Wild and Wonderful Outer Banks

Stunning water views of Kitty Hawk Woods Maritime Forest- photo by Noreen KompanikStunning water views of Kitty Hawk Woods Maritime Forest- photo by Noreen Kompanik

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Explore A Different Side of Travel, with Soft Adventure in the Outer Banks

By Noreen Kompanik
GoNOMAD Senior Writer

Kayakers get ready for an outing in the Outer Banks. Noreen Kompanik photo.
Kayakers get ready for an outing in the Outer Banks. Noreen Kompanik photo.

Stretching 200 miles across four barrier islands that separate mainland North Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean, the Outer Banks (also known as the OBX), is a unique, delightful coastal destination.

Before my visit there, I had done my homework and knew about the seashore, the lighthouses, and that this was also the famed birthplace of modern flight.

What I didn’t expect was how much I would enjoy the outdoor adventures the Outer Banks offers— with its many picturesque open spaces and endless possibilities.

An Active Boomer

As an active boomer, I truly love adventure. But I’m well aware that in my mid-60s, I can’t quite master the grueling challenges that once were a part of my regular travels—like taking on Class 4 and 5 whitewater rafting or those grueling hikes.

Adventure however does not need to stop. We can still push and challenge ourselves, all while allowing these adventures to take on a bit more of a softer, less strenuous tone.

That’s why the Outer Banks was perfect for me and my boomer friends on our recent long weekend visit. The weather was ideal, it was the off-season with no crowds to contend with, and we absolutely relished in the joy of being close to nature in the great big beautiful outdoors.

Fishing on Jennette’s Pier

Yep, he got one fishing on Jennette's Pier- photo by Visit Outer Banks
Yep, he got one fishing on Jennette’s Pier- photo by Visit Outer Banks

Owned and operated by the North Carolina Aquariums, the 1,000-foot-long pier in Nags Head jutting out over the Atlantic has become known as a one-of-a-kind educational ocean pier. Programs here teach visitors about conservation, renewable energy, nature, and environmental initiatives.

But what we loved was the opportunity to reel in our own catch on the boardwalk. I have three brothers who are avid fishermen, so, having a rod and reel in my hand feels natural.

But no worries either way, as retired U.S. military veteran docents and volunteers are right there to lend a hand on fitting fishermen up with the right rod and reel, and even assist with baiting and casting if needed.

Although not all of us caught a fish that day (I did have some really serious bites with one getting away), our group of friends all had a marvelous time and learned so much about the local sea life.

We even got to see a pufferfish. And we’ll never forget the look of delight on the faces of those who caught a fish for the very first time!

Kayaking Through a Maritime Forest

Our two-hour easy, relaxing kayaking trip through the Kitty Hawk Woods Maritime Forest was a wonderful eco-tour experience. We paddled through the waters of a calm grassy creek meandering through one of North Carolina’s largest tracts of deciduous maritime forest habitat.

It was such a calm trip that according to our extremely knowledgeable guide from Stoke Dispensary Kayak Tours  “I guarantee if anyone falls into the water today, it’s because you want to.”

This came as a relief to some of our newbie paddlers, but even they felt safe and comfortable after only a few minutes of paddling around. The calm waters and majestic trees create a hauntingly beautiful habitat for local wildlife.

We got to see the largest blue heron I’ve ever spotted along with a myriad of other bird species including osprey and egrets. We even saw several turtles that typically will jump off their logs or branches when kayakers approach. But my kayak partner and I were so stealthily quiet, that we were able to get quite up close and personal with these lovely creek inhabitants without startling them.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore, Outer Banks

It was Josh Gates, host of The Discovery Channel’s Expedition Unknown who said at a travel and adventure show presentation that “you’ll never remember those trips where everything went right. But you’ll never forget those that didn’t.”

Cape Hatteras National Seashore- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Cape Hatteras National Seashore- photo by Noreen Kompanik

Well, that kind of sums up my friend’s and my experience at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. We had just finished a visit to the iconic Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head when we spotted the sign for the seashore leading us to a sandy uphill dune area.

Time for a little off-roading. Just as my rental car reached the top of the hill and gently started its downward path, the car bogged down and came to a stop. Yep, we were hopelessly stuck in the sand. And of course, the more we tried to move, the worse things got.

Thanks to local fishermen parked down on the beach who know better (yes, they have their jeeps, trucks and four-wheel drives) but these good ol’ Southern gents also happen to carry chains and ropes with them.

Thankfully, we were quickly pulled out and on our way to another less stressful adventure. That brought a lot of laughs for us and to the rest of our friends. On an added note, for those who are going to drive down to the seashore, be sure to get a permit!

Oh, and about that seashore. It stretches over 70 miles from Bodie Island to Ocracoke Island and it’s stunningly gorgeous. The national seashore provides recreational access to the largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline on the East Coast. It’s also renowned for having the biggest surfing waves on the entire Atlantic Coast.

