Road Trip to the Outer Banks – NC

Robyn and Frank very kindly ran us up the road to the rental car place in Chapel Hill and with car keys in hand we said out good byes to them both but promising to keep in touch. We were going to spend the next couple of days checking out the Outer Banks area of North Carolina. We saw some info on the area when we were first in the state a few months ago and were keen to get back to this area if the opportunity arose – which we have now made happen. Picking up our car we started to head east. We had to firstly work our way ‘across the triangle’ which involved heading through Cary and then out through Raleigh – the main hub of the triangle. We primarily stuck to Highway 64 which runs east to west across North Carolina. We stopped at an area called Plymouth for a break – this was the scene of one of the state’s more significant Civil War battles (I think Plymouth was a Union held area, whom the Confederates then drove out of the area). Plymouth is also at the base of the Albemarle Sound waterway that forms the upper portion of the inner Outer Bank area – if that makes sense (it does if you follow a map). You have the Albemarle Sound to the north of the inner passages and Pamlico Sound to the south – big inner waterways that are of course fed from and into the Atlantic on the eastern coastline of North Carolina. Off these main sounds are a number of feeder channels, sounds and rivers – it’s a huge waterway and very interesting. Further east and we stopped at the little town of Columbia which is effectively the end of the 4-lane roadway heading west – dropping us back to a good 2 lane highway for the remainder of the run to the Outer Bank.

Columbia had a good Visitor Info Centre and the team there were good sharing their ideas and views on where to go and where not to go in the area. Just to the east of Columbia is the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge – when you see the area, you could understand it being good Alligator country – loads of waterways, very marshy. The surrounding area – Alligator Refuse and Tyrrell County is also supposed to be home to the US’s largest group of Black Bears, so the Wildlife team at Columbia gave us a map for a route we could take through the refuge – to look for bears, and or maybe some alligator (and area of this land to the south is military land and is used as a bombing range – presumably it is free of much wildlife and bears?). We drove slowly around this area looking for bears and co but to no avail – nothing much was spotted bar some swans (the area has a huge swan migratory every year), Kingfishers and turtles. Getting back out onto the main road (Highway 64) we crossed a very impressive bridge over onto Roanoke Island – the bridge spanning around 5 miles of the waterway – nice piece of engineering. Roanoke Island is a descent sized island on the inner waterways – long and narrow and is home to the old town of Manteo. To the north of this area – northern tip of Roanoke Island is where the British first tried to colonise the US back in the late 1500’s. A group of people from England were dropped on the island but mysteriously disappeared within a couple of years (maybe the alligators got them???) – it would be another 50 years or so before the British would try to colonise the area again.

Another nice bridge spans the waterway that divides Roanoke Island from the Outer Bank proper – have to say the US do build some good bridges – the way they span the waterways as they do has really impressed me. With the inner waters covered we were now on the Outer Banks at the town of Nags Head. Now I have to be honest and say I really didn’t expect the Outer Banks area to be very populated – I’d expected it to have a random selection of holiday batches or homes here and there. Instead this stretch of the Outer Banks that runs around 20 miles of more is just one town after another – Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and it’s just full of houses and they are all very large and very high (to try and capture views out onto the Atlantic). Dotted along the coastline you then have all the mandatory motels and accommodation options, shopping and food outlets that support the local population. It looks like for the most part the Outer Banks area if a full-on place over the summer months, but in the winter, things pull back – not that today felt much like winter, with the sun shining nicely for us. The Outer Banks is obviously home to the first powered flights at Kitty Hawk, and so I suppose I had naively factored on the area still being quite remote. Obviously there are good stretches (North and South of Nags Head) that are sparsely populated, but in this central hub, it was really surprising. A lot of the homes appear to be vacation type set ups – Book a Bach type arrangements maybe?

We were starting to run out of daylight, so turning left onto the main road on the Outer Bank – Highway 12, we headed south in the direction of Hatteras (Cape Hatteras is the sight of a famous US lighthouse – being one of the most eastern most points of this Atlantic coastline). We didn’t get anywhere near as far as Hatteras as we were left aghast at the Oregon Inlet Bridge that we crossed. Turns out it is a new bridge that opened only in Feb 2019 I think and it spans one of the main channels that feeds in and out of the Atlantic. You could see this bridge to the south when we crossed over from Roanoke Island even though it was a good 5 miles to the south – it’s such a big structure. The bridge is 2.8 miles long and rises to 90 feet above the waterline. It cost just over $250 million to build and is named the Bonner Bridge – as it runs alongside the old Herbert C Bonner Bridge that it replaces (work is still ongoing to remove most of the old bridge – some parts of it are to be left as fishing piers and the like). We were both really impressed with this piece of engineering – its amazing just what can be achieved – money permitting obviously. The bridge connects the main part of the Outer Banks with the southern Hatteras Island chain (the Outer Banks are a collection of islands either linked by bridge, such as the Bonner Bridge, or by ferry – a couple of ferries are needed to get right to the bottom of the Outer Island bank). We moved south a bit more before stopping at an area known as Pea Island where there is another wildlife refuge – we stopped just in time to catch the sun setting over the inner waters of the Outer Banks area – very nice and a great way to draw our day to a close. Another treat was the sky that was just lined / laced with vapor trials – not sure why there were so many in this area but they crossed this way and that way – quite the sight as well.

