This book serves two purposes. First, it is a road map of the outer coast of North Carolina, providing information on public access to the ocean and sound waters; second, in a broader sense of the word access, it is a companion during a journey along the coast. In a geography of already broad horizons, North Carolina Beaches tries to stretch expectations to meet the possibilities that are out there, way out there, where earth, wind, and sky melt together.
Items covered in the guide include locations for parking (accessways), ferries, federal and state parks and preserves, private preserves open to the public, and other difficult-to-categorize locations that are worth a visit. Where it is available, I have included information about each listing, such as location, facilities, operating hours, and phone numbers.
Besides helping you save time planning a trip to the North Carolina coast, this guide will prompt you to sidetrack to some of the more unusual attractions en route. It's full of directions, suggestions, and reasons why you might want to linger longer during your stay.
During the journey, the guide will discuss certain natural features and phenomena regularly encountered at the coast, such as tides, waves, seashells, and bird life. Knowing a bit about the natural world of the ocean and sound waters is another way of "accessing" the coast and will enrich your visit.
In North Carolina, the coastline where land meets sea is complicated, and determining what constitutes "the coast" is difficult. If you want to go where waves continually break, your destination is the string of low sandy islands off of the mainland. It is the presence, shape, and location of these "barrier" islands (barriers to the open ocean) that make the North Carolina coast lengthy and complex. This book focuses on access along the barrier islands; some notable inner coast or soundside locations are included as well.
The state's mainland ends where the sounds begin. The combined sounds, Albemarle, Currituck, Core, Croatan, Pamlico, and Roanoke, comprise the second largest estuary in the nation, after the Chesapeake Bay. The barrier islands form the protective edge of the brackish sounds, and both islands and sounds vary substantially in size. In the northern half of the state, the penetration of the practically unbridgeable sound waters into the mainland still limits travel and commerce. In the southern portion of the coastal region, however, the sounds are not as wide and more easily bridged.
Ecological diversity thrives on the soundside. Land and water meet in an astonishing array of complex edge patterns: pine savannas, hardwood forests, sweeps of salt marsh, low and high swamps, even abrupt bluffs touch the wide brackish water of the sounds, bays, and estuaries. Everything else is sky and light.
The slightly more than 300 miles of "beachfront" comprise less than 10 percent of the total coastline mileage. With the sixth largest coastline in the nation, North Carolina has, by one measure, twenty-two "coastal counties," that is, counties that border on tidal waters.
Traveling along the North Carolina coast has never been simple or quick. A state map confirms that traversing the coastal region is convenient only for fish and birds, which can move about far more freely in this jigsawed area than people will ever be able to move. Even today you need a boat to reach some locations (and you still might need a car when you arrive).
The isolation has been both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because the few permanent inhabitants altered the islands very little, and lengthy stretches of beach and island remained open and windswept, "private" sandy paradises. However, this splendid naturalness brought the curse of discovery, and since the 1960s, more wood has been shipped to these islands as construction materials than probably ever grew in the original maritime forests that still struggle to survive along the coast.
Absolute isolation eroded in the 1930s when the state built bridges and scheduled ferries, making it possible for anyone to reach the beaches. Not surprisingly, many visitors decided to stay awhile. The resulting real estate boom on land that could be bought for as little as one dollar per acre began to alter the character that initially attracted people. Some older residents of the Outer Banks maintain that the traditional charm of islands such as Ocracoke began to decline with the arrival of paved roads in the 1950s. Others, including myself, find it amazing that so much fabulous oceanfront remains as wonderfully open as it is. There are very few locations with "urban" densities along the coast, and in many places you still have the luxury of feeling crowded if another person is visible on the beach.
In spite of the great demand for beachfront property, North Carolina offers some of the most varied coastal attractions between Atlantic City and Daytona. There are wild, untamed beaches, quaint fishing villages, family beaches, and "action" beaches that feature amusement rides and entertainment. You can visit remnants of the environmental systems discovered by the earliest European sea adventurers over 450 years ago and the restored fort they built for their protection. You can hang out in a high-rise time-share, too. The nice thing is, you can take your pick.
Geomorphology of the Coast
Nearly every visitor or resident of the Outer Banks thinks the islands are something special; every coastal geologist knows it. What sets the Outer Banks aside is the obvious they are way out there. If they were closer to the mainland, like the islands south and west of Morehead City, their existence and configuration would be both more commonplace and more explainable geologically. The Outer Banks are a very unusual form of an otherwise predictable southeastern coastal feature barrier islands.
Barrier islands exist worldwide where any gently sloping coastal plain borders the ocean. In the United States, every southeastern state has barrier islands in one form or another. In fact, the lack of them is exceptional in this part of the United States and is a feature that makes the Grand Strand of South Carolina so different.
Even within the expanse of a human lifetime, barrier islands move and change, responding to natural forces, primarily the sea and wind. While the Outer Banks march to many of these formative elements, their distance from the mainland generates speculation about their origin. Coastal geologists currently favor an explanation that links the establishment of the ancient Outer Banks and the observed landward migration of the islands with a gradually rising sea level.
Island building probably began after the last period of glaciation, the Wisconsin, ended approximately 12,000 years ago. Scientists are confident that at that time not only was sea level approximately 120 meters lower than it is today, but the Atlantic coast was 90 miles further to the east, at the approximate edge of the continental shelf. The melting polar ice caps began raising the level of sea, which continued for nearly 8,000 years, gradually halting within a few meters of the present level 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. As sea level climbed, the shoreline inched landward across the continental shelf moving vast quantities of sand before it in the form of beach deposits. River sediments from coastal plain deltas were pulled into the wave zone and also moved along the shore.
