Explore the Other Side of the Outer Banks

Generally speaking when people think about the Outer Banks they think of beautiful beaches and a warm, inviting ocean. Which is great because that’s why almost everyone comes for a visit. However, the west side of the Outer Banks has so much to explore! Come find what the sound side has to offer.

At one time, almost the entire sound side was heavily forested. There are still some amazing examples of those forested shores left. Those forests are home to many amazing wildlife species. And for anyone looking for a hidden story of the Outer Banks, they are worth exploring.

Currituck Banks Reserve

Probably the least known of the Outer Banks woods, to find the Currituck Banks Reserve head north from the Whalehead Club until you reach a 90-degree bend to the right in the road. A small parking lot is conveniently located at the trailhead.

There are two ways to explore the reserve. There is a short boardwalk through the maritime forest that leads to the sound. It’s an easy and handicap accessible walk. It ends at a small platform built over a narrow channel coming in from Currituck Sound. It is at the perfect balance point at the end of a towering forest of pines and the waving grasses of a freshwater estuary.

Then, there is a trail leading off the boardwalk. Look for the steps leading to the forest floor. This is more challenging than the boardwalk but completely suitable for ages 10 and older. Follow the blue blazons to the sound.

Kitty Hawk Woods

Entrance to the Ridge Trail, Kitty Hawk Woods.
Entrance to the Ridge Trail, Kitty Hawk Woods.

Kitty Hawk Woods is the largest reserve on the Outer Banks. Bisected by the Woods Road, a paved a multi-use trail parallels the road for its entire length. The multi-use path is a great introduction to the beauty of the maritime forest and the path is perfect for a family bike ride or a morning stroll.

There is also an amazing trail system that takes hikers through upland forests into swampy wetlands. Bikes are allowed on the Kitty Hawk Woods trails. Suitable for any moderately experienced mountain biker, it’s a unique chance to explore the Outer Banks.

The offices are located at 4352 The Woods Rd in Kitty Hawk. Trail maps are available online or at the office. Call first to make sure someone is there. (252) 548-6102

Nags Head Woods

Administered by the Nature Conservancy, Nags Head Woods is 1100 acres of steep hills, wetlands, and dense forest. The hills are actually sand dunes that have become covered in a more dense soil–a soil that is fertile enough to allow hardwood trees to grow, and a hike along the trails has a distinctly upland or mountain feel to it. The elevation gain is abrupt, the trails run along ridges that drop into deep ravines, and hardwood trees are the dominant forestation along the ridgelines.

There is a parking lot with a small visitor’s center. To get to the visitor’s center, turn on to Ocean Acres at the light at Pigman’s Barbecue. Follow the road to the visitor’s center on the left at the bottom of a hill.

Buxton Woods

Buxton Woods, Old Doctors Road.
Buxton Woods, Old Doctors Road.

Thriving at the confluence of subtropical and temperate weather zones, Buxton Woods is one of the most distinctive maritime forests in the world. Palmetto plants thrive at the base of towering pine trees; the swamps, marsh, and trails are teeming with life.

Sprawling at the base of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, the 1000 acre site is on the Atlantic Ocean side of NC12. Three access points— Old Doctor’s Road, Flowers Ridge Road, or Water Association Road. All are dirt roads. There are also trails linking the site to Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge

Come explore the ecological majesty of one the most impressive wildlife corridors on the East Coast: the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Reconnect with the nature and wildlife of the Outer Banks.

Explore this natural Outer Banks wonder on your own along one of the many public trails. Want to experience the wildlife up close? Kayak Eco-tours and Guided Bear tours are available also!

Originally published on August 22, 2015. Updated on September 14, 2020.