located on the U.S. 158 Bypass at milepost 12½, the park gives visitors a chance to experience the world of the desert. Shifting sands, high winds, extreme temperatures and a lack of water make the park resemble barren environments such as the Sahara Desert. On the other hand, the park also encompasses the wonders of an estuarine environment. The tidal waters of Roanoke Sound, on the park’s western boundary, are a rich habitat for a variety of plant and animal life.

For visitors who are unable to climb the nearly 90-foot dune to view the panoramic vistas of the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound, park staff will drive people needing assistance to the top of the dune aboard an all-terrain vehicle. Rides must be reserved in advance. Also available are interpretive tapes describing the views from the boardwalk for persons with visual impairments.

When not climbing the dune or exploring the estuarine environment, vacationers take to hang gliding; hiking on one of the park’s two self-guided nature trails; kite flying; sandboarding; and picnicking at one of the park’s eight picnic shelters, each furnished with two tables and a grill. In the late summer, fall and winter, visitors can view warblers, sparrows, flycatchers and other species of birds in the park’s shrub thickets. Jockey’s Ridge is home to a variety of waterfowl in the winter.

Most visitors also tour the exhibit hall at the park’s visitor center to learn more about the natural, cultural and historical history of Jockey’s Ridge and the Outer Banks. They discover what dunes are made of, how they are created and how they are shaped. They research the history of storms and their influences on park dunes and the Outer Banks. And they explore plants and animals and their role in the park now and in earlier days. Featured exhibits include: a diorama depicting what happens at night when the park is closed and wildlife takes over the dune, a computer program allowing visitors to research weather at Jockey’s Ridge, and several matching games in which visitors match tracks to the animals that created them and dune names to their locations across the country. Rangers also conduct regularly scheduled educational and interpretive programs about the park.

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November through February; from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from March through October; from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in April, May and September; and from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. from June through August. The exhibit hall in the visitor center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the summer. Admission to both the park and the exhibit hall are free. For more information, call the park at (252) 441-7132 or visit the web at www.ncsparks.net/coe/coe.html.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Just west of Manteo, N.C., on U.S. Highway 64/264 sits the 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1984, the refuge is home to at least 200 species of birds, including prothonotary warblers, prairie warblers, Swainson’s warblers, worm-eating warblers, red-eyed vireos, wood ducks and barred owls. Endangered and threatened species that can be found on the refuge include the American alligator, peregrine falcon, American bald eagle and red-cockaded woodpecker. One of the largest remaining concentrations of black bears along the mid-Atlantic coast also has found a home at the refuge.

In its efforts to preserve endangered species, the refuge participated in a five-year experiment to rebuild a self-sustaining red wolf population, after the species had become extinct in the wild. Through captive breeding, red wolves were maintained while a suitable location was found to re-establish them. Thanks to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, red wolves roam free today in Eastern North Carolina.

Though remote, the refuge offers a challenge to the adventurous outdoor enthusiast. Birders, photographers and nature lovers find the refuge intriguing but difficult to maneuver. Roadways are open to the public on foot or by car, but they are impassable during wet weather. Hunting and fishing are popular activities, as are hiking, kayaking and birding. There are hiking trails, wildlife trails, and canoe and kayak trails, as well as a fishing dock that is handicapped accessible.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is open daily during daylight hours. Admission is free, but there is a nominal fee for guided canoe tours. For more information, call the Refuge at (252) 473-1131, or visit the web at http://www.fws.gov/alligatorriver/.

Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve

Vacationers seeking something other than a walk on the beach will delight in a trip to the Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve, 1,092 acres of forest in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., protected by the Nature Conservancy. The preserve is considered one of the best remaining examples of a mid-Atlantic maritime forest with deciduous hardwoods. The pine and hardwood forest harbors trees up to 500 years old and has an extensive system of dunes, interdune ponds and wetlands.

The preserve is an important nesting area for more than 50 species of birds, including green heron, wood duck, red-shouldered hawk, clapper rail, ruby-throated hummingbird, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary warbler and summer tanager. Freshwater ponds are inhabited by turtles and salamanders and support diverse aquatic plant life, including the rare water violet. An extensive marsh system bordering Roanoke Sound on the western side of the preserve supports a wealth of wildlife, including river otter, muskrat, egrets, herons, and many species of migratory waterfowl.

Visitors enjoy hiking on self-guided trails, kayak tours, bird watching and a trip to the visitor center and gift shop while at the preserve, which Congress designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1974.

The Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Monday through Friday and on Saturday during the summer. Admission is free, but donations are requested; and guests are asked to register at the visitor center. For details about the Preserve and its programs, call (252) 441-2525 or visit the web at www.nature.org/northcarolina.

Elizabethan Gardens

A more formal outdoor adventure is in store for those who visit the Elizabethan Gardens on the grounds of the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on the north end of Roanoke Island near Manteo, N.C. As a living memorial to Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh’s lost colonists, the gardens pay tribute to the 117 men, women and children who vanished during the first English attempts to colonize the New World from 1585 to 1587. The gardens have a unique appeal not only to history buffs who enjoy its historic setting, but also to horticulturists who marvel at its myriad plants and to nature lovers who enjoy its wildflowers and indigenous shrubs and trees. There is beauty year-round in this accurately reproduced early English garden. Around the middle of April, masses of blooming azaleas, dogwoods, rhododendrons, vines, herbs, bulbs and spring annuals reach their peak. Sweet-scented gardenias, roses, magnolias, crape myrtle, lilies, hydrangeas and summer annuals achieve their height of bloom in the middle of July. Riotous summer bedding plants, hibiscus, chrysanthemums and impatiens are featured in the autumn months; and camellias appear from late fall through winter until March. There’s even a pink rose bush from Queen Elizabeth’s rose garden at Windsor Castle, sent to the Gardens in recognition of the U.S. celebration of its Bicentennial.

Interspersed throughout the gardens are priceless antique statues; and the gatehouse, designed as a 16th-century orangery, is furnished with antiques, paintings and period furnishings. Meandering paths beckon visitors to the woodland and wildlife garden, alive with beautifully colored Monarch butterflies, and to the 16th-century gazebo with a fantastic view of Roanoke Sound.

The 10.5-acre grounds were designed and executed by two of the nation’s foremost landscape architects, M. Umberto Innocenti and Richard Webel. The gardens were created by the Garden Club of North Carolina Inc. in 1951, with the first spade of dirt turned on the Coronation Day of Queen Elizabeth II on June 2, 1953.

The Elizabeth Gardens are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. December – February; 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. in the spring and fall; 9 a.m. – 7 p.m. during the summer. Admission is $8 for adults, $8.00 for seniors age 62 and older, $5 for children age 6 to 17 and free for children age 5 and younger. For more details, call the Gardens at (252) 473-3234. The Holiday program WinterLights hours are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. during the late fall/early winter evenings.