By Carrie Brothers/Correspondent
Visitors to the Outer Banks know all about the pristine beaches and fishing, surfing and kayaking. Less known, though, are the hikes and strolls through the vibrant and diverse ecosystems blanketing these ribbons of sand. Breathtaking natural environments surround some towns’ commercial centers. In other areas, acres of preserved maritime forest teem with countless plant species and diverse, and often, rare or endangered wildlife. The best part? The miles and miles of accessible walking trails and boardwalks lead you right into the heart of it.
Currituck Banks Coastal Estuarine Reserve
Where N.C. Highway 12 ends at the northernmost part of Corolla, a hidden paradise of unspoiled estuary awaits. With the ocean to one side and the Currituck Sound on the other, the little slice of land gives visitors a coveted look into different beach, marsh and maritime forest habitats and the hundreds of species of flora and fauna they support. Keep your eyes peeled for Corolla’s famous wild horses, just remember to admire these special creatures from a distance (of 50 feet or more) for your safety and theirs. This threatened herd is unable to digest anything other than the area’s natural beach grass; feeding them anything else is deadly (and illegal!).
Take N.C. Highway 12 north until the pavement ends.
Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary
A 2.5-mile Nature Trail leads through this lush, pristine sanctuary situated on more than 2,600 acres of marsh within a 5,000 acre portion of the Currituck Sound. The trail follows the old dirt road that once connected Corolla and Duck and leads under a canopy of evergreen maritime woods, twisted live oaks and the Red Bay Shrub Swamp. Benches and rest stops along the way keep it accessible for all ages and abilities. The occasional overlook diverts visitors off the path for panoramic views of the Currituck Sound.
300 Audubon Drive, Corolla
Springer’s Point Nature Preserve
Ocracoke Village offers no shortage of charming shops or restaurants to explore as you walk through town. But venture off the beaten path to Springer’s Point, 120-acre site, a beautiful, undeveloped preserve. It was settled in the early 1600s; rumor has it, the beach was a favorite spot of Blackbeard. Take a wander through the maritime forest of ancient gnarled trees, through saltmarsh, and grassland to a soundfront beach. Along the way, you’ll see a donkey gravestone for the much-loved Ikey D., a 400-year-old live oak tree and rare flora and fauna species. Pirate ghost appearances, however, aren’t guaranteed.
104 Loop Road, Ocracoke
Duck Trail, Duck Boardwalk
A 6-mile multiuse path runs the length of Duck. Located primarily along the ocean side of Duck Road, it expands in the town’s commercial village to include both sides of the road. This is your golden opportunity to step off of the trail and onto the soundside boardwalk. The .78-mile boardwalk meanders along the Currituck Sound, through maritime forest and willow swamp. Access points along the way lead to the commercial village so you can enjoy the shopping and dining attractions, too.
Town of Duck — you’ll see it.
Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve
Away from the summer hustle and bustle along the U.S. 158 Bypass, 1,890 acres of maritime forest, marshland, and swamp await just steps away. The numerous trails through the preserve allow ample opportunity for hiking or birding. Pets are allowed on leashes, and some trails are designated primarily for biking and horseback riding. The reserve includes sound access to the Kitty Hawk Bay for premier kayaking and paddleboarding. The reserve bumps up to the Woods Road in Kitty Hawk, that’s paralleled by a paved multiuse path for scenic walking, jogging and biking. The path connects to the commercial hub of the Southern Shore Marketplace and Walmart.
The Woods Road, Kitty Hawk (Parking available at Sandy Run Park, 4351 The Woods Road, and David Paul Pruitt Park, 5160 The Woods Road)
Nags Head Woods Preserve
This reserve is more than 1,000 acres of quiet paradise hidden in Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. Seven trails good for walking, hiking and trail running crisscross the preserve. They brim with opportunities to explore the maritime forest from steep dunes to the edge of the Roanoke Sound. The Center Trail takes walkers around a pond and through the woods while the more difficult Sweetgum Swamp Trail climbs sweeping dunes and meanders through the ponds at their base. Nags Head Woods also has an ADA Trail of wide concrete and boardwalk that loops through swamp forest, past marshland and around a freshwater interdunal pond.
701 W. Ocean Acres Drive, Kill Devil Hills
Manteo Waterfront Boardwalk
Manteo’s historic town offers a leisurely 15 minute stroll past the town’s charming old buildings, waterfront, historic sites, shops and restaurants. A waterfront boardwalk around the town’s commercial center, connecting to restaurants, shops, parks and dock slips for boats at the Manteo Waterfront Marina. Follow it to the picturesque, squat Roanoke Marshes Light, a working replica of the 1877 screw-pile lighthouse. Stop in at the Maritime Museum or rest at one of the built-in wooden benches to enjoy the sights and breeze. The northern side of the boardwalk leads over the Cora Mae Basnight Bridge to Roanoke Island Festival Park, a 25-acre historic site and home of The Elizabeth II, the Elizabethan replica ship.
207 Queen Elizabeth Ave., Manteo
Pea Island Wildlife Refuge
The northernmost 13 miles of Hatteras Island is dedicated to the Pea Island Wildlife Refuge. This birdwatcher’s paradise covers 5,834 acres of land, including beach, sound and marsh habitats, and 25,700 acres of water. More than 365 species of birds call the refuge home or a favorite stopover during annual migrations. The two wildlife trails are fully accessible and offer ideal opportunities to birdwatch or look for other animals, like river otters, that live in this special and dynamic habitat.
Look for the refuge’s designated parking areas dotting N.C. Highway 12 in Hatteras
Buxton Woods Reserve
Often overlooked, Buxton Woods Reserve comprises just over 1,000 acres near the Hatteras Lighthouse. It’s home to the largest contiguous tract of maritime evergreen forest on the East Coast and the world’s only maritime shrub swamp community. The reserve provides a premier glimpse of Hatteras Island’s ecosystem, which is the northernmost boundary for subtropical and temperate flora varietals, like the dwarf palmetto. Keep an eye out for mink, bald eagles, rare butterflies and the hundreds of other animal varieties that call these woods home.
The unpaved Old Doctors Road leads from Highway 12 to the eastern side of the reserve; Water Association Road leads from Highway 12 to the western side.