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Walking Cape Hatteras National Seashore - Part 1

On the Dunes

Author and hiking partner on the dunes of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. ORVs settled on the beach. Top photo by random passer-by, bottom photo by Danny Bernstein.




Editor's note: Though not mentioned as frequently as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in North Carolina is a worthy notch on any hiker's staff. Meandering some 1,000 mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the footpath is still something of a work-in-progress, as more land acquisitions need to be made to move the trail off roads in some places. Contributing writer Danny Bernstein has been hiking the trail in sections. She recently completed it with a hike along Cape Hatteras. In a two-part series starting today, she describes what she found.

Author's note: I've been hiking the Mountains-to-Sea Trail in sections through North Carolina for a year-and-a-half. The trail starts at Clingmans Dome in the Smokies and ends at Jockey's Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks. Almost half of the trail is still on the road. I probably won't live long enough to see it all on trail, so I've been walking it all -- on road and off. Finally, last month, Sharon McCarthy, my hiking partner, and I got to the sea - walking 82.5 miles through Cape Hatteras National Seashore. For this hiking project, we have two cars and use them to leap frog. We place one car at the end of our day, drive the other to the beginning, hike to the end and go back to get the first car. There are few stretches where you can backpack, so two cars (or hitching) really give us flexibility and independence.

Cape Hatteras stretches over three islands, linked by NC-12, a narrow, two-lane road, and ferries. The road goes through eight communities that are not technically part of the national seashore but are welcome change for hikers.

Here's what I encountered during a seven-day hike in late April.

Day 1 - Cedar Island walking from ferry to ferry
- 15.4 miles

We take the Cedar Island ferry to the town Ocracoke, a two-and-a-half-hour journey. Ocracoke is a small, upper-crust island town, where the only way on and off is by ferry. Even though it's touristy, it's not crowded. In the afternoon, we visit the sites in town.

Cape Hatteras has three lighthouses, each uniquely painted, which makes them easy to differentiate on postcards. (Yes, I still send postcards home.) The Ocracoke light, built in 1823, is the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country. It's just 75 feet high and painted all white.

In a residential area of Ocracoke, there's a small patch of land that has been leased to the British government for a cemetery. During World War II, our U.S. Navy was being harassed by German submarines. Britain offered to help patrol this area. On May 11, 1942, a British ship, the HMT Bedfordshire, was torpedoed and sunk by German forces. Only four bodies were recovered, and they were buried in Ocracoke. Every year, the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the British Royal Navy have a ceremony at the site, honoring the men buried here. There's a similar cemetery further up Cape Hatteras. 

The next morning, we start from the ferry site and walk through town but quickly get on the beach. Finally the beach; I never imagined we'd actually get here.

It's buggy; the gnats and mosquitoes swarm my hat. The trail goes through Ocracoke Campground, but we barely stop to eat because of the bugs.

Back on the road for a few miles. Along the way we pass the pens holding Ocracoke ponies. These horses, known as Banker Ponies, ran free for centuries. But when the road, NC 12, was built in 1957 and the ponies had a few encounters with cars, the National Park Service penned them in. Visitors can climb to a viewing platform where you can see horses grazing in front of the enclosures.

After that, the tourists are gone. The only things on the beach are wading birds. Sanderlings chase retreating waves like wind-up toys and willets dig their long bill in the sand. The wind has picked up and the waves are topped by white caps. The bugs are gone and the only stuff going into my eyes is sand. My hat blows away and my legs are sandwhipped.

We reach our first beach closure. Here the beach is closed to pedestrians and everything else. The seashore publishes a list of beach closures for the week on the web. These closures allow the piping plovers, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, and loggerhead turtles, which are proposed to be listed as threatened, to nest in peace. We had checked with the ranger at the Visitor Center in Ocracoke about our options. We can leave the beach and walk on the road or we can walk in the water.

I don’t think seashore officials have thought about MST hikers. They probably figure that if casual walkers see this closure, they’ll just turn around and walk back, but that doesn't work for those trying to complete the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. I don’t blame them for not thinking of long-distance hikers. At this point, only 20 people have done the whole 1,000-mile trail through North Carolina.

Since we're already hiking over 15 miles today and don't want to add any more distance, we decide to walk in the water. I get my shoes and socks wet while Sharon takes off her shoes.

Ocracoke is also where Blackbeard, the notorious pirate, was killed. Tall in stature and with a scraggily black beard that gave him a menacing look, Edward Teach and his fellow pirates roamed from the Caribbean to the Outer Banks and on north to Virginia, robbing and plundering those they came upon. Their escapades ended late in 1718 near Ocracoke when Blackbeard was chased down and killed by Lt. Robert Maynard of the British Navy.

At the end of the island, we take a ferry to Hatteras Island, only a 40-minute ride. This ferry, run by the NC Department of Transportation, is free, creating another controversy. In an effort to balance the state budget, the North Carolina Legislature is looking into charging for this ferry. An employee hands out a survey on our plans and how much we would be willing to pay. I live in western North Carolina and the last time I visited the Outer Banks was ten years ago. To locals, it's not that simple. Ferries are the only way on and off Ocracoke; they regard ferries as their road. But others consider island living an expensive lifestyle choice.

When I finally take off my boots, I find a new blister on my right little toe. I also discover a tick on my waist, which I remove with a large needle after I bust my blister.

Day 2 - Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - 13.75 miles

The ferry deposited us at the town of Hatteras, which is lined with fantasy houses sporting several balconies, porches, and staircases, and painted in pastel colors.

After a short walk through the town, we switch to the beach, where a solitary dunlin feeds along with a large number of sanderlings and willets. A dunlin has a long straight bill with a little downward curve at the tip.

