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Drive on the Beaches of Cape Hatteras National Seashore

A ride on the shifting sands of Cape Hatteras National Seashore offers a glorious tour of the Outer Banks. Dan Neil says just be prepared


April 4, 2014 3:48 p.m. ET

On the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina, you can enjoy the longest vehicle-accessible beach drive in the continental U.S. WSJ’s Dan Neil discusses why this could be your next getaway. Photo: Dan Neil for the Wall Street Journal.

THE LOCALS on the Outer Banks of North Carolina are mad that they can’t drive on the beaches like they used to. Outsiders may be astonished that it is allowed at all.

“This place is a cultural resource,” said resident Kevin McCabe, gesturing to the windswept strand of Cape Point at Cape Hatteras, where a handful of 4×4 pickups, bristling with fishing rods, are parked with their wheels near the surf. A gray March sky races overhead. It is 45 degrees and gusts reach 30 knots. Shipwreck weather. “Before there were movies or anything, people on the island would come here to socialize, picnic,” said Mr. McCabe.

And, after a beat, he added: “It’s also the best fishing on the planet.”

Photos: Beach Driving

Click to view slideshow. Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

Well, it is if you don’t have to hump your gear across miles of open beach. Without four-wheel-drive access, many parts of the National Seashore and particularly Cape Point would be unfishable. Andpoisson, culturally and economically, is the locals’ main boeuf.

The Cape Hatteras National Seashore, from Bodie Island to the southern tip of Ocracoke Island, comprises 67 miles of cold-green Atlantic surf, golden sand, occasionally wild weather and constant geological drama. The barrier islands are migrating westward at a good clip. When it was built in 1870, the Hatteras Light was 1,500 feet from shore. By the late 1990s, the surf had moved to within 100 feet of the lighthouse base. In 1999, the federal government relocated the lighthouse, at 198 feet the tallest brick structure ever moved, almost a half-mile inland.

Since the National Park Service issued new rules in 2012 in an effort to preserve nesting habitats for shore birds and turtles, the beach is less open to 4×4 traffic. Even so, if you have the right vehicle, the right permit from the National Park Service, the right map, and if you go at the right time of year, you can put together the longest beach drive in the continental U.S. I think. (This issue is surprisingly hard to nail down.) Suffice it to say I’ve moved around and never have seen anything like it. At its off-season maximum, the whole discontinuous, ramp-to-ramp length of the Cape Hatteras drive is about 50 miles. Even during the summer, vehicle-accessible beaches are about 25 miles. And that goes by at a maximum of 15 mph, a slow-motion paradise of bounding surf on the port side and, to starboard, towering dunes fringed with sea oats, with a pillowy sand avenue between. Compared with Hatteras, Daytona Beach in Florida is like a drive through an overpopulated sandbox.

Be advised: This adventure is contingent on the Wrath of God. The main road through the CHNS, the north-south NC Highway 12, is fragile and dangerously exposed to the Atlantic. Sections have repeatedly washed out and other parts are constantly overrun by dune sand. The bridge over the Oregon Inlet, the Herbert C. Bonner Bridge, is derelict, and the N.C. Department of Transportation’s plan to replace it in legal limbo. Driving-wise, the whole thing is hanging by a thread.

The Off Duty 50: Spring Adventures

This article is part of the Off Duty 50: Spring Adventures, a guide featuring 50 gutsy ways to shake up the season. Click here to see the full list.

Illustration by Brian Levy for The Wall Street Journal

Though CHNS can be reached from Ocracoke Island to the south, that way requires a ferry from Swan Quarter or Cedar Island. Most visitors will approach on 64 East, crossing the Virginia Dare and Washington Baum bridges to the intersection at Whalebone Junction (the region is full of great names, by the way).

To the north lie Nags Head, Kitty Hawk, Corolla and Duck. Heading south toward CHNS, beach drivers can pick up their windshield-sticker permit at the Off Road Vehicle (OHV) permit office at Coquina Beach, one of three such offices (the fee is $50 for a week or $120 for the calendar year; order online at

The first opportunity to motor through the dunes and onto the shore is at Ramp 4, at the Oregon Inlet Campground; and the moment when the dunes release you to the sprawling view of the Atlantic is stunning. Even my kids were impressed. North of the ramp, for 3 miles, the beach is open to vehicles all year; to the south the beach is designated a seasonal OHV route, closed to traffic from April 1 to Oct. 31.

Don’t try this in your all-wheel-drive Audi. The sand at Hatteras is soft, deep and hard to read, with drop-offs caused by the scouring winds. Once on the beach proper, maintain momentum to help the tires plane on the sand, like a boathull in the water. And don’t forget to check the tide charts. The NPS advises motorists to drive about 50 feet below the high tide mark. But a northeast storm on top of a strong high tide at Hatteras can reduce the passable section of the beach to nearly zero.

It is possible to drive passenger cars on the beach—I saw a driver in a Kia Sportage and another in a Subaru Outback tempting the fates—but my comfort level required something a little more capable. For this trip I borrowed a new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, which has computerized multimode four-wheel-drive traction control; a locking rear differential; and an 8.7-inch ground clearance.

And I still managed to bury it to the hubs. To extricate the Jeep, I deflated the knobby tires to below 20 psi, which is a common-sense measure I was trying to avoid so I wouldn’t have to fiddle with tire stems and air pumps in a cold wind.

Off-season, the longest continuous stretch of beach (that doesn’t require a potentially troublesome U-turn in deep sand) is between Ramp 34 and 38, a 4-mile strand at a permanent tilt from the dune line to the tidal zone, a route that takes you between the pilings of the Avon Fishing Pier.

The loneliest stretch is on the other side of the Hatteras Inlet Ferry, a splendid 5 miles of Ocracoke Island, famous for its wild ponies and fishing. And for a while longer, it seems, at least until the next storm, it can all be just outside your windshield.


Beach driving survival kit Dan Neil/The Wall Street Journal

Here and there I’ve done a fair amount of off-road driving. I’m pretty comfortable extricating a 4×4 from the grip of hub-deep sand.

In most cases, lowering the tires’ air pressure will restore traction, and shoveling around the wheels will help the vehicle get rolling. It may be necessary to use a jack to raise the vehicle to put something under the wheels to improve traction. I’m not a fan of this practice for safety reasons.

Phone, flashlight, first-aid kit, tow strap, shovel, jack, full-size spare, water. Only an idiot embarks off-road without these things. Goggles are nice too, to keep flying sand out of your eyes.

On this trip, I added to my tool kit, and brilliantly, if I may say. The coffee shop I’ve frequented for years regularly gives away the burlap bags the coffee beans are shipped in. On a whim, I grabbed several and stuck them in the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk. Flash forward several days later. While trying to maneuver the Jeep for a photo, I got the Jeep buried. After shoveling out around the wheels, I took the coffee bags and, after rolling them up halfway, jammed the rolled part under the tire with the rest of the bag laid out behind the wheel.

With the rolls of burlap under the now deflated tires, the Jeep backed out of its hole perfectly. When it came time to retrieve the bags, I shook them out and threw them into the back with the dogs. Coffee bags: free, lightweight, packable, reusable and effective. And the dogs like the way they smell.

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