Hang gliding at Jockey's Ridge Sand Dune- photo by Visit Outer Banks
Hang gliding at Jockey’s Ridge Sand Dune- photo by Visit Outer Banks

Jockey’s Ridge Sand Dune

This is the tallest living sand dune system on the East Coast and a perfect location for flying kites and watching sunsets.

Hang gliding is a hallmark activity here. The wetlands allow for swimming, paddling, kiteboarding, and windsurfing on the Roanoke Sound.

We didn’t get a chance to get to personally experience hang gliding this trip, as the day we were planning it, it was too windy and deemed unsafe. However, I have several friends who have hang-glided here (as have I in California) and we can truly vouch that the exhilarating experience and the birds-eye views it provides make it so worthwhile.

Well, there always has to be a reason to go back, and next time, we have to add hang gliding or even kiteboarding to our list.

Taking in Duck Town Park and Soundside Boardwalk

Wildlife spotting at Soundside Boardwalk- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Wildlife spotting at Soundside Boardwalk- photo by Noreen Kompanik

This is a perfect morning or evening sunset walk. The Town Park in Duck on the northern end of the Outer Banks peninsula features 11 acres of natural beauty including trails through a maritime forest, and willow swamp, with sound side views and access to the boardwalk.

The rustic boardwalk extends nearly a mile along the Currituck Sound and there’s no worries about competing with bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers, or motorized vehicles, as they are prohibited in both the park and boardwalk.

It’s a picturesque relaxing stroll past the Sound and its shops, restaurants, and boutiques along the waterfront. And if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to see some wildlife as we did.

Those wanting a longer hike can take to the Duck Trail, a six-mile-long multi-use path that traverses the entire length of the town of Duck. This trail does allow for bikes but divides into sidewalks and dedicated bike lanes on both sides of the road.

Walking in the Footsteps of the Wright Brothers

Touring the grounds- Wright Brothers outdoor sculpture and plane- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Touring the grounds- Wright Brothers outdoor sculpture and plane- photo by Noreen Kompanik

Life would never be the same after December 17, 1903, after Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight in Kill Devil Hills near the seafront town of Kitty Hawk.

It was one of our most memorable days spent in the Outer Banks for the Wright Brothers National Museum (part of the U.S. National Park Service), was so much more than we could have imagined.

We began inside the visitor center’s museum taking in the impressive exhibits covering the history of the first flight and then discovering a full-scale reproduction of the original Wright Brothers’ plane.

The best way to explore the park is by signing up for a ranger tour. Our outdoor 90-minute program walked us through the history of the planning, construction, failures, and finally the successes of these intrepid American aviation pioneers.

For they were the first to accomplish the controlled, sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air plane.

We strolled the grounds to the first flight airstrip and markers, and the reconstructed 1903 hangar and workshop/living quarters. It was like walking through history and time.

Finally, we ascended the 90-foot grass-stabilized sand dune at which the Wright Brothers Monument sits. This massive statue marks the actual site of the hundreds of glider flights that preceded the first powered flight.

outer banks horseback
Horseback Riding along the Outer Banks seashore- photo by Visit Outer Banks

Our ranger pointed out that we’d likely see planes either buzzing over the monument or landing on this hallowed ground during our visit. This is because it’s well believed that doing so is a good luck charm for these pilots and their own modern magnificent flying machines.

Horseback Riding on the Beach

Let your spirit run free! From May to September, horseback riders can head to Bodie Island in Nags Head to enjoy a casual ride on the beach while taking in the natural beauty of the seashore.

Whether riders are experienced or not, the horses are quite gentle and guides provide a short lesson on safety and horse handling before heading out to the surf on horseback. Guests can enjoy a one-hour ride along the ocean accompanied by gentle ocean breezes.

There’s no better relaxing way to take in the views, scents, and sounds of the waterfront.

Incredible natural beauty found at Nags Head Woods Preserve- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Incredible natural beauty found at Nags Head Woods Preserve- photo by Noreen Kompanik

Take a Hike in a Natural Preserve

If you’re really into nature and ecological diversity, then Nags Head Woods Preserve in Kill Devil Hills is an ideal way to spend your time outdoors. Seven meandering pedestrian-only hiking trails offer a range of length and difficulty making it easy to match one with your energy level and time constraints.

1,400 acres of pristine deciduous wetland forest include forested ridges, marshes, swamps, ponds, and 550 species of plants along with more than 50 species of indigenous wildlife, and 150 types of birds.

Brightly colored Prothonotary Warblers, Summer Tanagers, and Blue Grosbeaks make the preserve a summer home to raise their young before returning to Central and South America for the winter.

Interestingly enough, though Nags Head Woods was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1974, it once sported a thriving village community with churches, homesites, a gristmill, a school, and a shingle factory through the 1930s.

Final Thoughts on the Outer Banks Soft Adventure Experience

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.”

Exploring new places and finding new adventures enrich our lives. That’s exactly what my visit to the Outer Banks did for this proud adventure-loving baby boomer.

Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head- photo by Noreen Kompanik
Bodie Island Lighthouse in Nags Head- photo by Noreen Kompanik
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