Stand on the metal walkway that encircles the lantern room of the Cape Hatteras Light, some 165 feet (50 meters) above ground, and you'll sense that this towering sentry, which has been saving lives since 1870, is still vital to today's passing mariners. Looking east, you watch the relentless swells of the Atlantic Ocean paw away at the beach, continuously redrawing the contours of this coast. Panning south, you see Cape Hatteras National Seashore sweeping out toward Cape Hatteras Point, which knifes into the ocean like a giant arrowhead. Even on a calm day you can make out the froth of the treacherous waters just beyond Diamond Shoals, where the northern Labrador Current clashes theatrically with the Gulf Stream.
This lighthouse is among four that dot the main stretch of North Carolina's Outer Banks. All were built during the 1800s and still cast their beacons today—guiding white-knuckled seafarers through famously ornery waters. Over the centuries, some 1,500 ships have perished here, earning the Outer Banks the moniker Graveyard of the Atlantic.
Nature still rules this tendril of barrier islands, despite the creep of development in some Outer Banks towns. Marsh grasses bend to light breezes in Pea Island Wildlife Refuge; just up the road, long-billed herons, ibises, oystercatchers, and plovers feed in the tea-colored waters of Pamlico Sound; and out in the Atlantic, surfers and sea kayakers frolic in the breakers.
This 114-mile (183-kilometer) drive cruises from Corolla to Ocracoke Village. Start at the northern end of Highway 12, literally where the pavement turns to sand at the Currituck Banks Estuarine Reserve. Follow it to Route 158, which is the bypass road for Highway 12 and travels through Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Rejoin Highway 12 at Whalebone Junction (the entrance to Cape Hatteras National Seashore), and stay on it all the way to Ocracoke Village, including the car ferry from Hatteras Village to Ocracoke Island. The route, mostly two-lane, runs straight and flat, linking communities of weathered beach houses, offering ocean views amid the dunes, and serving up extended vistas of the sound.
Start at Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla
The Currituck Beach Lighthouse (1101 Corolla Village Rd., Corolla; tel. 1 252 453 4939; www.currituckbeachlight.com) is not the lonely northern outpost it once was: Beach houses have knuckled in around the 162-foot (49-meter)-high sentry. But the sense of history is still strong at the light itself and at the adjacent keeper's house, which is now a museum shop. Climb the tower's 214 steps to scan the Currituck Banks estuarine reserve for wild horses (you'll need binoculars).
Wright Brothers National Memorial
Driving south, the first major stop is major indeed: the site where air travel was born. The Wright Brothers National Memorial (Hwy. 158, Kill Devil Hills; tel. 1 252 441 7430; www.nps.gov/wrbr) encompasses more than 400 acres (162 hectares) and marks the places where brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first four powered flights. A full-size replica of their Flyer is on display in the visitors center. Another exhibit hall interprets the region's history. Photos show Model Ts parked in sandy lots next to beachfront homes and women in dresses emptying fish nets. Also covered is aviation history, from gliders to the space shuttle.
Jockey's Ridge State Park
Children of all ages adore the giant sand dunes of Jockey's Ridge State Park (W. Carolista Dr., Nags Head; tel. 1 252 441 7132; www.jockeyridgestatepark.com), which boasts the tallest natural sand-dune system in the eastern United States. The 420-acre (170-hectare) park, with dunes topping 80 feet (24 meters), practically demands juvenile behavior, such as kite flying and running (or rolling) down the silky sand. Also popular here: hang-gliding lessons from the professionals at Kitty Hawk Kites Hang Gliding Training Center (W. Carolista Dr.; tel. 1 252 441 4124; www.kittyhawk.com). Surfers have their own mecca nearby: the Secret Spot Surf Shop (2815 S. Croatan Hwy., Nags Head; tel. 1 252 441 4030; www.secretspotsurfshop.com). Owner Steve Hess was shaping and selling boards out of the back of his brother's Kitty Hawk hotdog stand in the early 1970s. "We still get the big waves, but it seems like we used to get them more often," he says nostalgically. "Maybe I'm just jaded; I've been surfing here since I was a kid."
First Colony Inn
Plan to spend a night at the First Colony Inn (6720 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head; tel. 1 252 441 2343; www.firstcolonyinn.com), built in 1932 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This 26-room bed-and-breakfast recalls a bygone era, with antiques, wraparound verandas, comfy wooden rocking chairs, and a meditative library. The breakfast room has been preserved in its original condition. Cable TV and heated towel bars add modern touches.
