Hangliding in the Outer Banks

Hang Gliding in the Outer Banks: Soaring Over Alligators and snakes

Nine hundred miles of windswept water surround the chain of barrier islands that forms the largest estuary system on the planet.

Out of the wild sea and seemingly barren sand, nature has managed to conjure up rare life-forms that appear to belong to another epoch. Stilt-legged birds high-step through the marshes. Carnivorous plants lie in wait for enormous glittering insects. Battalions of giant armored lizards bask in the sun along pitch-black rivers.

Active travelers are drawn to the Outer Banks to encounter this intriguing wildlife and the pristine beauty of nature refuges in every imaginable way; hiking, biking, parasailing, hang-gliding, windsurfing, kite boarding, sand boarding, kayaking, skydiving, and surfing their way through marsh, swamp, ocean and dune. A recent trip taught me that there’s something adventurous in the very air here, as two brothers from Ohio discovered a century ago.

Brown, with Stripes

“Did you say it was brown, with stripes?”


“Kind of up on top of the water?”


“Oh, yeah, that was a water moccasin.”

Will Seeley, my kayaking guide from Kitty Hawk Sports, is nonchalant, while my eyes grow big as saucers. I have just barely missed whacking the four-foot long viper with the edge of my paddle. We are in a close, narrow channel, with little room to maneuver. “It’s okay,” says Will. “Even if it bit you, you’d have plenty of time.” Plenty of time before WHAT?

I’m on what’s supposed to be a leisurely kayaking tour along Manteo’s waterfront on Shallowbag Bay. Already I’m getting the feeling that here in the Outer Banks, nature is still in charge. This is a place where raging hurricanes can rip roads to shreds and split islands in two. Red wolves and black bears make their homes in the wilderness preserves, and the salt-blasted, twisted arms of live oaks attest to the tenacity of life that braves the barrier beach ecosystem.

Will Seeley, an outfitter who is unfazed by water snakes and alligators.
Will Seeley, an outfitter who is unfazed by water snakes and alligators.

Will is unfazed by mere water-snakes, and casual about alligators. He has promised to take me kayaking the next day on the remote Alligator River, where the reptiles are routinely sighted. “I guess I see them about 70% of the time,” Will calculates, dipping his paddle rhythmically as we approach the choppy open water of the bay, which I’m thankful we’ve reached. Now that the tall grasses don’t press in so close, I can look up and enjoy the view of an ancient maritime village, not far from where several shiploads of English settlers mysteriously vanished in the late 16th century.

No Man’s Land

The next day I follow Will’s truck down Highway 64/264 west of Manteo, then onto a long dirt road choked with dust. We are approaching one of the wildest regions on the Atlantic Coast, where endangered and threatened species cling to life; the peregrine falcon, the American bald eagle, a large concentration of black bears, and, most vividly, the American alligator. The 152,000 acres of wetlands are so isolated that locals used to call the place “No man’s land,” whispering tales of dangerous beasts and even more deadly humans who ran moonshine operations on the waterways. Will tells me that even in mid-summer, when tourist season is at its height, few paddlers can be seen on this slow-moving river.

Gators a Plenty

As we slip into the tannin-blackened water, I see that he’s right. It’s the middle of May, not quite peak season, and we have the river to ourselves. We glide past the clusters of lily pads where the gators congregate in morning and late afternoon. In the heat of mid-day, they aren’t visible; probably cooling themselves deeper in the swamp. The temperature is unseasonably hot, and after an hour or so I long to take a dip in the cool water. But somehow NOT seeing the gators is more unnerving than seeing them. Will explains to me that if I want to jump in it will take about two minutes for him to hoist up my kayak, dump the water out of it, and hold it while I hop back in.

As I think of what could happen in two minutes, Will whirls his fingers to demonstrate how a gator kills its prey—by clamping its jaws on the victim and then spinning it around like a piece of laundry until it drowns. “These gators are a little smaller than the ones you see down in Florida,” Will assures me. “They’re not aggressive because the area is so remote and humans don’t encroach. They probably wouldn’t be interested in you.” It’s the “probably” that gets me, and I settle for a long pull from my water bottle to cool down. I need all of my limbs for tomorrow’s hang-gliding adventure.

Looks Like Chili Pepper

“Looks like Chili Pepper today”, someone in front of me calls out.

I’ve taken off my shoes to traverse the precipitous dunes at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where the highest living sand dune system on the Atlantic Coast rears up above the waters of the Roanoke Sound. Shifting sands, high winds and extreme temperatures have sculpted a landscape that looks much like the desert setting from Star Wars

Flying high over the dunes.
Flying high over the dunes.

As blisters bubble on the soles of my feet, I understand what “Chili Pepper” means, and why the pros walked in socked feet across the dunes. The surface temperature of the sand can exceed the air temperature by thirty degrees.

“I wear out a pair of socks a day,” says Mark, the Kitty Hawk Kites (252-449-2210, www.kittyhawk.com) instructor who will guide me through the mysteries of my maiden flight. The job of hang-gliding instructor may be the ultimate cardio-sport. Already slim as a blade of sea grass, by summer’s end Mark’s sun-scorched body will be whittled down to skin, muscle, and bone from scrambling up sand dunes fifty-plus times a day carrying sixty pound gliders. It’s punishing work, but Mark, like so many of his colleagues, has the gliding fever. He wouldn’t trade his job for anything.

