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Four-Wheeling Ferry Tales - Carolina's Outer Banks

Posted in Events on April 15, 2008 Comment (0)
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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.

View Slideshow
With the village of Ocracoke in the distance, Jerry and Lisa Woodard from Greenville, North Carolina, analyze a shell they found on the beach. Beachcombing is very popular on the Outer Banks because each storm brings in a new batch of shells, some of which are quite large.

Can't get there from here

Getting your truck to the Core Banks isn't easy or cheap, but for the adventurous it's the crown jewel of the Outer Banks. The Core Banks are part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, which extends south from Ocracoke Island. The north and south Core Banks total 55 miles, but are split by New Drum Inlet. Our destination was the South Core Banks, a 25-mile-long island, which has remained basically unchanged for the past 100 years.To get there, we boarded another state-run ferry at Ocracoke for the 212-hour crossing of the Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island, North Carolina. This ferry requires advance reservations, but it costs only $10 each way. At the Cedar Island landing, we disembarked and followed Highway 70 for about 15 miles to the town of Davis, where we had reservations at the Alger G. Willis Fishing Camps to transport our truck to the island on its private car ferry. Our captain was Ronnie Willis, whose grandfather started the ferry service in about 1950 with a one-car ferry. Today, the company is a concessionaire to the Park Service and is the only firm permitted to commercially haul vehicles to the South Core Banks. The service costs around $100 to haul a standard-size 4x4 with two passengers to the island and back. For those wishing to escape to a 4x4 paradise, it's a smokin' deal. It can be the perfect isolated vacation spot as well, because inexpensive rustic cabins equipped with propane stoves and hot-water showers are available on the island.

To get there, we boarded another state-run ferry at Ocracoke for the 21/2-hour crossing of the Pamlico Sound to Cedar Island, North Carolina. This ferry requires advance reservations, but it costs only $10 each way. At the Cedar Island landing, we disembarked and followed Highway 70 for about 15 miles to the town of Davis, where we had reservations at the Alger G. Willis Fishing Camps to transport our truck to the island on its private car ferry. Our captain was Ronnie Willis, whose grandfather started the ferry service in about 1950 with a one-car ferry. Today, the company is a concessionaire to the Park Service and is the only firm permitted to commercially haul vehicles to the South Core Banks. The service costs around $100 to haul a standard-size 4x4 with two passengers to the island and back. For those wishing to escape to a 4x4 paradise, it's a smokin' deal. It can be the perfect isolated vacation spot as well, because inexpensive rustic cabins equipped with propane stoves and hot-water showers are available on the island.

The week before our arrival on the Outer Banks a strong spring nor'easter dislodged this old wooden shipwreck from the bottom of the Atlantic and deposited it onshore.

Our ferry docked at the Great Island Cabin Area, and we pointed our Tahoe south on the deep-sand main road, which runs down the middle of the island. We followed this for 12 miles, past the Cape Lookout Lighthouse to where it ends at the island's point, seeing absolutely no one during the stunning drive.At the southernmost tip of the island, Cape Point, we followed the beach west as our tires crunched over millions of shells while we passed old World War II cement gun mounts, which were being taken over by the sea. We ran out of land at Power Squadron Spit, and from there we could see the last official island of the Outer Banks, Shackelford Banks--a proposed wilderness zone.

We reversed direction and began the 25-mile drive along the beach to the northernmost tip of the South Core Banks at New Drum Inlet.

After following the water line of the isolated beach for more than an hour, we reached the New Drum Inlet, which is at the northern tip of the South Core Banks. With the day drawing to a close, it was clear that complete exploration of the South Core Banks would take a lot longer than 10 hours, so we pledged to return and continue our four-wheeling journey on another trip--one we vowed would happen soon. Knowing that we had three ferries and a number of islands to traverse in order to return us to our point of origin near Corolla, North Carolina, we turned our truck southward and began the 8-mile trek toward the ferry dock where we had reservations on the last scheduled boat of the day. We had successfully navigated the entire length of the Outer Banks.

Is Carova Beach 4x4 Heaven?

Around 1963, developers cut a deal to build Carova Beach on a deserted section of the Outer Banks between Corolla, North Carolina, and the Virginia state line. The original plan called for the Ocean Pearl Highway to be built to allow access to the homes from Virginia Beach, Virginia, to the north, and Highway 168 to the south. The homes were built, but the toll road was never started. This created a town that was accessible only by four-wheel drive, and it remains that way today.

Carova Beach, North Carolina, has continued to grow at a modest rate over the years, and now includes over 250 full-time residents who live miles from the nearest paved road in a four-wheel-drive-only town that defies logic. Street signs, a fire department (filled with cool 4WD stuff), a post office, and elevated homes rooted in deep sand are just a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

Of course, things are not always peachy when you live on a sand pile a few feet from the ocean. Hurricanes and high lunar tides tend to wipe out and reform the terrain and make travel difficult and often impossible. Mother Nature is always knocking at your door. We heard stories of Carova Beach residents having to 'wheel through bumper-deep seawater during high lunar tides. Because the beach is the only way to access the town, when it's under water you either wait it out or give it a shot. Deputy McIntosh told us that there is nothing that looks more insane than witnessing a Carova Beach resident's sea-foam-covered 4x4 emerging from the flooded beach.

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