New dispatches from the beachfront:
Access update, getting smart about beach
driving, manners and laws, and July 4 report

There are beaches open to off-road vehicles on Hatteras and Ocracoke islands – despite the impression that some folks have that all beaches are closed down.

Even through the July 4 holiday weekend, there was room on those open beaches for anyone who wanted to drive to the ocean’s edge.

This is not the access that islanders and visitors are used to.  For decades, there have been resource closures for nesting shorebirds and colonial waterbirds, but this year’s shut-downs have been more extensive than ever before.

Some of the most popular areas have not been accessible to pedestrians or vehicles since just days after a federal judge signed a consent decree to settle a lawsuit by environmental groups against the National Park Service over ORV use on April 30. They include Bodie Island spit, Cape Point and parts of the South Beach, Hatteras Inlet spit, and South Point on Ocracoke. 

It is likely that these areas will not be accessible to ORVs or pedestrians until later in August when chicks are fledged and the birds fly away.

However, it is very likely that Bodie Island spit, Cape Point and South Beach, Hatteras Inlet, and South Point will have the access that we are used to by September.  Turtle nests will probably still dot the shores and will require full beach closures when the nest is ready to hatch. But ORV and pedestrian access will be greatly improved.

Also, the night beach driving situation will improve by Sept. 16.  Right now driving is prohibited by the consent decree between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.  On Sept. 16, driving at night will be allowed with a Park Service- issued permit.  Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray says a process for getting a permit will be in place by mid-September and that there will be no limit on the number of permits issued. The reason for the permits is to educate beach drivers about the turtle nests that may still be present on the seashore in the early fall.

I have had many e-mail inquiries from readers off the island about what areas may or may not be open when they have a vacation planned later this year.

This is a question that is almost impossible to answer.  Generally, visitors should expect Bodie Island, Cape Point and South Beach, Hatteras Inlet spit, and South Point on Ocracoke to remain closed most of the summer.  Other beaches and ramps will be closed as necessary for birds that are nesting or chicks that have hatched.

This often changes from week to week, depending on the birds and the success of the nests and chicks.  New closures are added and some previously closed are re-opened. Predation and storms might also affect nests, and, therefore, closures.

The best thing you can do if you have a trip planned to Hatteras or Ocracoke later this year is continue to check The Island Free Press Web site.  Beach access maps, provided by the Park Service, are available by clicking on the maps information in the red bar at the top of the Beach Access Issues Page.  Also on that page are the Park Service’s weekly beach access report and a new feature, the ORV access mileage report. The ORV access mileage report is a new effort by the Park Service to help folks find out what is and is not open at each ramp in the seashore. I think it is the most helpful tool for fishermen and other beachgoers who want to find out quickly where they can go.

Get smart about beach driving – air down your tires

While the good news was that anyone who wanted to drive the beach on the July 4 holiday weekend could find a place, the bad news was that ignorance and rudeness caused big problems at several ramps.

Dry conditions before the weekend resulted in very soft, deep sand at the ramps and on some beaches.

I’ve seen the conditions this bad before, but never have I seen so many vehicles stuck – nor have I seen the traffic jams going onto and off the ramps that developed on the afternoon of Friday, July 4.

According to National Park Service ranger Jon Anglin, problems with stuck vehicles were the worst at Ramps 4, 23, 49, and 55.

I was with my visiting family at Ramp 49 on July 4, and the mess that peaked there in the late afternoon was just about the worst and most frustrating I have ever witnessed.

I had been making regular trips to the Frisco beach with my visitors for the two weeks before July 4.  Every day, there were vehicles stuck on the ramp. 

One problem area was where vehicles leave the paved road outside the Frisco campground and start down the sand road to the ramp and the beach.  There were folks stuck there every day.  The other problem was with drivers exiting the beach.  The angle up and over the ramp was steep and the sand very soft and deep.  Many of those who made it out to the beach without problems got mired down in the sand trying to get off.

On the afternoon of July 4, I left the beach with my brother and daughter-in-law about 3:45 to get home early and get ready for an early dinner and fireworks.

