No trip to the Outer Banks would be complete without a visit to the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Driving south from the Roanoke turn-off, it is 60 miles to Hatteras through a barren strip of dunes, sea grasses, stunted pines, and scrub.
Before traversing the bridge over the Oregon Inlet, a road turns right to the Bodie Island Lighthouse. The light house, with its unique horizontal stripes in black and white, is 156 feet tall, was completed in 1872, a twin to the Currituck Lighthouse, built on the same architectural plans with bricks from the same Baltimore brickyard. Next to it is the original lighthouse keeper’s house which now contains displays on lighthouses and a gift shop. Unlike Currituck, the Bodie Island Lighthouse is not accessible to the public as the interior ironwork has become too fragile to handle great numbers of people.
On the other side of the Oregon Inlet is the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. On one side of the road are accessible, pristine Atlantic beaches, while on the other, there is an interpretive center and a nature trail that leads out into a wetland. The trail is a pleasant walk, but if you really want to be an observer, you should bring binoculars or a telescope. Confused by the different wildfowl? The gift shop in the interpretive center has a fine selection of books for birders.
The drive south continues… barrens punctuated by the occasional beach community: Rodanthe, Waves, and Avon. There are a few beach accesses along the way, but very few. Finally, at Buxton, there is the turnoff for the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, North America’s tallest, at 208 feet. Admission for the lighthouse climb is $6 (2006) and children must be at least 42" tall to do it. Near the foot of the lighthouse there is a pleasant visitor center and gift shop. Many visitors to the light will recall that it was once moved from its original location on the beach… it must have been a massive engineering feat.
Continuing south toward the community of Hatteras, the visitor passes through Frisco, the site of the Native American Museum and Natural History Center. From Hatteras, it’s possible to take the free 40 minute ferry trip to Okracoke (no reservations). Bypassing the ferry terminal will take you to beautiful Hatteras Beach. Across from the beach, there is the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. Open for three years, it is a work-in-progress; work progresses when the money is available. The main exhibition hall is still in the construction phase; nevertheless, it’s enjoyable. There are exhibits of Billy Mitchell’s 1923 demonstration of air power against ships, the Civil War in the Outer Banks and the sinking of the German U-Boat U-85 off the Carolina coast. The exhibit includes the submarine’s recovered enigma machine. The museum has artifacts from the wreck of the USS Huron and so on; it is worth visiting now and will be even more so when it is complete.
The road to Hatteras is all 2 lane, but it is a reasonably fast trip and the scenery, the Outer Banks little affected by development, is quite remarkable.