June 24,  2008

Park Service programs explore cultural and natural history


For many visitors, it’s a long trip to Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, especially in the summer with all the traffic. Though you may be tempted to hang around your rental house and the beach, you should consider other options.

You also probably came to Hatteras or Ocracoke for a different vacation, unlike other beaches with wall-to-wall people, a bleak skyline of condominiums, and beaches so dirty each day they require big machines to clean them every night.

Make sure you leave the house, get off the stretch of beach by your home-away-from-home, and explore the natural and cultural history of this unique area.

Part of what makes Hatteras and Ocracoke islands special is that the federal government, through the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, owns about 85 percent of the islands, including all the beaches and areas outside the eight villages.

Each summer, the National Park Service invites residents and visitors to explore the islands.  Marcia Lyons, who has spent 30 years on the seashore and was the district interpreter for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore until her retirement on June 30, is excited about the wide variety of programs now available in the park.

“We want to get people to experience the park.  To breathe deeply. To leave the cell phones behind and get their feet wet,” she says.

A variety of programs will be offered on both Hatteras and Ocracoke islands throughout the summer.  Some will be geared as talks, and others will be more interactive.  Topics will include history, the natural world, and cultural resources in the park.

A cadre of rangers and volunteers will help introduce people to the various aspects of the area.  

“We are getting quite a few returning rangers at Ocracoke and Hatteras,” says Lyons.  “We have some very talented people.  Our new people have a lot of diverse experiences in other parks.”  


You see it everywhere, but you still have to see it up close to enjoy it.  The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is replicated in many forms, but no visit is complete without snapping a picture or taking a climb.  It is the one of very few activities in the park (outside camping or docking in Ocracoke) that requires a fee.  At $7 for adults and $3.50 for children under 12 (but at least 42 inches tall), the modest admission fee allows you to the climb the 248-step spiral staircase for a magnificent view of the island and surrounding waters.

Make no mistake. The lighthouse is a special sight.  But having visited it, do not think you have summed up your vacation excursion with a single snapshot or afternoon visit.

For visitor convenience, there are talks every day at the Visitor Center.  Topics include lighthouse and Outer Banks history, including stories of pirate times and shipwrecks and lifesavers and barrier island ecology.  Videos about safety (rip currents), the 1999 lighthouse relocation, and species of concern, including the piping plover and the loggerhead turtle, will run throughout the day in the museum in the lightkeeper’s quarters.

While these programs may introduce you to parts of island history, the Park Service hopes you will explore deeper.  

“We want to help celebrate the unusual natural resources,” explains Lyons.

These programs are open to the public of all ages and experience levels.  While most meet in or around the main visitor area by the lighthouse, visitors are encouraged to pick up a copy of the In the Park newsletter or contact the local visitor center to confirm program meeting times and locations.

Through interpretative programs rangers will introduce folks to the flora and fauna (and a few ghosts) found on the Outer Banks.  

A returning favorite is Seining in the Salt Marsh, held at multiple sites, including the Salvo Day Use Area, on varying days.  Popular with children, a seine net is used to gather small fish and other marsh area critters for examination.  Participants often take turns using the net.  Water shoes are a must for this activity.

Several new programs joined the line-up last year.  

In the Night Lights program, you can experience the beach at night.  Considering the overall lack of artificial light in the area, this will prove to be a treat.  The National Park Service considers the night sky as one of the vistas of which it is a steward. For many visitors, it is a chance to avoid light pollution and see the night sky as they cannot at home.    After all, studies by international scientific teams found that as many as 99 percent of people in the United States cannot enjoy a dark starry night or see the Milky Way with the naked eye.  

The program is designed “to get people to value darkness,” says Lyons.  Not only are they better able to enjoy the stars themselves but they will learn how all of nature needs darkness for activities, including hunting and reproduction.  

“Wildlife depends on dark spots.  We are changing natural rhythms, and the plants and animals are trying to adapt to that,” explains Lyons.  This program will likely prove to be one of the exciting repeats on the Park Service programming schedule.


People who live on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands love where they live, despite some minor trials and tribulations.  

Fortunately, the Park Service is able to get many locals to volunteer to help with programs.  

“We make use of volunteers for lighthouse and visitor operations,” explains interpreter Laura Sturtz.  For the traveling public, this means you have the chance to have a little fun and learn something from the locals.

If you want to get out on foot where the wind and water meet, join the Cape Hatteras Bird Club for the Morning Bird Walk on Wednesdays at 8 a.m.  

“You have to get up with the birds,” says Pat Moore, club president.  To enjoy the birds’ morning song and activities, set the alarm and set out for a look at birds on the beach and the ponds or marshes.

The walk, which lasts about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, begins at the fish cleaning table near Ramp 44.  Sometimes, the group identifies as many as 20 species before leaving the area, thanks to the nearby pond.  

