Officially opening in 1959, Cape Hatteras National Seashore was the first national seashore and national recreation area in the National Park Service system. The opportunities to enjoy this gem of a national treasure are extraordinary, and the distinction between a national park and national recreational area may seem subtle, but the difference allows for even more activities than are typically found in our national parks.
The main attraction to the Outer Banks is its beaches and CHNS has some of the best.
We do have some favorites, although they’re all very nice.
Far from the northern Outer Banks, Ocracoke has one of the best beaches in the world. It’s a wide beach with wonderfully soft sand. However, for our Carolina Designs guests, that’s a heck of a ride just to go to the beach.
Closer to home, we love Coquina Beach in South Nags Head just across the entrance to Bodie Island Lighthouse.
The beach itself is wide with soft sand. Plenty of parking is available, with nice shower and restroom facilities—powered by a wind turbine.
The beach extends for quite some distance north and south from the parking lot making it ideal for beachcombing or a walk in the sand.
The CHNS beaches tend to have a bit more room to spread out than some of the other Outer Banks beaches, making them great for families. However, there are no stores or restaurants in the immediate vicinity so pack everything you’ll need with you.
There are three lighthouses that are part of CHNS. Ocracoke Light is not available for climbing. Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras are, although the climbing is on a seasonal basis.
The view from the top of either lighthouse is breathtaking and worth the effort of the climb, which is strenuous. There is no air-conditioning and the stairs are narrow and winding and there are a lot of them.
There are some important things to know before climbing the lighthouses.
- You must make reservations. Hatteras is more popular, but for either lighthouse, don’t wait until the last moment.
- There is a fee for climbing. The most current information will be available when you make your reservation.
- Climbers must be 42” tall. Given how narrow and steep the stairs are, it would not be safe to carry a child and climbing the equivalent of a 10 story building would be very difficult for a five-year-old.
- Take a camera. The cell phone will work, but a camera will be better.
The Wonders of Nature
With miles and miles of beautiful beaches and three lighthouses, the wonders of nature that abound in CHNS are often overlooked. That’s unfortunate because the soundside of the park offers some of the most remarkable opportunities to discover a diverse and beautiful environment.
There are a couple of hiking trails that the NPS maintains. They’re very easy to navigate since there are no hills to speak of although portions of them are sandy. The trails listed on the website are either on Hatteras Island or Ocracoke, but a very nice, short walk is available at Bodie Island Lighthouse.
There are actually two at this location. There is a boardwalk that traverses the marsh. Be ready to take pictures on this one. There are some spectacular views of the lighthouse as well as beautiful images of the marsh to be captured.
On the south side of the parking lot, there is a nice short walk through the native grasses and plants. Pretty and worthwhile doing.
Another way to explore the soundside CHNS is in a kayak. A number of outfitters offer tours, but more experienced paddlers may wish to go out on their own. Perhaps the best put-in is at the New Inlet parking lot on Hatteras Island. However, until the Jug Handle Bridge is completed it is available sporadically as NCDOT uses it from time to time as a staging area.
One of the recreational opportunities that really sets CHNS apart from national parks is the chance for waterfowl hunting. An interesting fact with that, the reason it was designated a recreational area instead of national park was to allow hunting.
There are a number of blinds available. All federal and state laws apply.
With 60 or 70 miles of beach available, taking a 4WD vehicle out to the Atlantic Ocean is one of the most popular activities a CHNS.
Permits are required to drive on the beach. The fines and penalties for not having a permit are hefty. Permits are available at any of the three visitors centers at Bodie Island, Buxton or Ocracoke. They are also available online.
One of the most popular reasons to drive on the beach is the fishing at the Point at Cape Hatteras or Ocracoke Inlet. The fishing is amazing at both locations. Be aware of when high tide rolls in. It can come in fairly quickly at both locations and people—and their vehicles have gotten stranded.