Outer Banks National Scenic Byway

Outer Banks Visitors BureauOuter Banks National Scenic Byway

North Carolina Highway 12

Length: 142.5 driving miles
Driving Time: 6.5 hours, including 3.5 hours on two ferries
Regions: Outer Banks, Crystal Coast

From Whalebone Junction in Dare County to Beaufort in Carteret County the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway traces the easternmost parts of North Carolina along the state’s barrier islands. The unique maritime culture shared by the 21 coastal villages along this route led to its designation as a National Scenic Byway.

North Carolina’s barrier islands extend from the northern state line south to Cape Lookout. They are separated from the mainland by six broad yet shallow sounds ranging from three to 40 miles wide. From north to south, they are: Currituck, Albemarle, Roanoke, Pamlico, Core and Bogue. Pamlico Sound is the largest sound on the East Coast, covering more than 1,800 square miles. It’s visible to the west along many portions of the Byway, which crosses its waters via ferry from Ocracoke Island to both Hatteras and Cedar Island.

Currently, nine barrier islands – or banks – protect the mainland coast from the Atlantic Ocean’s onslaught of winds and water. From north to south, they are: Currituck Banks, Bodie Island (pronounced “body”), Pea Island, Hatteras Island, Ocracoke Island, Portsmouth Island, Core Banks, Shackleford Banks and Bogue Banks. Wind and water shift the sands of these islands, which makes them transient not only in location but also in name. Weather rules life here, and the families that have lived along the Byway for generations have great stories to tell.

Whalebone Junction, along N.C. 12 where the Byway begins, is located near the site of New Inlet.

This inlet opened in the 1720s and closed periodically until its last closing in the 1930s. In the early 1930s, Alexander Midgett hauled a 72-foot whale skeleton in the back of his Model T truck from nearby Pea Island and plunked the skeleton down at the junction, giving the place its name. The junction is at the end of Currituck Banks, the northernmost barrier island in North Carolina.

Beginning at the stoplight where U.S. 64/158 and N.C. 12 intersect, follow N.C. 12 to the south into the Cape Hatteras National Seashore on Bodie Island.

Continue past the Bodie Island Lighthouse, which was built in 1872 to replace the original lighthouse destroyed in the Civil War. Its 156-foot, black- and white-banded stripe can be seen for several miles. A swimming beach and recreation center are located nearby at Coquina Beach.

Eleven miles south of Whalebone Junction, the Byway crosses over Oregon Inlet onto Pea Island.

Oregon Inlet opened in 1846 during a hurricane and was crossed mainly by ferry until 1963 when the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge opened. Pea Island is entirely a National Wildlife Refuge and Migratory Waterfowl Refuge. The small wooden structures with stairs facing the natural freshwater ponds are wildlife observation stands.

After leaving Pea Island, continue toward Cape Hatteras through the communities of Rodanthe, Waves and Salvo.

In Rodanthe you’ll find the Chicamacomico Lifesaving Station Historic Site & Museum, which operated from 1874 to 1954. The historic station is now open for tours. Pea Island is sometimes called Chicamacomico Banks, which comes from the Algonquian word for “sinking down sand.”

From Salvo, travel 12 miles to the community of Avon, established in 1873 as Kinnakeet. From there, drive six miles to Buxton.

Known as “The Cape” until it was incorporated in 1882, Buxton is the easternmost point in North Carolina and home to the famous Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. At 210 feet, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest masonry lighthouse in the United States and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Built in 1870, its black and white candy-striped tower is visible for several miles. The original lighthouse was decommissioned in 1936 and was replaced with a more powerful beam to warn ships away from nearby Diamond Shoals. The turbulent waters here caused ships to wreck, giving the area its nickname, “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” The lighthouse is operated by the National Park Service and is open seasonally for tours.

After passing through Buxton, travel five miles to the community of Frisco, settled in 1795. Six miles farther is the village of Hatteras.

Throughout these small villages reside “hoi toiders” (high tiders), people who have retained an Elizabethan dialect due to their relatively isolated residence on these islands.

To continue on the Byway, cross Hatteras Inlet to Ocracoke Island on the state’s free ferry. The crossing time is about 40 minutes. Upon arriving on Ocracoke Island, follow N.C. 12 for 13 miles across the island to the village of Ocracoke.

Along the way is a pony pasture. The horses that live here are called Bankers ponies, descendants of horses brought by early explorers on ships wrecked in the Atlantic. You’ll also find a wild herd on Shackleford Banks south of Beaufort.

Ocracoke was first called Wococon in the 1500s and has since gone through a series of names derived from the Algonquian word for “enclosed place.” One of the oldest operating lighthouses on the Atlantic coast is located on Silver Lake, a tidal basin and harbor in the village of Ocracoke. The 75-foot Ocracoke Island Lighthouse was built in 1823 and is North Carolina’s only operational lighthouse within a town. Ocracoke Inlet, once the state’s primary trade inlet, was the site of the death of the notorious pirate Blackbeard, who was killed Nov. 22, 1718.

