Cape Hatteras National Seashore & the Graveyard of the Atlantic in OBX

Outer Banks, referred to as “OBX” by people cooler than me, is a collective of narrow barrier islands that span nearly 200 miles along the coast of North Carolina. The upper part of OBX includes the towns of Currituck, Corolla, Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, and Nags Head. Further south, the seven villages of Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras lead to the island of Ocracoke. 

Most of OBX south of Nags Head is hardly wider than the two-lane Highway 12, with a high wall of sand (see below)  and eternities of ocean on both sides. Highway 12 is also known here as the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway (OBNSB), one of three such byways in North Carolina. The broadest part of land is the obtuse triangle of Buxton, Frisco, and Hatteras. 

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The Cape Hatteras National Seashore begins at Whalebone Junction, just south of Nags Head where the land tapers, and extends over 70 miles from Bodie Island to the southwestern tip of Hatteras. 

Environmental protections of the OBNSC, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge limit the volume and types of visitors, and strictly regulate commercial and tourist development. Such measures have prevented these islands from eroding and being carried off into the sea. 

This stretch of the Outer Banks has a sense of primordial abandon about it.  Sometimes you can see horses galloping between the ocean and gigantic sand dunes. It’s just miles and miles and miles of otherworld. 

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But Hatteras and the nearby villages have some deep, dark history too. More than 5,000 ships are known to have fallen victim to the terrible crosscurrents of the Gulf Stream and the Labrador Current dueling beyond the coastline. This mysterious past full of shipwrecks, ghosts, war, and pirates has earned the lower OBX the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

My song for this blog is “Fire Down Below” by Nick Cave:

 

In 1921, the Carroll A. Deering schooner washed up on the beaches of Cape Hatteras. A crew of ten and all of their personal belongings packed aboard before departure, but rescue divers found it nearly empty. A meal had been set out on the table with everything in its proper place, untouched and frozen in time. Even the ship’s anchor had gone missing, but to their shock, they found a strange cat living on the ship. A six-toed cat. The troubling case of the Carroll A. Deering remains unsolved over a century later, but it is just one of thousands. 

Another chilling figure from the same time period is emergence of the Grey Man, who materializes to warn locals of dangerous storms approaching. He has been credited for sparing the lives of many residents who fled the area upon seeing him, barely making it out safely before a hurricane struck their homes. People still claim to see him in Hatteras and other towns along the coast.

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Buxton is the home of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. the tallest brick lighthouse in the USA. A famous cat can be found here too, but this one is not part of our world. For many decades, the beloved cat of a former lighthouse keeper has been appearing at the feet of visitors, then vanishing as soon as they take notice or lean in to pet it.

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The Hatteras Island Visitors Center and Museum of the Sea are also on this historic site. Drive to the Old Lighthouse Beach access point afterward and catch some rays, but be sure to stand clear of the protected dunes. 

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Most tourists bypass this area in search of more popular access points off the highway, so this beach was our oyster.

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In Frisco, we stopped into Tavern On 12 for an incredible lunch. We shared a cup of She-Crab soup, a Cuban sandwich with a side Caesar salad, Firecracker shrimp macaroni & cheese, and an ENORMOUS plate of pulled pork nachos.

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Before you judge us, know that we took half of it to go and snacked on it the rest of the evening.

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We visited the gorgeous Frisco Beach and gathered a small bag of treasures from the swirling waves. 

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Check out the Frisco Woods Campground if you would like to camp out in the area and skip the cost of renting a vacation house, or visit their onsite convenience/grocery since it is one of the few businesses in the area. 

We were hoping to visit the Frisco Native American Museum but it was temporarily closed for an unknown duration. 

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Yet another spooky figure in this area is the Cora Tree. A centuries old Southern Live Oak tree sprawls in the middle of a residential street. If you walk up for a closer look, you will find two odd things. 

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The first is that the word “CORA” is carved into the trunk. Local legend spins a thread of a woman named Cora and her baby who settled into the area right as a series of strange and unfortunate coincidences began.

