Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (Outer Banks, NC)

pea island national wildlife refugeWhen we were in Nags Head last month we spent the last full day exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on a barrier island of the Outer Banks in NC.  The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is part of a larger national wildlife refuge system with more than 500 units that was founded by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to conserve the nation’s natural living treasures.  The Pea Island Refuge was established in 1938 to provide a resting and winter habitat for migratory waterfowl. It features a visitor center, the North Pond Wildlife trail (which is part of the larger Charles Kuralt Trail), and 13 miles of beaches.  We did a little bit of everything just before the big storms rolled in, making the trip a perfect last day adventure!

Before exploring the hiking/walking trail in the refuge, we stopped at the Pea Island Visitor Center.  It is located a few miles south of Oregon Inlet along NC 12 (not to be confused with the National Wildlife Refuge Center main complex located on Roanoke Island). Volunteers run the visitor center and it’s free to explore.  It features a few exhibits detailing the refuge’s history and animals in the area, a gift shop, scavenger hunts for kids, and telescopes for viewing into the marshes.  Pea Island received its name because the migratory snow geese that frequented this area ate plants with peas in them.

IMG_6261After exploring the visitor center we headed to the North Pond Wildlife trail, which is a 1 mile total walk to the observation deck and back to the visitor center.  We first walked along the boardwalk and scoped out the turtles in the “turtle pond.” Continuing on, we walked along a partially paved/boardwalk path between North Pond and New Field Pond where we glanced through fixed binoculars towards North Pond.  The trail then became narrow and sandy, but continued to offer beautiful unobstructed views of the ponds.  At the end of the trail, we walked up the double decker observation deck, where we could see for miles and identified egrets and turkey vultures.  Butterflies were plentiful this day, too.  The observation deck features some informational plaques about animals in the refuge and fixed binoculars for viewing.

IMG_6265The North Pond Wildlife Trail is part of a larger grouping of trails that make up the Charles Kuralt Trail.  It was established to encourage people to enjoy the wild lands and recognize this great NC native broadcast journalist who loved exploring remote places.  The Charles Kuralt Trail consists of 13 refuges or hatcheries along eastern NC and southeastern VA, offering interesting places to explore.

It was a really hot day, so we quickly walked the 1/2 mile back to the visitor center parking lot (although more adventurous hikers can complete the 4 mile loop around North Pond).  After a short bathroom break, we grabbed our picnic lunch and beach bag and walked across highway NC-12 for more beach time.  The Atlantic Ocean was beautiful this time of year and the water was relatively calm despite the large thunderstorm that popped up an hour later.  Don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the remains of the Oriental, a Federal transport during the Civil War, which shipwrecked in 1862.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: beautiful pond views, light foot traffic,

Thumbs down: Bathrooms near trail head

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

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For the first time in our 10 years of vacationing in Nags Head, we finally paid a visit to Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  Jockey’s Ridge is the tallest natural sand dune system in the eastern US.  It is located at 300 W. Carolista Dr in Nags Head (MP 12) on the sound side of HWY 158.  Having never been to a desert or sand dune park before, I was blown away by the massiveness of the dunes; if a herd of camels had passed by, I would’ve forgotten we were in NC!

Jockey’s Ridge sand dunes vary in height of 80 to 100 ft and is believed to have been formed when hurricanes or strong northeasters transported sand inland from offshore islands.  The rich history of this area started with the Algonquian Indians and was further explored by European settlers.  Jockey’s Ridge became an official NC state park in 1975 only after the strong efforts of Carolista Baum (read more about the history of Jockey’s Ridge).  Today, the non-profit group Friends of Jockey’s Ridge also provides support and brings awareness to the dunes.

IMG_8054Unfortunately, our visit to Jockey’s Ridge did not go as swimmingly as I would have liked.  As with most things I plan with two small children, my expectations exceed reality and this was one of those examples.  Knowing the sand is at least 10 degrees hotter than the outside temperature we got an early start to our trip and were in the parking lot area by 9:30am.  After a short stop inside the visitor’s center, Bill and I set off with both girls to find the top of the dunes.  We made our way to the end of the wooden walkway near the large group of visitors that were catching their breath from just coming off the dunes.  We followed some of the other visitors along the loosely marked Tracks in the Sand trail.  We made it up a few small hills and discovered several animal tracks, but on our way up the large dune our sweet 3yr old retreated down the hill exclaiming, “My legs are too tired!”  Rather than continue climbing with Claire in the carrier while Bill was 100 yards away on a work conference call (great reception, fyi) I scooped Ashley up and proceeded downhill.  Looking back, maybe this trip was a bit premature for this young group, but a little character building never hurt anyone; and, Ashley loooved recounting the story about how tired her legs were throughout dinner later that night!

I hope to make it back to Jockey’s Ridge for some solo hang gliding during our annual trip in May; the kiddos will have to enjoy my stories and pics instead of another first-hand experience!  I look forward to some family kite flying when everyone is at least 5 years old!