When sea level remained steady for a time during the period known as the Holocene, an age of comparative stability, wind and waves worked these large masses of sand and sediment into the precursors of our present barrier islands. Geological evidence seems to indicate that the complex set of forces affecting the formation of the islands storm and wave energy, sea level, and sediment supply reached an equilibrium at that pause, resulting in islands considerably wider than they are today. Behind the prehistoric beach was a gently sloping, forested coastal plain, carved by the Cape Fear, Neuse, Tar, Roanoke, and Chowan rivers and their principal tributaries.
Sea level began rising again, albeit at a much slower rate, 2,000 years ago. The ocean eventually breached the formative barrier islands, flooding the forested coast plain behind them. It also inundated the floodplains of the ancient coastal riverbeds, creating the sounds.
The islands "migrated" landward before the rising sea level in a sequence of steps that are repeated today. When the ocean breaches the islands, it fills in the shallow sound waters behind them with sand and sediment. This new fill, in the lee of dunes, supports pioneering vegetation and eventually becomes forested. Wind and wave action continues to push the dune line landward as the sea continues to rise. Dune sand blows past the now established forest, filling in the soundside marsh. Like a Slinky crawling over itself down a flight of stairs, the entire barrier island retreats landward before the rising sea.
This hypothesis, known as "barrier ridge drowning," seems to explain the geological idiosyncrasies of the Outer Banks. Fossil evidence of an extinct species of oyster normally inhabiting brackish waters discovered on the ocean side of the barrier islands strengthens the argument for this scenario by proving the migration of the island over once-inland oyster beds. Also, the mainland coast has the intricate patterning characteristic of flooded river valleys. But don't get too comfortable the process is continuing.
The beachfront, particularly at inlets, is the least stable portion of a barrier island simply because it is the front line of the ocean assault. The shape of islands changes the most at these locations. We see island migration in the shearing of sand from a dune line, storm surge overwash on a road, or a sand-filled ground-level room of an oceanfront home. When the beach moves, an oceanfront home must move as well. Over decades the actual shape of the entire island changes. The ocean blusters and the islands don't argue; they respond passively.
Barrier islands offer some havens that are comparatively stable and protected and historically have been the places of the most permanent settlement. But for how long? The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse ruled 1//2 mile of beach 100 years ago; the beach extends merely fifty yards now. On the other hand, although most of the coastline retreats in a similar manner, many of the traditional village sites weather on.
The loveliness of the islands lured people and buildings to the barrier beaches. Ironically, if the beach were barren, wild, and natural, with no artificial structures as references on it, it would be difficult to see the natural movement. Without any fixed reference, the islands would appear stationary and unchanged. But our "permanent" additions houses, docks, and roads record changes in the islands like the numerals on a "sand" dial. The islands push against our permanence, showing our monuments and us to be renters, not owners. Perhaps this reminder drives us to cling defiantly to our castles built on these magnificent sands, and all we can really do is rail at the winds in protest.
By the time the first English-speaking peoples attempted settlement in the New World on Roanoke Island in 1585, Native Americans had fished, hunted, and farmed on nearly every island along the coast, in either permanent or seasonal villages. Because they had no written language, they left no written record of their culture. Present-day knowledge comes from firsthand accounts of explorers and reconstructions of villages by archaeologists and anthropologists.
John White, a member of the 1585 expedition whose drawings document the explorers' first glimpse of the New World, reported that there were twenty or more Native American villages in the vicinity of Roanoke Island, all probably allied with, if not related to, the Hatteras tribe, the first group to meet the European explorers and settlers. According to White, the Native Americans cleared villages out of the extensive maritime hardwood forests that covered the soundside of the islands, centering the village around a sweat lodge, which served as a common gathering place. Evidence favors the theory that the Native Americans were self-sufficient within their hunting and fishing regions and traded minimally. There is no indication that the vastness of the sounds and rivers restricted their mobility. In fact, at least one of the islands in Currituck Sound, Monkey Island, served as both a summer fishing village and a burial ground, as did Permuda Island in Stump Sound in Onslow County.
Spain gained, then lost, the early advantage in the settlement and exploration of North Carolina. In 1520, Pedro de Quexoiaan led an expedition from the West Indies to the Cape Fear region. One of the passengers, Lucas V zquez de Ayll¢n, returned in 1526 with 500 men, women, and slaves and livestock to settle the "Rio Jordan," probably the Cape Fear River. The settlement soon withdrew, ravished by disease, to the South Carolina coast. Fever followed the relocation, eventually claiming Ayll¢n in October 1526. The 150 survivors abandoned the venture, boarded ships, and sailed to Santo Domingo.
In 1524 Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, sailing in the service of France, recorded the first exploration of the North Carolina coast. After landing in the Cape Fear region, he detailed observations of the coast as far north as Hatteras, incorporating them into a glowing report to Francis I. Englishman Richard Hakluyt published the account in 1582 under the title Divers Voyages touching the Discoverie of America and Islands Adjacent.
The Spanish then broadened their explorations along the coast. On August 24, 1566, an expedition led by Pedro de Coronas to find the Chesapeake Bay explored present-day Currituck County.
