June 20, 2008

A guide to the seashore beaches


The many miles of beaches on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore from Bodie Island to Ocracoke are accessible on foot or with an off-road vehicle.

Whether you are walking or driving, you need to be aware of closures for nesting shorebirds and turtles from spring into fall.  Especially in the summer, large areas of the beach can be closed to both pedestrians and ORVs.  Check the beach access reports and maps and other information on the Beach Access Page of this Web site.

Visitors staying in oceanfront cottages, motels, and campgrounds will have easy access on foot to nearby beaches. 

But there are many more miles of beaches that can be explored by foot even if you aren’t located right on the ocean.

There are oceanside paved parking areas along Highway 12 up and down Hatteras and Ocracoke islands.  All of the numbered beach access ramps have parking areas, and there are several others.  The beach is an easy walk from all of these.

On Hatteras Island, the Park Service maintains a parking area with a bath house between Frisco and Hatteras.  This is a popular area with restrooms and showers.  There is also a bath house facility at the Lifeguarded  Beach on Ocracoke. The wooden walkway over the dunes here at both places makes it a very easy trip to the beach.  There is also easy access to a popular swimming beach from the Frisco Campground near Billy Mitchell Airfield in Frisco.  The parking area there is rather small.

Visitors without a four-wheel drive can get to Cape Point and Hatteras Inlet, two popular fishing and shelling areas, on foot — if you are willing and able to hike a bit.  The shortest way to Cape Point on foot is from the parking area near Ramp 44, just north of the Cape Point campground.  Just walk over the dunes and to the south, where a crowd of four-wheel drive vehicles signal one of the most productive and popular fishing spots on the East Coast.  Try to time your hike at low tide because the beach is soft and the sand is deep.  The hike, however, is worth it to see the rough waters of the Diamond Shoals, the series of sandbars that extend some 14 miles out into the ocean from Cape Point.  The shoals have been the undoing of many an unwary mariner.

To get to Hatteras Inlet, park in the paved area near Ramp 55.  It’s a walk of several miles to the inlet itself, but it’s a terrific area for beachcombing, fishing, shelling, and birdwatching.

On Ocracoke Island, both the North Point and South Point are popular shelling and fishing areas.  The North Point is accessible on foot from the first parking turnout past the ferry docks.  It’s not a long walk.  The South Point is accessible via a sand road just east of the village.  This road is sometimes, but not always, passable with two-wheel drive vehicles to the beach area, but four-wheel-drive is recommended.  Check before you try it.  The walk down the sand road and out to the South Point is a long one, but can be well worth it in the spring and fall.  The road traverses beautiful marshland that is usually inhabited by many species of birds.   Take insect repellent for the mosquitoes and green flies.

And while you are exploring, don’t forget the soundside of the island.  There are ORV access roads to the Pamlico Sound all along the seashore. Some popular and accessible areas on the sound include the Salvo Day Use Area, The Canadian Hole between Buxton and Avon, and the Sandy Bay area near Hatteras village.


Driving on the beaches is allowed only in designated areas. During the summer months, many areas of the beach are closed with symbolic fencing and signs for protected shorebirds and nesting turtles. The National Park Service will try to provide corridors around these closures whenever possible, but there may be areas that will be inaccessible at certain times.  You must respect all of the closures or you can get a ticket with a heavy fine from the park’s rangers.

Beach driving is now prohibited on the seashore from 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. from May 15 until Nov. 15.  Between Sept. 16 and Nov. 16, you can drive on the beach with a permit from the Park Service.

Driving on the beach is not allowed in the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge north of Rodanthe.

If you are unfamiliar with beach driving or beach driving on Hatteras Island, be wary and take it easy.  It’s relatively easy to get stuck in deep, soft sand or soft, wet areas of the beach.  The local towing services stay very busy pulling careless drivers and their vehicles off the beach. 

Some Tips:

• Lower your tire pressure. Most drivers get stuck because they don’t let air out of their tires before driving on the beaches.  No matter what your automobile’s manual says or what your friends say, unless you are on the very hardest beaches at low tide, you will get stuck if you don’t let the air out of your tires.  The Park Service says its rangers generally drive with 15-20 pounds of pressure in their tires.  They advise re-inflating tires when you return to the paved roads.  Many locals drive with about 22 pounds of pressure and don’t re-inflate their tires for local driving.

• Carry a shovel, tire pressure gauge, spare tire, tow rope, fire extinguisher, flashlight, and bumper jack in the car.

• Generally, you should drive on the firm, wet portion of the beach below the high tide line.  Look out for areas of the beach with shelly, reddish sand.  These areas can be very soft.  A good rule of thumb is to follow someone else’s tracks.  If you don’t see any tracks through an area, there could be a good reason.

• If you get stuck, do NOT floor the accelerator and gun the engine in an effort to get out.  You will only spin your wheels and get in deeper.  Use firm, steady pressure on the accelerator, back up a little, and then try to go forward, rocking the car gently.  Let more air out of the tires.  Use your shovel to remove some of the sand from around the tires.  

• Don’t drive through water — the edge of the surf or standing water on the beach.  Saltwater is not good for your vehicle.

• The speed limit on most areas of the beach is now 15 miles per hour, but that can be too fast on a summer day when there are a lot of people on the beach.  Look out for children, pets, people lying on the beach, and fishing lines.

• Drive only in designated areas and use only designated ramps.  Do not drive (or walk) in areas roped off for shorebirds or turtle nests.  Never drive over, on, or between the dunes.

• And, finally, do not litter.  Carry trash out with you and dispose of it properly.

A National Park Service guide to driving on the seashore is available at:



Rip currents are a very real threat on the beaches of Hatteras and Ocracoke.

Rip currents are channelized currents of water flowing away from shore.  They typically form at breaks in sandbars and near structures, such as jetties and piers.  They are quite common and can be found on many beaches every day.

Rip currents are dangerous because they pull people away from shore.  The speeds of these currents vary, but they can sweep even the strongest swimmers out to sea.

The most common indicators of rip currents are a channel of churning, choppy water, a difference in water color, a line of foam, seaweed, or debris moving seaward, or a break in the incoming wave pattern.

If you are caught in a rip current, stay calm.  Don’t fight the current and try to swim straight into the beach, even if you are a strong swimmer.  The currents are usually very narrow and you can escape by swimming parallel to the beach, until you are out of the rip.  Then swim toward the beach.

If you are unable to escape by swimming, float or tread water.  When the current weakens, swim at an angle away from the current toward shore.

Information on the rip current threat for each day is available on NOAA weather radio. You can also get the information online at www.weather.gov/newport. Click on the surf zone forecast.  Rip current information is also available on at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore site, www.nps.gov/caha, and at the Eena Project, www.eenaproject.com. Park Service Visitor Centers in Buxton and Ocracoke have information on rip currents and surf zone forecasts. Another source for information on dangerous rip currents is the local surfing reports, which are usually broadcast on the local radio stations.


The National Park Service has three lifeguarded beaches during the summer.   Lifeguards are present on the beaches daily from Memorial Day through Labor Day from 9:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.

On Ocracoke Island, the lifeguarded beach is just east of the village and the airport ramp to the beach.  There is a large parking area with a walkway over the dunes.
Coquina Beach on Bodie Island, just north of the Bonner Bridge, also has lifeguards. The lifeguarded beach in Buxton is near the old lighthouse site, where parking is available.

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