Long hailed as the best guide to enjoying the state's 320 miles of coastline, North Carolina Beaches will help you find just the right spot for a long vacation or a one-day getaway. In this completely revised third edition, Glenn Morris takes a fresh and timely look at North Carolina's ever-changing coastal landscape, with its national seashores, state parks, public beaches, wildlife refuges, and historic sites as well as the beach communities where people live, work, and play. In a beach-by-beach tour, Morris details attractions and activities and provides phone numbers, addresses, and websites to help with your trip planning. Maps show the best places to park and what facilitiescampgrounds, showers, restrooms, and moreto expect. Short features on topics from bird life to tidal forces inform and entertain. This book should be the first thing beachgoers pack for a visit to our coast.
About the Author
Glenn Morris is a freelance travel writer living in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
North Carolina Beaches
By Glenn Morris
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2005 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCurrituck County
I first went Currituck County in 1962 on a fishing trip with my father and grandfather. We drove all day from Greensboro to Aydlett to stay in the home of our fishing guide hosts. For two days, the fishing on shallow Currituck Sound was all day and nonstop. Our knowledgeable guides navigated through a bewildering maze of low islands and only seemed to stop over grassy beds teeming with eager fish.
I hold another vivid memory from that day: the sight and sound of military jets swooping low over the narrow barrier beach that separated Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Our guides took it in stride; the commonplace navy strafing runs earned no more than a passing glance between fishing stops. I'm glad I held on to that memory because it, more than the vanished sand roads and relocated horses that used to run free, is a flashback that gauges the magnitude of change that has come to Currituck.
The Currituck County coastline extends almost 27 miles south from the Virginia border, a windswept, narrow, low-profile barrier peninsula between Currituck Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Parts of it remain as wild as they have ever been: there are still a few of the immense, actively moving, sand dunes; there are thickets of stable forest and thousands of acres of marshy wetlands. North of Corolla, some of the most "natural" miles of barrier island in the state are permanently held as parts of the North Carolina National Estuarine Research Reserve system and the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge. On these remote parts of the barrier, one can still see some of the "wild horses" of Currituck that once roamed freely in the shadow of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse. Much of the area is ideal for waterfowl-always has been-and each year, approximately one-sixth of the Atlantic flyway migratory waterfowl population comes to Currituck.
South of Corolla is one of the newest and "hottest" vacation beaches in the state. The hospitality industry, in the form of vacation rental construction, has been working at a feverish pitch for two decades. This is in stark contrast to the slower, more seasonally measured way of life that is traditional in this distant corner of North Carolina.
Recalling military attack training at treetop level over some of the priciest coastal real estate in North Carolina meets with head-shaking skepticism today. Those who do remember such local color are greatly outnumbered by those who have "discovered" Currituck Banks recently. In fact, the last two decades of the twentieth century wrought more alteration to Currituck County than perhaps did the previous two centuries. The solitude of Currituck's oceanfront peninsula and the unrushed rural character of the roads leading travelers there are now gone.
For most of recorded history, Currituck life has been a blend of agriculture on the mainland and fishing and hunting in the waters of Currituck Sound. This shallow embayment, approximately 30 miles long by 4 miles wide at its greatest width, is the central physical feature of the county. It separates the county land into three distinct parts: the mainland west of the sound, Knotts Island, and the peninsula barrier beach east of the sound. The last is known variously as Currituck Banks or the North Banks. These three land segments are so fundamentally different in nature and character that it can be said that they have the sound and the county courthouse in common and not much else.
Mainland Currituck County is split into two well-drained and farmable upland ridges by the North River's Great Swamp, which drains into Albemarle Sound. Knotts Island, in north-central Currituck, is two-thirds marsh (most of this is national wildlife refuge) and one-third coastal plain forest and farmland. Knotts Island is actually a peninsula extending southeast from Virginia; roads tie it to that state, while its link to the rest of North Carolina is principally by boat or ferry. Currituck's peninsula barrier beach extends southeast from Virginia for nearly 23 miles. It is a sandy, narrow spit that has intermittent stands of maritime forest on its western half if divided lengthwise, most of which is fronted with marsh.
Currituck Sound is not only the most prominent feature on the county map; it is also central to the popular (and somewhat romanticized) county history. The water is clear and not so deep; much of the sound is less than 4 feet deep and rarely deeper than 6 feet. At these depths, sufficient sunlight reached the bottom to support an abundant covering of aquatic herbs and grasses. This was both superb habitat for fish and excellent forage for waterfowl, especially swans, geese, and ducks. Currituck Sound, rimmed with marsh and filled with food, was everything a migratory bird could wish for as a stopover.