In England, Hakluyt's report engendered greater ambition for the profitable possibilities in the "New World." On March 25, 1584, Sir Walter Raleigh received a patent from Queen Elizabeth for the exclusive rights to and rewards of a New World colony. Raleigh secured investors and supplied a two-ship expedition commanded by Philip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe and piloted by the Portuguese navigator Sim¢n Fernandez. The expedition entered Pamlico Sound through "Wococon" Inlet (present-day Ocracoke Inlet) on July 4, 1584.
Shortly thereafter, Barlowe and a few of his men sailed north in the sound to an island Native Americans called "Roanoke." There they had their first encounter with Native Americans, which went well. Eventually, the expedition returned to England with unusual passengers Manteo and Wanchese, the first Native Americans to visit England.
Barlowe's subsequent report of the expedition increased the desire of Raleigh and the queen to attempt to colonize the New World, which was named "Virginia" in honor of the unwed Elizabeth. Raleigh once again rounded up investors, and on April 9, 1585, seven ships sailed from Plymouth carrying 108 men bound for the first colonization effort in "Virginia." The expedition was led by Sir Richard Grenville, Raleigh's cousin, with Ralph Lane along as "lieutenant gourvernour." The fleet reached Hatteras on July 22, 1585, and by August 17 had disembarked on Roanoke Island. After only ten months, failure to plant crops, lack of supplies, and deteriorating relations with the inhabitants forced the evacuation of the colony by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, leaving eighteen men to guard the fort that had been established there.
Intrigued by the reports supplied by Lane's group and undaunted by efforts to persuade him to abandon colonization attempts, Raleigh organized yet another expedition. The objective of this venture was to settle, farm, and establish a community in the deep-water region of the Chesapeake Bay. Women and children, livestock, and supplies were to be transported to the colony. Raleigh enlisted John White, the artist who had illustrated the explorations of the 1585 expedition, as "Governor" of the "Citie of Ralegh in Virginia." White's experience did little to prepare him for the events to come.
Raleigh's "second colonie" left England in the spring of 1587 led by the Admirall, piloted by Fernandez. White's difficulties began during the crossing, when he clashed with Fernandez over the continuation on to the Chesapeake region. Reaching Hatteras on July 22, 1587, they quickly proceeded to Roanoke Island to pick up Grenville's men, only to find the fort in ruins and the men missing. After Fernandez refused to sail north as planned, White ordered the colonists to disembark on Roanoke Island.
Here the colonists struggled to establish a community. On August 18, White's daughter Eleanor and her husband Ananias Dare gave birth to Virginia, the first child of English-speaking parents born in the New World. The colony quickly ran low on food and supplies. White reluctantly agreed to sail to England for provisions, leaving behind his daughter and granddaughter. The colonists promised to leave a sign if they abandoned Roanoke Island for the mainland.
The threat of European wars stranded White in England until 1590. When he returned to Roanoke Island, he found the colonists vanished, the settlement in shambles, and the letters "CRO" carved into a tree believed to indicate Croatan, a nearby Indian village. The colonists were never found; the colony was lost. White returned to England, thus ending colonization attempts on the North Carolina coast. The efforts shifted north to the Chesapeake after Jamestown in 1607.
The first record of settlement in North Carolina was in 1653 when Nathaniel Batts purchased land from Native Americans in Perquimans County. Batts built a house around 1654 and was soon joined by others from Virginia. This southwestern migration from Virginia into the lands along the Albemarle Sound became the prevailing pattern. Settlement by other groups met with mixed success: dissident Puritans from New England moved to the Cape Fear region in a colonization effort that failed, and Swiss settlers founded New Bern in the early eighteenth century.
Compared to the Chesapeake Bay, coastal North Carolina's population grew slowly because of the treacherous ocean waters east of the Outer Banks, the shoaling inlets, and the lack of deep-water ports. Since the Cape Fear was the only major river along the North Carolina coast with direct outfall into the Atlantic Ocean, geography dictated settlement by "spillover" from Virginia, where deep-water supply was safely established.
Gradually communities grew along the sounds in the eighteenth century. The town of Bath incorporated in 1705, followed by New Bern and then Beaufort in 1723, each a port town but none with favorable access to the open ocean. Growth was slow. By 1729 the entire population of North Carolina was 30,000 whites and fewer than 6,000 blacks.
The mainland began to grow rapidly during the next decade, particularly along the deep water of the Cape Fear River. The populations of Brunswick, established in 1725, and Wilmington, approximately 1735, increased steadily; as early as 1732 the population of Brunswick was 1,200. Although the tidewaters that made navigation and north-south movement difficult relegated the early sound cities to secondary commercial importance, Wilmington continued to thrive as the sole deep-water port. Newcomers pushed inland, and trade routes linked ports with new inland cities.
The industrial revolution bypassed the coastal region. Agriculture, timber products, and fishing sustained the economy of eastern North Carolina, and the large older cities served as market centers. Elizabeth City, Hertford, Edenton, Williamston, Plymouth, Washington, New Bern, and Jacksonville served as seats of commerce and government. While the rest of North Carolina prospered and grew, the coastal region continued to grow and prosper, tied firmly to dependence on agriculture, large landholding patterns, and slave labor.
By the time of the Civil War, North Carolina had two major ports, Wilmington and Morehead City, each linked to the Piedmont by railway. Fort Macon guarded the channel serving Morehead City and was quickly seized by the Confederacy. Confederate forces moved quickly to construct Fort Fisher to secure the more reliable deep-water port of the Cape Fear River.
