From the time I was a kid growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan, I have always been a beach person. My family used to spend our summers camping near the lake and we would be at the beach every single day. When the heat of the day had passed, my brothers and I would retreat to the forest where we built forts until it was time to gather around the campfire and and make s’mores. It seemed natural that after a fall hiking trip in the Smoky Mountains, followed by a long winter, my family was more than ready for a beach vacation. So, in May of 2015 we embarked on a long drive South to the shores of the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Back in 2015, a fourteen hour drive felt much longer than it does now that we road trip so frequently. We broke up the drive by stopping in Shenandoah National Park to do some hiking, and made quick stops at some other parks in Virginia along the way. But by the time we neared our destination, Hatteras Island, I was more than ready to be done with the drive. The first sign that we were almost there was the Bodie Island Light Station. This is the northernmost section of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and as the sun began to dip in the sky, we stopped to stretch our legs and check out the tall, striped lighthouse, which towered between the seashore and a salt marsh.
After the quick stop, we continued to Buxton, the southernmost town on Hatteras Island. We had rented out an oceanfront cottage called the Croatoan for the week. The cozy cottage had plenty of room for all seven of us, and two levels of decks that overlooked the beach. It was situated right by the border to the national seashore so there weren’t too many other cottages packed on top of it and we had a feeling of peace and solitude.
We got settled in and explored the house and the beach as the sunset cast a warm glow on the dunes. I was excited for darkness to fall because I had read that Hatteras Island was a great place to look for ghost crabs. When it finally got dark, we grabbed a few flashlights and tromped down to the beach, which was crawling with life. I had expected that we might find a few crabs, but we could hardly take two steps without a crab scurrying to get out of the way. We wandered around the soft beach shining lights at ghost crabs until we were simply too tired to stay awake, then we retreated to the cottage for some much-needed sleep.
The next morning was Memorial Day, and I had booked a surfing lesson for the five of us “kids.” We were supposed to meet our instructor at the beach just inside the national seashore, which was only steps away from our cottage. We walked the short distance to the beach where we met up with our instructor, Rob. It turned out he grew up in the Great Lakes region too, and he seemed pleasantly surprised when we all turned out to be competent swimmers. With his guidance, we were catching waves in no time.
The surf that day was the perfect level for a lesson. The waves were big enough to ride, but not so big that we couldn’t paddle out far enough to catch them. I felt decently competent even after my first try, and I was eager for my next turn. There were only two boards for us all to share, so we took turns surfing and cheering each other on. By the end of the lesson, we had each managed to ride at least one wave, and we were feeling good enough that we decided to stop in town later and rent a couple of boards for the week.
Towards the end of the lesson, we caught site of my dad waving wildly from the beach. He kept pointing behind us, and we turned around to see a pod of dolphins jumping through the surf in the distance. Apparently dad had thought they were sharks at first, and we got a good laugh out of that as we watched the playful cetaceans zipping through the waves.
After grabbing some lunch, and enumerating all of the places we had developed surf rash (The board had scraped my knees and stomach raw) back at the cottage, we took a short walk to a nearby pond. One of our neighbors had tipped my parents off to the fact that it was full of turtles, so we swung by to check it out. The neighbor hadn’t been exaggerating. The pond was had more turtles than I have ever seen in one place.
After we’d had our fill of gawking at them we stopped back to the cottage and changed (why was a wardrobe change necessary? I have no idea) before walking over to the nearby Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
This light station is iconic for a couple of reasons, the first being that it is the tallest brick lighthouse in the United States, and second tallest in the world. Secondly, the lighthouse no longer stands in its original location. It was actually moved farther back from the ocean in 1999 because erosion was causing the sea waters to encroach upon the lighthouse site.
The park visitor center is right next to the lighthouse, so we went inside and bought some souvenirs and tickets to climb to the top of the tower. We had to wait for our designated time slot, but once we got to the top, we had the place to ourselves. Since the top of the lighthouse is by far the highest point on the island, we could see everything from up there. To the south was cape point, a spot we would visit later that week, and to the north was the Croatoan, and rows upon rows of other cottages. The ocean stretched as far as the eye could see to the East, and the still waters Pamlico Sound to the West.
Our visit to the lighthouse was our last major attraction of our first day on the island. The next morning we got up early and drove to Hatteras Landing where we boarded the free car ferry that runs between Hatteras and Ocracoke island. We drove my parents’ minivan onto the ferry, and then got out to enjoy the breeze as we sailed through the Pamlico sound toward Ocracoke. The crossing took about an hour and we passed the time by watching gulls and pelicans soaring through the air, and jellyfish floating along in the water.
When we arrived on Ocracoke Island, we went straight to the nearest beach. The island is widely considered to be one of the best places to go shelling in the Outer Banks, so we climbed through the dunes until we reached a pristine white-sand shore littered in shells and other beach treasures.
