Journal/Blog‎ > ‎

Post-Holiday Outer Banks Trip

posted Jan 1, 2014, 3:06 PM by Justin P   [ updated Jan 7, 2014, 11:11 AM ]

I had to use up some PTO from work, so for the last weekend of the year, Sandy and I headed out to the Outer Banks for some hiking and wildlife photography.  We left before 6 Saturday morning and made our way east along US-64 towards our first destination – Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.  The sun was coming up as we reached Plymouth and took NC-45 towards the entrance to the Pungo Lake unit of the refuge.  From the turn off NC-45, we took Refuge Road to the maintenance compound and turned left on Van Staaldulnen Road.  At the end we turned right on South Pungo Road and then left on Hyde Park Road.  At this time of year when the migratory waterfowl are in the refuge, this is the only route to Pungo Lake.  The other roads are gated.  If you are visiting, I would highly recommend bringing a map from the Fish & Wildlife Service that shows which roads are open and which are closed.  It would be easy to get lost in the refuge with all the gated roads and Google Maps or GPS are of no real help.  At the end of Hyde Park Road, we stopped at the Pungo Lake Observation Platform and Charles Kuralt Trail Site and got our first view of Pungo Lake.  There were a tremendous amount of tundra swans on the lake and even though they were mostly on the other side of the lake, the sounds of their honking was quite loud.

We got some pictures from here and then drove to down South Lake Road to the trailhead for Duck Pen Wildlife Trail.  This half-mile trail follows a gravel road out to Pungo Lake Observation Point, a photo blind on the lake.  We were a little closer to the birds from here and got some pictures hidden from view.  Although there were a lot of birds here, I don’t think it had quite peaked yet.  I did manage to get some nice pictures, including a few of the swans running along the surface of the water as they took flight. 

We headed back along the trail and Sandy saw something move in the distance.  Bears are very common in the refuge, but using the zoom lens, I could see this was a deer.  We walked ahead especially carefully, but as we got closer, she took off into the swamp.

From here, we left the refuge and got back on the highway.  It was getting towards lunch time by now and we had woken up very early, so we headed to Pettigrew State Park and had lunch in the picnic area.  We walked down to the boat dock on Lake Phelps and could hear the swans, but they were quite far away.  So we hiked along the Moccasin Trail west to the overlook to try and get a better look.  This trail runs along the north shore of the lake, but there is a dense swampy forest between the trail and the lake, which blocked views of the lake for most of the trail.  There were a couple of openings with views of the lake and some very large cypress trees.  But these openings were few and far between.  In a couple of places along the trail, the flora is so dense, it creates a completely covered tunnel to hike through.

In just under three miles, we reached the Moccasin Overlook.  A boardwalk leads from the trail out to the lake through a beautiful swamp of bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss.  At the overlook, we were a bit closer to the swans, but still a good ways.  We rested for a bit at the overlook and got some pictures of the swans and the beautiful trees and Spanish moss and then headed back.

From here, we headed to the rest of the way to the Outer Banks.  Just over the bridge, we stopped in Nags Head at Wings.  Normally, they’re a bit overpriced, but in the off season, everything was 50% off or more so we picked up some bathing suits and beach hats that we won’t have to buy this season when they’re much more expensive.  I called D, our Airbnb host, and told him we would be on the way.  We checked in with him, unpacked our stuff, and chatted for a bit.  Then we headed into town to Pigman’s Bar-B-Que for dinner.  We both had pulled pork and it was very good.  After dinner, we got to bed early after a very long day.

Sunday morning was rainy and very windy, so we had a relaxing morning around the house.  We ate breakfast and chatted with D for a while and then took showers.  As lunch time came around, we headed off to Manteo on Roanoke Island and went to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island.  A very good activity for a rainy day at the beach.  The wind was so strong, our car was actually getting blown crossing the bridge on the bridge.  We toured around the aquarium for a couple of hours checking out all the exhibits.  The focus of this aquarium is diversity of life that lives in the Outer Banks and surrounding waters, from the freshwater lakes and rivers, to estuarine sounds, to the open oceans.  It's a rather small aquarium and doesn't have exhibits of fish from every corner of the world.  But by focusing just on native creatures in nearby waters, it provides visitors with a deeper appreciation for life close to home.  And the diversity of life in this small section of the world is absolutely amazing.  We saw frogs, toads, lizards, venomous snakes, alligators, river otters, and an amazing number of beautiful fish, including wrasses and sea horses.  They even have a "touch tank" where visitors can pet a few sea creatures, such as stingrays and horseshoe crabs. 

