Stretching 200 miles and separated from the mainland by the Albemarle, Currituck and Pamlico Sounds, the Outer Banks are a string of narrow barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and southern Virginia.
Their wide expanse of open beachfront and a climate tempered by steady breezes coming in off the Atlantic Ocean make these islands extremely popular in the summer. But the remote area (which is a two-hour drive from the nearest international airport, in Norfolk) is much more sleepy and subdued in the offseason. With school back in session, autumn is the perfect time to explore this nature lover’s paradise.
A black bear leads her cubs in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo: Garry Tucker, USFWS/Flickr)
Created in 1984 to preserve its unique pocosin (the Algonquin word for “swamp on a hill”) habitat, this 154,000-acre refuge is a dense network of bogs, marshes, and swampland that provides sanctuary for myriad birds, turtles, snakes, otters, alligators, and critically endangered white-tailed deer. It also boasts the highest concentration of black bears on America’s Eastern Seaboard. Drive through slowly around sunset for the best chance of spotting them: We saw seven, including a mother and three cubs, in a span of two hours. They also offer guided “Howl With the Wolves” programs.
A Renaissance statue overlooks the Sunken Garden at the Elizabethan Gardens. (Photo: Beth Moon/Flickr)
For those whose taste in natural attractions tends more toward the refined, there are these 10-acre botanical gardens located within the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in Manteo, North Carolina. Created in the 1950s as a tribute to the first English settlement in the New World, the gardens contain over 500 species of plants that change seasonally, including hydrangeas, historic herbs, native coastal species, and an impressive collection of 85+ varieties of camellias encircling the Great Lawn. There’s also a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth I, museum-quality Italian Renaissance statues, shaded walking paths, and workshops for kids and adults.
National Park Service biologists take blood samples from a stranded leatherback sea turtle. (Photo: Hatteras Island Ocean Center/Facebook)
Located within walking distance of Hatteras Village, this family-focused attraction is part of the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. Its Ecology Park features environmentally focused exhibits in Ocean Center Hall, nature trails through coastal wetlands and forests, and kayaking and paddleboarding in Sandy Bay. There are also several free programs, including nature and art workshops, natural science tours, and lessons on catching blue crabs. Check out their fantastic “Turtle Sense” conservation program, which is designed to protect the sea turtles that nest along Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
A hang-gliding student takes flight. (Photo: Alaina Browne/Flickr)
The tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern U.S., the 426-acre Jockey’s Ridge also includes the marine estuary of the Roanoke Sound and a maritime forest that provides haven for various types of flora and fauna. But the main attraction here is the desert-like dunes themselves: Thanks to steady winds (which attracted the Wright Brothers to the area for their famous “first flight” back in 1903), Jockey’s Ridge has become one of the most popular places in the world for people learning to hang-glide. For those with more grounded sensibilities, it’s also a picturesque place from which to watch the sunset.
One of the many trails in Nags Head Woods (Photo: Bob Muller/Flickr)
Owned and operated by the Nature Conservancy, this nature preserve was recognized as a National Natural Landmark in 1974. More large parcels of land have been added over the years, and it now comprises over 1,100 acres. Numerous trails allow visitors to explore four different ecosystems — from maritime deciduous and swamp forests to shrub forests and sand dunes — each with its own unique flora and fauna. More than 50 species of birds make their homes here, with many other migratory species stopping in for a rest. Other animals include raccoons, rabbits, nutria, turtles, frogs, snakes, and the occasional white-tailed deer.
Black-necked stilts search for food among the boundary waters of Pea Island. (Photo: Matt Tillett/Flickr)
Established in 1937, Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge encompasses around 5,000 acres of land and over 25,000 acres of boundary waters, making it a hot spot for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking that attracts 2.7 million visitors a year. The area is best known as a birder’s paradise: Its beaches, ponds, salt flats, and marshes attract more than 365 different types of birds, including ducks, ospreys, peregrine falcons, piping plover, red-cockaded woodpeckers, roseate terns, and snow geese. Alligators, sea turtles, and manatees can also be seen in the area, making it popular among wildlife photographers.
Three wild mustangs roam free on the beach. (Photo: Getty Images)
Located in the northernmost part of the Outer Banks near the town of Corolla, Currituck was founded in 1984 to protect the barrier island’s ecosystem. But it’s been the source of controversy in recent years over the wild Banker Horses, which share genetic ties to Spanish horses and have roamed the Outer Banks since the 16th century. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service claims the horses compete with migratory birds for food; locals love the feral horses, and many depend on four-wheel-drive wild horse safaris for revenue. With just 120 horses left, finding them can be a challenge, but their beauty makes it well worth the effort.