When we got to Ramp 49, traffic was at a standstill and there were about a dozen vehicles in front of us. A small crowd of several dozen onlookers were at the top of the dune, looking down the ramp, but we couldn’t see what the problem was.

We sat there for more than 30 minutes as the traffic backed up behind us. By the time we got moving, there were at least 50 vehicles behind us. And we moved slowly toward the ramp.

During our wait in line, some rude folks had pulled up to the front, forming another line of a half dozen or so vehicles.

When we got going, the procedure was that you had to wait for the vehicle in front of you to get a running start and clear the top of the ramp over the dunes, and then you followed.

However, the rude folks who formed a second line kept cutting in front of cars waiting for the one in front to get to the top of the ramp.  They sped toward the ramp, sending sand flying everywhere, and several almost got stuck.  Also, there were vehicles trying to bypass the waiting line from the west, towards the pier.

We finally got through the ramp and back to the paved road at the campground after about 45 minutes.  The scene on the other side also was chaotic.  There was a truck headed to the beach stuck in the sand just off the pavement.  There were dozens of trucks lined up to get onto the beach, and folks who had parked and gotten a ride with others to the beach had filled the small parking area near the campground and were parked down both sides of the road, essentially cutting traffic down to one lane.

Shortly after we came to a halt on the beach side of the ramp, a Park Ranger arrived to help clear the mess.  However, it was a challenge for her, I am sure.

Later, I talked with Hatteras Island’s head district ranger, John McCutcheon, about the jam at Ramp 49.

He said it was caused by four drivers who parked their vehicles in the sand, just off the paved road, blocking one side of the ramp.  On one of the busiest days of the year, there was only one-way traffic through the soft sand to the beach. People who were stopping because of the one-way traffic were getting stuck.  I guess the four drivers parked there to walk out to the beach or catch another ride.  McCutcheon said the owners of the vehicles were located before a truck arrived to tow them away.

I cannot even imagine what these folks were thinking, that they could not see that their chosen parking spots were blocking traffic and ramp access.

Bob and Angela Smyers of Frisco were handing out information sheets at Ramp 55 near the ferry docks in Hatteras village.  The same kind of traffic jam formed there – on a lesser scale.

All of this inconvenience might have been avoided if visitors had heeded the instructions, posted at each ramp and well known to anyone who visits here regularly, to let air out of their tires before trying to get on the beach.

Maybe some of these folks who got stuck can’t or don’t read signs, posted at every ramp, and/or have never seen soft, deep sand before. But many of them were folks who just felt they could get by without airing down.  And sometimes you can, but not July 4 and the weeks before. (The week after the holiday weekend brought showers to wet down and pack down the sand on the ramps, making it somewhat better.)

The Park Service recommends tire pressure be lowered to 20 psi or less.

Every ORV driver headed to the beach needs to take this advice.  It is not a Park Service regulation at this point, but could be when a long-term ORV rule is formulated. If you don’t air down, there’s a good chance you will get stuck in deep sand.  Towing is costly and blocking access with your stuck truck is just plain ignorant and rude.

In addition, according to Anglin and McCutcheon, two vehicles caught on fire when they became stuck and the drivers keep on spinning tires trying to get out.  The overheated transmissions caused the fires.  One vehicle at Ramp 4 totally burned up.  A fire was extinguished on a vehicle at Ramp 43, though the damages were no doubt significant.

According to Park Service chief ranger Norah Martinez, new signage will be installed soon at all of the ramps in the seashore, which might help more drivers get the message to let the air out of their tires.

The signs have been ordered,” Martinez said in an e-mail. “We do not have a delivery date yet. Each of the ramps will have the signage. There will be three signs posted at each oceanside ramp. One sign will identify ‘Cape Hatteras National Seashore,’ one sign will be placed under the Cape Hatteras National Seashore sign and identify the ramp number, and one sign will list the beach regulations and driving information.”

Also, those folks who resist airing down should know that tackle shops and gas stations near the ramps provide free air.  In addition, if you are here for just a week or so, leaving your tires at a lower pressure will not ruin your tires.

