If all you do is go to the beach when visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, then you will miss the real beauty here. This jewel of the North Carolina coast, commonly called OBX, is home to coastal forests, black water rivers, sound side marshes, lovely gardens, towering sand dunes, and yes, miles and miles of open water and beautiful barrier island beaches.
Everywhere you look there is flora and fauna to see as long as you turn your back to the ocean and explore the nature side of OBX.
Outer Banks Nature Adventures
A first stop on your visit should be at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. You can explore the refuge by car on a wildlife drive where you might see bears and red wolves or by foot on a number of trails (with this same wildlife) but the real experience here is exploring the river and creek by kayak.
It’s called Alligator River for a reason. Yes, there are alligators here. The refuge is one of the northernmost homes for the American alligator. Whether you bring your own kayak or take a guided tour with Kitty Hawk Kites, you can experience this water wilderness lined with tall grasses and rushes, small pools with water lilies, and yes, the occasional alligator resting along the edges of the marshy areas. On my day of paddling, the guide pointed out two gators in a slumber who didn’t seem to care that I was quickly paddling by.
Another thrill beyond the alligators (seriously, can there be a greater thrill?) was discovering the Milltail Creek Paddling Trails here. These canals were hand dug over 150 years ago for the logging industry, and some say to run moonshine during Prohibition, but today these water trails offer a way to see the flowers, trees, and shrubs up close. At some points, the paddle trail is only 10 feet wide, giving you a chance to pause and take in the natural beauty here. The water trails are lined with rushes, cypress trees, sun dews, ferns, blue flag irises in the spring, and a host of other plants.
If kayaking with alligators doesn’t appeal to you, there is another place to kayak in a maritime forest at the Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve. There are many water and land trails here that weave through the marshes and forest, and eventually to the sound. You can launch your own kayak at several access points or take a guided tour with Kitty Hawk Kites to learn about the rich natural history here.
You can also hike at the Nags Head Woods Preserve in Kill Devil Hills, one of the largest remaining maritime forests on the East Coast. The preserve is home to over 550 species of plants from towering oaks, pines, and hickories to marsh pennywort and tiny orchids.
On the south edge of the preserve the landscape changes to the soaring sand dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. This 425 acre park includes the tallest natural sand dune environment in the eastern USA.
And while many newcomers fly a kite or try out hang gliding first, the real reward is taking a hike across the dunes where some 125 acres of the park is covered in vegetation, mostly on the perimeter of the dunes. Live oaks, three species of pine, yaupon holly, American beech, wax myrtle, beach heather with yellow flowers in summer, wetland plants, and many varieties of grasses are among the 430 plant species that thrive at Jockey’s Ridge. Without the woodland on the western side of the dunes, the winds would push the sand into the sound.
The Tracks in the Sand Trail guides you across the dunes from the Visitor Center to Roanoke Sound. Or try the Soundside Nature Trail to experience the marsh wetland with wildflowers like swamp rose and partridge pea. It’s okay to hike anywhere at Jockey’s Ridge as long as you stay off the plants. This is a fragile, ever-changing environment sculpted by the wind. The park service offers a number of events from a kite festival and full moon hikes to kayak trips and ghost stories on the beach. They can also arrange a free ATV tour of the park for those with disabilities. Make an advance reservation for this.
The five sounds that surround OBX (from north to south Currituck, Albemarle, Croatan, Roanoke, and Pamlico) make up the second largest estuary on the East Coast. However, with a depth of only three to four feet these can be difficult to access by traditional boat. That was until the Outer Banks Adventures Airboat Tour arrived here.
This a unique way to experience OBX. I climbed on board, donned a headset so I could hear the guide, and zipped across the water and through the marshes, stopping on some of the sandy islands for an informative talk of the unique biodiversity found here. Along the way, I learned about the various marsh grasses, saw the crab pots and hunting blinds scattered across the sound, and listened in awe as the boat owner Jamie told stories about life on OBX. Tours are given by appointment and specialized to the group’s interests.
Outer Banks Gardens
Back on land, the garden highlight of a visit must include the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo. Set on 8.5 acres on the northern tip of Roanoke Island, the gardens are a pleasant surprise. What started in the 1950s by the Garden Club of North Carolina as a tribute to the lost colonists (that’s a whole other story), has become a lovely public garden massed with plants, statues, fountains, and incredible views of the sound.
