Last weekend, we were cheerfully saying goodbye to winter as we traveled on the edge of the continent along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It felt like we were threading the eye of the needle as we headed north on Hwy 12 from Southern Shores. The road snaked along the razor-thin barrier island. A stretch of highway past Duck disclosed a sliver of constantly shifting land with less than a 1000’ beam from sound-to-sea. Most of our previous OBX adventures have taken us south along Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Today, my wife and I were day-tripping to Corolla for a hike through the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary and Center. We were also going to get a sneak peek of Historic Corolla before the upcoming tourism season arrives. For now, this shoulder season was the perfect time to beat the crowds, discover Corolla and spend a wonderful spring-like day shooting the breeze.
As the coordinator for Your Pocket Guide to the Albemarle Sound, I’ve been extensively exploring the region the past couple of years discovering unique, one-of-a-kind places and experiences. I’ve skiffed skinny creeks, visited NC Century farms, cycled back roads, hitched ferries, toured breweries and browsed regional art galleries. One of the most challenging feats has been collecting a cache of local hiking trails. This region of the sounds where land merges with water has plenty of blueways, intra-coastal waterways, open seas and coastal rivers but unfortunately, there are very few off-pavement hiking or walking trails. So my wife and I were extremely excited to learn about the 2.5-mile (5-mile out and back) nature trail at Audubon’s Pine Island Sanctuary and Center.
A Delicate Balance
North Carolina’s first Audubon Center is located on the northern end of the Outer Banks in Corolla. The sanctuary maintains a balanced resource management philosophy guided by conservation, education, research, habitat restoration and hunting. The public can enjoy sections of the 2,600-acre sanctuary and participate in spring and summer kayak tours and educational programs offered by the center. The 2.5-mile nature trail is open to the public and can be enjoyed year-round. Parking for the trail is located behind the Pine Island Racquet & Fitness Center.
The trail follows a dirt road from Pine Island to Duck and traverses through a variety of marine evergreen forests. Immediately, visitors will notice the gnarly, twisted canopy of live oaks. The wide roadbed offers excellent birding opportunities along the way. A wildlife observation platform is located one mile from the trailhead and at the end of the trail. Each platform provides excellent views of the sound, forests, marshes and creeks on Pine Island. Wildlife photographers will enjoy the photo blinds that enable up close and intimate sightings of migratory waterfowl and aquatic wildlife. Be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to extend your viewing opportunities to include the extensive marshland, duck blinds (29 total in the sanctuary), ponds and open sound. My wife and I enjoyed watching an Osprey munching on a large fish while it was precariously perched in a red bay shrub along Baum’s Creek and Yankee Pond. We also casually observed a few black ducks, a pair of grebes and a belted kingfisher from the platforms. A variety of songbirds were seen flitting above the shrub and canopy along the trail.
Trail notes: Leashed pets are permitted on the trail. Bring water for your dog if you decide to hike the entire trail. We found March to be an ideal time to experience the trail. Because the trail runs along an open road with very little shade, hiking in warmer weather might be best enjoyed in the cooler times of the day.
After our midday hike, we continued north for nine miles to visit Historic Corolla and Currituck Heritage Park. When we stepped out of our Subaru, it was like stepping back into time. The open park-like setting of Corolla Heritage Park unveiled the picturesque backdrop of the Whalehead Club.
Constructed nearly a century ago, the Art Nouveau mansion stands sentinel above the Currituck Sound and the 39-acre park. The 21,000 square foot structure was built in 1925 by the northern industrialist Edward Wright and his wife Louise. They also owned more than four miles of coastal property developed as a hunt club along the northern end of the island. The grand home served as their winter residence until 1928. The property changed ownership several times over the years. It is now owned by Currituck County and is managed by the county’s Travel and Tourism Department. The beautifully restored residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for tours and events.
We continued our self-guided tour of the park down to Point Lawn to take in a soundside perspective of the club. We were quickly rewarded with a splendid view of Currituck Beach Lighthouse towering above the elegant canary-yellow mansion by the sea.
Currituck Beach Light Station
As we walked the half-mile back to the lighthouse grounds, we let our eyes slowly scroll up the 162’ unpainted brick Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The lighthouse was completed in 1795 and was the final station built along the Outer Banks. It was strategically built to guide vessels through the “dark spot” of the Atlantic that existed from Bodie Island to the Cape Henry lighthouse in Virginia. Although the lighthouse was closed for the season, we enjoyed strolling outside the property admiring the grounds, the Victorian Lighthouse Keeper’s house and a smaller “keeper’s” house, which we learned was moved to the property in 1920. It now serves as the lighthouse station’s museum and gift shop.
The 500-meter CAMA Sound Boardwalk east of the lighthouse station leads visitors to sweeping views of Currituck Sound and a long-range glimpse of the lighthouse.
Currituck Sound: Past, Present & Future
The Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education is another exciting attraction located at Currituck Heritage Park. The center is nestled on 29-acres overlooking Currituck Sound. The interpretive center houses a variety of exhibits that chronicle the region’s natural and cultural history. Families will certainly enjoy the 8,000-gallon aquarium and a number of other exhibits which showcase the region’s duck hunting heritage; decoy making culture; and Currituck Sound’s hunting and fishing history. Admission is free to the center and the adjacent grounds, which include a small picnic area.
Other seasonal activities at Currituck Heritage Park include fishing, crabbing, kayaking, treasure hunting and special events. The park is open from dawn to dusk year-round.
Trip Tip #33