Then, the participants explore the nearby beach, ponds, and wetlands.  

In a typical day, the group identifies 30 to 40 species of birds, either by sight or by call.  The most popular birds to watch are the herons, egrets, and terns. Thanks to the local volunteers, you don’t have to worry about identifying them alone.

“We get all levels of bird experience,” says Moore, so everyone should feel welcome.

Although bringing your own binoculars is encouraged, the Park Service provides additional binoculars and telescopes to catch the birds up close and personal.

It may seem strange to bring a telescope, but piping plovers have been viewed on the south side of the Salt Pond, so the telescopes permit a close view without infringing on this protected species.  

No special equipment is needed to enjoy the bird walk.  A little sunscreen and good walking shoes are a must.  Insect repellent is occasionally required, but fortunately the beach location helps keep the pests at bay.  

New last year was the cast-netting program, created with volunteer Jim Lyons.  Lyons, who has lived on Hatteras Island for more than 30 years, became enchanted with cast nets as a teen, purchasing his first 3-foot net at age 19.  

“Every place I thought I could catch something, I would drop it,” he remembers.

“It’s really an art to cast the large nets,” Jim explains.  Most people, he says, find that it’s a fun way to catch bait or dinner or to explore the creeks, sound, and other waters. A cast net can be used in most any sandy bottom area.  

“I’m hoping to gear it [the program] with some little nets to get people started,” Jim says. He also plans to use carved blocks to simulate fish along the bottom, in case the group scares away too many with its practice sessions.

If being too close to wild things makes you edgy, consider the Seashore Arts program with National Park Service volunteer Audrey Conner.  A retired art teacher, Conner leads participants in creating a unique piece of work with a T-shirt, scarf, or pillowcase that will serve as a lasting memory of a vacation at the seashore.


No matter where you are staying, visitors often travel between the islands to split their week up, shop, or enjoy a change of scenery.  If you plan your trip, you can enjoy Park Service programs unique to Ocracoke or simply more convenient to your vacation schedule.

Many of the same activities that are offered on Hatteras will be available on Ocracoke Island as well.  Activities are coordinated through the Visitor Center located near the Cedar Island-Swan Quarter ferry dock in Ocracoke village, though individual programs may be held at other sites.

Programs on Ocracoke include the bird walk, seining, Especially for Kids, Pirate Times, evening campfires, Night Lights, and barrier island nature programs.  However, Ocracoke offers distinctive programs as well.

The Catching Crabs program is a perfect way to understand the creatures that menace your toes and grace our dinner plates.  Crabbing is a bit of an art, and you will quickly appreciate the animals and the effort required to catch them.  It requires that you bring bait and wading shoes.

Special programs about the Ocracoke ponies are led at the Pony Pen north of the village.  Visitors will learn about how the wild ponies came to Ocracoke and their adaptive skills and unique physical attributes.  

A program focused on Ocracoke history is held at the Visitor Center.  It covers the lives of the island’s various inhabitants - Native Americans, lifesavers, fishermen, soldiers, and pirates – and their colorful lives.


Each year, the Park Service offers a Junior Ranger program for children ages 5 – 14.  Children complete an age appropriate activity booklet, available at any visitor center throughout the Park, to earn a badge and complete a specified number of activities (varied by age) to earn a patch.  As a former junior ranger, I can tell you I re-lived the excitement through my 5-year-old niece, who eagerly awaits her chance at “the next booklet.”

While children are welcome at all programs, Especially for Kids will run each day at either Hatteras or Ocracoke.  Topics will vary daily, but they are often related to the natural world and cultural learning.  Call the local Visitor Center to check on the daily topic.

Some special programs will depend on local conditions throughout the summer.  The Park Service continues its sold-out full-moon tours of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  In addition, there may be opportunities to observe Park Service biology technicians digging up turtle nests 72 hours after the hatching.  Look in local businesses and post offices and listen to the radio for notices regarding these unusual activities.

Finally, many of the programs are handicapped accessible.  Check out In the Park newsletter and the local visitor center for a guide.

For more information on park programs

Click here for a complete schedule of summer programs on the Cape Hatteras National Seashore:


The Hatteras Island Visitor Center is located in the Cape Hatteras Light Station in Buxton. The                                                                
telephone number is 252-995-4474, though an area code is not needed if you use a local telephone.

The Ocracoke Island Visitor Center is located by the Cedar Island-Swan Quarter ferry docks in the village and has ample parking.  The telephone number is 252-928-4531, no area code needed for a local call.

Many programs are outside, so comfortable clothing, shoes, and sunscreen are often advisable.  Reservations are required for snorkeling, cast netting, crabbing, and Let’s Go Fishing programs, and they often book up quickly.  Contact the visitor centers for more information.

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