All visits start in the courtyard after passing through a small but well-stocked garden gift shop housed in the former Orangery. The courtyard pays homage to the Elizabethan style of a pleasure garden using organized and geometric patterns of trimmed boxwood and seasonal plantings, and includes an herb garden with plants written about by Shakespeare. The courtyard is lined with palatka holly and chindo viburnum. The Great Gates set in the brick wall came from the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., and many of the statues and stone urns in the garden are from notable estates across the region.
From here, stroll the President’s Walk lined with azaleas, fatsias, hydrangeas, camellias, cast iron plants, and more to the larger than life statue of Queen Elizabeth I. At this point, you can turn left or right as the path goes in a circle to the other interesting garden sections to visit at various points along the way.
To the right takes you to the Mount with a small carved marble well head on this highest spot in the garden. Then head down the steps to a garden with a Carrara marble statue of Virginia Dare, the artist’s interpretation of what this first English child born in the New World would have looked like as an adult.
The path to the Overlook Terrace is lined with hanging baskets packed with seasonal plantings. The signature garden is just steps from here – the Sunken Garden. Designed more like a parterre with a formal garden centered around a fountain, the Sunken Garden gives grandeur to the Elizabethan Gardens. Pink crepe myrtles, neatly trimmed shrubs, and seasonal plantings fill this garden respite.
Other areas include a woodland garden, small rose garden, and a children’s garden with a butterfly house and play areas. Throughout the landscape are majestic live oaks, magnolias, and native azaleas. The greenhouse sells plants so plan to stock up at the end.
At one time, Roanoke Island was densely covered in wild scuppernong grape vines before a housing development took off in the 1950s. Fortunately, one homeowner preserved the oldest producing vine in existence, lovingly called the Mother Vine, when they built their home and protected the vine that spanned two acres. Today, the Mother Vine is almost 400 years old and, while smaller, it still occupies a third of the front yard. Visitors can stop by to see the vine and marvel at its massive “trunk” and unique trellis system that supports the tendrils overflowing with grapes in season.
The Outer Banks Arboretum and Teaching Garden is worth a stop while in Kill Devil Hills. Located adjacent to the town’s municipal center, the small arboretum is a mostly shaded garden with level paths, numerous benches for resting, and is packed with plants from blueberry and beautyberry to azalea and jasmine. Live oaks and cedars tower above, native and adaptive plants overflow the small space, and hypertufa containers hold seasonal plantings. Across the road is the sunnier Butterfly Garden. Bring a lunch and enjoy this garden stop.
When You Go to the Outer Banks
The town of Manteo has 400 years of OBX history. This walking and biking friendly small town has coastal marshes, a lighthouse, many dining and shopping options, plus charming B&Bs like the Roanoke Island Inn.
Rooms on the front of the inn overlook the coastal marshes and Shallowbag Bay. Rooms on the back of the inn have views of the 1.5 acres of gardens where you can relax and enjoy your time. The second story breezeway connecting the two buildings has rocking chairs where you can enjoy both water and garden views. The rooms are comfy and each has a private entrance.The Inn includes a continental breakfast, 24-hour snack and drink reception area, and it provides free use of its bikes to explore the town.
You can learn more about the town on the Historic Old Manteo Candlelight Walking Tour. My tour guide was the town’s former chief of police now retired who filled the evening with enjoyable stories, facts, and legends about Manteo.
Dining options in OBX are numerous and almost always include seafood. Tortugas’ Lie in Nags Head has outdoor dining and a sand volleyball court to work off your meal. The Blue Water Grill & Raw Bar in Manteo overlooks a marina so dine to enjoy the view. Basnight’s Lone Cedar Cafe in Nags Head was the business of former NC Senator Marc Basnight and is classic OBX southern seafood cooking. Miller’s Waterfront has seafood and sunset views across the sound. For a quick bite, Poor Richard’s Sandwich Shop in Manteo is a local favorite.
If you have the time, drive 30 minutes south on Highway 12 to the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. Park at the visitor center where you can access two nature trails to the ponds and salt flats. This area is part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore where you will find wild vegetation and sand dunes along the Atlantic Ocean. Here, you can pull over, park, and finally turn your attention to the beach.
For more info about OBX, visit www.outerbanks.org.