Many have been to Pea Island National Refuge when they drive down Hwy 12 in North Carolina’s Outer Banks (OBX) on the way to somewhere else. But, they may not know it. It’s a lonely stretch of road, often driven in silence as you take in what could be the country’s largest sandcastle held together by a strip of asphalt and a delicate truce with Mother Nature.
Usually, vacationers are eager to get to their destination. They see this stretch of road as a great big yawn before they spill out of the car and into their vacation rental. But don’t be so quick to check this off your “to-do” list before you get out of the car. Stop and explore Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Many have been to Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge; few experience it.
There is a difference.
What’s Cool about Hatteras Island?
Hatteras Island has several small towns, including Rodanthe of Nicholas Sparks fame, where families, friends, and couples spend time reconnecting to what’s most important to them. The Island was created by an Act of the Almighty and Nature; the Refuge was established by an Act of Congress.
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is located just beyond the Oregon Inlet. As you cross the suspended bridge (from north to south), you realize you’re in for something special. Pea Island is like a suspended breath as you transition from city life to what locals call “the OBX life”
Imagine driving down a strip of asphalt, the Atlantic ocean a pebble throw to the east, the Pamlico Sound a hop, skip and jump to the west, knowing this little spit of land is under constant transformation. You’ll find evidence of man’s attempts to maintain this national treasure. Heavy machinery sits along the roadside ready to push back the sands of time and the ocean’s surge that constantly threaten to bury the road.
What you see today, may be completely different tomorrow.
It seems, just like Life, you have to enjoy Pea Island while it’s here!
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pea Island is known as a “Birders’ Paradise.” However, there are more than birds to enjoy in this outdoor playground. Fish from the shore, bike on the highway, or kayak the inlets for an up-close and personal experience.
The visitor’s center is located about 4 ½ miles south of the Oregon Inlet on the west side of the road. Stop in to talk with the volunteers. Familiarize yourself with the island’s animal residents. You can miss a lot if you stay in the car!
There are several observation points inside the visitor center and along the North Pond Wildlife Trail (which connects from the visitor center) and the Salt Flats Wildlife Trail (a half-mile, fully disabled-accessible trail north of the visitor center). It’s equipped with binocular spotting scopes. Don’t have your own binos? The visitor center may lend you binoculars for use along the trail. Just ask!
During our early fall day trip, the weather was mild, with a slight cold breeze off the ocean and overcast skies (gloves and ear warmers a plus). We walked the Service Road around North Pond, which connects the two Wildlife Trails. The full loop is about 3-4 miles and very easy.
Waterfowl don’t always stay in once spot so your chances of seeing them increase when you take the time to explore the full loop. There are little habitats on the back end of the ponds where birds who shy away from the road noise like to hang out.
If you’re taking photos or simply watching the birds, don’t miss the blind located off the highway north of the visitor center. A blind, if you don’t know, is a cool little fort with openings where you can observe wildlife without them being aware of your presence. It’s a hideout! You can walk there from the Salt Flats Wildlife Trail; however, it may be muddy or flooded so wear appropriate shoes.
On our journey, we encountered about a dozen or so different birds including Canadian Geese, White Ibis, a beautiful black and white duck (which I’m not qualified to identify), Sanderlings, Willets, and a couple of Herons (which looked like grumpy old men as they hunkered down in the wind). We also crossed some muskrat or otter holes where we saw evidence of a crab lunch.
From Pea Island, Bodie Island is not too far away and worth the short ride.
Bodie Island Lighthouse at Sunset
Bodie Island Lighthouse is the third one built on its current location. What you see today, was built in 1872. The lighthouse is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day in October. You can take a self-guided climb up the 200 narrow steps inside.
We were not there to climb the steps. Instead, our goal was to watch the sun go down.
The day was cloudy and as it got closer to sunset, we were hoping for a break in the clouds to get a good shot of the Bodie Light Station in the beautiful Carolina sky. Tundra Swan floated in the wetlands around the lighthouse, a couple with a selfie-stick tried to fit the lighthouse in their shot, and a little boy with dancing eyes and a beaming smile ran up to us, eager to show off his lighthouse picture snapped on a tablet device.
As the sun got into position, we waited, sipping coffee from our thermos, hoping the sky would clear. We were rewarded when the sun dipped beyond the horizon and for a moment, the gold of the sun mixed with the cool grey and blue of the evening sky.
After the sun fell past the horizon, there was just one last thing to do before we made the drive home. Eat!
We headed toward the “Andy Griffith-ish” town of Manteo and stumbled onto Ortega’z Southwestern Bar Grill and Wine Bar. It’s a fun little place in town, painted with spicy colors of the Southwest.
For starters, our server brought out their version of chips and salsa. Puffy, colorful flour tortillas without a hint of greasiness. They were light and delicious! I ordered the GF “approved” blackened tuna fish tacos (GF as in Guy Fieri); however, they also have a selection of GF (as in gluten free) options…just ask.
Everything was fresh and light, a hallmark of a great Southwestern Grill. The perfect ending to a day experiencing Pea Island and its feathered inhabitants.
When You Go:
Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge
Opened 9am – 4pm
Bodie Island Light Station [aka Lighthouse]
8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Rd
Nags Head, NC 27959