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Four-Wheeling Ferry Tales - Carolina's Outer Banks

Sheriff
Ken Brubaker
| Senior Editor, Four Wheeler
Posted April 15, 2008

Exploring North Carolina's Outer Banks

Lifelong Outer Banks resident Tommy Bowden talks to Currituck County Deputy Robert McIntosh about hurricane damage he has seen in his many years on the Outer Banks.

As we sat in the sand a few feet from our Chevy Tahoe, the deserted beach generated three distinct sounds. The first was the strong wind, blowing inland from the Atlantic Ocean without break. The second was the steady boom of the surf as it broke on the beach, noisily rearranging the millions of shells just under the surface of the water as it withdrew. The third was the squawk of seagulls as they dove, circled, and hovered in their never-ending search for food. We saw no other people, just an empty beach stretching for miles in either direction.We were visiting the Outer Banks of North Carolina, which is a paradise for those who wish to use their 4x4s to access beautiful and remote scenery inaccessible to most 2WD vehicles.

What and where

The Outer Banks are situated along the North Carolina coastline and are long, narrow islands composed solely of sand. They are not anchored by bedrock; thus, the Atlantic Ocean's currents and storms are constantly reshaping them. The Outer Banks vary in width, ranging from around a mile wide to merely a few yards wide. They are occasionally split by inlets that allow water to flow from the ocean to the sounds and back again with the tide. The area has a diverse history, ranging from the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk to the lost colony on Roanoke Island. Part of the reason why the Outer Banks are so appealing (to us, anyway) is the fact that many of the beaches are open for off-road travel. We're not talking only a mile or two, but over 100 miles of awesome beach to explore.

Randy Smith's license plate on his '95 Tahoe reads IAMTRBL, but it should have read IM IN TROUBLE when his four-wheel drive disengaged at the most inopportune moment on the soft sand of Oregon Inlet beach. It took a couple of trucks strapped together to get enough pull to rescue the heavy Tahoe from the deep sand.

North Beach, the northernmost tip of the Outer Banks

The two-lane Highway 12 ends at the beach just beyond the village of Corolla, North Carolina and within sight of the red brick Currituck Lighthouse, which was completed in 1875. With our Tahoe's tires aired down to 22 psi, we locked the transfer case into 4-Hi, pointed our truck onto the beach, and began our northward trek. Within the first couple of miles we found ourselves slaloming our truck through scores of stumps sticking out of the sand. These stumps are the remains of a maritime forest, which has long since been claimed by the sea. Just to the north of the stump field we made a stunning discovery--the battered hull of an old wooden sailing ship that had washed ashore during the previous weeks nor'easter. As the tide lapped against it, we inspected the remains of the hull.

We also explored the 4-wheel-drive town of Carova Beach (see sidebar) before coming to the Virginia state line where the beach is closed to all but foot traffic at False Cape State Park. From this point, it's a 12-mile drive back to the North Beach Ramp at Corolla.

We loaded our truck onto a two-car ferry belonging to the Alger G. Willis Fishing Camps for the 30-minute crossing to the South Core Banks. It just doesn't get any more off-road than this--bobbing across the Core Sound on a woodframe ferry. Our captain was Ronnie Willis, whose grandfather started the ferry business in the early '50s. Today the company is a concessionaire for the National Park Service and is the only authorized carrier allowed to transport vehicles to the South Core Banks.

Cape Hatteras and Ocracoke Island

Our next destination was the Cape Hatteras national seashore, which is approximately 35 miles south of Corolla. It was the first National Seashore in the country and comprises 30,000 acres stretching over 75 miles. It, too, has miles of beaches open for off-roading.

Our first stop was Oregon Inlet, where we aired down our tires at the beach access point and proceeded over the dune line through the deep sand. We followed the beach to the point where the landscape opened to acres of sand surrounded by water on three sides. Continuing along the beach to the west, it eventually began to turn north at the Croatan Sound. We parked on the hard-packed sand near the base of the Oregon Inlet Bridge and walked along the calm waters of the sound inspecting the bridge's massive pilings, which show signs of the beatings they endured during the many storms that slammed into the Outer Banks.

We continued south to the basically uninhabited four-wheel-drive heaven of the South Core Banks Our first stop was Oregon Inlet, where we aired down our tires at the beach access point and proceeded over the dune line through the deep sand. We followed the beach to the point where the landscape opened to acres of sand surrounded by water on three sides. Continuing along the beach to the west, it eventually began to turn north at the Croatan Sound. We parked on the hard-packed sand near the base of the Oregon Inlet Bridge and walked along the calm waters of the sound inspecting the bridge's massive pilings, which show signs of the beatings they endured during the many storms that slammed into the Outer Banks.

From Oregon Inlet we continued south down Highway 12, over the Oregon Inlet Bridge, which put us onto Hatteras Island. The island is approximately 50 miles long, and there are numerous ORV access points along the highway. The state of North Carolina operates a number of car ferries throughout the southern Outer Banks area, and the one to Ocracoke Island is free. After unloading from the 40-minute ferry trip, we accessed the main paved road and pointed our Tahoe south for the 20-mile drive to the town of Ocracoke. It was near Ocracoke that we aired down our tires and used beach access ramp 72 to jump onto the beach to get to Ocracoke Inlet. From the inlet's point we could see Ocracoke to the west, the abandoned town of Portsmouth on the North Core Banks to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east. As with many inlet beaches, the area was dotted with tidal pools and soft spots, so being alert to these obstacles was critical. After exploring the almost deserted beach, we retraced our path and headed toward Ocracoke, where we were tempted to spend the night in one of the picturesque small hotels on the Pamlico Sound. We fought off the urge, however, because our plans were to continue south to perhaps the most exciting portion of our trip: the wild, isolated, basically uninhabited four-wheel-drive heaven of the South Core Banks.

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