Native Americans found the abundant fish and game important and established both permanent and seasonal settlements in and around Currituck Sound, some of which were on the small islands. In fact, the county name is a corruption of the Algonquian word Coratank, which means wild geese. Europeans took a cue and followed the Algonquian pattern of farming, fishing, and hunting. Currituck Sound was such a resource that, during the nineteenth century, hunting waterfowl for the commercial market and guiding sportsmen grew into a cottage industry.
Railroad expansion south from Norfolk made Currituck Sound more accessible, and word of the incredible hunting rippled north. As the twentieth century began, Currituck County was renowned by eastern seaboard sportsmen as one of the finest places for duck hunting in the country. Concurrently, a land rush of sorts began as sportsmen purchased vast tracts of marsh and sound to secure exclusive hunting rights by creating private hunt clubs. The "worthless" oceanfront of the peninsula banks was purchased as well. By the early twentieth century, private hunt clubs owned much of the 27-mile peninsula barrier beach between the Virginia state line and present-day Duck in Dare County.
The oceanfront land was used primarily for open range grazing by the few people who lived on this very isolated parcel of North Carolina. Before the hunt clubs employed residents as caretakers, cooks, and guides, the only steady employment on the peninsula banks was with the U.S. Lighthouse Service or as a surfman at one of the five life-saving stations built by U.S. Life-Saving Service.
As for the clubs, the actual buildings ranged in style and appointment from rustic to genuinely lavish, epitomized today by the restored Whalehead Club at Corolla. Sadly, the Currituck Shooting Club, founded in the mid-eighteenth century and considered one of the oldest continually operating private sports clubs in the country, was lost to fire in the spring of 2003. It was the oldest of several remaining remnants of what some refer to as the golden age of waterfowling at Currituck.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, vacation-home development pressure began to chip away at the area's solitude. Holding development back was the lack of a road-even public rights-of-way-to Corolla from the Dare County line. Folks who lived north of Duck either drove on the beach or followed a primitive sand track to Corolla.
The proposal to extend NC 12 to Corolla in 1984 brought a flurry of debate, planning, and maneuvering over what would happen in this highly valued length of undeveloped Currituck. Among other things, the National Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy purchased large tracts of land as set-asides for wildlife, including the much-beloved feral horses that once freely roamed the area. Some of those lands became part of a new Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, configured, ironically, from marsh and water once reserved for private hunting. Other lands and marsh became part of the North Carolina Estuarine Research Reserve.
More recently, tourism in Currituck County exploded. The building boom has now hammered to the very shadows of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse at Corolla. Thankfully, all this construction, while tough on my memory of a time when horses and scantily clad sunbathers roamed free, has not altered the fundamental simplicity of the place.
It will be obvious that the southern portions of Currituck Banks are quite tony. In some locations, ornate, oceanfront rent-a-mansions (3 stories, 7-plus bedrooms and pool, sleep 16-plus) stand porch line to porch line behind the dunes. It seems that only the sunblock-slathered could slip between them to the sea. While a national chain hotel opened in 2003, the chances of another between Dare County and Corolla do not seem likely. In "greater Corolla," several self-contained properties are marketed as resorts that offer services, exclusivity, and amenities-pools and private pedestrian oceanfront access, for example-to guests who rent houses there.
"Downtown" Corolla-once little more than the lighthouse and an adjoining tree-covered settlement of clapboard homes, solitude-loving souls, a small post office, and a few stores-remains pleasantly unimproved in spite of its elevation to a multistate coastal destination. The recent growth has clustered along the thread of NC 12, which splits the very narrow peninsula. While Corolla is one of my favorite places on the Outer Banks, I offer a word of caution to those who may be used to bustling boardwalk beaches: nightlife in Corolla is the sound of crickets and surf and the flash of the lighthouse.
The village is 24 miles north of the Wright Memorial Bridge and 55 miles from the Currituck County Courthouse across the sound, a separation that is increasingly problematic as the number of permanent residents increases. As of this writing, highway and planning officials are exploring the possibilities of a highway bridge to the mainland from Corolla. In June 2004 the North Carolina Ferry Service launched a pedestrian-only service between Currituck and Corolla, with the school-age children who live in Corolla having priority seating on certain ferries during the school year.