Cape Hatteras National Seashore
When you enter Cape Hatteras National Seashore (tel. 1 252 473 2111; www.nsp.gov/caha), strip malls and traffic lights give way to a landscape resembling an African savanna set down in the ocean. The park includes all the coastline from Nags Head to Ocracoke, 74 miles (119 kilometers) south, and the appeal is all outdoors: combing for shells on Coquina Beach, fishing the tidal creeks of Albemarle Sound, photographing the muted hues of the marsh, or sitting on a dune, scanning the ocean for passing pilot whales.
Bodie Island Lighthouse
Six miles (ten kilometers) south of Cape Hatteras National Seashore's northern entrance stands the 156-foot (48-meter) Bodie Island Lighthouse (Hwy. 12, Nags Head; tel. 1 252 441 5711; http://www.nps.gov/caha/historyculture/bodie-island-light-station.htm), a lonesome sentinel on Albemarle Sound. The black-and-white striped tower, first lit in 1872, is the third lighthouse to bear the name Bodie Island: The original was so poorly built it was abandoned; its successor was blown up in 1861 by Confederate troops. The lighthouse itself is closed to the public but makes a captivating photo in the right light. Stroll the Bodie Island Pond Trail through bird-rich marshland. A small visitors center covers lighthouse history.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
A few miles farther south you'll come upon the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge visitors center (Hwy. 12 ten miles/16 kilometers south of Nags Head; tel. 1 252 987 2394; www.fws.gov/peaisland), where you can hike the nature trail for close-up views of countless birds—ospreys, snow geese, egrets, plovers, tundra swans, wrens, and more—plying the ponds and marshes of Pamlico Sound. Walk across Highway 12 and over the dunes to a beach almost as pristine as it was a thousand years ago. To get out on that water, drop into Hatteras Island Sail Shop (Hwy. 12, Waves; tel. 1 252 987 2292; http://www.hatterasislandsurfshop.com/), which rents surfboards, windsurfing gear, and kayaks, and offers windsurfing and kite-boarding lessons.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse
Continue 20 miles (32 kilometers) south to a local icon: the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (46375 Lighthouse Rd., Buxton; tel. 1 252 995 4474; www.nps.gov/caha). Beach erosion forced the relocation of the Outer Banks' most venerable landmark in 1999. The move—2,900 feet (884 meters)—saved the tallest (210 feet/64 meters high) operating beacon in North America, but also changed the view from the lantern room gallery: Instead of looking down on surfers in action, visitors now have a vantage of dense maritime woods—live oak, pine, and yaupon—and a slightly set back perspective of the sweeping coast. This may be America's most photographed lighthouse.
The mellow resort town of Buxton morphs from winter village to summer-vacation central in June, bustling with tackle shops, B&Bs, and seafood restaurants. For a simple, succulent piece of flounder, tuna, tile fish—or whatever's biting—hit the Fish House (48962 Hwy. 12, Buxton; tel. 1 252 995 5151). The family service recalls quieter times, while the sloping floor is a remnant from the building's days as a commercial fish-processing plant. Markings on the wall show where recent hurricanes flooded the dining room. One of the best breakfasts on the Outer Banks—Belgian waffles, egg strata, soufflés—is to be had at the Inn on Pamlico Sound (49684 Hwy. 12, Buxton; tel. 1 252 995 7030; www.innonpamlicosound.com), which also serves up simple but comfortable accommodations, fiery sunsets from a private deck, and free use of bikes and kayaks.
End at Ocracoke Island
A 40-minute ferry ride will transport you from Hatteras Village to Ocracoke Island (www.hatteras-nc.com/ferry). Relish the 16-mile (26-kilometer) drive through Ocracoke's unspoiled national seashore, then explore Ocracoke Village, a laid-back settlement at the far end. "I sold my car years ago," notes one local at the Pelican bar. "Now I walk and bike everywhere." The highlight on Ocracoke Island—literally—is the Ocracoke Lighthouse (Lighthouse Rd., Ocracoke; tel. 1 252 928 4531; http://www.nps.gov/caha/historyculture/ocracoke-island-lighthouse.htm), the oldest (1823) and shortest (75 feet/23 meters tall) operating lighthouse in North Carolina. The tower is not open to the public, but the nearby Ocracoke Preservation Society Museum (www.ocracokepreservation.org) is. It has an exhibit on island history, including a videotaped lesson on translating the phrases of the local "high tiders." End your day at Howard's Pub (1175 Irvin Garrish Hwy., Ocracoke; tel. 1 252 928 4441; www.howardspub.com), where you can toss rings, dance to live music, or just sit back in a chair on the porch, beer at your elbow, and click through your digital photos of a great set of lighthouses.
This drive is ideal in the shoulder months of Sept.–Oct. and April–June; summer months can see a lot of traffic; Nov.–March can be bleak and weather-challenged. For information, visit www.outerbanks.org.
—Text by John Briley