Hang Check

At the top of the dune, we do a “hang-check” to make sure I’m securely fastened to my glider, and Mark goes over my instructions one last time. My object is to make slight adjustments with my steering bar, no more than an inch at a time, and to avoid pulling up too short at the end, causing my glider to nose-dive into the sand. The ominous words of the release form I have just signed are playing back in my head:


Fortunately the sand is forgiving—sort of—and injuries are pretty much limited to an occasional dislocated shoulder or a sprained ankle. Dehydration is a bigger worry.

After watching several athletic men struggle, bunny-hop their way down the dune, and then crash-land, I’m pleasantly surprised when my glider takes off effortlessly from a running start. Quicker than thought I’m whisked four feet above the shoulders of my instructors, getting a panoramic view of the sound. This is one of the few sports where women have a decided edge.

The smaller you are, the higher you go; the more delicate your movements, the more control you have over the glider. When I hear “Pull up! Pull up!”shouted from mission control on the ground, I raise the bar, causing my glider to slow down and set me gently at the foot of the dune.

Resident of Alligator River.
Resident of Alligator River.

Off-balance, I don’t exactly stick the landing, but short of a sharp stick scraping my foot, I am unscathed. Everyone at the top of the dune claps, giving me the thumbs up. For a moment I feel the spirit of Orville and Wilbur—I have been airborne without engines for the first time in my life.

The feeling is so exhilarating I’m ready to jump back in the harness and carry on with my afternoon of solo flights. A little time spent in the Outer Banks will do this to you—inspire you to stretch the limits of body and imagination. In the spring and autumn seasons, solitude is still possible (though hanging out with the locals in even more tempting), but whatever time you go, the wildness and alluring beauty of these islands will cause your adventure genes to activate. Just remember, the ones to avoid are brown, with stripes.

Getting to the Outer Banks

The Norfolk, VA airport is served by several airlines. You can rent a compact car here for around $140 per week with unlimited mileage, even in peak season. From Norfolk, take 1-64, Route 168 and then US 158 south.

Best milkshake:

John’s Drive In
Beach Rd., MP 4 ½
Kitty Hawk, NC

Best breakfast:

Jolly Roger
Beach Rd., MP 6 1/2s,
Kill Devil Hills, NC

Best local hang-out:

Sam and Omie’s
Beach Road, MP 16.5,
Nags Head, NC 27959

Best raw bar:

Fishbones Raw Bar & Restaurant
1171 Duck Road
Duck, NC 27949

Best outdoor dining:

Sunset Grill and Raw Bar $$
NC 12, Duck (252) 261-3901

Best brunch:

The Lifesaving Station at the Sanderling
NC 12, Sanderling
(252) 449-6654

Best homemade fudge:

Mother’s Money (also an internet café)
207 Queen Elizabeth Ave. Suite 9
Manteo, NC 27954


The Cape Hatteras National Seashore operates four National Park Service campgrounds along the Outer Banks, located at Oregon Inlet, Cape Point in Buxton, Frisco and Ocracoke—all equipped to serve tents, trailers and motor homes. Open from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the sites are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis. The only exception is Ocracoke, which requires reservations (800-365-CAMP, code CAPE). Fees are $18 at each campground. This is primitive camping, but restrooms, portable water, unheated showers, grills and picnic tables are available.

Renting a House:

Rental homes are abundant, and can be found to suit a variety of budgets.

Village Realty (www.villagerealtyobx.com)

Sun Realty (www.sunrealtync.com)

Midgett Realty www.midgettrealty.com

Recommended Lodgings:

Cahoon’s Cottages
7213 South Virginia Dare Trail
Milepost 16½
P.O. Box 39
Nags Head, NC 27959
Rates for Efficiencies and 2, 3, and 4 Bedroom cottages: Summer $525-$1000 per week.

The Tranquil House Inn
405 Queen Elizabeth St.
P.O. Box 2045
Manteo, NC 27954
(252) 473-1587
Rates: From 5/17/04 to 9/06/04, $179-$199
Cypress Moon Inn
1206 Harbor Court
Kitty Hawk, North Carolina 27949
252.261.5060 or 252.202.2731
Toll Free: 1.877.905.5060

Kayaking Tours:

Kitty Hawk Sports ((800-948-0759) offers kayak tours, watersports rentals and instruction, activities, gear and advice. The Roanoke Island Tour (including Manteo waterfront) is available by request. Starts in Manteo and winds through the marsh lands surrounding this 1st English colony. Cost is $35 for 2 hrs.- ($19 for children 12 and under who share a double boat with adult). www.kittyhawksports.com

The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge Tour is available March – December and explores one of the most pristine areas on the Outer Banks—home to alligators, black bear, bobcats, red wolves, beaver, and much more. Cost is $39 for 3 hrs. – ($19 for children 12 and under who share a double boat with adult).


Kitty Hawk Kites is the world’s largest hang-gliding school. A typical Beginner Dune Lesson includes ground instruction and five solo flights on the dunes of Jockey’s Ridge. Cost is $89 per person. Tandem gliding from an ultralight plane also available.
Read more about North Carolina on GoNOMAD

The following two tabs change content below.
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer's guidelines.