The Short Cut: Hiking (Instead of Driving) to the Outer Banks

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The long trek down to the Outer Banks of North Carolina is an annual rite of passage for many Virginians. We grumble about the traffic but accept that the hundred miles of travel remaining after passing Virginia Beach is an unavoidable fact of geography.

Or is it? A quick look at a map will demonstrate that that the same barrier island that includes Corolla, Duck and Nag’s Head is actually connected to the mainland just south of Virginia Beach. There just isn’t any pavement heading straight south. A shortcut is lurking, but most of it it can only be done on foot.

The idea of trading a hundred mile drive for a twenty-two mile hike was too much for me to resist. A little research turned up the fact that I could park my truck overnight at Little Island City Park in Virginia Beach while making the hike to Corolla. Pretty soon I was on my way with a sixty pound frame pack on my back.

The two-day walk on the beach first took me through the Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and then across False Cape State Park. I had the beach completely to myself for most of the first day. It was hard to believe that I was only a dozen miles away from the throngs of people packing the waterfront at Virginia Beach. I had my pick of an endless parade of immaculate seashells that I never even would have known about on a more crowded beach. The wildlife was also more plentiful than I expected. Sea turtles and loons were a nice change of pace from the ordinary gulls and pelicans of the beach up north.

A $16 reservation allowed me to make camp in False Cape State Park after a long day’s push. The next morning I woke up and unzipped my tent to reveal a completely deserted stretch of perfect white beach. Who knew that there was still such a place on the east coast?

After breakfast I pushed ahead toward the North Carolina border, which is marked out by a large fence with a small gate. Intended to keep the horses and trucks on the Carolina side, the fence also divides two very different stretches of beach. The immaculate, empty beach of False Cape State Park ends and private houses and vehicles line the North Carolina Side. However, this unique little community has held out against paved roads and commercial development. The beach is their highway for off-road vehicles only. Its another 10 miles from the border crossing until you arrive at the pavement of Route 12 in Corolla.

After walking several miles past the border I stopped to admire a little band of the wild horses that this beach is known for. As I snapped pictures, a truck full of tourists pulled up to look at the same horses. Seeing some empty seats, I walked up and asked if I could hitch a ride into town.

Boy, did I ever luck out! The truck happened to be driven by Banks Meredith, owner of Corolla Jeep Adventures. Once I pointed out the potential, Banks tells me that Corolla Jeep Adventures can pick up hikers at the border and either take them to their hotel or rental property, or he can rent them a Jeep to get around with for the duration of their stay in the Outer Banks. This means that you don’t need to walk as far as I did. 12 miles will get you to the border and an off-road ride into Corolla. Trade stop-and-go traffic in the sweltering heat for a ride down the beach surrounded by wild horses and pounding surf.

Banks dropped me off with an old friend who happens to live in Kill Devil Hills. I spent the next morning fishing for sea trout on the beach. When luck wasn’t with me I moved over to the brackish waters of Albemarle Sound on the other side of the island. It was only a fifteen minute walk for a totally different fishing experience. A $10 non-resident temporary saltwater fishing license covers you on both sides.

When it was time to start the trek back I knew better than to walk the whole length of my new shortcut to paradise. I called up Banks and arranged for a Jeep ride along the beach out to the border with Virginia. We stopped a few times to photograph more wild horses before my serious hiking started again.

In all honesty, it was a grueling day pushing all the way back to my truck in the city park with the heat of the sun bearing down. Perhaps I should have taken more breaks. I took a few longer inland trails back instead of hugging the beach as much as I did when I was outbound, and I hiked that 14 miles in about six hours with a loaded pack.

With a state-line pickup and drop-off, this hike is very do-able in one day in each direction. I was slowed by the weight of my tent, sleeping bag, and other supplies. Less weight would allow a speedier passage. The one item that you should not leave home is drinking water. Fresh water is hard to come by on this journey, with the ocean on one side and brackish water on the other.

This is not a trip to attempt with small children or if you are not in good physical condition. However, for someone in good health with an adventurous spirit, this could be a very real alternative to driving to the Outer Banks. I would do this trip again in a heartbeat.

 

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