Turning back north, we headed back over the Bonner Bridge and into Nags Head where we set about finding some accommodation for the night. We opted for a spot right up towards Kitty Hawk and have about 15 miles of waterfront area to cover before we found our spot for the night (I think it was called the Days Inn Wright Brothers or similar as it was in the area of the memorial – very handy). Our motel was on the beach front and the lady at the counter was telling us about the Ghost Craps you can see on the beach, so we grabbed our torches and headed out onto the beach in the dark, but to no avail – no crabs sighted by us tonight. We enjoyed a bit of an exploratory walk up the beach before heading back to our room – sand and all. We enjoyed a really good breakfast at the motel on the Thursday morning and then headed across a couple of blocks to the Wright Brothers National Memorial. No flight pilgrimage to the US would be complete without coming to the spiritual home of where it all began, so I was just so grateful that we had the opportunity to come here. The Wright Brothers National Memorial is run by the US National Parks Service, and so our NP’s membership got us into the complex for free – bonus. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the place – obviously a lot has happened in the almost 120 years since he Wright Brothers flew year – the area has obviously built up, and the landscape has changed from what I believed to be like a big flat sand dune area back at the start of the 1900’s. The Memorial outlined the history of the Wright Brothers really nicely, and they had a replicate of the 1903 Wright Flyer on display. There was some really good info to take in – really well done.

We opted for the guides talk at 11am and were entertained by the young volunteers telling of life back in the area in 1900 -1903 and the trials and tribulations of the Wright Brothers – he did a great job. The area has the Kill Devil Hills – well it’s really only one hill now, as it’s backdrop. The hills were where the Wrights first undertook glider flights to understand better how powered flight might pan out. Back in the day, summers were crazy hot and mosquito ridden – winters were calmer but cooler with it so a lot of the Wrights time in the area was from around Sept – December 1900 – 1903. There’s a replicate of their hut and hanger on display – this was where they lived and worked when in the area trying to master flying. Then you have the track that they launched from in December 1903 and there are 4 markers capturing the lengths that Wilbur and Orville Wright flew on that day – 17 December 1903. When you look at the pictures from the time, it was a pretty desolate and hostile environment but it was what they wanted as they wanted both the right wind conditions for flying, but also isolation as they refined how to fly. I think the story goes that once they completed their flights on the morning of December 17 1903, they had to walk 4 miles to get a telegraph off to their father to say they had done it. The Wright Brothers had the foresight to have someone take photos on the day – story goes that one of the local surf live savers was challenged with clicking the camera bottom at just the right time – with the realisation that to get the pictures developed would then take a couple of months from the time they were taken. Fortunately as history depicts, he got it right and captured the famous image of lift off – no pressure.

There’s a large National Memorial up on the top of Kill Devil Hill that was inaugurated in 1928 I think it was and it’s a really nice fitting tribute to this achievement. Unfortunately some rat bags had stolen one of the basks that sit at the back of the memorial – of Orville Wright. I think the Park Service lad said it had been retrieved, but it’s just such a shame to think that people can be silly enough to do such things. Reality will be in time that the memorial will end up being fenced off in order to protect it – which would be a real shame. Down below the hill is another full-sized sculpture of the Wright Flyer that we climbed onto for photo opportunities. I have to say that I came away from this area with a much greater appreciation for just what was achieved by the Wright Brothers. I’ve always been into what goes faster and looks good, goes better, but it’s really important not to lose sight of where it all began – this sandy flat spot on the Outer Banks of North Carolina – very cool. Still buzzing from the experience, we headed north to the ‘end of town’. Up above Kitty Hawk the Outer Bank stretches north for I think 60 miles of so – you have the area of Corrolla where some native horses (from the early colonisation I think) still roam. The road runs out and to get back onto mainland North Carolina you have to head all the way back down to Kitty Hawk where you can cross another big waterway bridge back onto the mainland. Alas we didn’t have time for that loop, so we headed back down to Nags Heads and over to Manteo where we drove to the north of the island to take the old bridge (another great waterway bridge – getting my quota down here) back across Croatan Sound and the Alligator River Wildlife Refuge.

We took some of the wildlife trail again around this area in search of bears, and or alligators, but really only spotted turtles – loads and loads of small turtles up on branches in the waterway sunning themselves. Rather than following the 64 back west, we dropped south and then west on Highway 264 which cut around the southern side of the refuge, with Pamlico Sound to our left / south. The 264 took us through a mix of refuge landscape and then out into farm land as we made our way back west. We made our way through some small settlements – there were waterways on the southern side feeding out into Pamlico Sound, and waterways up into rivers heading inland – a real mix of landscape for us. We passed through the town of Washington and on through to the city of Greenville just as darkness started to close in on us. We called it quits for the night in Wilson a big junction town / city which has Highway 264 crossing east to west, and Interstate 95 running north to south. We found a motel for the night and settled in having had a pretty special day and having really enjoyed our limited time out on the Outer Banks area – would love to be able to spend more time in the area as there was so much water, great bridges, history, varying landscapes and a lot of boats – on Roanoke Island there were a number of large boat building operations – something further I would have liked to have explored.

On Friday morning dawned very fresh and cold – but fine. We had to get up and on the road pretty early for the final push over to Burlington. The run was only around 100 miles but with us having to skirt around the triangle and in and around the cities of Raleigh and then Durham before we would get over to Burlington, we thought it best to get on the road earlier and give ourselves plenty of time. As it turns out it was an easy run for us and we had time to call at the Burlington Train Station to purchase tickets for the train through to Washington DC on Friday 24 January – our next stop after we complete our housesit in Burlington. I have to say I love this smaller road trips – and the bigger road trips for that matter that Carol and I have been taking. Our central location in North Carolina providing the ideal opportunity for us to go east, south, and back west as we want to – very handy. The Outer Banks was a gem – a real surprise with just how big the area was, but a true gem of an area to explore.

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