Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge isn’t exactly on the Outer Banks but it’s not that far away either, and for anyone looking to learn about the area’s natural history it is worth the trip across the Roanoke Sound.
Created 30 years ago, it’s one of the largest wildlife refuges on the East Coast. It consists of 154,000 acres of marsh, swamp, pocosin, forest and a bombing range-although the range is actually 47,000 acres surrounded by the refuge and not considered part of it.
There is a remarkable diversity of life here. It is the northern reach of the American alligator, although the alligators in this region tend to be smaller than their deep south cousins. This is not without exceptions. This summer a driver struck and killed a 13’ bull alligator that was crossing US 64 at night.
Alligators are just one of the species that call the refuge home. It boasts one of the largest black bear populations on the Eastern Seaboard, but sightings are uncommon. Unlike a national park, the wildlife refuge is set aside for the benefit of the environment. There are a number of dirt roads throughout the refuge, however they tend to go around areas favored by wildlife rather than through them.
This is also the site where the red wolf was reintroduced into the wild. A subspecies of the gray wolf, it is larger than a coyote but smaller than a wolf. Breeding pairs of red wolves were brought to Alligator River from zoos in 1987 after the species was declared extinct in its natural habitat. Today, the red wolf population estimate in the refuge is about 100.
One of the more interesting programs the refuge has is Wolf Howlings. Participants gather at night in the heart of the refuge, where a wildlife biologist will howl and listen for the responses of the red wolves—all 100 of which sound just feet away.
There are a number of ways to explore the refuge, located between US 64 and US 264. There are numerous gravel roads suitable for any vehicle in the refuge.
There are also many trails. Because the elevation gain is minimal to nonexistent-the highest point in the refuge only 20’ or 25’ above sea level-hiking is possible for beginners. Insect repellent is an absolute necessity in autumn. Because the mandate of the Wildlife Refuge system is to allow the natural environment to thrive, no mosquito mitigation efforts are used.
One of the more interesting entrances to the refuge is Buffalo City Road. At one time there was a thriving town at the heart of what is now the refuge. In its heyday, Buffalo City had a population of 3,000. A logging town from the 1870s to around 1920, the residents were able to extend the town’s life another 10 to 12 years by turning to moonshining during the Prohibition.
There is nothing left of the town now, but the road leads back to a canoe and kayak drop-in of exquisite beauty on Mill Tail Creek. The road does not connect to other roads in the refuge, but there is a trail you can follow at the turnaround that looks like it was once a railroad bed used to transport lumber from the swamps.
An excellent introduction to the refuge is to take a trip to the Visitor’s Center on Old US 64 about two miles past downtown Manteo. The entrance is just past the Lost Colony and Fort Raleigh on the opposite side.