Union ships blockaded the North Carolina coast beginning around 1862, but the erratic shoreline provided refuge for shallow-draft blockade-runners that smuggled arms and supplies across the sound waters, evading the larger, deeper-draft Union vessels. There were skirmishes at Hatteras Island and Roanoke Island during the war, and the Union ironclad ship Monitor swamped and sank offshore from Cape Hatteras while being towed from Hampton Roads, Virginia.
Although the war ended the antebellum social order, it did not change the character of the coastal economy. At the turn of the century, life in the coastal region of the state remained limited by its waters and enriched by its lands. This did not change until the middle of the twentieth century.
The barrier islands have been isolated and unpopulated for most of the state's history. A few traditional fishing communities, founded before the Civil War, persisted but did not thrive. Today Ocracoke is the only active community on the Outer Banks that originated in the early mercantile years of settlement. The village of Portsmouth also remains today, although it is uninhabited.
Beginning in the 1870s, the barrier islands came to the attention of two primarily very different groups of people: wealthy industrialists from northern states and mariners who regularly circumnavigated the treacherous waters. Both groups indelibly imprinted the islands. The industrialists discovered the isolation and the seasonal waterfowl populations wintering in the sounds. These men chartered hunting and fishing clubs, particularly in Currituck and Dare counties, and purchased thousands of acres for their private sport, in some cases protecting the land as private preserves for waterfowl until the present.
Meanwhile the loss of life due to shipwrecks off the islands called attention of another kind to the sandy shores. In response, the United States both improved the lighthouses along the coast and established U.S. Life-Saving Service outposts every seven miles along the Outer Banks. The life-saving stations, and the post offices that followed, put the barrier island hamlets on the official U.S. postal map, providing both identity and recognition. But for the headline-making rescues of the life-saving crews, in peace and war, little attention would be called to the Outer Banks until the 1940s. The exception, of course, was the arrival from Ohio in 1900 of two brothers named Wright, who began their quest for heavier-than-air flight at Kitty Hawk.
The most significant changes came to the Outer Banks beginning with World War II. The automobile and bridges, increased leisure time, inexpensive land, and a solidly growing economy all led to a building crush along the coast. However, today, after more than 400 years of visitation and habitation, it is still the remoteness and wild fragility of the islands that is the best-selling commodity in the region.
History on Parade
The opportunity to mix history with pleasure abounds both en route to the resort beach cities and when you arrive. It should be part of your "things to do at the coast" list. For example, the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site and the Wright Brothers National Memorial are two of the most important sites in the nation and are within 10 miles of each other.
One of the most important routes in the early settlement of North Carolina, US 17, travels through the eighteenth-century centers of commerce and government. This historic link between Williamsburg, Virginia, and Charleston, South Carolina, weaves inland from the coast. Nearly every community along its passage, including Edenton, Washington, New Bern, and Wilmington, made a mark on the early history of the state. Many are attractive small towns, rich in early architectural detail (see "US 17, the King's Highway").
These smaller towns wear their private and public restoration efforts like badges of honor. Bed and breakfast hostelries make the towns accessible, and open houses and seasonal gatherings allow these communities to show off their eighteenth-century charm. During the year, historical buildings in each are usually open for tours, offering a glimpse of earlier eras.
The Tryon Palace restoration in New Bern and the equally exquisite but more demure residential areas are an architectural treasure trove. The residential areas showcase more than two centuries of culture and artistry. Here you can sample the flavor of one of the most extensive "period" neighborhoods between Norfolk and Wilmington.
In contrast to Williamsburg, a faithfully and meticulously re-created living museum, most of North Carolina's coastal communities acknowledge their history without figuratively trapping it under glass. The homes and churches are still intact because of continual use. There is a charm and vibrancy to the towns tied to the rivers and sea because they are alive and well, restored and reused for living.
You can see a different type of evidence of history on the islands, revolving around the story of the seafaring life and the treachery of the coast. The legendary saga of the U.S. Life-Saving Service is reenacted at Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station in Rodanthe and highlighted in exhibits at the Hatteras Island Visitors Center and at the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort, which also catalogs many facets of traditional coastal life, from decoy carving to boat building. You can't miss the lighthouses, but if you look carefully along the Outer Banks, you will see the recycled boathouses and crew quarters of the early life-saving stations (see "The Houses of Heroes"). Many of these buildings have a new commercial life as restaurants, motels, and real estate offices.
A detour here and there along the way will convince you that North Carolina's historical towns resonate with dignity and complement the vibrancy of the oceanfront with a more contemplative mood.
The Access Issue
Beach access has become a difficult issue in North Carolina. The development of the barrier beaches and the subdivision of lands encompassing traditional public-use locations (such as the headlands at inlets) legally restricted public access to the wet sand beach, that is, the beach covered between high and low tides. The proliferation of no-parking signs and "No Beach Access" signs closed off once-favorite sunning spots to all except those who could afford to own a house or to rent a cottage or motel room on the beach.
By the early 1980s, this reparceling of once-accessible oceanfront created a full-blown crisis, putting pressure on the few locations, such as the national seashores and state parks, where public access was permitted. North Carolina rated the lowest of sixteen coastal states on the access issue despite being blessed with around 300 miles of oceanfront and 4,200 miles of soundside shoreline.
