|Words and photos: Samantha Proctor
Recreation is abundant in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. People travel from all over the world to play in these waters of my home state. These barrier islands, which are nothing but long slivers of sandbars, create beautiful scenery for every imaginable water sport. Play boat or surf in the waves, paddle board on flatwater, strap your feet onto a kite board, or just float in a tube. If you lack equipment, rent it at one of the many facilities along the banks.
Finding adventure is easy in the Outer Banks, but if you need some inspiration to get started, here are a four places — along with a local’s tips — to help you explore.
Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve
5.7 miles round trip
Most people only spend time on the beach in the Outer Banks, but inland are old-growth woods with freshwater ponds and a variety of wildlife. Kitty Hawk Woods Coastal Reserve is one of them. It’s an easy paddle through the forest’s shaded estuaries to Albemarle Sound, and there’s potential to see deer and birds among other wildlife.
If you don’t want to camp far from the launch, camp at Adventure Bound Campground. You’ll be sharing your site with peacocks, so if you don’t want to lose your dinner — or a beloved s’more — don’t leave camp unattended! The campground’s open field has fire pits and a volleyball net to help you wind down after a day of paddling.
Near Adventure Bound Campground, you’ll find Bob Perry Road — an an easy launch. Paddle south to reach Hog and Stove Island or head out to Shellbank Point (a 5.7 mile round trip) to get a great view of the sound.
The Slash – 5.2 miles round trip
Back Creek – 5 miles round trip
An hour and a half south of Kitty Hawk is the village of Hatteras. Pitch a tent or park your vehicle at Frisco Campground or Hatteras Sands Campground. Hatteras Sands is located right in the village and along the Slash (a paddle option in this area). In the Frisco campground, you can camp beach side and take a short walk to cool your toes in the Atlantic Ocean.
Launch your boat or board from the Hatteras Island Ocean Center’s free public access, found at Mile Marker 71 along NC-12; the access is just behind a big, yellow building. Pay attention to the tides and wind direction; Hatteras is globally known for its wind, making this access potentially unusable, especially if high winds are coming from the south.
If the winds are in your favor, paddle north toward Pamlico Sound. You then have two options:
- Make a hairpin turn into the Slash. The Slash is a waterway that travels 2.5 miles and cuts the Hatteras in half, ending at Hatteras Landing beside Teach’s Marina. It would be best to paddle this route during low tide, otherwise, your nose may be scraping the second bridge as you pass underneath. This paddle will show a slice of island life as you stroke through marshlands and pass fishing boats and crab pots.
- If you want a paddle that gives you some wildlife, this second option is for you. Paddle past the houses on the way to Pamlico Sound and keep left, following the sea wall until you see Muddy Creek. Head into Muddy Creek with Sheep’s Ridge to your right. Soon, on your right, you will see yet another creek, Back Creek. Back Creek takes you through the still-undeveloped Sheep’s Ridge, offering tons of possibilities to see birds, fish, stingray and crabs.
If the Hatteras Island Ocean Center launch is unusable, you can put in at the bridge that goes over the Slash off of the highway; you can park your car along the road or at Teach’s Island.
After your paddle, if you’ve worked up an appetite, head to The Hatterasman. Their burgers, paired with hushpuppies and fries, are amazing.
3 miles one-way
Further south along the banks, a little town called Swansboro sits on the edge of Bogue Sound; your launch is just west of it.
Don’t let the name of the day’s destination scare you — there are no bears on Bear Island. Instead, you’ll find miles of open beach, a lack of people on the north end, and plenty of room to roam.
One of the best parts about this island is it is only accessible by ferry or private boat, and although there are a few campgrounds and many beach houses to rent, the best adventure includes obtaining a permit from the State Parks Department for the island’s primitive camping.
Pack lightly; you will need to carry all of your camping gear to your site.
Note to paddlers: This area can be hard to navigate and looks very different from high tide to low tide. But it’s worth the effort, and if you go at the right times, porpoises may be swimming in the channels.
Paddle into Bear Island’s lagoon until it dead ends, then secure your boat on the sand on the left-hand side. Since this is a popular place for people to paddle and camp, make sure you aren’t in the way.
For a day trip, walk over the island’s dunes and enjoy the wide-open and serene beach. If you paddled your SUP, bring it to the ocean side and try some SUP surfing. Either way, this is the place to play in the Atlantic Ocean, relax on the beach, and squish your toes in the sand.
Once you’re done with your paddle, head into the small waterfront town of Swansboro. There are tons of great spots for post-paddle essentials like food, ice cream, and coffee.
3 miles one-way
Not far from Swansboro is another quaint town, Beaufort. This historic town has lots to offer, from shopping to the general store (try their ice cream!) to ghost stories at night.
But first, adventure: Head south on Front Street until you find the boat ramp at the end of the road. I like to paddle back toward Beaufort and head into a little channel that cuts the island — Carrot Island — in half, then meander past Horse Island and the Rachel Carson Reserve.
While you’re paddling along, look for the wild horses that roam these islands.
Shackleford Banks is another island without development and is only accessible by boat (but no ferries). Make plans to camp here — and here’s why: At night, you may see a beam of light shine brightly, fade, then repeat; it’s the signal from Cape Lookout Lighthouse, one of seven lighthouses placed strategically along the coast. Then, in the morning, imagine waking up with your morning coffee while sitting on the beach watching the Gulf Stream create billowing clouds 20 miles out to sea (all while trying to safeguard your breakfast from a wild horse). The experience is incredible.
The Outer Banks have a ton of paddle options; what I’ve given you is just a start! Find a ramp or any sound-side access and head whichever way suits you. You’re bound to find beautiful scenery and wildlife during your paddles here. Stingray, porpoises, fish, birds and otters reside in the marshy areas.
Again, always pay attention to wind, but if you can’t beat the wind, enjoy it. Windsurfing or kiteboarding lessons along the banks are great for those days.
And whatever the conditions, enjoy the sand, the water, the seafood, and the culture. Happy paddles!
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About the author:
Samantha “Sam” Proctor says, “I grew up exploring the different terrains of my home state of North Carolina with my parents and younger sister. My parents showed me the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Crystal Coast, and various flatlands along the state. I thank them for my adventurous heart and mind!
My life is filled with climbing, kayaking, SUPing, and backpacking with wonderful friends. The outdoors has formed the woman that I am and the woman that I want to be. It has made me push my limits, outside of my comfort zone, to make me believe that I am worth this wonderful life and I should live it accordingly.”
Find her online:
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