Frank Stick, one of the original real estate developers on the Outer Banks, became concerned that without protection of the natural landscape the beauty that made the Outer Banks a natural tourist draw would be lost to development. A strong case could be made that Stick was considerably ahead of his time since he began advocating for Cape Hatteras to become a national park in the 1920s. He was an interesting character, a world-renowned illustrator who turned his back on his profession and moved to the Outer Banks at the height of his creative powers.
Stick remained persistent, and in 1937 Congress created Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Although officially dedicated in 1958, it came into existence in 1937. At the time of its dedication there were already two National Park service locations on the Outer Banks, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Monument. Today the three sites are jointly administered from Manteo as the Cape Hatteras Group.
With over two million visitors last year, his belief that protecting the natural beauty and history of the Outer Banks would bring consistent visitation to the area has been confirmed. There are so many activities at these sites that they can be a vacation all their own.
Perched on top of a stabilized dune, the Wright Brothers Monument is almost as iconic an Outer Banks symbol as the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which is also a part of the NPS. The view from the top is spectacular and worth the climb . . . and yes, it is a steep walk to the top. The flight paths of the Wright Brothers’ first flights can be seen clearly. The Visitor’s Center is to the north and there is the endless horizon of the Atlantic Ocean to the east.
Inside the Visitor’s Center is a small museum detailing the efforts of Orville and Wilbur, and a full-sized replica of the Wright Flyer. There is an interpreter who educates visitors about the Wright Brother’s accomplishments, and although geared toward children, adults will get a lot of information as well.
Fort Raleigh, where the Cape Hatteras Group offices are located, has a couple of easily managed hiking trails and some historic exhibits. The Manteo location is predominantly known as the home of the Lost Colony, home to the nation’s oldest continually operating outdoor theater production. Other than being located on the NPS grounds, the Lost Colony is not associated with the Park Service. Also on the park land is the Elizabethan Gardens, a formal garden that is well worth a two to three hour tour.
The name that is generally associated with the park is Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Stretching from South Nags Head to Ocracoke Island, it includes spectacular beaches, beautiful vistas and a couple of lighthouses that can be climbed seasonally.
Reaching 198 feet, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in Buxton is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States. In season, it is open for climbing from April through Columbus Day. The Bodie Island Lighthouse, located to the north in Nags Head, is slightly shorter at 170 feet and can also be climbed utilizing the same schedule as Cape Hatteras.
Be aware that neither lighthouse has air conditioning within the structures, and there are over 200 stairs in each which are narrow and steep. With that said, the views from the top of both are breathtaking and worth every bit of effort.
Beach driving is permitted in the park, but a permit must be purchased and there are restrictions on where vehicles are allowed and when they can be on the beach. It is the driver’s responsibility to know which ramps are available for use and where and when the restrictions are in force. Be advised that the NPS has a reputation for being adamant about these regulations and will issue citations to any driver who is in a restricted area.