In 1981, the North Carolina General Assembly, responding to public outcry over the findings of a legislative study documenting the lack of public access sites along the coast, established the Coastal Beach Access Program under the supervision of the Division of Coastal Management and provided a million dollars in funding for the first two years. The purpose of the program was to acquire, develop, and maintain public access to the wet sand beach. The legislature expanded the program in 1983 to include funding for estuarine sites, changing its name to the Coastal and Estuarine Water Beach Access Program. The General Assembly introduced a law codifying the common-law rights of public use of ocean and estuarine beaches in 1992. Building on the success, the appeal, and new access needs, the General Assembly amended and renamed the act in 1995 to the Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access Program, thereby giving it a broader directive.
The program quickly developed three types of access sites: regional, neighborhood, and local, which are described below in the section on "How to Use This Book." The guidelines for facilities are fluid since site conditions and funding determine the exact mix of improvements. Development of accessways occurs as land and money become available.
Federal funds for the improvement of coastal access began to supplement the allocations of the General Assembly in 1985, and by 1988 the North Carolina coast boasted 138 public access facilities. The dramatic turnaround propelled the state to the national forefront in the number and quality of access areas. The demand has been acute from the beginning. In 1992, 24 local governments made applications to the Division of Coastal Management requesting more than $2 million in construction grants, for which only $350,000 had been appropriated.
It is a fact that some of the fastest-growing counties in the state are along the coast, and the growth only makes the need for access and open space more acute. In 1995, the General Assembly adopted a land-transfer tax and dedicated most of the funds for use by North Carolina's parks, with a fixed percentage in turn dedicated to the access program. The projected funds are significant and, most important, nondiscretionary, thus allowing the access program administrators the opportunity to plan for both maintenance of existing sites and future expansion.
The crux of the access crisis is parking. Most oceanfront communities provide adequate public access for pedestrians, but not everyone has a reasonable, safe walk. North Carolina law clearly establishes everyone's right to use the wet sand beach. However, without a place to park within a convenient distance of the beach and a clear passage over the dunes, this right is often more abstract than real.
Accordingly, the access program spends a sizable portion of its funding on finding suitable sites large enough to provide at least some parking. Each year, local governments in the 20 counties governed by the Coastal Area Management Act, which requires planning departments to address access, have an opportunity to submit requests for access project funds. Regional ocean access locations with large parking areas and restrooms are given priority in funding.
At present, municipal or county governments are responsible for initiating access project applications. Improved access benefits a community not only by bringing in tourism revenue but also by reducing conflicts between private landowners and the visiting public who usually simply want to get to the beach.
While the need for oceanfront access seems obvious, the need for soundside access locations may be even more pressing. Such access locations allow people to reach the waters that have been the traditional source of livelihood and recreation in coastal areas. Many lifetime residents of the barrier islands have found that they are cut off from traditional locations for clamming, fishing, or even such simple pleasures as crabbing or casting a net. The creation of parking and boat-launching facilities sometimes developed with the assistance of federal monies in conjunction with other state agencies such as the Wildlife Resources Commission increases the opportunity to pursue both old and new forms of water recreation. For example, the discovery of the North Carolina sound waters by windsurfers has generated a powerful demand for soundside access sites.
The handicapped visitor to the coast will find access available in certain locations. Most regional access facilities and many of the larger neighborhood access areas constructed since 1990 are accessible to the handicapped.
Many access sites have dune crossovers with ramps that make them accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, not all of the dune crossovers have ramps that extend to the beach. Depending on the nature of the beach, the ramp may terminate at a gazebo overlook or a deck.
Most state parks and recreation areas are accessible to the handicapped; however, not all of these areas provide access to the beach front. All National Park Service properties are accessible, but while some trails in national wildlife refuges may be negotiable by wheelchair, many are not.
Enforcement of handicapped parking regulations varies among individual local governments. You must have a valid handicapped license plate to park in a designated space. In some locations, the fine for violating this regulation can be as much as $100.
The Division of Vocational Services of the North Carolina Department of Human Resources publishes a book entitled Access North Carolina that lists the handicapped facilities available at all public parks, recreation areas, and historic sites across the state. The book is available free of charge by contacting the Division of Travel and Tourism, North Carolina Department of Economic and Community Development, Raleigh, NC 27611, 1-800-VISITNC.
For more on handicapped access, see "How to Use This Book" below.
Beach Rights Issues
Although a landowner may legally deny access across his or her property to the beach, once you get to the beach, you have the right to be there. North Carolina case law has repeatedly upheld the right of the citizens of the state to use the "foreshore," that is, the wet sand beach, which is covered by the reach of high tide and exposed by the retreat of low tide. This portion of the oceanfront is reserved by the doctrine of public trust for the use of all. A 1983 ruling of the North Carolina Supreme Court reaffirmed this principle: "The long standing right of the public to pass over and along the strip of land lying between the high-water mark and low-water mark adjacent to respondents' property is established beyond the need of citation. In North Carolina private property fronting coastal water ends at the high-water mark and the property lying between the high-water mark and the low-water mark known as the <'foreshore' is the property of the state."
The legal principle supporting this right is the common law doctrine of public trust, a derivative of the English common law of sovereign rights, whereby the sovereign retains certain rights to be enjoyed by all citizens of the state. In the case of North Carolina, the state retains the rights to certain uses of land or waters that cannot be abrogated in any way by the state or any individual.
