Length: About 115 miles.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Ferries: For information on ferry schedules, fees, and reservations, call 1-800-BY-FERRY.
Words to the wise: Keep your car on the road and on paved pulloffs; if you try to park on the shoulders, you’ll almost certainly get stuck in the sand. Swim only where lifeguards are on duty.
Visitor centers: Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras, Ocracoke Island.
Further information: Superintendent, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, 1401 National Park Dr., Manteo, NC 27954; tel. 252-473-2111,www.nps.gov/caha/.
It’s not for nothing that the Outer Banks coastline is nicknamed the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Buffeted by winds and crosscurrents, the waters off this fragile finger of land jutting far out to sea are littered with more than 500 shipwrecks. But for vacationers these shores are a delight; sun-kissed breezes, rolling blue waves, undulating dunes, and seafood feasts keep folks coming back year after year.
1. Wright Memorial Bridge
Rte. 158, the northern approach to the slender thread of barrier islands known as the Outer Banks, can be heavily trafficked on summer weekends, so it’s a good thing that the drive through rural Currituck County can be so pleasant. As the highway drifts past farmland and salt marshes along the shallow waters of Currituck Sound, seductive roadside vegetable stands and barbecue joints vie for motorists’ attention.
All that changes abruptly at Point Harbor, where the Wright Memorial Bridge, a low-lying two-laner, carries visitors across the silver-blue sound to a bustling resort playground. After miles of clapboard farmhouses and soybean fields, the sparkling blue ocean looms ahead, edged by a glorious expanse of beach.
2. Kill Devil Hills
It was the weather that lured Wilbur and Orville Wright to these islands in 1900. But the Ohio bicycle makers didn’t come for the sun; they came for the wind, which was needed for their pioneering experiments in aviation. From atop a huge sand hill in what is now Kill Devil Hills, the brothers took their homemade craft on the first powered flight in history — 120 feet in 12 seconds. Today, at the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a mighty granite pylon on Big Kill Devil Hill commemorates their feats. You can view two replicas of Wright aircraft at the exhibit center, and outdoors the park has markers that show the distances and durations of four historic flights the Wright brothers made among these windy dunes.
3. Nags Head
More than a century ago, summer resorters hereabouts built handsome wooden cottages with wraparound porches on the sound side of the island. Then someone got the idea that the ocean side had better views, better swimming, and a salt-air breeze that discouraged mosquitoes. So the homeowners placed logs beneath their cottages and rolled them over marshlands and dunes to the oceanfront at present-day Nags Head, where they raised the cottages on stilts to let storm waters surge harmlessly underneath. The homes, known as the Unpainted Aristocracy, still stand on the beach road between mileposts 11 and 15, but today they are flanked by a clutter of souvenir shops. Across the highway, in startling contrast, stand huge mounds of white sand, the dune system that makes up Jockeys Ridge State Park. You can climb 125-foot Jockeys Ridge, the highest single sand dune on the East Coast, and watch hang gliders leap from the top.
Jockeys Ridge is part of a system of sand dunes that shelter an ancient maritime forest, the Nags Head Woods Preserve. This idyllic stand of oaks (some of them 500 years old) and rare wildlife was salvaged by the Nature Conservancy in the 1980s. Although the woods are linked to Jockeys Ridge, you’ll have to backtrack to milepost 10 on the Rte. 158 bypass to reach the forest and the visitor center. Trails lead through the moss-draped woodland past crystal-clear freshwater ponds and flowering dogwoods. Be sure to call ahead before visiting.