30 March 2010

Driving down to Hatteras

Driving down the Outer Banks from Nags Head to Hatteras Village, you pass over a long bridge that spans a break in the barrier islands called Oregon Inlet. An inlet is a gap in the islands where the protected sounds meet the open ocean. The Banks are just sand bars, and the inlets are very unstable. They are cut through by heavy seas during storms, and they can silt up and disappear over the decades.

The Oregon Inlet bridge on the North Carolina Outer Banks

In fact, Oregon Inlet was formed by a strong hurricane in 1846, according to historical reports. High water and big waves washed over the island and then swift-flowing currents cut out a deep inlet. On of the ships that rode out the storm on the sound side was named the Oregon. After the storm passed, the Oregon's crew told the local people on the mainland (or Roanoke Island) what they had seen and experienced. The name of their ship was given to the new geographical feature.

Here's a map. Click on it to see an enlargement.
It's about 75 mi/120 km from Nags Head to Ocracoke.

Oregon Inlet is the site of the only bridge of its kind on the North Carolina coast. No other inlet is spanned by a bridge. The Oregon Inlet bridge was built in the early 1960s and is 2½ miles long. The problem is that Oregon Inlet is slowly moving south, but the bridge is stationary. Historians say that the inlet has moved south 2 miles since it was formed in 1846.

People come to the Outer Banks to relax.

That's why it has been necessary to build long rock jetties on the south side of the gap and pump in tons of sand. Stabilizing an inlet is probably a hopeless cause, however. Now a new bridge is being planned. Instead of directly spanning the inlet, it will curve in towards the mainland and be supported by pilings sunk into the more stable sands of relatively calm sound waters, where currents and waves are not so destructive.

The beaches of the Outer Banks are miles and miles long.

The Oregon Inlet bridge leads you to Hatteras Island, which is a 50-mile strip of sand with a population of about 4,000. On the way to the southernmost community on the island, Hatteras Village, you pass through the little settlements called Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, and Frisco. At every wide spot on the island, the road, beach, and sound are nowadays lined with grand vacation houses built on top of tall pilings.

Hatteras Light

The main landmark on Hatteras Island is the lighthouse. It's the tallest such structure in the United States, at nearly 200 ft. or 63 m. The lighthouse is a conical structure made out of bricks (more than a million of them) and was built in the late 1860s as an aid to navigation. The waters off Cape Hatteras are treacherous because of shifting sandbars and shoals off the coast there. It's the point where the cold Labrador Current collides with the warm Gulf Stream, so the waters are especially turbulent.

I think these are the names of lighthouse keepers, carved
on stones marking the original location of the
Hatteras lighthouse.
I like the names.

In 1999-2000, Hatteras light was moved about 900 m (half a mile) back from the ocean, where it was in danger of being washed away in a hurricane, so much had the nearby beach eroded away over the decades. Many predicted that the brick structure would collapse during the move, but it survived. Despite modern technologies including GPS, the lighthouse is still an aid to navigation, and it's of course a big tourist attraction.

A Hatteras waterman returning to port

At the end of the road, more than 50 miles south of Nags Head, you arrive at the landing docks of the Hatteras-Ocracoke car ferry. It's a 45-minute boat ride over to Ocracoke Island, across Ocracoke Inlet. That island is about 12 miles long, and about 750 people live year-round at Ocracoke Village, which was settled by Europeans in the late 1600s. It's accessible only by boat or airplane.


  1. When I went with Frank to Nags Head in 1971, we went down to Hatteras but never had a chance to go to Ocracoke because the wait for the ferry was much, much too long. As I recall there were none of these MacMansions that you say dot now the landscape! You can't stop progress, can you? LOL

  2. Bonjour CHM, yes, the only thing that can stop the building of more monster mansions on the OBX is a monster hurricane.

    Nowadays, the ferries from Hatteras to Ocracoke run pretty frequently, especially in summer.

  3. What a beautiful place for a holiday, especially as you spend most of the time very much inland. The beaches look lovely and the opportunity for lots of fresh seafood must be wonderful. Lucky you !!

  4. Jean, this is a beautiful place and the weather has been very fine, despite a couple of days of hard rain. Even the rainstorms, which are warm, are not unpleasant. Cousins of mine had a oyster roast for us
    Saturday evening, with oysters, clams, and prawns. It was a feast.

  5. Susan Hernandez30 March, 2010 18:35

    Ken, thank you so much for the travelogue from home. Your photos are gorgeous.
    We took wonderful vacations on the OBX when I was in high school and college. I thought the mosquitos would carry us away while camping at Oregon Inlet. We had to bring groceries from the mainland because there wasn't a store anywhere nearby.
    My last visit was 20 years ago in Duck. Things sure have changed, but the beach still looks beautiful!

  6. Loved the lightkeepers' names! Pharoah M. Farrow's mamma had an ear for euphony... and a fine sense of humor.

  7. I'm glad the light house survived it's move. I'm also glad you got some oysters.


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