In 1991, the legal principle of prescriptive easement, which maintains that a privately owned road or path traditionally used as a public right-of-way must remain open to all even if the owner of the property objects, advanced efforts to gain public access in a case at Holden Beach. Since 1986, public access to the western end of the island and Shallotte Inlet had been closed off after the area was developed into a private community. The road to the inlet became a private road that only property owners and their guests could use. After a suit was filed claiming that the public had the right to use the road, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling denying access by claiming that since people had historically traveled along that route to reach the inlet, they had legally established a prescriptive easement to the road.
In 1992, legislation was introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly to codify the common-law right of the public to use ocean and estuarine beaches. The bill states that public trust resources must be protected from "unlawful encroachments, usurpation, or interference with the customary free use and enjoyment of the ocean and estuarine beaches." It empowers the attorney general to bring civil action against any "person, State agency, or other legal entity" encroaching on the public trust rights of the people to "freely use and enjoy the ocean and estuarine beaches." The bill also spells out the conditions under which the court may order removal of a structure blocking access.
The legal battles ebb and flow as much as the tides, reflecting the complexity of public rights, private ownership, and the tenuousness of the beach itself. Two things seem certain: the public has the legal right to use the wet sand beach, and the state vigorously supports providing necessary public access.
Parks, Preserves, Reserves, and Refuges
Many governmental agencies and several private organizations hold title to lands along the coast that are open to the public. These are the large public places on the map the seashores, parks, memorials, refuges, preserves, historic sites, and natural areas. Some have interpretive facilities and regular programming; others have few roads and no buildings and sometimes only restricted or difficult access, either by boat or off-road vehicle. These preserves, regardless of the managing agency, offer a different perspective on the coastal experience; they give access to wilder places and simpler times. The land comprising this complex "public domain" is notable because of its physical beauty as well as its natural, historical, and cultural importance.
Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout national seashores are certainly the most visible and notable of all public lands in the region, securing more than one-half of the state's oceanfront mileage. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages seven wildlife refuges along the coast that are open to visitors.
The U.S. Department of Defense also controls large holdings along the coast as military bases, target ranges, and landing fields. The best known are Camp Lejeune at Jacksonville and Cherry Point Marine Air Station at Havelock. The target range at Stumpy Point and the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field at Bogue can provide a high-energy punctuation to a generally low-key region. Visitation policies at the military sites vary, but generally the bases are open and the guards stationed at the entrance gates will direct you to the appropriate location for registration.
The U.S. Coast Guard maintains active bases serving the major inlets of the state and deeper waters with heavy boating traffic. The Coast Guard stations are generally open to the public, and the atmosphere is very friendly. The newest base at Oregon Inlet is worth visiting just for the historically respectful architecture of the main building. The Coast Guard also maintains the lights in the lighthouses, although other agencies may maintain the buildings.
The state of North Carolina manages five parks, four natural areas, three aquariums, three historic sites, and an underwater archaeological preserve. It also manages eight reserves under the supervision of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve system, a little-known but very successful state program established to protect the wild and natural coast. Parcel by parcel, as money and land become available, the program is obtaining some of the most important coastal ecological niches in order to secure them for research, education, and traditional use. In the words of one administrator, the reserve sites "are meant to be green space on the map." The more than 12,000 acres of lands and waters acquired so far encompass a diversity of habitats.
The reserve system originated in 1982 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) funded five years of acquisition for the National Estuarine Sanctuary Program. In North Carolina, four sites were accepted by the NOAA: Currituck Banks, Rachel Carson, Masonboro Island, and Zeke's Island. In 1988, this program became the National Estuarine Research Reserve, which managed the use of the lands for research, education, and compatible recreational activities. No additional funds were made available for acquisition, however.
In 1987, the state acquired fifty-acre Permuda Island in Onslow County from the Nature Conservancy, which had purchased the island to thwart destruction of its archaeological value. With the land in hand but no program to manage it, the General Assembly established the Coastal Reserve system, an administrative "umbrella" sheltering the previously protected estuaries and any other coastal properties that might subsequently come under state control. The result is a steadily growing collection of "coastal jewels" that includes not only Permuda Island but ecologically significant preserves in Kitty Hawk Woods, Buxton Woods, and upland acreage on Bald Head Island.
Your Child and the Coast
There are few fonder memories than being young and at the beach, but children's curiosity can place them in circumstances they may not be able to handle. Keep these precautions in mind when visiting the coast with your child.
Keep your child in sight at all times. If you bring a book to the beach, bring a babysitter as well.
Protect your child's skin from sunburn and eyes from glare and blowing sand.
Protect your child's feet when crossing sand dunes, wading in shallow sound waters, or walking on piers or docks.
Always be with your child when he or she is in the water, even in a tidal pool.
If your child cannot swim, he or she should wear a life jacket.
Be wary of rip currents that run parallel to the shore then suddenly out to sea. If your child is caught in one, help him or her to swim parallel to shore to break free.
Do not let children swim near inlets.
Never let a child wade in sound waters without a life jacket and sneakers.
Jetties or rock groins can be slippery and dangerous. Do not let your child play on them.
Keep your child away from jellyfish on the beach or in the water.
Hold your child's hand when walking on a pier or dock.
Teach your child never to walk up behind casting fishermen. Be particularly watchful on a pier.
Place your fishing tackle out of reach of small children, or keep your tackle box securely fastened.
Tar and oil may be removed from a child's skin with mineral oil instead of paint solvents.