Cora was soon accused of being a witch and terrorized by the people in her new town, the effort spearheaded by sea Captain Eli Blood who claimed a divine duty to hunt witches. Just as he lit the flame to set Cora’s rope-bound body ablaze against the tree, thunder and lightning struck. 

When the smoke cleared, Cora and her baby were gone. In their place was nothing but her name in large letters, still visible near the bottom of my photo below. 

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The second odd thing you will see is a small shrine tucked into the scorched hollow of the tree. Toys, baby clothes, food, and other items left inside keep this story going. 

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Frisco Rod & Gun Outfitters and the convenience store next to it are worthy of a stop. Even if you do not fish or hunt, this might be your last chance for some fuel or road trip snacks for a while. 

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I rarely write about the hotels or other lodgings we stay in because it is difficult to find (or find availability in) quality locally-owned rentals, and I am not one to name drop national chains* hoping for a kickback.

*No shade to that type of travel site, but they do nothing for me. 

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That being said, Kees Vacations is a property rental and management company based locally in the Outer Banks. We stayed in the Village of Hatteras Landing, and out of a week of staying in a different OBX town each night, this place was our favourite.

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We slept like ancient boulders in this huge bed and we enjoyed the morning view of the grassy park below our balcony. Our condo and the rest of the facility was super clean with lots of amenities onsite. Checking in/out was contactless using a pre-programmed keypad on the door instead of going through an office and waiting in line to get keycards.

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Hatteras Village Landing is just steps away from the marinas, restaurants, shops, museum, and the Ocracoke ferry.

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The property has an elevated sidewalk system that connects to the Hatteras Landing & Marina, the place to be for people watching and leisurely boat life. 

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Places like The Wreck Tiki Bar, Kitty Hawk Kites, a tackle and bait shop, a schmoozy restaurant/club, and other stores likely have everything you would need during your visit. 

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We had a great time watching the sunset. 

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On our way back, we walked through a gazebo in the park and went the opposite direction for a stroll through the marshes.

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I love that the boardwalk is lit up at night. This is perfect for those who want to enjoy an evening walk free of clumsy penalties or unexpected wildlife encounters scarier than some goofy cat rolling around in the grass with the zoomies. We felt very safe here. 

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Hatteras has several markets, galleries, and shops along the main drag but you have to read closely because many of them look like homes.

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Lee Robinson General Store has been in business since the 1940s and has room after room filled with locally made art and gifts, pantry items and fresh food, beach supplies, booze, souvenirs, and more.

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The Dancing Turtle Coffee Shop is a tiny little café with outdoor seating that has been open for nearly twenty years. It is owned by a local couple and they offer house blend coffees, baked treats, and village art.

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I  have a weakness for fresh-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls, so you already know what I ordered.

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Other items such as the spinach feta pastries and buttery croissants were tempting, but I settled for a photo.

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We could see the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum from the condo, and it was only about a quarter of a mile walk to reach it. 

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This impressive museum has free admission, regular interactive events, and it maintains the historical record of the Outer Banks, its shipwrecks, war battles, losses, and countless artifacts to explore. 

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Across from the museum parking lot there is a boardwalk leading to the beach. I thought about how crowded and loud places like Myrtle Beach and Daytona must be this time of year, took several deep breaths, and enjoyed the peaceful solitude of Hatteras even more. 

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Right next to the museum, passengers line up on bikes and in vehicles to board the Ocracoke-Hatteras Ferry. It is free to board and crosses the waters from Hatteras to Ocracoke multiple times each day, but check the website before you go in case weather or other factors change the normal schedule.

Boarding is first come, first serve, and it takes about an hour and a half to cross each way, so plan accordingly. Once the ferry is in motion, you are free to wander around the boat and enjoy the free cruise. 

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In the area for a while? Follow me to Ocracoke

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3 thoughts on “Cape Hatteras National Seashore & the Graveyard of the Atlantic in OBX

  1. Pingback: Pilots, Pirates, and Dingbatters in Ocracoke | Fernweh

  2. Pingback: Here Be Dragons; Touring Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, Nags Head, and Bodie Island in OBX | Fernweh

  3. Pingback: Manteo and the Lost Colony of Roanoke | Fernweh

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