Thumbs up: gorgeous views (I bet they’re even better from the top)

Thumbs down: learning the hard way that my young children do not tolerate sand dunes

Bodie Island Light Station

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A month ago while we were in Nags Head on our family vacation, Claire and I headed south to Bodie (pronounced body) Island Light Station.  Bodie Island Light Station consists of a 200-step, 10-story lighthouse and keepers’ quarters turned visitor’s center.  It is run by the National Park Service and is located at 8210 Bodie Island Lighthouse Rd in southern Nags Head.  The NPS runs daily tours of the lighthouse, which are getting ready to end (although see the final full moon tour info on Wed., Oct 8).

Bodie Island was a quick 20 minute drive from our beach rental house so Claire and I arrived early in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds and score some climbing tour tickets.  After a quick stop in the visitors’ center, which houses historical information about the lighthouse, we learned they weren’t doing climbing tours due to the high heat index. It turns out according to their safety rules, I wouldn’t have been allowed to climb with Claire in the carrier anyways.  So we explored the grounds on our own starting with a walk along the boardwalk that stretches above the wetlands area.  It was a quick 5 minute walk between high grasses to the perch that overlooks the wetlands, giving breathtaking views.  I’d definitely recommend bringing babies and early walkers in a carrier; the park can accommodate strollers, but with the steady crowds a carrier would be easier.

IMG_0293After walking back we headed over to the lighthouse to talk to the NPS rangers.  We had a great conversation with the young rangers who shared some of their favorite facts about the lighthouse: 1) how the Confederate troops blew up the lighthouse to prevent Union troops from occupying it, 2) that the lighthouse still uses its original Fresnel lens from Paris and 3) how the lighthouse still aids in navigation today given its checkered history.  Despite the high heat index they still allowed visitors to climb a few steps to the first landing.  We explored the old oil storage rooms in the front and then took pictures of the amazing view up the heavy duty spiral staircase before heading out.

Since we visit Nags Head a few times each year, I’m anxious to get back to the lighthouse (without kiddos) to take the climbing tour and capture more amazing photos from inside.

Thumbs up: friendly and knowledgeable staff, beautiful views

Thumbs down: nothing to report, but keep in mind to call ahead of time about the status of climbing tours during the hot summer months

Jennette’s Pier

Last week I spent a wonderfully relaxing week with great friends and family in Nags Head.  Everyday was at least 85 degrees and sunny except for the last day, so my mom, sister, bro-in-law, Ashley and I decided to check out the newly renovated Jennette’s Pier at MP 16.5 in Nags Head.  For someone who isn’t interested in fishing, I fell in love with this pier!  From the magnificent views of the Atlantic Ocean, to the history and science lessons scattered throughout the pier, to the spirit of the fishermen… you, too, will fall in love.

The pier, on property originally owned by the Jennette family, was first built in 1939 for $6,000 and extended 740 feet.  It collapsed in 1943 and was rebuilt after WWII in 1947.  Since then, there have been several repairs due to storms and hurricanes, most notably in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel came through and destroyed a large portion of the pier.  Before then, the Jennette family had sold the pier and then the NC Aquarium Society (a division of the NC Dept of Environmental and Natural Resources) purchased it in 2003.  Construction of the new pier began in 2009 and was finally completed earlier this year.

Before going onto the pier, you’ll pass through the main building, which contains the future aquarium, educational programs, and gift/convenience shop.  The shop is filled with children’s books, stuffed animals, and prepared food and drinks.  A digital tower highlights educational programs, daily temperature and tidal current info, fishing reports, and history about the pier.  There is no fee to walk onto the pier, but there is a suggested $2 donation.  The daily fishing rates are as follows: $12 adults, $6 children under 12.  Additional fishing fees can be found here.

The new pier cost $25 million and has 257 concrete piles installed between 35-45 ft deep.  The pier extends 1000 feet, where the water is about 25 ft deep.  It is a grand structure, to say the least.  As you walk along the pier, it’s easy to get lost in the conversation among the fisherman, the sounds of the crashing waves, and in the educational information about tidal currents, pier etiquette, wind power, marine mammals and birds, and surfing, to name a few.  You’ll also see fish plaques throughout the pier showcasing the various sponsors.  The sounds from the three wind-powered turbines support the pier’s “green” statement.

On the second story of the pier is a large reception room available to rent for private events.  It has a plasma TV, floor-to-ceiling fireplace, and gorgeous globe-like chandeliers.  The wrap-around porch with rocking chairs provides 270 degree views of the pier and ocean.  Chair sponsorships are also available.

So, next time you’re at the Outer Banks be sure to check out Jennette’s Pier with your family.  Whether you’re there to do some fishing or just exploring the pier, there is great fun for everyone!

Thumbs up:  beautiful views, educational programs, gift/convenience shop, informational boards throughout pier

Thumbs down:  nothing to report