But we’re not on the beach for long. We walk through Frisco campground and we follow a real trail, Open Ponds Trail, through a maritime forest. It's beautiful here, but the walking is not as easy as it sounds since the sand is so soft. Over four miles of slogging through sand gives our legs a real aerobic exercise. Ticks, poison ivy, mosquitoes - I thought that this section of the MST was going to be easy, but it's a jungle out here.

We reach the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and Visitor Center. I have seen replicas of this lighthouse in people's frontyards since the Piedmont. It's an icon of the North Carolina coast.

Hatteras Lighthouse is the only one of the three at Cape Hatteras National Seashore that visitors can climb. We buy a ticket and have a reservation for a specific time to climb. First a ranger gives a short talk about the lighthouse, but mostly she warns the group about the climb, making it sound as if you're about to walk up Mt. Everest. Sharon and I are at the top in five minutes - 248 stairs and 165 feet up - the most elevation we've had since we left the North Carolina Piedmonts.

From the top, I can see Diamond Shoals, a point where the Greenland current meets the Caribbean current, a very dangerous spot. The Outer Banks are known as the "graveyard of the Atlantic" because of all the ships that have sunk here. It's an impressive view.

In 1999, the National Park Service moved the lighthouse further from the ocean since it was about to get washed away by the sea. The lighthouse now is 1,500 feet from the sea - the move took 23 days. The Visitor Center shows a video on the complexity of the move.

Day 3 - Through the town of Avon - 14.3 miles

The trail today takes us on the beach for several miles. It's hard walking with off-road vehicles tire tracks all over the sand. Do we walk on the level soft sand or do we go on a slant toward the water where the sand is firmer? I go back and forth, mesmerized by the waves.

Off-roaders sit in beach chairs between their vehicle and a metal pipe stuck into the sand where they've placed their fishing rods. We wave to them as we pass, being careful not to trip over their lines. Many off-roaders don't fish; they sit, read, play cards, and picnic. Even with all the ORV traffic, the beach is clean.

Two oystercatchers are digging in the sand. But it's the piping plover that I want to see. No luck so far, but we have several more days on the beach.

We move onto Rodanthe, the town made famous by the movie Nights in Rodanthe. From the movie, the town sounds very posh. We need to figure out where we’ll leave our cars the next couple of days because we can’t just park anywhere.

The logistics of doing the Mountains-to-Sea Trail are difficult. My favorite expression is "This isn't the A.T." There are four campgrounds in the National Seashore, catering to car campers but not placed conveniently to backpack from one to the other. Camping on the beach is not allowed.

Sharon and I each have a car and we place a car at each end point every day. We've done some backpacking on the MST, but our focus is to hike and cover miles. We're not after doing as many miles as possible since we're walking day after day. 

We’re curious about the Bonner Bridge, further north, which goes from Hatteras Island to Bodie Island. In the MST world, it has the reputation of a monster of a bridge to walk across. We meet two U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge Officers, in a parking area in the middle of Pea Island, just watching people.

We explain about walking the 2.5-mile-long Bonner Bridge. The state Department of Transportation is talking about replacing the bridge. They've had public hearings about it last summer, but it will be a long time before they do anything. I hope they put in a walking lane on the bridge as well.

The older officer looks at the younger one with a grim face.

“I wouldn’t do it,” the young one says. “It’s not safe. I’m a cyclist and I wouldn’t ride it either. Now I’m not talking for the (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) Service, just for myself."

"I know that," I say. "But you're in uniform and you're local so your word carries a lot of weight with me."

"We’re just law enforcement for the Service," he replied. "When they run a marathon, the organizations hire escorts and they close a bridge lane."

He seems a little put out that I’m taking notes so I don’t ask for his name. Sharon and I decide not to walk the bridge. We’ll jump ahead, do a few miles tomorrow, and visit the Bodie Island Lighthouse.

We’re staying in Rodanthe and I’m very disappointed in the town. I think I got taken by the movie Nights in Rodanthe. We’re staying in an adequate place; the only motel in town. There are no supermarkets in the three small towns – Salvo, Waves, and Rodanthe. There are a couple of restaurants and one good gallery. Avon was a lively place by comparison.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday.

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Great article, Danny. Love the photos, too. Looking forward to the next installment.

Enjoyed reading your write up about your sandy hike. You had me there, on the beach. It helps, maybe that we took our young children there in the mid 90s, so it was a memroy maker for me. I am pretty sure I would not like hiking on the sand for 4 miles straight, that would really be hard.

We learned that walking on the beach was very enjoyable at low tide (hard packed sand) and more challenging at higher tides (softer sand).  There were fewer people than I have ever encountered on a beach.  Most of the time there was just the two of us and our thoughts facing the waves rolling in.  The most awesome moment for me:  realizing I had actually hiked up the Outer Banks to the base of the Hatteras lighthouse rather than driving into the parking lot like everyone else. 

Some of the shots you see in the movie Nights in Rodanthe are actually filmed in Ocracoke...I love to watch it and try to figure out which shots.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article and the accompanying photos, as well. Your description of the tick just made my skin crawl! I loved the stats of your climb up the steps in Hatteras Lighthouse, and your view from the top must've been very impressive.

Hats off to you. You are undoubtedly a real trooper. Hatteras can be very demanding. Perhaps that is part of what makes it continually draw one to it. It's one of those places that becomes somewhat mystical if you let it. I believe you understand that. And it means many different things to so many different people. Pretty unique, which is true of so many places in this magnificant land of ours. Lets hope everyone can continue to experience Hatteras in their own way for years to come.
Best to you and look forward to hearing more of your experiences.
Ron (obxguys)

PS: Next time, please let us know when you are coming, instead of when you were there. Would love to meet you.

Great article, Danny.  Thanks.

These photos look amazing! The coast looks beautiful!

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