While the distance from the Wright Memorial Bridge is not great, the traffic on two-lane NC 12 to Corolla in high season can make it seem that way. The road is the spine of the North Banks, linking all services and residential areas there. "Quick" errands elsewhere can turn annoying quickly. This is the flip side of greater Corolla's out-of-the-way appeal. Although gaining houses and year-round residents and no longer isolated, Corolla is not convenient in the sense that goods and services are at all times, well, convenient. As of the summer of 2004, there were more than 3,200 rental houses, one grocery store, one drug store, and fewer than 20 restaurants on Currituck Banks. Plan on the fact that going out to eat will take a while, especially if you go to one of the many fine restaurants in the resort communities of Dare County.
Finally, the Currituck oceanfront is gorgeous; the accessibility of the sound through outdoor service providers is unequaled. There is history to take in and miles of wild habitat to explore, but there's not a lot of neon, never was, and it is hoped, never will be.
Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park in Virginia regulate access to the Currituck Banks from the north. Only residents of the North Bank communities of Swan Beach and Carova Beach who wish to drive to Virginia Beach along the beach may obtain a permit.
Currituck County provides and maintains oceanfront access in the Whalehead Beach subdivision south of Corolla. There is also ocean and soundside parking at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla.
There is a regional access with restrooms, boardwalk, and dune crossover near the entrance to the Currituck Club development.
There is also a regional beach access with showers and restrooms at the northern edge of the parking lot of the Hampton Inn and Suites at the southern end of the county.
Access for the extreme North Bank settlements of North Swan Beach and Carova is by four-wheel-drive vehicle only. Ramp access to the North Banks for vehicles is provided at the north end of Corolla at the Tasman Drive access site.
In 1986 the county adopted a comprehensive ordinance restricting vehicular access to the beaches of Currituck. The main points of the ordinance are as follows:
-You cannot drive on the beach from May 1 to September 30 between the Dare County line and the Tasman Drive access ramp, where a paved public road exists parallel to the beach.
-You can only drive on the foreshore or wet sand beach and no faster than 15 miles per hour when pedestrians are present.
-There are exceptions for commercial fishermen "engaged in the use of or setting seines" in the ocean.
There is a boat dock and pier into the sound at the Currituck Beach Lighthouse in Corolla. Public piers, boat tie-ups, and a boat ramp are also available at the former Whalehead Club, just south of the lighthouse. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission maintains boating access sites into Currituck Sound at Poplar Branch at the end of NC 3, 7/10 mile off of US 158 north of Grandy, and into the Intracoastal Waterway approximately one mile east of Coinjock on SR 1142.
Currituck County does not presently provide specific handicapped access facilities other than ramps. Corolla has private facilities that are handicapped accessible. The grounds of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the soundside boardwalk are manageable by wheelchair. Several of the dune crossovers in the Whalehead Beach subdivision meet federal handicapped standards.
The Corolla Fire Department loans a beach wheelchair with advance notice by calling 252-453-8595.
Excerpted from North Carolina Beaches by Glenn Morris Copyright © 2005 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
The latest edition of Glenn Morris's North Carolina Beaches updates vital information for traveling the state's coastline. What hasn't changed, thankfully, are the short personal essays that sprinkle this guidebook like treasured seashells scattered on the sand.Kay Fuston, Editor-in-Chief of Coastal Living Magazine
[Morris's] new edition provides updated information on what visitors can expect at their favorite beach getawayincluding parking, dune crossovers, restrooms, and handicap access at each site. . . . A good read and a great resource.Coastwatch
A complete guide to the string of barrier island beaches and three-caped coast of North Carolina and much more, written by a native North Carolinian who has traveled the shoreline from end to end (over 320 miles of beaches) during the last forty years. With keen insight and a witty writing style, this book is a true pleasure to read. I highly recommend it.Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman (a.k.a. "Dr. Beach"), professor at Florida International University, author of America's Best Beaches
Forget about whatever it is your-cousin's-friend-who-was-there-once says about the North Carolina coast. The just-updated North Carolina Beaches has all the answers, plus the insight that native Tar Heel and journalist Glenn Morris brings to bear. This work is richly detailed, lovingly written, and easy to use. If you're going to the North Carolina coast, this is your must-have volume.John Bordsen, Travel Editor, The Charlotte Observer
A good travel overview for the entire coast.Our State