When people think about the Outer Banks of North Carolina, what most comes to mind are lighthouses, the first flight of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, and miles of beaches. These popular tourist attractions are worth a visit, but there is so much more to the Outer Banks that the average person does not see. Having lived there for more than ten years, I was privileged to capture in photos the hidden jewels than most tourists don’t even know exist, much less bother to visit.
The Outer Banks is composed of three ecozones: the beach, where very little vegetation grows in the salt-saturated air; the dunes, which are vegetated by salt-tolerant plants; and the maritime forest behind the dunes. In this latter zone, the dunes that form a natural barrier from salt-laden ocean winds allow a lush forest to grow. Much of this maritime forest has been preserved by the Nature Conservancy, which has been quietly buying up tracts in what residents refer to as Nags Head Woods. A short walk along the trails of the Nature Conservancy gives a spectacular glimpse of the great diversity within this zone. Nags Head Woods is home to more than 300 species of plants, more than 100 species of birds, six species of freshwater fish, and 65 species of land vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, and mammals). Among the more notable are this friendly red-bellied water snake:
This prehistoric-looking giant snapping turtle that lived in the natural pond in my backyard for a few weeks one spring:
And this Osprey, who occasionally landed in the large Loblolly Pine in my front yard, where he enjoyed a leisurely lunch of the fish he plucked from the Sound:
Fresh-water ponds lie in the hollows between the dunes in Nags Head Woods. At first glance their surfaces appear to be covered in green slime, but upon closer inspection the slime proves to be millions of seeds that float upon the water’s surface:
Most any sunny day, Eastern Box Turtles can be seen soaking up the rays on branches that poke up from the green waters, and closer encounters are not uncommon during mating season, when the turtles travel far afield in search of mates:
At the end of the day, Nags Head Woods offers some of the most spectacular sunsets on the Outer Banks:
Bird watchers find their paradise a bit further south. Across the Oregon Inlet Bridge on Hatteras Island, Pea Island offers miles of trails with elevated stands, from which visitors can spot hundreds of varieties of shorebirds:
If you are visiting during the winter months and are very lucky, you may be fortunate enough to spot a line of Snow Geese alighting on the inland ponds as the setting sun turns the waters to gold:
Visitors overlook much of the Outer Banks, perhaps because there is so much to see. And although this story is primarily about the area’s undiscovered gems, I can’t resist including a few photos of the more well-known tourist attractions, such as the Bodie Island Lighthouse, here shown full view and close-up:
And the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, also shown full-view and close-up:
Please do visit the Outer Banks. But when you come, seek out the lesser known attractions in addition to the famous sites. You’ll be glad you did.
Author’s note: The Outer Banks of North Carolina are a 200-mile long strip of barrier islands located just off the Atlantic coast. Each of the dozen or so communities that dot this narrow strip of sand offers a unique experience and myriad choices for accommodations. While expensive luxury vacation rental homes are abundant, those traveling to the Outer Banks on a budget will find the most affordable areas are in the central area Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, where traditional locally owned motels still stand.