Outer Banks Road Trips South
Getting to the Outer Bank is only part of the journey. The most important part of the trip, of course, but the travels don’t have to stop at that home away from home.
With so much to do on the Outer Banks, it’s not surprising that our visitors return year after year. And as they return, they begin to explore…to take the time to discover the hidden treasures of this sandbar by the sea.
There is a lot that is close at hand, but there are also some great day trips that are perfect for the whole family.
We’re not including drive times with our suggestions because it varies so much depending on where the trip begins. For a family taking the day to visit Ocracoke, it takes 45 minutes to an hour longer to get to the island leaving from Corolla instead of Nags Head.
Since we just mentioned Ocracoke, that’s a good place to start.
Located south of Hatteras Village, there is only one way on and off the Island. Everything comes and goes by boat—mostly ferries, but a private boat could make the trip. We’ll add, for the sake of accuracy, there is a small airstrip available, so with a private pilot’s license and an airplane, Ocracoke can also be accessed by air.
Practically, though, the North Carolina Ferry System is the lifeblood of the island.
The ferry terminal is at Hatteras Village. For cars, the trip is free. There is also a high-speed passenger-only ferry that charges a very reasonable fee.
Ocracoke Village is at the southern end of the island and it is beautiful. The village surrounds Silver Lake, a natural lagoon that is almost a perfect circle.
There are a couple of eateries right on the waterfront. Kicking back with a shrimp basket of fresh local shrimp and a cold beverage is a memory to be treasured.
It is a very small, compact village, perfect for walking or riding a bike. If driving, regardless of speed limits, it’s difficult to go faster than 10 mph.
Ocracoke Preservation Society
The Hatteras Ferry Terminal is on the north end of the island, but there are also ferry docks at Silver Lake. The Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum is across from the docks. It’s in an old historic home and has permanent displays of Ocracoke artifacts and changing exhibits.
It’s a small museum and will take at the most an hour to check out, but it will be an hour well spent.
Also worth checking out is the British Cemetery at 234 British Cemetery Road. The cemetery is both a sad reminder of the cost of war and a wonderful testament to gratitude to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The HMS Bedfordshire was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat on May 11, 1942. As the bodies washed up on the Ocracoke beach, they were buried in what is now the British Cemetery.
It was not practical to return the sailors to England, so the US Government has leased the cemetery in perpetuity to the government of Great Britain so the sailors will always be in British soil.
No trip to Ocracoke would be complete without a visit to the Ocracoke Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses in the country and still guiding ships into Silver Lake and Ocracoke Inlet. The light is fully automated now, but it still shines a guiding light at night.
The real magic to Ocracoke is simply wandering around the narrow streets, checking out the local crafts/artwork, and simply enjoying a trip to a beautiful little village.
Other than private pilots with their own plane or sailors navigating the Inner Coastal Waterway, the only way to get to Ocracoke is by driving through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (PINWR). Even though it is part of the drive to Ocracoke, the reserve has a lot going for it, and anyone wanting a more manageable day trip than Ocracoke may find this little strip of barrier island a wonder.
Occupying the northern end of Hatteras Island, PINWR was established in 1938. Although small in size, it is considered one of the premier birdwatching sites along the East Coast.
But birdwatching is a small part of what makes the reserve so fascinating and worth taking a few hours to explore.
The Old Oregon Inlet Coast Guard Station
Crossing the Marc C. Basnight Bridge, the Old Oregon Inlet Coast Guard Station is impossible to miss. The only building for four or five miles, it is the large house-like structure south and a little bit east of the bridge.
There has been a Lifesaving Service or Coast Guard Station at Oregon Inlet since 1874 when the first Lifesaving Service stations were established along the North Carolina coast. The current building was built in 1898 and modified in the 1930s and 1970s. As the channel shifted and the beach retreated, the station was closed and operations moved to the current location on the north side of the inlet.
The building is now owned by North Carolina and administered by the NC Aquarium Society. The story behind that is a tale in itself, so we’ll reserve that for another day.
There has been work done to stabilize the building and repair the exterior. More work still needs to be done before visitors can go inside.
There is a parking lot on the east—ocean—side of the south approach to the bridge. Unlike the north side of Oregon Inlet, it’s possible to park a car and walk to the point where the inlet meets the Atlantic Ocean. The north side is accessible by 4WD vehicles only.
From the parking lot, a number of paths through the dunes call out to be explored. Pets are allowed on a number of the trails, but not all. Signs give clear warning if pets are not allowed.
There are areas that are part of PINWR adjacent to the 10-acre lot that the old station occupies. Some of those areas are considered critical habitat and signs clearly prohibit entry. Other than that, there is plenty of room to wander and explore…or take some fishing gear and see what’s in the surf.
The Pea Island Visitors Center is about four miles south of Oregon Inlet on the west side of the NC12. It’s worth taking an hour or so to check out the trail beginning at the parking and discover what it has to offer.
The trail follows an old impoundment dike and it’s a very easy walk—about a mile out and back. At the beginning of the path, there is pond that, in warm weather, always seems to be filled with snapping turtles. There may be other turtles in there, but the snapping turtles are big and primal looking so they get all the attention.
The path bisects a couple of impoundments. Depending on the season, the birds that are in the waters and marsh that have formed change dramatically. Take a camera; there are usually some great shots just waiting for a click.
In warm weather, insect repellant is a necessity.
Visit the Beach
Across from the Visitors Center, there is a wonderful little beach. Don’t miss this—the sand is soft, and the surf here tends to be a bit tamer. It’s also not quite as well-known or popular as some of the other Outer Banks Beaches.
There’s a metal structure that seems to stick out of the sea about 200 yards offshore. That’s the boiler of the USS Oriental, a Civil War ship that sank in 1862. Unlike many coastal shipwrecks, there was no loss of life.
A Sandwich Shop worth Checking Out
On the odd chance that the day trip to PINWR includes a drive to the south looking for food, or for the Ocracoke day-trippers, be sure to check out Waves Market and Deli.
Waves is the next village south of Rodanthe, the northernmost of the Tri Villages. No one is quite sure where Rodanthe ends and Waves begins, but somewhere south of that line there’s a small strip center that’s home to the store.
The sandwiches are huge, great fries and the staff always seem friendly.