Please air down.  We will all be grateful.

More pointers on beach regulations and etiquette

There are National Park Service regulations for driving on and using the seashore beaches.  In addition, beach drivers need to exercise some common courtesy – some civility.

Here is a rundown on some of them:

--All ORV trails are clearly marked.  Do not cross into areas closed for resource protection.  They are also clearly marked.

--As has already been mentioned, take your tires down to at least 20 psi – no matter what your owner’s manual says.

--If you get stuck, lower your tire pressure even more.  Slowly back up in your tracks and move slowly forward. Don’t sit there and spin your wheels or you will get really stuck.

--Don’t drive in the surf or standing water.  Salt water is corrosive and can ruin your vehicle.

--Prepare for emergencies by carrying in your vehicle a shovel, tire pressure gauge, spare tire, jack and jack support, fire extinguisher, tow rope, flashlight and first-aid kit.

--Under the consent decree, the speed limit on the beach is 15 mph.  (The old speed limit of 25 mph is still posted at most ramps.)

--All the state’s traffic laws for driving on a paved road apply to beach driving  -- buckle up, observe speed limits, open containers of alcoholic beverages are prohibited, current driver’s license, vehicle registration, insurance and license plate are required, and do not drive recklessly by cutting “doughnuts” or defacing the beach.

--Driving is prohibited between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May 15 and Sept. 15.  After Sept. 15, a permit will be available for driving at night.

--Bonfires are prohibited between midnight and 6 a.m.  Fires are allowed only below the high tide line and 100 feet from vegetation. Burn wood completely and extinguish with water.

--All fireworks, including sparklers, are illegal on the beach.  And they are also illegal in all the villages of Hatteras and Ocracoke.

--Keep pets on a six-foot leash at all times.

--Feeding wildlife, including those begging seagulls, is prohibited.

--Resource closures apply to pedestrians, as well as vehicles.

--Of course, don’t drive on the dunes EVER. Also don’t walk or let your children play on the dunes. 

--Park only in designed parking areas and don’t block ramps or access roads.  (At Ramp 49, there is additional parking before the campground area at Billy Mitchell airport.)

The beach report from July 4

Park Service rangers Jon Anglin, John McCutcheon, and Kenny Ballance all reported that the July 4 weekend was “fairly quiet.”

“It was not as busy (for law enforcement) as Memorial Day,” Anglin said.

“This July 4 was definitely slower than last year,” McCutcheon added.

McCutcheon said in his district – Ramp 27 through Ramp 55 – there was one arrest (for a DUI at Ramp 49), 14 citations (violating closures, obstructing traffic, suspended driver’s licenses, and the like), 15 written warnings (mostly for dogs off leashes), and 58 verbal warnings.  Thirty-three of those verbal warning were for illegal fireworks and 11 were for dogs off leashes.

McCutcheon also noted that the fireworks
confiscated by Hatteras rangers filled the bed of a Park Service pickup truck.

Ballance said Ocracoke was “really quiet” with no beach access issues and only a few tickets issued. Included were three tickets for underage drinking, one for lack of child restraints, one dog off a leash, and a few for indecent exposure.  Ballance said illegal fireworks were not a problem on Ocracoke.

The Park Service did vehicle counts on July 4.  Overall, there were more visitors on the seashore than on Memorial Day weekend.  At some ramps, there were fewer vehicles than Memorial Day and at others there were significantly more.

The following chart compares, Friday, July 4, with Sunday, May 25, the busiest day of the Memorial Day weekend. 

Comparison of vehicle counts at Cape Hatteras National Seashore
Memorial Day and July 4
Ramp   Sunday, May 25 Friday July 4
4 641 661
23 253 323
27-30 83 84
34 58 Closed
38 133 223
43-44 51 67*
49 429 691
55 137 208
59 34 37
67-68 61 84
70-72 198 179
TOTAL 2,078  2,557
*Count is for Ramp 43 only.  Ramp 44 was closed

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