Towards the end, we watched a fish feeding in the Open Oceans exhibit, with the largest collection of sharks in North Carolina.  The sharks are fed separately – this was a feeding for the other fish.  But of course, you can’t really stop a hungry shark.  After the feeding, we browsed the gift store and then headed back towards Nags Head.  For dinner, we stopped at Outer Banks Brewing Station.  This brewpub is wind powered.  And on a windy day like today, it looked like the turbine was going to take off.  I had a burger and a Yuletide IPA to drink and Sandy had crab legs.  Any time we go to the beach, Sandy has to have her crab legs.  She really liked them from the brewpub, so this was somewhere we’d have to come back to.  After dinner, it stopped raining and the sky finally cleared up a bit.  We headed back to the house and watched movies and drank beers with D and his dogs.

Monday morning we woke up a little earlier and got all packed up and took off at about 9.  We headed to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge for our kayaking tour with Kitty Hawk Kites and we had to be there by 10.  Driving through the refuge on US-64, we turned onto Buffalo City Road.  It was pretty easy to find as there is a sign before the turn.  Driving down this road, I couldn’t help but think the name was peculiar – it was so desolate here, nothing could be further form a city.  We got to the end of the road and parked on the side for vehicles without trailers.  In a few minutes, our tour guide arrived.  His name was Tyler and he was a great guide.  Sandy and I are in the market for kayaks and he took a lot of time throughout the tour to answer our questions and offer suggestions for buying a boat.  He was very knowledgeable about the cultural and natural history of the area.  It turns out that at one time, there was a logging town here, Buffalo City.  It was once the largest town in Dare County.  After World War II, it was mostly abandoned and the land was reclaimed by the swamp, so that there is almost no trace of the city left.  From the boat ramp, we paddled to Milltail Creek and turned right, following the yellow-blazed trail.  The creek is pretty wide open here and we could see a lot of birds.  Tyler pointed out a noisy kingfisher and we saw a couple turtles sunning themselves on logs, despite the chilly weather.  Then we headed back and followed the red-blazed trail that makes a loop.  This trail departs from Milltail Creek and follows a very narrow stream towards Sawyer Lake. 

The swampy forest here was beautiful and the water was so calm, it looked like a mirror, perfectly reflecting that trees and plants.  When we got to Sawyer Lake, Tyler told us that as the logging industry in the area was dying off, a new one started up – moonshine.  Bootleggers would often hide moonshine in the swamp and it’s rumored that there’s still a lot hidden under the murky waters.  We finished up the loop back at the boat ramp and got out of our boats.  We helped Tyler load the boats back onto the trailer and talked for a while longer about kayaks and then said goodbye.  We went back to Nags Head and had Mexican for lunch, then went to Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  We spent a lot of the day sitting in the car and sitting in a kayak, so I wanted to get a hike in to stretch my legs.  We hiked the Tracks in the Sand Trail over the dunes to the sound and back.  The name is appropriate as it isn't really a trail, but rather a path through the dunes.  Markers on posts in the ground direct hikers in the general direction of the trail.  Down by the sound, the trail winds through a scrub forest and its a bit more of trail for this part.  The skies were cloudy and the late afternoon sun made beautiful colors through the clouds. 

From the sound, we hiked back out of the forest and followed the posts back to the visitor center to finish our short hike.  Then we started making our way home.  It was getting late in the afternoon and we wanted to stop back in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge and try to see a bear.  We drove around on the Wildlife Drive and saw more swans in the flooded fields, but no bear.  Maybe next time.  We got back on US-64 just as the sun was going down and made our way back to Raleigh.