From Ocracoke Inlet, take the tolled Cedar Island Ferry to Cedar Island in Carteret County. The crossing time is about 2 hours and 15 minutes, and reservations are recommended, particularly in the summer due to high traffic volume and tight time schedules. For more information about reservations and schedules, visit http://www.ncdot.org/ferry/.

Just after departing for Cedar Island, look to the east (left). On a clear day, you can see Portsmouth Island in the distance. Settled in the 1700s and incorporated in 1753, Portsmouth was one of North Carolina’s busiest ports of entry and a resort before the Civil War. It was known at one time as the shipping capital of the Outer Banks. The town was named for Portsmouth, England. The few remaining buildings on the island are the houses, church, post office and school of the townspeople, the last of which left in 1971. The Cape Lookout National Seashore manages the island and allows a limited number of day visitors to explore it by private ferry. Portsmouth Island is a National Register Historic District.

The ferry docks at the northern end of Carteret County on Cedar Island. From here, continue south on N.C. 12 for six miles.

This area features the spectacular salt marshes of the Cedar Island National Wildlife Refuge, home to waterfowl on their winter migration.

N.C. 12 ends and the road becomes U.S. 70 West about 12 miles south of the ferry terminal.

The body of water to the left is the Core Sound, named for the Coree Indians who once lived in this area.

At the junction of N.C. 12 and U.S. 70, turn left onto Old Cedar Island Road (S.R. 1387) to follow the nine-mile Atlantic and Sea Level Loop. Follow this to Shell Road (S.R. 1378) then turn right. Continue to School Road (S.R. 1380) and turn left. Follow School Road until it ends and turn left on Seashore Drive (S.R. 1417 and old U.S. 70).

This road meanders past old workboats that fill Atlantic Harbor, a community draped in windblown oaks with beautiful homes and a rich commercial fishing heritage. Sea Level is another maritime village found along this stretch.

At the end of Seashore Drive, turn around and travel back on it to U.S. 70. Follow the Byway along U.S. 70 to the community of Stacy.

This area was once home to many of the area’s best-known waterfowl carvers, a tradition it celebrates today with annual events and a museum.

Continue to Davis, where the Cape Lookout Lighthouse may be visible over the water.

Built in 1859, the Cape Lookout Lighthouse is distinct with its black and white diamond pattern covering its 156-foot tower.

After Davis, drive through Williston, a winding community of old homes that captures the small coastal community way of life with easy views of Core Sound and a rich history of commercial fishing. Continue along the Byway, turning left at the town of Smyrna onto Marshallberg Road (S.R. 1347) to follow the 22-mile Harkers Island, Straits and Gloucester Loop.

Three miles from U.S. 70 is the maritime village of Marshallberg, which features a county park at the end of the main road with picnic tables and a view of Cape Lookout Lighthouse.

To continue the loop, follow Marshallberg Road and turn right onto Star Church Road (S.R. 1346), continuing to the intersection of Piggott Road (S.R. 1343). Turn left and travel through the community of Gloucester where the road circles back to Straits Road (S.R. 1375). Continue on Straits Road across the Harkers Island Bridge causeway where wildlife viewing, pier fishing, boat launching facilities and public access for swimming are available. Once on the island, Straits Road becomes Island Road and passes through the community of Harkers Island.

Side roads here lead to a trail of island homes and small businesses dedicated to local decoy carving, model boats, fresh seafood and the island’s famed boat-building history. At the end of Island Road, the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center celebrates these traditions. The destination is located on the left when entering Cape Lookout National Seashore. You can see Cape Lookout Lighthouse from the museum’s four-story tower. The lighthouse is accessible by private ferry from Harkers Island. At the Cape Lookout National Seashore, hiking trails connect the museum with the Harkers Island Visitors Center. The center features exhibits as well as picnic areas and excellent sites for windsurfing and kayaking.

To return to U.S. 70, turn around at the end of Island Road and follow until it becomes Straits Road back across the causeway through the town of Straits. Turn left on Harkers Island Road (S.R. 1332) and follow it back to U.S. 70, turning left. Continue along U.S. 70 through the communities of Otway and Bettie before crossing the North River.

At this point, the National Scenic Byway designation ends. The state-designated byway continues for six miles before ending in Beaufort, which was incorporated in 1723 and named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort and a Lords Proprietor. The town is located on the site of an earlier Indian village. A walk along the waterfront provides a great place to stretch and enjoy this storied coastal community. From whaling to salt works, with military battles in between, Beaufort is rich in history.

In warmer weather, the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway is a well-traveled road. Plan for extra time to make the ferry connections and to accommodate bicyclists and visitors. Please park only in designated places.

North Carolina Department of Transportation

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