The weather was gorgeous and we spent the whole morning collecting the best shells we could find. My mom, my brother David, and I are particularly enthusiastic about beach combing, so we probably could have kept pouring over the sand indefinitely, but eventually we made our way back to the van and drove to the island’s pony pen.
This enclosure houses the “wild” ponies that live on Ocracoke. There are many areas along the east coast that have wild ponies, but these were probably the least wild looking ones out there. They may not have been tamed, but they lived in an enclosure complete with man-made shelter and water troughs, so the sight didn’t exactly fulfill my dreams of seeing wild horses.
That was okay though because we still had a beautiful day ahead of us. We drove into the town of Ocracoke where we stopped into a few little shops, languished in the shade of the live oak trees, and checked out the Ocracoke lighthouse all before stopping for lunch at a cute local restaurant.
At the end of the day we took the ferry back to Hatteras Island where we attempted to surf on our own. The waves had gotten much more powerful since the previous day, and now we were totally out of our depth. I couldn’t even paddle out far enough to catch anything, and eventually I gave up and just relaxed on the beach.
On our third morning, we hiked out to Cape Point, a unique beach at the tip of the island that is surrounded by water on three sides. It was a long walk, but when we finally got there, it was totally worth it.
Fishermen had already begun to gather at the point when we arrived, and it soon became clear what the attraction was. Cape Point was teeming with wildlife. A myriad of different shore birds swooped overhead, including adorable little least terns that would periodically drop from the sky to grab minnows from the churning ocean. Every so often, an entire school of minnows would jump, disrupting the surface of the powerful waves. There were gulls, oystercatchers, and even a juvenile loon hanging around. All of this abundant bird life was a sign that there must be a healthy amount of fish in the area.
After a while we started to notice a couple of heads bobbing up from the surf. There were sea turtles just off shore coming up for air. This became a source of distraction for me for the rest of the day until finally, in a stroke of total dumb luck, one of the turtles swam right up to where I was standing, and glided effortlessly across my path.
It was a quick and unexpected encounter, and I was lucky enough to get a couple of pictures before the juvenile green turtle swam back out to sea. This was my first close encounter with a sea turtle, and I was beyond giddy about it.
Before long, the fishermen were reeling in various catches, but the one that stood out to me was not their intended target. One of the men snagged a massive stingray. He hauled it up onshore so he could cut his hook out of it, and then he hoisted it into the air and threw it back into the ocean, taking care to avoid its dangerous barb.
Cape Point is still on my list of all-time favorite beaches because of the diverse wildlife it attracts. We stayed at Cape Point until the tide came in and there was little sand left to occupy.
The next morning we visited the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum where we learned a bit about the dramatic history of the Outer Banks. The strip of land is bordered by dangerous waters that have experienced an insane amount of shipwrecks throughout history. The area was also a popular haunt of marauders and scalawags during the golden age of piracy, and was even haunted by Blackbeard himself, who had an anchorage on Ocracoke.
We emerged from the museum with our imaginations running wild, and went to check out a more recent piece of Hatteras history, the remains of the Frisco fishing pier.
This wooden pier was built in 1962 and was a popular fishing spot until it was abandoned in 2008. In 2010 it sustained hurricane damage and was left to fall apart. As of 2019, it has actually been completely removed. We managed to see it two years before the major undertaking of removing the pier began.
Exploring beneath the crumbling pier was a fun way to spend the afternoon, and I even found a ghost crab that had ventured out into the daylight.
That evening we went to the Pamlico Sound where the guys fished, and I poked around looking for more wildlife. I found a beautiful sea nettle jellyfish that twisted and turned in the shallow water, creating all sorts of interesting shapes to photograph. I also found oysters, clams, hermit crabs, and a blue crab.
On our next and final day, we visited another pier, but this one was still standing. Avon Pier was constructed in 1963, and its cattywampus surface is still a popular fishing spot today. This was a great opportunity for my brothers to get some more fishing in, and they ended up catching a few things, including a vibrant blue crab.
My mom, Vince, and I explored below the pier too. There is a certain kind of something about wooden fishing piers that makes them feel special. They give me a similar feeling to nostalgia, although not for my own past, but rather some collective past that I inherited through books and stories and daydreams. This is actually a really good way to describe my entire experience in the Outer Banks. It gave me nostalgia for a history that wasn’t my own.
That evening, Vince and I joined my parents on a hike through the coastal forest of the national seashore. We walked through scraggly trees, then came out into a marshy area that had a view of Hatteras Lighthouse.
The trip was almost over, but we still had one night left on the island, which treated us to a gorgeous final sunset.
That night, Vince and I went out to look for ghost crabs one last time. The sky was pitch black, but the moon shone brightly, and every thirty seconds or so, the lighthouse flashed through the darkness. Crabs scurried around our feet as they had on our first night, and I knew that Hatteras Island would be a place that would always feel a little magical in my memories.