Story and photos by Bill Steiden
A little less than fifty years ago, a bridge opened across the Outer Banks’ Oregon Inlet, connecting North Carolina’s Roanoke and Hatteras islands. That could have been the ruination of the most pristine coastline in the Southeast.
Just as on many of Florida’s barrier islands, easy automotive access threatened to sow a mushroom patch of character-robbing, view-destroying overdevelopment.
That, in fact, is the case in the once-desolate area surrounding the hulking Kill Devil Hill dune on Roanoke, where the Wright brothers, protected by the wind-blown isolation from potential competitors’ curiosity, tested the world’s first airplane. Now the northern gateway to the islands, the eponymous village in the dune’s shadow was connected by a bridge to the mainland long before the Oregon Inlet bridge was built. Shopping centers, chain restaurants, tacky souvenir stores and grandiose beach mansions line a landing-strip-like five-lane highway, converting it into an outpost of urbanized Virginia Beach, a few hours to the north.
But long before the fateful bridge spanned Oregon inlet, opening Hatteras’ beautiful emptiness to Roanoke’s ever-increasing traffic, something happened that ensured at least part of a national treasure would survive to be appreciated by 21st century Americans: the establishment of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the first seashore unit of the National Park Service.
On the south end of Roanoke and for miles and miles north and south of the Hatteras’ scattered villages, the islands – narrow strips of beach, dunes and marsh – are preserved in their natural state, except for a two-lane highway and the old-fashioned utility poles that line its length like giant snow markers, signaling its location should the winds shift and dune-y drifts of sand overtake the pavement.
That is always possible on the Outer Banks, where a hurricane can cut a new inlet overnight across stretches of land only a few feet above sea level and less than one-eighth of a mile across. And that is the charm of the place. The fisherfolk who once reaped the bounty of the ocean on their front doorstep and Pamlico Sound out their back door – and the treasures swept ashore from frequent shipwrecks – are long gone. But the land itself – the easternmost point in the Southeast, ever under assault by the pounding surf of the open Atlantic – has an elemental wildness that has never been lost, despite Dairy Queens, overpriced seafood eateries and four-story beach “cottages.”
Even amid the stretches of clutter, you can pitch a tent or park an RV and enjoy the same beach access as those who pay $3,000 or more a week to vacation in those stilt-perched palaces. In Waves, Rodanthe and Salvo, the trio of tiny towns in the center of the northern stretch of Hatteras, it seems as though every convenience store has a few campsites for rent on the back lot at well less than a tenth of that price. And for those who want all the amenities except the big rent, there are the KOA and the Ocean Waves campgrounds with swimming pools, playgrounds, camp stores and bath houses.
But for those who want to enjoy the essential Outer Banks experience, look to the ultimate landlord: the National Park Service, which administers the stretches of sand and sea oats. There are four park campgrounds, from Oregon Inlet at the south end of Roanoke to Ocracoke Island, accessible by ferry only. Each has a bathhouse with cold showers and there are no electrical connections. Fair warning: The campgrounds, set away from the villages, may also lack their level of mosquito control. In summer, netting is a necessity for those days when the breezes die down and the bugs come up from the marshes.
But for whatever the Park Service campgrounds lack, they balance the equation with things the more commercial sites can’t offer. Campsites are just behind the dunes – in some cases, nestled within them, or on Ocracoke, open to the beach. And because of their relative isolation, their beaches are uncrowded, especially in the evening after day-use vistors leave. Each has its special appeal. Oregon Inlet is a fishing mecca. Frisco, next to the Buxton Woods nature trail, is for birders. Cape Point is adjacent to one of the East Coast’s surfing hot spots. And Ocracoke, as mentioned above, allows camping right on the beach – likely a reason it is the only one of the campgrounds to take reservations.
The national seashore is a remarkably unfussy place. For instance, you can still gather up driftwood and build a beach fire. You can even drive an appropriately equipped vehicle – i.e. four-wheel drive – on the beach, although a fight is raging about just how much of this kind of access should be allowed.
But the big battle has been won. Thanks to the foresight of some New Deal-era preservationists and politicians, the Outer Banks we know now will always be there.
“When we look up and down the ocean fronts of America, we find that everywhere they are passing behind the fences of private ownership. The people can no longer get to the ocean. When we have reached the point that a nation of 125 million people can no longer set foot upon the thousands of miles of beaches that border the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, except by permission of those who monopolize the ocean front, then I say it is the prerogative and duty of the Federal and State Governments to step in and acquire, not a swimming beach here and there, but solid blocks of ocean front hundreds of miles in length. Call this ocean front a national park, or a national seashore, or a state park or anything you please – I say that the people have a right to a fair share of it.”
– Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, 1938
Camp Hatteras Resort and RV Park
24798 Highway 12
Rodanthe, NC 27968
On 50 acres between the sound and the ocean. Offers soundfront sites, full hook-ups, 3 swimming pools, free Wi-Fi, cable TV, jet-ski and kayak rentals and more.
Ocean Waves Campground
25313 Highway 12
Waves, NC 27982
Tent and RV campground offering full hook-ups, water and sewer, a swimming pool, free Wi-Fi, cable TV and a campstore.
Top photo: Campsite at the Oregon Inlet campsite within the National Park Service’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at email@example.com.