Highways to the Coast
I-95 is the major north-south interstate in eastern North Carolina. This controlled-access roadway follows the western portion of the coastal plain. All of the major state roads and federal highways leading to the peninsulas of the coast intersect I-95. If you're traveling from the mid-Atlantic states along I-95, you can easily connect with the east-west routes that thread the major peninsulas.
I-40 has opened the doors to the beaches from Onslow to Brunswick County for Piedmont vacationers and I-95 travelers. Even though it is primarily an east-west interstate, it heads nearly due south from Raleigh. North Carolina highways 24, 41, 50, 55, 111, and 210 intersect I-40 and can be woven together to connect you to the coast. Before I-40, traffic corkscrewed steadily along US 421 south from Dunn, NC 87 from Fayetteville, or NC 211 from Lumberton. These routes still offer a local-color tour through rich agricultural lands and near several state historic sites and parks.
If you're traveling to North Carolina from the coastal counties of Virginia or South Carolina, US 17 is the primary route. From Virginia, US 17 goes south to Elizabeth City before following the northern edge of Albemarle Sound to New Bern. From South Carolina, it moves inland to Wilmington and then parallels the coast as far north as Jacksonville before heading further inland. US 17 threads through the historical heart of coastal North Carolina, though for most of its length it is far from the resort island towns. The appeal of history makes the route worthy of its own tour.
The Outer Banks of Currituck and northern Dare counties are served by two other major routes, US 158 and US 64. US 158 intersects I-95 at Roanoke Rapids and heads east across the Albemarle region to the Currituck mainland. It is a pleasant and scenic two-lane road, usually lightly traveled until Elizabeth City. The small towns passed along the way have many architecturally interesting structures, and the state has erected numerous markers commemorating the early history of the area. East of Elizabeth City, at Barco, US 158 merges with NC 168 from the tidewater region of Virginia, and traffic, particularly during summer weekends, becomes heavy. At this point, the road turns south. A high-rise bridge crosses the Intracoastal Waterway at Coinjock, where the traveling public of the eastern seaboard used to wait at an often-raised drawbridge as barges plied the waterway, and eventually the road crosses the Wright Memorial Bridge into Dare County.
US 64 intersects I-95 west of Rocky Mount, 136 miles from Manteo. This is the major east-west artery from the Piedmont, and therefore it is quite busy. It is a heavily used farm-to-market route, and many school buses and logging trucks travel it. The popularity of the Dare County Outer Banks for family camping brings additional slower-moving travelers to the roadway. Although the two-lane sections east of Tarboro can carry some frustratingly slow traffic, east of Williamston, US 64 is being widened to four lanes. The route passes through Williamston and Plymouth, two communities of historic interest, and there is a pleasant side trip to Pettigrew State Park and Somerset Place State Historic Site south of Creswell.
US 264 parallels US 64 as it sweeps along the mainland adjacent to Pamlico Sound. It is comparatively lightly traveled and offers an alternate route to Manteo from cities south of Washington and Greenville. It passes through several wildlife refuges and preserves and winds near Bath, a refreshing historical side trip. US 264 also passes by Swan Quarter, where there is a ferry depot to Ocracoke.
The major highway to Carteret County and Cape Lookout National Seashore is US 70, which links with I-95 20 miles west of Goldsboro. This is an excellent, well-traveled route, and from Kinston it is a four-lane divided highway to Morehead City and Beaufort. East of Beaufort, US 70 may be one of the most beautiful panoramic drives of the coast. It sweeps through the farms and woodlands of Carteret County, linking up with NC 12 for the trip to Cedar Island where you can reach another ferry to Ocracoke. This route traverses seemingly endless salt marshes, shimmering in the light and pungent with the briny, slightly fetid odor of the tidal creeks.
Travelers on US 70 heading to southern Carteret County or the Onslow or Pender County resorts should take US 258 from Kinston south to Jacksonville, where US 17 or NC 24 will take you to the resort city of choice. NC 58 is a "blue highway" alternate from Kinston to Swansboro and the southern Bogue Banks. Both US 258 and NC 58 pass through extensive forest and agricultural lands interrupted by small communities that serve the rural farming population. The drives are lightly traveled and a pleasant diversion from the major routes.
I-40 handles most of the Piedmont traffic to the Brunswick County beaches. Fayetteville and Charlotte residents should take NC 211, which crosses I-95 at Lumberton and shoots across the flat coastal plain counties.
The Bicycle Option
The North Carolina coast is splendid country for cycling. My personal observation, however, is that it is not for solo riders or the fainthearted. Some roads, such as NC 12 along the Outer Banks, are too narrow and summer vacation traffic too heavy to make cycling a safe, enjoyable experience. Besides, if the automobiles don't drive you crazy, the mosquitoes may carry you away.
Spring and fall months offer the best mix of good weather and low traffic for trips along the Outer Banks roads. Also, drivers are less inclined to be impatient during these seasons.
The Bicycle Program of the North Carolina Department of Transportation provides maps of coastal bicycling routes upon request. The maps are detailed tour guides, useful for all-purpose travel but especially geared for bicyclists. Out of eleven designated bicycling trails across the state, five include major coastal highways, namely "Mountains to Sea," "Ports of Call," "Cape Fear Run," "Ocracoke Option," and "North Line Trace." The most extensive coastal bicycling route is the "Ports of Call" route, which covers portions of the historic colonial coastal trade routes from South Carolina to Virginia.
