There is a unique beauty on the Outer Banks that is both understated and breathtaking, a piece of nature that has drawn the curious and adventurous to these barrier island since before the first Europeans set foot on Roanoke Island.
The preservation of its beauty has largely fallen to the Federal government and large swaths of the Outer Banks are owned and managed by the either the National Park Service (NPS) or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife (USFW).
In the Outer Banks region, the two agencies work very closely together to manage adjacent lands with differing missions. The National Park Service manages land to be used and enjoyed by the public, while the USFW manages land to preserve the natural environment.
Although their mandate is to preserve the natural environment, the USFW allows access to the land they manage, encouraged by hiking trails, observation posts, kayak trails and informational booklets.
On the Outer Banks, the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is likely the USFW land that’s familiar to most people. Occupying the northern 13 miles of Hatteras Island, it is a place of extraordinary beauty. The tidal flats and impoundments to the west of NC12 are a birder’s paradise, and according to USFW over 365 bird species have been identified.
Fall is generally considered the best time for bird watching, but every season has distinctive birds who make the refuge their home. There is a trail with observation platforms at the Pea Island Visitors Center. An easy walk, it’s a great way to view wildlife and indigenous plant life. In the summer months, insect repellant is a must. A part of preserving the natural environment includes prohibiting the use of mosquito controls used by towns and cities.
Although Pea Island may be the best known USFW land on the Outer Banks, it is not the only one. Across the sound from the Outer Banks, Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge approaches 154,000 acres and is one of the largest wildlife refuges on the east coast. In fact, Pea Island and all of the other USFW refuges on the Outer Banks are administered by Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.
At first glance it may not appear to be the type of distinctive environment that should be preserved. Flat and interlaced with swamp and dense forest, it does not have the striking beauty of many other locations. Yet it is one of the largest examples of a pocosin wetland, an environment unique to the southeastern United States, still in existence.
It got its name because it is the northernmost reach of the American alligator and yes, alligators still inhabit these waters. There are also black bear, deer, raccoon and some fairly rare species of birds. One of the most interesting inhabitants of Alligator River are the red wolves. Extinct in the wild, they were re-introduced to the reserve through a captive breeding program in the 1990s. An interesting activity offered by the management team is the full moon Red Wolf Howling tours.
Alligator River also manages the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in the four wheel drive area of Carova. The refuge it is only 8,300 acres, which is relatively small for a wildlife reserves, and there is no staff or Visitor’s Center. It is simply a beautiful stretch of land that includes Monkey Island, which was named after the Pamunkey Indians who lived in the area. Monkey Island was once one of the most storied and beautiful hunt clubs in the Currituck Sound, but the current population consists of a large rookery on the north end and a variety of poisonous snakes.
The administrative offices for Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge are located on Roanoke Island just past the entrance to the Lost Colony for travelers heading west. The offices include a small and useful museum that educates visitors about the natural beauty of the Outer Banks.