Other maps available from the Bicycle Program include "Around Pamlico Sound: Bicycling the Outer Banks," which provides an excellent starting point for planning and gives detailed information on loops and connectors. It also notes general information on places of interest along the way and campgrounds, but no addresses or phone numbers are included. More detail is available on the "Bicycling in Beaufort" map, which traces a 6-mile loop around this historic town.
For information, contact Bicycle Program, North Carolina Department of Transportation, P.O. Box 25201, Raleigh, NC 27611, 919-733-2804.
How to Use This Book
This book is organized by oceanfront county beginning with Currituck County in the north and concluding with Brunswick County in the south. Entries are listed in the same order that you would find them if you traveled along the beach from Virginia to South Carolina. The political geography of the Outer Banks forced some departures from the county divisions: Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Cape Lookout National Seashore are treated as separate units, even though they form parts of Dare, Hyde, and Carteret counties. The section on Carteret County, the parent county of Cape Lookout National Seashore, follows the Cape Lookout National Seashore section.
Each county and seashore division begins with a general introduction, which is followed by an "Access" section highlighting the most important access information, a general "Handicapped Access" section, and an "Information" section with addresses and phone numbers of sources for more detailed assistance. Specific attractions discussed within the major divisions are each followed by more specific "Access," "Handicapped Access," and "Information" sections. If there is no known access, handicapped access, or source for information, that section is not included.
The text tells you what you may expect to find at each location, providing verbal snapshots that animate the attraction and should make your visit richer. Each entry is a chatty assessment of the mood and character of its subject, sprinkled with anecdotal and historical information figurative taffy to chew on.
"Access" sections give general information about access and the location of public beach and boating access sites, detailing some of the features you might expect to find. The highest priority has been given to locating as accurately as possible every public access site along the barrier islands. Since boaters, off-road-vehicle owners, and handicapped travelers have special access needs, an attempt has been made to specify locations that have facilities to serve them.
The "Handicapped Access" section qualifies the level of accessibility of a site for handicapped visitors, which for the purposes of this book means people who must use wheelchairs. Many dune crossovers along the coast are boardwalks that meet federal handicapped accessibility standards for the slope of ramped sections and the width of the walkway. It is not possible to include all of these locations in the "Handicapped Access" sections. Those locations listed as fully accessible to the handicapped have facilities such as restrooms, gazebos, or overlooks that are built to accommodate wheelchair travelers. Locations described as "negotiable" are possibly accessible to the handicapped; they are not barrier-free but are not totally inaccessible either. The accuracy of this assessment for any individual will, of course, vary, but it is an attempt to provide some information about a location's accessibility.
The following terms are frequently used throughout the book in descriptions of facilities at access sites.
Regional access sites are the largest access sites and offer the most facilities. They are the most reliable locations to plan to visit since they generally are designed for nearly all types of users, including those with special needs. Typically, a regional access site has from 40 to 200 parking spaces, restrooms, outside showers, water fountains, a gazebo or seating area overlooking the beach, and a dune crossover. Such sites may also have telephones, dressing rooms, picnic tables, refreshments, boardwalks, seasonal lifeguards (usually Memorial Day to Labor Day), and off-road-vehicle access to the beach. Additionally, almost all regional access sites are fully accessible to handicapped travelers.
Neighborhood access sites usually have between 10 and 50 parking spaces, a bike rack, a dune crossover, and trash receptacles. They may or may not have off-road-vehicle access and lifeguards. Typically, neighborhood access sites do not have restrooms, and handicapped accessibility varies considerably.
Local access sites generally have limited parking, which may or may not be paved, and a dune crossover.
A dune crossover is a controlled route through the dunes to the beach. Once you find an access site, the dune crossover is usually evident. Dune crossovers may be sand paths or wooden boardwalks, and they may have either steps or ramps for visitors in wheelchairs. Although every attempt has been made to provide up-to-date information, dune crossovers are regularly converted from sand paths to handicapped-accessible boardwalks. In some locations, dune crossovers may serve both off-road vehicles and pedestrians.
In the Cape Hatteras National Seashore section, the term ramp generally denotes an access location to the beach. Since much of the access in the seashore serves off-road vehicles, most ramps are reinforced for this purpose. Separate pedestrian dune crossovers may or may not be provided at any given location.
Unimproved access areas are usually unpaved, with room for one or two cars at best, and they have a signed dune crossover.
Maps and charts accompany the text. The maps correlate with the text, noting the major routes serving a location, regional access sites, and major landmarks. They should guide you directly to the main locations mentioned in the text. Fishing piers are shown on the maps to help orient you on the beach. The charts provide a graphic representation of the basic features at each main location discussed in the text and noted on the maps and the activities best suited to that location. They are meant to serve as an "at a glance" reference; specific information is found in the text.
Feature essays throughout the book discuss various coastal topics, differing in length according to the subject. They are offered as another form of access as a means to let you sample the spiciness of the region. They also may help you satisfy a child's curiosity. At the very least, it is hoped these little diversions will enrich your visit by deciphering some of the natural world that you have chosen to visit.
Three appendixes follow the text. Appendix A is a categorical listing of types of destinations or agencies with their mailing addresses and phone numbers. Appendix B lists civic or cultural happenings along the coast, arranged by month, and a phone number is included for more information on each event. Appendix C compiles a monthly listing of fishing tournaments you may want to enter, including the location of each tournament and a phone number for further information.